Is Labor about to vote for repeal?

Today's speculation about a Labor backflip on carbon pricing could yet prove baseless, but it does fit neatly with some rhetorical shifts made recently by shadow minister Mark Butler.

Fairfax newspapers carried a report on Monday stating the Labor party was expected to “support axing the carbon tax” and that unnamed Labor sources believed there had been a “shift in sentiment” since the election. At the time of publishing we are still waiting on a comment from Shadow Environment Minister Mark Butler’s office to confirm and/or clarify this report.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten made it pretty clear in public statements when he became leader that Labor would not support removal of the carbon price, so this all seems rather puzzling (What Howard and Thatcher can teach ShortenOctober 30). In the end, this could be a case of Labor wanting to play word games where it gets rid of that nasty word 'tax' and replaces them with more politically benign ideas of pricing carbon via an emissions trading scheme.

Yet what really matters is whether Labor will vote for the bills put forward a few days ago by the Coalition to repeal the Clean Energy Future Act – replacing it with nothing. Stating support for repealing the carbon tax could, however, mean something different to this.

For example, Labor MP Andrew Leigh told Sky News on Tuesday: “We said we would scrap the carbon tax, the fixed-price period, and move straight to a floating emissions trading scheme. That's something that we will be happy to vote for on the floor of parliament."

This could mean voting against the repeal bill and instead seeking to negotiate with the Coalition to remove the fixed-price period of the scheme embodied within the Clean Energy Future Act one year early. Yet comments made by Mark Butler on Sunday to Sky News appeared to open the door to the possibility that Labor would allow the passage of the repeal bills.

Peter van Onselen's precise question was: “Are you going to get out of the way and let them repeal the carbon tax or are you going to look to stymie that repeal?”

To which Mark Butler replied: “We haven't yet made a final decision about a detailed response to eight pieces of legislation.”

Under further questioning by Paul Kelly, Mark Butler chose an interesting twist in language to emphasise Labor's commitment to a ‘cap on pollution’ above an emissions trading scheme.

Paul Kelly: I think it's safe to assume, is it, that Labor will remain committed to the principle of an emissions trading scheme and carbon pricing?

Mark Butler: Well, the central commitment we have is to a cap on carbon pollution, a cap that reduces over time of the type you're seeing around the world. We still think that the best mechanism to achieve that cap is an emissions trading scheme.

This opens the possibility that Labor could vote for repeal on the condition that other legislation were passed setting out emissions caps to 2020, while leaving the mechanism of achieving the cap completely unspecified.

Back in 2010 I wrote that Labor made a major blunder in communication by not talking about their first effort at carbon pricing (the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) as being about putting a 'cap on pollution’ rather than describing it as an ‘emissions trading scheme’ or a ‘market-based mechanism’. I felt the concept of putting a cap on pollution was more tangible to the average person in the street and therefore something they would be more willing to support than the incredibly abstract concept of emissions trading.

Labor may now be trying, albeit far too late, to adopt such language while not altering the underlying policy. But it could also mean that yet again Labor has completely abandoned sound policy principle in favour of short-term, poll-driven politics. That proved to be bad politics, as well as bad policy, back in mid-2010. But maybe they haven’t yet learnt their lesson.

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