View from The Hill

Labor warned not to be ‘too cute’ on carbon issue

George Wright believes Labor must maintain a strong position on climate change. AAP/Lukas Coch

Bill Shorten can’t win the test he faces on the government’s legislation to repeal the carbon tax - it is a matter of what will do Labor least damage.

Tony Abbott is trying to psyche the opposition into capitulating and allowing the repeal though. Fairfax Media, under a “Backflip” headline, today claimed that “Labor is expected to support axing the carbon tax.”

The opposition has made no decision yet on how it will vote on the repeal legislation.

The superficially easier course on the repeal would be to “wave it through” - as the professionals like to describe the process of allowing bills to pass while holding one’s nose.

If Labor had said at the start “we totally condemn repeal of the carbon price but we recognise the government has a mandate because this was a central issue at the election we lost”, a “wave through” would be a credible position for it to take. Arguably, it would have been the best position.

But it didn’t say that. Instead, it has got itself in something of a tangle. Based on its policy in the campaign, it says it no longer supports a carbon tax, but backs an emissions trading scheme. (Kevin Rudd promised that if he won the election, he would bring forward to mid next year the morphing of the carbon tax into an ETS.)

On one view this position could be used to justify the opposition going along with the tax’s repeal while advocating an ETS and concentrating on the alleged faults of Abbott’s direct action climate plan.

But such a course could simply be seen for what it was – Labor trying to find an quick way out of its awkward spot.

In declaring it backed an ETS but would not fight the carbon tax’s repeal, Labor would send a confusing message, as well as raise questions about its backbone. It would disillusion many in the party’s rank and file and supporter base, raising questions about what the ALP stood for.

In practice, it would make it harder for it to maintain its advocacy for pricing carbon when it came to the 2016 election - if that’s what it wants to do.

ALP national secretary George Wright has some sage advice on the matter – which amounts to warning the party not to let the message get lost in the tactics.

“I’m not sure that this is an issue that you can be very cute with,” he told The Conversation. Two things would be important: “not just what the Labor party does, but what the Labor party communicates about itself and about its position on this issue.

"We have to make sure that what we wish to communicate is not lost in the complexity of what we might do,” he said. “I think the challenge is to make sure that our position on this issue is clear and well understood.

"I don’t think it would be the right outcome for anyone to perceive that the Labor party does not support an emissions trading scheme and does not support action on climate change,” he said.

“I think we’re on the right side of history, the right side of science, the right side of economics, and I think we need to take a stand on that and prosecute it.”

Earlier, in his post election appearance at the National Press Club Wright said specific issues were very important in the election result but they were not the deciding factor. Kevin Rudd had addressed asylum seekers and the carbon tax with some success.

“If you looked at our polling throughout that campaign, issues like asylum seekers and particularly carbon pricing have become very low order issues compared to issues around our performance more generally in government.”

Wright said that by changing leaders, Labor had limited its potential losses. In the second quarter of this year, “our polling was telling us Labor was looking at being reduced to as few as 30 House of Representatives seats.

"Western Sydney looked like it would become a Liberal heartland. Queensland, WA and SA all risked being reduced to a single Labor seat each. And we fully expected that Tasmania and the NT would return no Labor seats at all. Labor ended up holding 55 seats.

"A solid loss, a bitter disappointment but as one commentator wrote, we pulled off Dunkirk. Suffering a major defeat but managing to escape with our army intact.

"As Bill Shorten’s new frontbench proves, Labor’s generation X saved its seats and that means Labor has good grounds for future optimism,” also boosted by “the entry into the caucus of a new generation of high calibre MPs.”

Wright said that having changed leaders so close to the election Labor’s campaign had to emphasise Rudd and his strengths and work the party strategy into making the most of these, not the other way around. “To do anything else would have been implausible.” He said Rudd had earned the right to campaign to his strategy. But in retrospect, it would have been better to call the election earlier, he said.

Wright added his voice to the push across the political spectrum for reform of the Senate voting system, in the wake of the election of a number of “micro” players.

He told The Conversation that a proposal would go to Labor’s national executive on Friday that the next national conference be after the NSW and Queensland state elections. “So that would put it somewhere in the second quarter of 2015.” He said he planned to stay national secretary to fight the next federal election.

Listen to ALP National Secretary George Wright on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.