Is a Combet vs Shorten battle brewing?

The first shot may have been fired ahead of a potential post-election Labor leadership battle between likely candidates Bill Shorten and Greg Combet – and the battlefront could be climate policy.

On Friday, Business Spectator's Rob Burgess outlined the possibility Bill Shorten was drumming up support among fellow Labor MPs to drop the carbon pricing scheme after the election. It could be the start of a post-election leadership tussle drawn on climate policy lines between Shorten, considered the frontrunner to be next ALP leader, and climate change minister Greg Combet.

It would be understandable for Shorten to consider backtracking from the party’s current climate policy position should he take charge of the party later this year. The announcement of the policy did, after all, send Labor lower in the polls while the vehement opposition from Tony Abbott could force a double dissolution election should the Coalition win in September and Labor not cede to Abbott’s pressure on the issue. If thrashed in four months’ time, the last thing Labor would want is another election.

Shorten also knows Combet wouldn’t be able to make the same move and hope to get away with it. Gillard aside, Combet is the minister most tied with the policy. Shorten, on the other hand, has not exactly been unequivocal in his support.

It may prove mere coincidence that the day Business Spectator breaks news of Shorten possibly maneuvering on carbon pricing, Combet declares removing it would be “immoral”, arguably his strongest line since the policy was enacted.

Regardless, his doorstop interview makes for intriguing reading in light of the Shorten speculation.

Journalist: Is Labor still committed if you find yourself in Opposition come September to blocking any repeal of the carbon tax?

Combet: You bet. It is the right public policy position for this country... Labor has stood for it for a long time and we will stand for a long time.

Journalist: So do you reject Mr Abbott's remarks that the election will be a referendum on the carbon tax?

Combet: People will know what Labor's position is, I can assure you, in the lead up to the election and we will adhere to it and we intend on winning the election.

It’s hard to divert from this line to one post-election along the lines of ‘sorry, we were wrong, carbon pricing isn’t the way forward.’

If Shorten wants to distance Labor from the policy, it appears Combet won’t make it easy for him – which is no surprise given a retreat would hurt him more than anyone else. It could prove a hammer blow to any leadership ambitions he may harbour.

It would be a bold move for Shorten to make, however, given the government has spent the last two years trying to convince everyone that carbon pricing is good policy. It has done the heavy lifting, with the public now largely indifferent to carbon pricing.

Should the Shorten rumours prove true, his case to caucus would be that Labor has never really recovered from the blow it received after dealing with the Greens. Combet, on the other hand, can tell a story of weakening public opposition to carbon pricing and an ability to hurt the Coalition on its heavily criticised climate policy alternative, Direct Action.

While the election may now seem a foregone conclusion, there could at least be a compelling post-script.

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