Grattan on Friday: Shorten faces awkward byelection referendum on carbon tax

Rudd’s zip gives Shorten an early electoral test. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

The spectacular story ran for a nanosecond. Kevin Rudd had allegedly done a deal for daughter Jessica to get preselection for the seat he is vacating. It would have been the ultimate Ruddism. Jess immediately denied it.

Even without a new Rudd in the field, the Griffith byelection will be pretty interesting, a battle with significance for both Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten, but with the opposition leader having a good deal more at stake. In micro-land, it will also measure how Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party (PUP) is travelling.

The September 7 election is proving to have a “long tail”. It seems nearly certain Western Australians will have to vote again for the Senate after the unfortunate mystery of the lost ballot papers, and now the new year will see a fresh contest in what is now a marginal Brisbane seat.

The fundamentals won’t be affected. The Abbott government has just arrived, with a big majority. Shorten has been elected under the revised system that gives near total protection to the leader. A WA Senate vote would affect the upper house’s composition marginally rather than substantially.

It’s all about the political dynamics. Abbott will make Griffith (and the WA Senate vote, assuming there is one) another referendum on the carbon tax, which he described yesterday as “an anti-Queensland tax”. This when Labor has dug in against repealing the unpopular tax and rejected Abbott’s mandate to do so.

Although he’s probably glad to see the back of Rudd, the Griffith battle comes too early for Shorten’s convenience. A byelection can sometimes work a treat for an opposition leader, but Griffith potentially is more risk than opportunity for Shorten.

Not well known in Queensland, Shorten will have to campaign intensively. This is a Labor seat that he needs to hold – a formidable task with the loss of Rudd’s personal vote and the inevitable lower turnout, which increases the proportion of older (conservative) voters.

The Liberal National Party candidate in September, eye doctor and former Australian Medical Association president Bill Glasson, ran an impressive campaign, winning the primary vote and cutting Rudd’s two party preferred vote to 53%. The LNP needs Glasson to run again. He’s yet to announce his position.

Unsuccessful former candidate Bill Glasson may try his luck again at the Griffith byelection. AAP/Dan Peled

Without him Labor would be confident of keeping the seat. Facing Glasson, many Labor people fear the worst. Among those being talked about as ALP candidate is a former state member from the area, Di Farmer.

Apart from the emotional Rudd exit speech, the feature of the first parliamentary week has been the high level of combat.

Abbott wanted to get his signature legislation (for repeal of the carbon and mining taxes) into the parliament immediately, though neither measure has a chance of early passage.

Legislation to increase the debt ceiling has been driven by immediate necessity. The $300 billion ceiling will be reached by December 12. With an impasse over the appropriate new ceiling (the Government says $500 billion, the opposition $400 billion) the legislation has already bounced between the houses - the government yesterday rejecting a Senate amendment for $400 billion.

The government argues that the projected growth in debt plus the need for an adequate buffer will take the required ceiling above $400 billion. The opposition demands the updated figures and says if the government later needs the ceiling to go higher, it can come back to parliament.

While Abbott’s rhetoric is much about carbon, the debt ceiling has become the first hot spot of the new parliament, in which Labor and the Greens still have the Senate numbers until mid next year.

Labor wants the focus on the fact the Coalition, which in opposition preached reducing debt, is raising the ceiling not just modestly but a lot. “This Government was elected to reduce the debt. That’s what they told the Australian people they would do. The Australian people are getting a very different Government than the one they were promised”, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said.

The ALP doesn’t want to let the Coalition off the hook of its pre-election rhetoric; if debt rises substantially, it also wants the Coalition to have to own it by a return to parliament.

Hockey has tried to fan a sense of crisis. “The debt limit is being hit on the 12th of December and I want to know if the Labor Party thinks it is so heroic … to go down the path of starting to close down government services because we may need to exceed that debt limit.”

If Labor doesn’t give in, deeper spending cuts will be needed, Hockey says. “And the Labor Party will own those cuts. ….. You will own every single cut. You now have to, at some point, accept personal responsibility for your actions in government and if you do not, you will wear this like a crown of thorns.” (Already shades of Keating in the language.)

In the propaganda war, Abbott has offered Shorten a confidential briefing on the issue – an offer quickly rejected.

Despite Coalition hype, this is of course nothing like the recent US situation. It is a face off rather than a crisis. However it ends, the row over $400 billion versus $500 billion will lead neither to shut down nor slashing.

The Senate is doing estimates next week and won’t sit again until December 2. Before the debt deadline, there are four ways out of the impasse. The government blinks. The opposition blinks. There is a compromise between them - $450 billion? Or the Greens desert Labor.

The Greens want the case for the $500 billion ceiling made more effectively. They have flagged they might vote for the government’s number if they are convinced by the argument put by Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson at the estimates hearing next week.

What an irony it would be if the government got its way courtesy of the man it is soon unceremoniously pushing out of his Treasury job and the party it loathes.

The Week in Politics with Michelle Grattan and Stephen Parker.

Listen to Mitch Hooke on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.

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