Suddenly the Labor Party is politically competitive again, level pegging with the Coalition according to the latest Nielson poll, thanks to a tail-ender who can bat (Kevin Rudd).
The 2013 election might now actually come down to policy differences rather than popularity, or the lack of it.
And it seems two of the three issues that have dominated Australian politics for 15 years will once again define this election: climate change and asylum seekers. The third – workplace laws – was neutralised by John Howard’s disastrous step too far with WorkChoices in 2005, which turned this issue into a toxic waste dump for the Coalition, not to be entered by its current generation of leaders.
On asylum seekers, the difference appears to come down to towing boats back or not, which is an entirely unresolvable theoretical debate – assertion versus assertion. Maybe a Coalition government could do it, maybe not; maybe it will work, maybe not. Apart from that, both sides favour offshore processing of refugees and then letting most of them in.
But on climate change the difference is fundamental. It’s the carrot versus the stick; paying to encourage emission abatement versus charging companies that emit.
Tony Abbott’s great achievement these past three years – perhaps his greatest – has been to have a greenhouse gas reduction target in his policy while campaigning as a climate change denier.
It has been an incredible feat of political double standards: to have a policy that matches the ALP’s emissions abatement target while appealing to those who believe it’s all a load of rubbish.
The question now is whether Kevin Rudd can expose Abbott on this subject by bringing forward the emissions trading scheme and thereby reducing the effective tax on carbon emissions earlier.
So far Abbott’s plan appears to be to stick with the previous line: that it’s still a tax, and a tax is a tax. The problem is the crossover with fiscal policy.
At some point during the campaign, the Coalition’s “direct action” plan will have to be costed and it will then be exposed as non-scalable – that is, the policy might just be affordable with a 5 per cent reduction target, although even that is dubious, but that will be it. Anything more than that would be patently unaffordable.
The beauty of an ETS is that it’s infinitely adjustable and doesn’t actually require any reduction in emissions within Australia – all the permits can be bought offshore, where the emissions reductions are just as valid as they are here. Unless something changes, the Coalition’s plan would require real reductions within Australia paid for out of the budget.
Tony Abbott’s only hope is that he can continue to bamboozle the electorate on a subject that has been debated, analysed and reported on for more than 15 years. That could be difficult.