View from The Hill

Everyone says they want economic reforms but the Senate is about to kill a big one

Senator Ricky Muir has said through his actions that he won’t be a pushover. AAP/Alan Porritt

The eccentricities of the Senate permitting, the government will finally get its legislation repealing the carbon tax through Parliament on Thursday.

In an attempt at control, it tried to hassle the Senate into a Wednesday vote. But, in a symbol of what this Senate is to be like, the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir voted against the guillotine. That tied the numbers and the government lost.

In this vote, Muir split from the Palmer United Party (PUP) senators, with whom he has an alliance. It was a small but significant gesture – Muir wanted to say he wasn’t going to be a pushover, including (and perhaps especially) for PUP.

The government had a more important loss when crossbenchers voted with Labor and the Greens to preserve a tax cut, scheduled for next year, that was to be compensation when the carbon tax became a floating price. The Coalition has a case to feel aggrieved; in power, Labor had announced indefinite deferral of the cut, to save $1.5 billion – yet the opposition has now voted to keep it. It’s just the beginning of quite a lot of pain the government will be enduring as some budget items are rolled up, only to be rolled.

The government also isn’t getting its way with various parts of the climate policy architecture, which the crossbench declines to dismantle.

In another I-am-here-hear-me-roar moment, Muir, whose adviser is preference whisperer Glenn Druery, announced that he and PUP had agreed to oppose the abolition of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). The initiative for the move came from the Muir office, not the PUP side.

You can bet that, after the carbon tax repeal vote, the Coalition will be triumphant, hailing its victory as a momentous step forward (actually backwards, to be precise). The elation will bookend Labor’s relishing the moment of its hard-fought, politically bruising victory to pass the carbon tax.

As the vote neared this week the chairman of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben, who is a Tory and a former environment minister, this week delivered a blistering attack on Tony Abbott’s climate policy.

“Almost all the rest of the world is now fighting climate change,” he told the ABC’s Lateline. “Only Australia and to some extent Canada, but particularly Australia, is actually going backwards.”

Lord Deben said he was not fighting for a particular measure.

“If Mr Abbott wanted to get rid of the carbon charge and then have something else instead of the carbon tax, then that would be perfectly all right as long as it was going to deliver the same thing. But Australia now has miserable targets … No independent group supports Mr Abbott’s contention that he is going to replace this carbon tax with something that will work as well.”

Asked what view Abbott had conveyed to him about climate change when they met, Lord Deben said: “A view which was that this didn’t matter, that it wasn’t important, that it was in no way a priority”.

Carbon pricing is a policy that’s come full circle, wrecking Labor and Liberal leaders during its journey, and taking the country from the positive bipartisanship of 2007, when there was support from both sides for emissions trading, to a deeply partisan schism accompanied by a divisive, often highly ideological, debate.

In terms of policymaking, it has been an exercise in failure: the collapse of a broad consensus on how to deal with a serious issue that is going to preoccupy the international community in the decades ahead.

The Abbott government is doing to Labor’s carbon price policy what the Rudd government did to Howard’s WorkChoices. In each case the incoming government had a mandate because the issue had been central at the election.

The demise of WorkChoices is little lamented (except by industrial relations hardliners) because it went too far.

But the repeal of the carbon price is another matter, whatever the short-term benefit to consumers and the welcoming noises from business. It was a structural reform on a par with the GST, and it deserved a better chance than it got to be tested.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with Environment Minister Greg Hunt, here.

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