View from The Hill

Day 30: What you think about mandates depends on where you sit

Kevin Rudd is facing questions about Labor in opposition. AAP/News Corp pool, Lyndon Mechielsen

In election campaigns it’s always best to avoid the sticky paper, especially in the final days. But that’s where Labor found itself today, cornered into talking about what its stance might be in opposition on the carbon tax.

Tony Abbott this week has made a point of his argument that if he’s elected he’ll have a mandate for the tax’s repeal – and he’s committed to a double dissolution if he’s frustrated. This immediately had Labor being questioned on how it would react.

When Climate Change Minister Mark Butler went on the ABC this morning one would presume his main aim was to attack Abbott’s flagging that if it came to a choice between ditching the 5% emissions reduction target or increasing the funding needed to meet it, the target would go. But instead, Butler was relentlessly pursued about Labor’s likely response when presented with repeal legislation. This exchange occurred.

Host: “Labor would be prepared to, if it came to it, stick to its guns and send the electorate to a double dissolution?”

Butler: “Labor has a very clear position on this and it wouldn’t be of any surprise to the Australian people, I’m sure, that we would be voting on the position that we took to the election and not the position that Tony Abbott takes.”

Victorian MP Kelvin Thomson was blunt: “If I get elected to the parliament I’ve got a mandate to support the policies on which I was elected.”

Kevin Rudd tried to dodge when he came under a barrage of questioning, but did say: “Our policy is to support carbon pricing through an emissions trading scheme into the future. You know why? When the judgement is made from the vantage point of history in 20, 30, 40, 50 years’ time when all your kids and grandkids are walking around the place asking what is happening to the planet, we want to be on the right side of history as having stood up for the right policies.”

There is no upside for Labor in this mandate debate. It is assuming a Coalition win and taking attention off the messages Rudd needs to get through in these last days.

It was very different in the run up to the 1993 election when PM Paul Keating said that if Labor was in opposition it would wave through the Coalition’s proposed Fightback GST. In that case, he was warning the ALP would not try to stand in the way of a Coalition government imposing an unpopular tax. In this instance, the debate is about the Coalition wanting to take off an unpopular tax.

What position Labor in opposition actually took would depend on who was leader, what condition Labor was in and how an Abbott government was travelling.

There are conflicting precedents. After the 1998 election, Labor voted against John Howard’s GST, which forced him into negotiating with the Democrats. Its opposition did not do the ALP any discernible good.

In contrast, after its 2007 loss, the Coalition did not resist Labor’s repeal of WorkChoices. Even though it still found itself later subject to a scare campaign, that enabled it to move on from what had been a politically disastrous policy.

In all Abbott’s talk about the mandate he will have, it is worth noting his own view in other circumstances. He wrote after the Howard government’s 2007 defeat: “[Opposition leader Brendan] Nelson is right to resist the intellectual bullying inherent in talk of ‘mandates’. What exactly is Rudd’s mandate anyway: to be an economic conservative or an old-fashioned Christian socialist? The elected opposition is no less entitled than the elected government to exercise judgement and to try to keep its election commitments.”

The Greens are unequivocal about their position on the mandate issue. They would use their Senate numbers to try to block the repeal.

At her news conference today, Milne cast the Greens not just as a restraint on Abbott but a spine stiffener for Labor. “The Greens will work with whoever we can in the Parliament for stronger action on global warming and I think we will be needed there to keep the Labor party on track,” she said.

The mandate argument is particularly tricky when it comes to the Senate. With the lower House, a mandate surely exists when a party has won a clear majority and an issue (such as carbon pricing) has been at the centre of the campaign.

But the campaign of the Greens, who currently have sole balance of power in the Senate, is all about being an upper house check on whoever is in government.

People voting Green in the Senate would range from those thinking that everything an Abbott government did should be blocked where possible to those who want the upper house to be just a light restraining hand.

The Greens have a mandate to be a Senate watchdog, but how hard that dog should bite is another matter. The issue becomes the precise nature of their mandate, and how it relates to the mandate of the government.

It’s possible that several minor players could share the Senate balance of power after June. One of these, independent Nick Xenophon seems certain to be re-elected with a quota of his own. Another, John Madigan, from the DLP, who is not up this time, won on a tiny vote. Any micro party (or parties) that gets up a Senate candidate at the election would not have achieved anything like a quota in its own right.

The notion of Senate odds and sods individually or collectively having a national “mandate” to do anything is a nonsense. Yet it is possibly they who might be the ultimate deciders on crucial pieces of legislation including, if Labor hung tough, the Abbott carbon tax repeal.