“Carbon tax” repeal: rhetoric and reality

On 4th April, Tony Abbott spoke to Craig Huth from Max FM in Taree, and was asked about the mechanics of rolling back Labor’s carbon trading plans should the Coalition win government in September. In keeping with party policy on abolishing the scheme, this was the most interesting part of his response:

Some people say, oh but the Labor Party and the Greens will combine to oppose it in the Senate. Well, look Labor wouldn’t be so stupid in my opinion to commit political suicide twice if I may put it that way. If they’ve just lost an election which is a referendum on the carbon tax, they’re hardly going to defy the people twice on this. So, I think the chances of them supporting a carbon tax which has been the cause of their political demise are low, but look, the point I keep making is that when I say there’ll be no carbon tax under the government I lead, I’m fair dinkum Craig and if against all judgment and expectation, the Labor Party is utterly recalcitrant on this, well we’ll take the options available to us under the constitution to resolve the deadlock between the House and the Senate.

Tony Abbott is a man without nuance, and his party’s policy on this issue is wholly emblematic of the man as a politician: lacking nuance to the point of being disingenuous. Whatever happens in the election (which is far from simply “a referendum on the carbon tax”), the current state of the Senate will of course remain as-is until 1st July 2014. The Greens will retain a balance of power, and it is utter nonsense to suggest that they or Labor would simply bend to any incoming Coalition Government’s will, particularly on climate. Memories of the Coalition’s obstructive control of the Senate between 2005 and 2011 are strong in the Labor Party and both Labor and the Greens would relish the idea of returning the favour on such a high profile issue.

Knowing this, Abbott claims that he would immediately seek a double dissolution election if the current Senate declined to yield to a hypothetical incoming Coalition government’s wishes. Really? This would be a high risk strategy, and opens the door for a small-g “green” election fought exclusively on the environment. In this sort of political grudge match, the Greens would stand a good chance of winning a higher proportion of seats in the Senate, as Norman Abjorensen has alluded to. In short, this claim is more bluster than reality, and speaks to Abbott’s inexperience of the practicalities of working with the Senate in a minority government situation. Winning in September – even emphatically – does not necessarily imply that the Coalition would then hold all the cards. In the double dissolution situation the Opposition Leader is supposedly so bloody-minded about triggering, all bets would be off. A famous election victory would amount to little if a hash is made of the next one, which given the gaffe-prone nature of the Coalition’s front bench, would be a serious possibility.

A weighty question mark also remains with respect to how the Senate will be constituted from 1st July 2014, even in the event of a storming Coalition election victory. Antony Green has written a typically exceptional piece on the prospects of the Coalition winning outright control of the Senate if they win in September, in light of the current polling. In short, this seems an unlikely eventuality. The most likely positive scenario for Abbott is that the conservative heartlands of Queensland and Western Australia will offer up additional minor party senators more amenable to working with the Coalition than the Greens and Nick Xenophon. A distinct possibility, but far from a foregone conclusion – and even if that scenario were to materialise, the Coalition would need to wait until July 2014 to set about its demolition work.

In other words, the Coalition’s “plan to abolish the carbon tax” is not so much a plan as an election device. “Tell it like it is” Tony is “telling it like it isn’t” on this issue. The plan itself is impractical and politically unworkable. Arguably, it succeeds in its goal of offering an over-simplistic, easily digestible message to voters: “we’ll get rid it, and if can’t get rid it right away, we’ll upturn the Houses of Parliament to bloody well do it”. This is the sort of pugilistic approach that wins votes and that the near-apocryphal “Lindsay voters” have come to associate with Tony Abbott, but it not the sort of approach that is going to cut the mustard in the corridors of Parliament House should Liberal and National Party arses warm Cabinet benches.

If it comes to the crunch, the smart money suggests that the Coalition’s “plan to abolish the carbon tax” will get tossed out the passenger-side window many hundreds of kilometres before carbon trading does. A hypothetical Abbott Government would much prefer to live on its knees, blaming Labor and the Greens all the way, than stand the risk of dying on the altar of climate change in a double dissolution election.