Carbon and other futures

A Carbon Tax double-dissolution election would mean a big hit on Labor’s Senate numbers and a win for the Greens.

By Lyle Dunne

So now we have a Carbon Tax.

And Tony Abbott has made it clear he will repeal it if he wins the next election, due in 2013 – which seems like the smart bet at this point, assuming (for the sake of argument!) the Government lasts that long.

Presumably this means Carbon Tax repeal legislation would be at the top of his priority list, so it would pass the House of Reps like a shot ­– only to founder in the Senate.

Presumably – as a central plank in the coalition’s election policy – this would be re-introduced, after the appropriate interval, as a potential double-dissolution trigger.

And, given the parties’ entrenched positions, it would lose again, precipitating a double dissolution election.

The likely result would be a further big hit on Labor in the Senate – but a net gain to the Greens.

Why?

Well, Labor would be likely to lose further Senate seats for two reasons:

  • first, some voters at least will blame them for being obstructionist and sending the country to an unnecessary election;
  • second (but probably more importantly), the half of the Senate elected at the 2010 election, when Gillard was still “honeymooning”, and  popular enough to win a near-majority in the House of Representatives, would be replaced with a half-Senate elected under conditions rather closer to the present ones, where the ALP is as popular as the Carbon Tax in Whyalla.

And the Greens would be likely to pick up seats, also for two reasons:

  • first, there is a sizeable minority who think a Carbon Tax would be a Good Thing – admittedly not enough to return a pro-Carbon-Tax government, but certainly enough to boost Greens beyond their present levels, should this group move away from the ALP in large numbers;
  • second, in a full-Senate election following a double dissolution, since we’d be electing twelve Senators per State rather than six, the quota would be about half that for a half-Senate election.

So what would be a sensible strategy for Labor?

As popular as a Carbon Tax in Whyalla

Bear in mind the “official” rationale for Gillard’s support for (and backflip on) a Carbon Tax: The Greens Made Me Do It. There was no claim that new research had suddenly established that global warming was much more urgent than previously.

So a Labor Opposition, rather than handing the Coalition a double-dissolution trigger, should take the pragmatic view that, while the Gillard government had fought hard for a Carbon Tax, this had been a matter of pragmatism rather than principle – and the Abbott government had clearly secured a mandate. In consequence, the ALP (presumably under a leader seeking anxiously to dissociate him-or-herself from the Gillard era) could reasonably conclude that they were not under any obligation to die in this particular ditch. Perhaps a number of Labor Senators might conveniently absent themselves on the day of the vote.

Migration Act

On migration legislation, the picture would appear to be happier for the Coalition: they have carried the day, handing the government a de facto legislative defeat. This is a significant achievement, even though the government did not in the end chance its arm in the House of Representatives.

However this may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. On the face of it, the Coalition has removed any prospect of support for legislative underpinning for their own offshore processing option, should such underpinning be required. (At this stage, despite some wishful thinking on the part of the ALP, it’s not absolutely clear that the Coalition’s Nauru option will be subject to the same legal objections as the Malaysia option, but it’s at least a significant risk.)

In any case, Abbott will now have to wear at least part of the blame for the end of offshore processing.

The impasse has arisen because he would not support legislation allowing the Malaysia option (in its present form), and Gillard would not support legislation allowing only Nauru.

But surely there’s room for a compromise. Without being a Constitutional lawyer, I would imagine that it would be possible for Abbott to put forward legislation (since he can’t now put forward amendments) that would allow Nauru, and allow Malaysia subject to certain additional safeguards: not necessarily signature of the UN Convention, but perhaps the provision of additional human-rights guarantees via domestic law or treaty, with a particular emphasis on the rights of minors. It would be difficult for Labor to refuse support to such a package: Gillard could hardly stand up in Parliament and say there was no reasonable prospect of getting her preferred destination to sign human-rights guarantees. This would leave the Government with a difficult process of negotiation – and Abbott with a win-win: if such concessions were extracted he could take credit, and if not, Nauru would be the only overseas-processing option left on the table.

And in any case, Abbott would have the legislative ammunition to abandon Malaysia and implement Nauru later in government should he wish to do so.

I know there’s a view that it’s not the job of oppositions to held governments out of legislative binds, but this may be a case where it would be worth Abbott’s while on the long view – even at the risk of being constructive in the short term.

The alternative of course is to rely on another double dissolution (or the threat thereof) to secure passage of future Abbott migration legislation. But that wouldn’t provide the short-term political benefits – nor would the threat have the same force as with the Carbon Tax.  Abbott would have to run the campaign on the argument that he was harder-line than Labor on refugee issues – while at the same time more concerned with the human rights of asylum seekers. A difficult balancing act, to say the least.

Leave a Reply