Well, it’s happened.
Despite a frantic, near-hysterical campaign of fear mixed liberally with lies …
Despite hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of dollars spent on saturation advertising …
Despite Coalition members flying around the country to government and cross-bencher electorates to campaign furiously …
Despite Sophie Mirabella’s tantrum in the House last night when she was not permitted to table a petition allegedly containing 12,000 signatures (which she had to know would be refused – there are times set aside for petitions) …
And despite all the rhetoric – ‘toxic tax’; ‘tax on weather’; ‘Socialism by stealth’; ‘million of people out of work’; ‘pensioners won’t be able to afford to use their heaters or turn on their lights’; and my personal favourite, ‘this will make emissions go up‘ …
The government’s Clean Energy Bills package – including legislation to establish a carbon dioxide emissions trading scheme – passed the House this morning. It goes now to the Senate, which is also certain to pass the bills.
There’s no doubt it’s a significant victory for the government. This is the issue that brought down Malcolm Turnbull as Leader of the Opposition, and contributed to Kevin Rudd’s resignation as Prime Minister in the face of a revolt from his own party. It won’t make us world leaders – we’re woefully behind in that respect – but it will contribute to a growing global effort to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
Tony Abbott promised ‘in blood’ (yes, he actually said that) to repeal the carbon price scheme, as well as all the associated compensations and provisions, if he wins the next election. That would presumably include lowering the tax-free threshold, reducing pensions, reducing household assistance and small business; because you see, without the carbon price, there’s no revenue to offset those costs.
Unravelling legislation like this is the equivalent of trying to unravel the GST (which, incidentally, is a tax) – exactly what Kim Beazley promised to do during the 2001 election campaign. There was little chance it would happen, though – most agreed it would simply be too hard to roll back such a pervasive tax once implemented.
Compared to the carbon price legislation, rolling back the GST would have been simple.
Abbott’s only hope, then, is to somehow force an early election before the new legislation can be put into practice. He could cross his fingers and pray for a retirement from one of the government or cross-bench seats. He could try to force a resignation – and I predict we’ll see a resurgence of the accusations against Craig Thomson, possibly with accompanying phone calls from Senator George Brandis to the Victorian Police Commissioner. If he doesn’t succeed with Thomson, he’s certainly not above digging for dirt – either real, or confected – on other MPs and Senators.
The option he had before July this year – of blocking government bills and forcing a double dissolution – is now highly unlikely. There’s no love lost between the Coalition and Greens, who hold the balance of power. They might agree on blocking the proposed amendments to the Migration Act, but the Greens are diametrically opposed to almost every other Coalition policy. Add to that the fact that a double dissolution election contains the possibility that the Greens might lose the balance of power, and Abbott looks to be out of luck.
So, it looks like the carbon price is here to stay. And it’s all a bit anti-climactic, really. A few divisions, a round of applause here and there, and a gracious moment when Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd congratulated the Prime Minister with a kiss on the cheek, and it’s done.
Don’t think the hysteria is over, though. Abbott hasn’t stopped campaigning since the Independents agreed to back Labor for government last year – and a little setback like this won’t stop him now. Sure, the Coalition might have been defeated on arguably the biggest piece of legislation to ever come before the Parliament. Sure, all Abbott’s exhortations to the cross-benchers and rural Labor MPs to cross the floor fell on deaf ears. And sure, passage of the Clean Energy package brings the total of successful government legislation to well over 200.
Abbott won’t even break stride. The carbon price issue will fade to the background, to be trotted out whenever he can find an excuse to do so, but Abbott thinks on his feet. We’ll see a renewal of attacks on asylum seeker policy, tax reform, the deficit, the ‘assassination’ of Kevin Rudd, and – most of all – the proposed Mining Resources Rent Tax. He’ll maintain his rage, and we’ll be the ones who have to suffer through a one-sided election campaign until Gillard finally calls a vote – which she’s unlikely to do before the full term is up. Remember, part of her agreement with Independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor was a guarantee against an early election.
It’s a risky tactic. Already, the media have started to question the Coalition’s message. Already, there’s a sense that people have lost patience with both major parties. If Abbott treats the next two years as an election platform, it might well backfire – especially if the Coalition repeats its strategy of not producing policy until the eleventh hour, and refusing to have it costed.
On social media, there’s growing confidence that Abbott’s defeat will see him replaced as Opposition Leader. I don’t think that’s likely – the Coalition rides high in the polls, and, with the example of the Labor Party before them, they know full well the probable negative consequences of replacing Abbott with, say, Malcolm Turnbull. As with Labor, though, the perception that the Liberal Party are dissatisfied with their leader could contribute to a loss of popularity in the electorate.
All of this is speculation, though. The reality is that Abbott, while soundly defeated on carbon pricing, has no intention of conceding anything to the government. He’ll dodge the question in interviews and deflect attention onto other, proven points of attack (such as the failed Home Insulation Scheme or the Coalition’s misrepresentation of the BER outcomes). It’s the equivalent of shouting, ‘Look over there!’ while hurriedly burying anything inconvenient or uncomfortable under a pile of empty rhetoric.
So settle in, get comfortable, and possibly have a few kittens to pet for when the frustration and stress gets to be too much. We’ve got a long, long campaign ahead of us – and that’s before Gillard calls an election.
But it’s worth re-stating: Australia has passed legislation through the House of Representatives to establish an emissions trading scheme, pricing carbon, supporting development of renewable energy and easing tax and cost of living burdens on lower to middle income earners. That same legislation is certain to pass the Senate.
And there’s no sign of the apocalypse happening any time soon.