Denial in carbon politics

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Greg Hunt’s paradoxical lack of enthusiasm for discussing climate change policy. He’s very quiet on the Coalition’s “Direct Action” policy, and very loud on the Coalition’s promise to remove Labor’s carbon tax. (Highly suspicious, given that one is theoretically necessitated by the other.)

But will the Coalition even get the opportunity to fulfil that promise? If it wins the next federal election, the Greens are widely expected to hold onto the balance of power in the Senate. Labor and the Greens could, therefore, team up to block any Coalition attempt to scrap the carbon tax, and then a double dissolution election would be on the cards. Hunt magically extricates himself from this conundrum with the following rather optimistic reasoning:

We do not expect the Greens will ever honour a mandate given to the Coalition. However, if the ALP loses the election it is almost inconceivable that they would ignore such a clear mandate, especially given that they had no mandate to introduce the tax in the first place.

Hunt’s talk of mandates is pure fiction. The concept of one side having or not having a policy-specific mandate (e.g. to enact or repeal a carbon tax) is sustained by a narrative, usually self-serving and factually debatable, in which voters elect their representatives based on that one policy area only. It just doesn’t work like that, either in theory or in practice. Voters are never formally asked to approve specific policies, except during referendums, and there has never been a referendum on climate change policy. Elections by themselves are not referendums, and political promises are fundamentally unenforceable. (This latter fact will almost inevitably be the saving grace of Mr Hunt himself, as he must realise).

Constitutionally, the Senate is never under any obligation to toe the line of the Government. Even if the logic of mandates did apply, it must apply equally to both houses. Senators are no less democratically elected than MPs, so why on Earth should Labor or Greens Senators be obligated to do anything but adhere to their own policies and best judgment? The Coalition won’t own Labor’s eternal soul merely by beating it at the ballot box. Labor’s only moral obligation (as with everyone else in politics) is to exercise good judgment.

Despite this, Hunt expects (or claims to expect) the ALP to side with the Coalition. To slightly mangle Charles Babbage, I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such an expectation. Why, in the name of all that is good, would the ALP possibly want to (a) trash one of its own signature accomplishments, (b) replicate the very same policy back-flip that saw Kevin Rudd’s poll numbers crash, and (c) resist the opportunity, from the safety of opposition, to make a liar out of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in neat, vengeful symmetry with his side’s relentless labelling of Julia Gillard a liar over the same issue?

Hunt is virtually promising that his own political opponents will do his bidding. How much further divorced from reality can a politician be?

On symmetry, the repeal of the carbon tax is sometimes compared to Labor’s repeal of the Coalition’s Work Choices legislation. The Liberals, having lost the 2007 election, voted to repeal their own legislation, so — it is sometimes argued (though not specifically by Hunt this time) — Labor ought to do the same. This is a rather spectacular logical fallacy, because of course the two policies are totally unconnected. The Coalition backtracked on its own policy in earnest recognition of having gone too far, not because its election defeat lost it the right to have a policy. The only people arguing that Labor has gone too far are climate sceptics and political hacks.

The symmetry also breaks when you consider that the Coalition’s change of heart was motivated by strong public opposition to Work Choices — 59% opposed to 24% in favour, whereas there is now net support for the carbon tax — 46% in favour to 44% opposed. If both an election and a real referendum on the carbon tax were held simultaneously, right now, it is likely that both the Coalition and the carbon tax would win. Consider that when Hunt talks about Labor “acting in defiance of the express will of the Australian people”. It’s now more likely, on the balance of probabilities, that the Coalition would be defying the will of the Australian people, not Labor.

There is the threat of a double dissolution, of course, but Hunt must be making some rather extraordinary assumptions about the dynamics of popular opinion if he thinks he has that one sewn up. The Coalition-in-Government has potentially more to lose in an early election than the ALP-in-Opposition — the entire remainder of its policy agenda, for instance. The ALP would fight to get back into government, or at least recover some support. Even if the ALP gained no ground, there’s still no guarantee afterwards that the Coalition would have enough support in the Senate, or in a joint sitting, to scrap the carbon tax. And then what? Another double dissolution?

David Forman (in the article to which Greg Hunt is responding) goes on to suggest that the Coalition could technically scrap the carbon tax simply by bringing forward the full emissions trading scheme. After all, the carbon tax was only ever a temporary measure anyway, and Labor and the Greens would be far less likely to block their own ETS. This would be a compromise by the Coalition that really just serves to obfuscate a complete political surrender on the issue. Kevin Rudd’s proposed ETS was the menace that motivated the Coalition’s current policy — and Tony Abbott’s rise to leadership — in the first place.

The Coalition has been boxed-in by its anti-carbon pricing campaign. Given what Tony Abbott has said and promised, it’s difficult to envisage Greg Hunt having much flexibility in what he says and promises either. But there must be a price for politicians saying and promising the impossible. We may understand why they do it, and what political consequences await them if they don’t play the game, but even then we do not have to excuse it.