Is this the end for Labor's 'CarbonChoices'?

Whispers in Canberra suggest Bill Shorten is canvassing the numbers for support on a huge Labor carbon pricing backflip after the election.

Just when we thought Labor leadership stories were over, briefings given to Business Spectator this week by Labor, Coalition and independent MPs and staffers suggest that a new stoush is brewing – and one that could turn the Labor policy platform on its head.

Labor MPs are mostly holding the line that they intend to win the September election, but the grammar of national commentators has shifted in recent months from ‘Abbott would...’ to ‘Abbott will’ – that is, the near certainty of a Labor defeat is being discussed everywhere except by Labor MPs in public.

In private, discussion of who would rebuild Labor after the election is whispered in the hallways and behind closed doors of Parliament House.

Most informed commentators think that if Julia Gillard loses the election (note I will continue to use ‘if’ – voters, not journalists, get to decide), Bill Shorten will be the man rebuilding the party.

The course that leadership would take should be on the mind of every Labor MP, every staffer, and will produce much speculation in the lead up to September 14.

I must stress that what follows, though told to Business Spectator as fact, must be treated as speculation.

However, the logic behind it is strong and one line in Tony Abbott’s budget reply speech on Thursday adds to the credibility of the argument – more on that below.

In essence, some strong proponents of climate change action believe Bill Shorten has begun lobbying members of Caucus to abandon carbon pricing as a Labor policy after the next election.

The argument follows the precedent set by the Coalition over WorkChoices – though many in the Liberal and National parties believed it was the right policy, they were required to disown it after the 2007 election so as to avoid spending years in the political wilderness.

After the 2013 election, Labor could be tempted to walk away from its own electoral poison – CarbonChoices, if you will.

When I put this to Shorten’s office, the standard response applied: he won’t speculate about hypotheticals that involve Labor losing the election. A spokeman told Business Spectator that Shorten was “strongly committed to carbon pricing and that hasn’t changed”.

Another Labor MP said Shorten was “quite capable” of such a policy backflip.

Left faction leader Senator Doug Cameron also refused to comment on “hypotheticals that involve Labor losing” but added that after the election he would have a “very strong view” on any such idea.

But there is more to this than tight-lipped ‘no-comments’. One senior Labor operative, admittedly no friend to Shorten’s Right faction, said the leadership spill precipitated by Simon Crean in March would have hinged on five votes offered by Shorten, via Crean, to get Rudd over the line.

However, it’s a widely held view that the votes were bait to draw Rudd out and that they would not have been delivered.

Had Rudd stood, his leadership ambitions would have been thwarted a second and final time. As it happened, this did not have to occur. By not standing, Rudd even more decisively ended his leadership push for all time.

A ‘CarbonChoices’ strategy would have two effects.

Firstly, it would allow a new leader (neither Rudd nor Gillard) to say about carbon pricing what the Coalition said about WorkChoices – it’s dead, buried and cremated – and focus on the more successful parts of Labor’s legacy. That is, ‘we had great economic numbers, got the NDIS and schools reform done, sorted out the Murray-Darling ... and only made one mistake, which is why we’ve buried carbon pricing’.

Secondly, it would eliminate the threat of a leadership challenge by anyone who was deeply involved in that unpopular policy. And who, besides Shorten, is in the frame as a potential leader if Labor loses the election? Why Greg Combet, of course, minister for climate change.

Shorten's only serious competition to be next Labor prime minister (after a term or two of Coalition government) would be knocked out.

Combet’s office also refused to speculate on post-election scenarios and unlike some other MPs offices said that such backgrounding is not appropriate.

Good point. But it has become a mainstay of how Labor gets its leadership dirty-work done.

Moreover, there are many in parliament house who want this conversation to happen now, well before the election.

The question, is: will Labor walk away from the signature policy of the Gillard government, and the one that has done most damage to their electoral propects?

At a media conference this week Greens leader Christine Milne told reporters that it was more important than ever for strong Greens representation in both houses of parliament to “shame” Labor into sticking to its carbon-pricing guns.

To walk away from the policy would mean no double-dissolution trigger early in an Abbott government’s first term.

Abbott confirmed in his Thursday speech that “the carbon tax repeal bill, should we be elected, will be the first legislation that a new parliament considers”.

If Abbott rides a wave of support into office, and can trigger a double dissolution in mid-2014 – the bill needs to be blocked twice, with a three month waiting period in between – he could maintain, or perhaps even increase, his majority.

Abbott would not risk a double dissolution in the later stages of a first term. With dramatic public service cuts planned, union-lead marches, rallies and industrial action that will no doubt follow could, alone, turn public support away from the Coalition.

So yet another reason for Labor to walk away from carbon pricing, is that a double dissolution in mid-2014 could even cede Abbott control of the senate – all seats would be up for grabs instead of only half the seats as usual.

Politically it would make sense for Shorten to be softening Caucus up now for a dramatic backflip after September.

But are these secret conversations taking place? Is Shorten working on Caucus members to bury ‘CarbonChoices’ in 2014?

I’m sure the Greens and fellow architects of the Clean Energy Future policy Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, not to mention the millions of Labor voters who still support carbon pricing, would like to hear him say that he’s not. 

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