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.
In Perth, Abbott
heralded on Thursday that “today is the day when the carbon tax is
finally scrapped”. A transcript of the interview was posted on the prime minister’s website.
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
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
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
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
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 legalIn this sense, Abbott has really met his match. Readers will recall that Abbott himself is no stranger to litigation.
stoushes point to man who revels an opportunity for litigation, as if it
were his weekend hobby.
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
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.