Can Abbott pay the price for carbon repeal?

Even if the Coalition wins a best-case 50 per cent of the Senate, Tony Abbott will have to wrangle with political 'hot potatoes' like abortion to get his carbon tax repeal bill through.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard was rightly slammed for raising the prospect that abortion could become the plaything of “men who think they know better” two weeks ago (including by this columnist). But new developments yesterday give some clue as to why she would have raised such a controversial issue at all.

Gillard, in her frequent briefings as to how the next election will play out, will have looked at all the possible scenarios for the post-election composition of the upper and lower houses. And, as explained below, one of those could indeed see abortion being raised in parliament very soon.

Reports in News Ltd publications yesterday suggest that the Coalition will take control of the senate in the September 14 election.

The Daily Telegraph said a “state-by-state polling analysis” revealed that “The Coalition, in a worst-case scenario, would end up with 38 [senators], giving it 50 per cent of the Senate, and needing only one of several expected Conservative Independents to control both houses.”

That report needs to be taken with a very large grain of salt. What the paper asserts is the ‘worst case’ scenario, is in fact the best case scenario for Tony Abbott’s Coalition.

To get an absolute majority in the Senate (39 of 76 seats) at September’s half-senate election, is simply not within the realms of possibility. To do so, the Coalition would have to win four senate seats (out of six in each state) in three states.

Greens psephologist Stephen Luntz points out that the Coalition has only done this “in one state, once”, though he concedes that at a stretch they might be able to achieve it in Queensland and Western Australia this time around.

However, that would still make their best case scenario 38 seats. Fellow psephologist Charles Richardson agrees that this is about as far as the Coalition’s hopes could extend, and that would only be if current opinion poll figures remain unchanged – Richardson’s view is that Labor’s fortunes are pretty much at their low point right now, and may recover closer to the election.

All that said, ‘control’ of the senate will be most needed to achieve Abbott’s number one promise to the electorate – to “repeal” the carbon tax.

To do that, Abbott would have to wait until the new senate is sitting, from July 1, 2014, and rely on other right-leaning, or anti-carbon-pricing senators to get the repeal legislation through the upper house. (Nobody is predicting anything other than a large majority in the lower house, so that would not be a problem.)

Senate voting patterns are notoriously fickle, especially when preference flows between minor parties are not yet known, but there are a few different possibilities.

If Abbott has control of 38 senate votes, he will need to do a deal with one independent senator. The most likely, at this stage, is Democratic Labor Party senator John Madigan, who opposes Labor’s carbon pricing leglislation.

One might, therefore, expect Madigan to wave the bill through.

However, when that much power is concentrated in one set of hands, it’s common for the politician in question to ask themselves “what else can I achieve with this vote?”

Given Madigan’s passionate belief that abortion law needs to be tightened in Australia, it would not be unthinkable for him to insist on a deal that reflects that agenda.

Abbott would then be faced with a difficult choice – either put abortion reform back on the agenda and suffer outrage from the community (because it is clearly off the agenda at present) whilst making good on his carbon-tax promise, or go looking for support for the carbon repeal legislation elsewhere.

There will likely be one or two other places to look for that support. Nick Xenophon has not yet declared his position on carbon pricing (though he did vote against the Rudd-Turnbull plan in 2009), and could similarly use his moment of absolute power to extract a deal from Abbott on gambling reform

So Xenophon might, thereby, achieve what lower-house independent Andrew Wilke could not – Labor promised poker machine reforms to Wilke during the 2010 election interregnum in order to secure his support for forming a Labor minority government, but later back-tracked on those reforms.

And at present it looks as if there will be a Katter’s Australia Party senator flying in from Queensland to join the new senate. If this transpires, there will again be horse-trading to secure that senator’s vote.

In the past week Bob Katter has called for forced divestiture of Coles and Woolies stores to bring their share of the grocery retail market down from a claimed 80 per cent to 20 per cent. Steps towards that objective might be the subject of a deal.

The other, more likely, demand from the colourful Queenslander is that  “reconstruction board” be set up within the Reserve Bank to hold distressed mortgages from thousands of farmers expected to go to the wall in the next year or two due to ballooning debts.

That would likely be the easiest deal for Abbott to do – he would be helping farmers in Coalition seats to stay afloat until the rains, or lower dollar, help them out of the current crisis.

And the unpleasant prospect for Abbott is that he won’t get 38 seats at all – more likely is 37 or 36. If the lower end of predictions comes true, he’ll find himself having to do deals with Madigan, Katter and Xenophon to make good his carbon promise.

The man who repeatedly asserted that former Greens leader Bob Brown was really running the country (before he resigned) would find himself answering the question “Who’s running the country now?”

If it’s John Madigan, raising the incendiary issue of abortion, he could find himself in a world of trouble – not only a ‘voter backlash’, but the re-emergence of sharp divisions over this issue within his own ranks.

Abbott won’t get 39 seats in the senate, but he will come very close to being able to repeal the carbon tax, as promised – though the price may be very high indeed.