Time, popularity, history and a dearth of pythons: these are the reasons why Tony Abbott will backtrack on his “blood oath” to repeal the carbon tax if he ascends to the prime ministership.
All year the media has been abuzz with news of the Coalition leader’s plans to kill the price on carbon, but the long lead time required to tear up the legislation, Abbott’s unpopularity, a history of risk in double dissolution elections and the lack of a ‘python squeeze’ on the voting public should see the oath come to nothing.
In late 2013, Australians will go to the polls and most expect Abbott to be handed victory. At this point, he says he will scrap the carbon price. This would see legislation put to Parliament that would push its removal. Given the Greens and Labor will likely retain enough power to block the legislation in the Senate (Greg Combet has said the ALP will fight a repeal), Abbott would fail to destroy it at the first attempt. For a ‘blood oath’ follow through a second attempt would be required by Abbott, leading to a double dissolution election and, around 12-18 months after the 2013 election, another visit to the polls.
This means that by the time Abbott would be able to get the legislation repealed, likely early-2015 according to lawyer Fergus Green, the carbon pricing mechanism would have been in place for over two and a half years. To scrap it after such a time would cause no end of headaches for many businesses and spotlight the issue of compensation for carbon units, something the government probably won’t be required to give but will certainly cause angst in the business community.
Pythons not a monty
The blood pledge was a striking sound grab for a scare campaign. It was the perfect image to rouse the swirl of anger and mistrust that has drifted through the country. But as Tristan Edis has pointed out, the true price impact of the carbon tax will be quite minimal, with most coming out ahead after compensation is taken into account. This fact has been hidden due to strong Coalition cut-through and poor Gillard government communication – but it shall become clearer in the months after July 1. When it does, interest in a repeal of the legislation should slowly crumble.
One of the leading players involved in getting the carbon pricing legislation through Australian Parliament, Independent MP Tony Windsor summed it up this week when noting that after the sky doesn’t fall in, the broader business community will be very reluctant to support changes that would create more work and uncertainty.
“He doesn't have to ‘tear it up’ as he says. That's okay for the fear campaign, but in a practical sense that's probably not achievable. And if the Parliament goes for another 15 months, the business community would probably be starting to plug in anyway and want something of that magnitude put in place.”
Double dissolution risk
There have been six double dissolutions in Australian history. Three have seen the elected government returned, three have not. Every double dissolution election (1914, 1951, 9174, 1975, 1983 and 1987) has seen a swing against the incumbents*. In all cases, save for Bob Hawke’s ’87 victory, this has meant a loss of seats in the House.
It’s not a record that will inspire much confidence amongst Coalition strategists plotting the long-term reign of what would be a first-term PM.
If Australians went to the polls today, Tony Abbott would be the most unpopular Opposition leader to win an election in our history (at least since polling became part of the landscape around 60 years ago).
The Coalition leader is currently as unpopular as Julia Gillard and hasn’t even had to make a real policy decision yet, hardly a recipe for polling joy.
It must also be noted that the landslide lead the Coalition maintains in the polls is likely to tighten heading into the election for several reasons: Abbott’s disapproval rating of 57 per cent; closer scrutiny in the lead up to an election; and the potential for growing unease with Liberal governments in the key eastern states. On the latter point, it’s clear the honeymoon is over for Ted Baillieu, while Barry O’Farrell and Campbell Newman have several difficult decisions to mull over in the next couple of years (CSG regulation, budget constraints, a second Sydney airport, privatisation of government assets etc), which have the potential to put pressure on their popularity.
The million dollar question is: would the public be keen to vote for someone they don’t like twice in the space of a year and a half? Especially after they are reminded of the cost of another election and have found the carbon tax to be a lot less scary than Abbott suggests?
A dangerous combination
So let’s safely assume that cobras, pythons and any other snakes suitable for catchy analogies don’t fall from the sky and the carbon tax consequently has very little impact on the day-to-day lives of most Australians. Let’s also say that Abbott wins the next election, but not in a landslide. For the purposes of crystal balling, we also have the luxury of predicting Abbott’s popularity to remain linked to the ‘un’ prefix. With this and double dissolution history in mind, a fresh election a year after gaining a first term as prime minister would be brash, dangerous and just plain stupid.
* Gough Whitlam is counted as the incumbent for 1975 in my conclusions even though in fact he was Opposition leader at the time of the election. He had won a double dissolution in 1974, but the Constitutional Crisis of 1975 saw the Governor-General appoint Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as acting prime minister prior to the election.