Abbott faces a major Greens offensive

The Coalition's various policy blunders and Labor's missed political opportunities make the WA Senate election re-run a pivotal moment for the Greens.

At last Australia is waking up to the fact that the drama of the Gillard government has not yet reached its denouement. The final climactic scene will play out in Western Australia in about two months’ time.

Although a full ruling by the High Court did not eventuate yesterday (Fresh WA election edges closer, February 18), we now know that the court considers that 1370 Western Australians were “prevented from voting” for their state’s senators last September because their ballot papers were lost.

So a new half-Senate election is now virtually guaranteed – and it will be very, very different to the first one. In many respects, WA voters are like poker players who have seen all the other players’ hands, but still get to pick up one more card and place bets.

Last September, be-thonged, tanned sandgropers flapped their way to voting booths with no idea where the balance of power would lie in the Senate. This time, they know that they can shift it left or right as they collectively see fit.

Moreover, the Abbott Government, which would dearly love to have put off just about any governing at all until after a WA re-run, has by necessity had to do a few things in its first five months.

Like all governments, that means it made a few tiny mistakes: turning the Rudd government’s spying indiscretions into its own much bigger diplomatic row with Indonesia; accidentally invading that nation’s territorial waters; running a false witch-hunt over wages and conditions at SPC Ardmona when there really were problems in other companies such as Qantas and Alcoa; and blocking a much-needed capital investment in the eastern seaboard grain handling network in the GrainCorp decision. 

Minor blemishes, I suppose, but gaping wounds when the balance of power in the upper house is to be decided on by the nervous denizens of WA.

WA Senator Mathias Cormann tweeted rather hastily when the High Court news broke that this was “another opportunity for WA to send a clear message that we want carbon tax gone and anti-WA mining tax gone”.

What makes that ill-judged? For starters, the 2013 election was the ‘referendum on the carbon tax’ and the Abbott team won that pretty comprehensively. The economic narrative has moved on precisely because the carbon tax did very little to chase Ford, Toyota and Holden out of Australia, make Qantas or Alcoa uncompetitive, or force SPCA to put out its corporate hand for aid.

As for the mining tax, even the most sun-addled surfers down south should be aware that the minerals resource rent tax doesn’t raise any money and is about the last thing causing miners to send workers home for good from up north. (That trend could mean a few more boards competing for waves around Margaret River in the months ahead.)

Fighting Julia Gillard in the WA election would be a big mistake. Abbott needs to get on with the jobs at hand. That means jobs, jobs, jobs – and bit of union spring-cleaning via the royal commission.

Even border control – another ghost of Gillard’s past – where the government has largely succeeded in its stated aim of ‘stopping the boats’ is now more a liability than an asset.

The real aim should have been designing a humane, grown-up, multilateral solution to stateless people in our region. Kevin Rudd gave up on that idea with his PNG solution, and the Coalition has embraced that barbaric policy. Human suffering, riots, a fatality and damage to our reputation as a ‘grown-up’ voice in the international community are the results.

Yesterday I argued that opposition Bill Shorten has much to lose in WA, seeing as he has lost political ground in past weeks despite it virtually being offered to him on a platter.

Some are arguing that the Coalition also has a lot to lose, and that’s true as explained some months ago (Abbott’s nightmare is unfolding in WA, December 10, 2013).

And that all makes the more extreme elements on the political scale the likely winners in a WA re-match: Clive Palmer on the right and the Greens on the left.

Having spent 15 years growing up in WA, and being a frequent visitor to Perth in the past year, my prediction is that the Greens will do well. Western Australian voters swung hard to the right at the 2013, but beneath that trend were strong currents of environmentalism that other states such as Victoria and NSW would find hard to fathom.

In that big, empty, clean state, the Greens will pound Clive Palmer for his coal operations in Queensland that they say threaten habitats on the Great Barrier Reef, and take a swipe at environment minister Greg Hunt for approving them.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam argued in his recent senate adjournment speech that “five months on and I think Australia is suffering from a remarkable case of political buyer's regret”, and with the party picking up primary vote in the latest Newspoll, the Greens will pull out all their campaigning resources in WA to drive home that advantage.

A pivotal issue will be the Greens’ blueprint for a public transport utopia in Perth that, until recently, had “half a billion dollars of Commonwealth funding committed”.

Ludlam said in the senate speech: “... everyone stuck in a traffic jam from here on can breathe deeply the carbon monoxide and know that your world-class public transport services have been cancelled until further notice because our PM has declared that there will be no rapid buses or light rail under a government he leads.”

Ouch.

With the Abbott Government still planning the repeal of the carbon tax when the new Senate sits in July, the Greens will be using clean energy as a major campaign issue, particularly as most commentators expect the review of the Renewable Energy Target to recommend a cut to the scheme’s fixed-MWh target.

The RET target was originally planned to be 20 per cent of electricity supply, but because electricity demand has weakened since the Rudd Government’s projections were made, it is now on track to be more like 23 per cent by 2020. The Greens will argue that’s a success, while the Coalition pulls the other way.

And getting back to jobs, jobs, jobs, the Greens will argue that more jobs can be created in building renewable energy plants, affordable housing and public transport infrastructure. Just who pays for all this will probably be kept quiet.

Ludlam said in his Senate speech: “We do not have time for your government to get it, to rediscover that renewable energy – even as you have managed to preside over the implosion of the skilled manufacturing sector in this country –and that affordable, sustainable modular housing and that affordable, locally fabricated, renewable energy plants may be the answer staring you right in the face for skilled manufacturing employment in this country.”

To the anxious Western Australians suffering ‘buyers' regret’, the Senate re-run could be the Greens’ best electoral opportunity for years.