The danger in Abbott's double-dissolution

It took nearly two weeks, but Bill Shorten on Thursday finally put to rest rumours on both sides of parliament that he was trying to build support for a Labor backflip on carbon pricing.

The speculation, reported by Business Spectator on May 17, prompted environmental group Lighter Footprints to contact Shorten’s office to express their concern at such a possibility.

Shorten emailed the group to say the speculation was not true and to reassure its members that “a carbon price is the best way to do something about climate change, so we can pass on the planet to our kids and grandkids in the best shape possible”.

In Friday’s edition of The Australian Financial Review Tony Abbott hit back, asking: “Is Bill Shorten really saying he would ignore the will of the Australian people and continue to support the carbon tax if the Labor Party loses an election which is a referendum on the carbon tax?”

That comment is mostly just political rhetoric – a general election cannot be characterised as a referendum on any single issue and any opposition has the right to pick and choose which policies it opposes.

Nonetheless, the extraordinary success of the Abbott opposition in attacking what was once bipartisan policy – the creation of an emissions trading scheme – and convincing journalists and voters that it is, in fact, a 'tax', goes some way to justifying his ‘referendum’ notion.

As an aside, Business Spectator tackled the economics of the ‘tax’ versus ‘ETS’ debate way back in 2007 (in The Great Carbon Debate I and II, republished here and here), when the debate was still about economics rather than naked politics (sigh).

One recent twist in this epic political struggle is that punters seem to be shifting their views. As the chart below shows, Essential Media’s polling of support for carbon pricing shows support is growing, and opposition decreasing, so that ‘total support’ and ‘total oppose’ are both at 43 per cent.

That shift most likely reflects the tax, pension and family benefit changes that Labor piggy-backed onto the carbon legislation to ‘compensate’ households for a small CPI increase flowing from the carbon price.

However, it could also be because scientists’ warnings of the impact of record greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere are getting more alarming each year (see, for instance: Climate change forecast to shrink habitat of common plants, animals, May 13).

But enough economics and climate science – in Australia this debate is about as close to pure politics as it’s possible to get.

If Shorten’s comments prove to be true, the most likely scenario facing an incoming Abbott government is to be forced into a double dissolution election no earlier than June 2014. Out we’ll all grumpily trudge to give a real ‘referendum’ result on carbon pricing.

There are three dangers this raises for Abbott.

Firstly, the trend seen above in the Essential Report polling could continue, particularly if flood and cyclone activity such as that seen in Queensland and Victoria in the past couple of years is repeated. While no definite link can be made between individual weather events and climate change, the prediction of climate scientists is for increased frequency of such events – making them political opportunities for the Greens and Labor.

Secondly, international news will continue to filter through the Australian media – on the latest nations to be trialling or setting up their own ETS schemes, on major renewable projects elsewhere, particularly in China, and on the latest forecasts for crop disruptions, species loss and the diplacement of population around the world.

Finally, while the Coalition is currently riding high in the polls, any large cuts to spending and public servant numbers, tweaks to industrial relations legislation or, perhaps most damagingly, a failure to ‘stop the boats’, could see Abbott’s popularity plummet before a double dissolution election.

That would make the first half of 2014 under a Coalition government a reform-free zone. A Coalition government would have to keep itself busy with lots of reviews – such as the promised spending audit and another white paper process on its ‘Direct Action’ plan – but not actual announcements or policy changes until after a mid-year double dissolution election.

That would be hard to pull off, particularly if the Australian economy slowdown continues.

If Labor does lose the election, and if Shorten takes the leadership and sticks to his word about forcing Abbott back to the polls, the entire nation might have to hold its breath for six months.

That won’t put voters in a good mood as they enter the polling booths – something that could work in Labor’s favour. But then I’m sure Shorten has thought all that through.

Connect with Rob Burgess on Google+