As Lenore Taylor observed recently, carbon policy has been responsible for the demise of three prime ministers and two opposition leaders in Australian politics. You are damned if you ignore carbon and damned if you try and tackle it – which, ironically, ensures it will remain high on news agendas for as long as the world has to face up to the reality of the climate crisis.
Several blogs ago, I made the case that Clive Palmer knows full well that carbon is Tony Abbott’s weakness. Abbott is so obsessed with eradicating carbon policy and action that it weakens his political judgement – utterly.
Such was the circus of Thursday, before the sitting of the Senate, where Abbott and right-wing publication The Spectator were crowing in unison about the imminent demise of the carbon tax.
Labor senator Penny Wong also became enraged by what she saw as an unprecedented abuse of Senate process: to manipulate proceedings to fit in with Abbott’s press announcements about the carbon tax, and to thereby background the media itself to put pressure on crossbenchers voting for the repeal.
Abbott declared that the carbon tax hits the average household by A$550, and that the carbon tax had led to a 25% increase in the business sector’s power bills over the last two years.
The Spectator came out with a story, “Hip, hip hooray for Tony Abbott’s carbon tax repeal” with a cartoon of Abbott, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt jumping for joy in a shower of confetti, which subscribers received in hard copy and which was quickly changed online.
The humiliation for both Abbott and The Spectator has been ridiculed on Twitter as an excruciating lesson in what happens when you overreach in politics, or in being subservient to a party that considers itself unaccountable.
This unaccountability extends to the Coalition barely concealing its contempt for crossbench politicians who fail to follow its agenda. This is a stark contrast to the former Gillard government’s legendary success with fragile Senate processes. As Labor’s Anthony Albanese also tweeted:
But carbon is Abbott’s weakness in another sense. In being fixated on a one-punch demolition of the former emissions trading scheme (aka the ‘carbon tax’) for so long now, it is ironically the only issue about which the Abbott is being transparent.
Abbott has broken the first rule of politics: never tell your opponents what you really want. Palmer knows that if his party’s senators surrender the political trophy to Abbott that he wants so badly, he will have given away the cards that really count.
So, the Palmer United Party senators have managed again to outplay Abbott, just as they did two weeks ago as Laura Tingle so deftly analysed.
The Palmer amendment to insist that any proceeds from the repeal of the carbon tax be passed onto consumers is extremely clever. If there are any savings at all, Palmer will get the credit for keeping the government to its word.
But with advisors such as Canberra-savvy Ben Oquist guiding Palmer on the amendment, it is unlikely that Palmer truly believes there are any savings, and suspects that this has always been one of the more spectacular cons that the Abbott government has tried on with the electorate.
In other words, Palmer cannot lose out of this play. If electricity prices do go down, he can take credit. But if they go up, Palmer has just shone an enormous spotlight on this issue which will grow into the largest headache the government has – besides PUP itself.
So even if PUP pass the amended repeal next week, it is actually passing a time-bomb that will tick away in the heads of every cabinet member right up until the next election. As it becomes obvious for all to see that the carbon tax repeal makes no difference to the hip pocket of voters – and in fact makes them worse off – the stage will be set for the introduction of an ETS that PUP has foreshadowed.
It may also illuminate what the real causes of electricity price increases are. Abbott will never be able to get carbon off the agenda, and the more he tries the worse things will get politically for him. If PUP gives away its ace card, it will need to tie this to another carbon politics card to retain the level of power it currently holds in the Senate – hence the focus of the PUP senators on renewable energy.
For now, the Abbott government has the task of coming to terms with PUP’s power in the senate. This is not easy given Abbott’s declared unwillingness to negotiate, the fact that Palmer knows all too well how the Liberal Party works, and that he is astonishingly litigious.
On the latter point, Palmer perceives a cosy alliance between the government and News Corp. The attacks on Palmer’s legal and business dealings in The Australian – particularly by Hedley Thomas – and attacks on his character in the tabloids after PUP failed to repeal the carbon tax have simply made Palmer dig in further, and are likely to help deliver the most unco-operative Senate that Australia has seen for decades.
In a review of Sean Parnell’s recent biography of Clive Palmer, Gillian Terzis observes that:
… the meticulous chronicling of Palmer’s various legal stoushes point to man who revels an opportunity for litigation, as if it were his weekend hobby.
In this sense, Abbott has really met his match. Readers will recall that Abbott himself is no stranger to litigation.
In 1998, Abbott set up a fund to take legal action against Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, known as ‘Australians for Honest Politics’, together with Peter Coleman, a former Liberal MP, a writer for The Spectator featured above, and a just-appointed member of the PM’s Literary Awards Panel.
The fund was established to take legal action to question the validity of the registrations of the One Nation Party in Queensland. This was a campaign that arguably led to the eventual jailing of Pauline Hanson.
The moves made then were to destroy a populist party that was taking droves of voters from the Coalition, and which gained almost 9% of the national vote in 1998 when Howard defeated Beazley. Sound familiar?
Howard later managed to capture these voters by demonising asylum seekers and making asylum policy into the inhumane issue that it is today. But Abbott was central to the demise of Hanson with the legal campaign against her.
Years later, when Hanson was convicted of electoral fraud in 2003 and briefly spent time in jail until an appeal quashed the conviction, Abbott had to defend allegations that he had lied about offering to fund civil proceedings against Hanson by One Nation dissident Terry Sharples.
But will Abbott be able do to to Palmer what he did to Hanson?
In the Hanson period, Abbott was employment and workplace relations minister. This time, he is prime minister, and up against an MP who leads a party with decisive clout in the Senate – and who lives and breathes the court system as a state-of-nature.
Can Abbott shake off the carbon curse he has brought upon himself? Not a chance.