When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd unequivocally stated yesterday that Labor would oppose any attempt by an Abbott government to repeal the carbon tax, he was subtly shifting voter attention beyond this election, and on to the next.
Rudd had admitted earlier in the week that abandoning Labor’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in 2009 was a mistake, and that he would never again walk away from carbon pricing.
These two statements together serve to diffuse Abbott’s assertion that the 2013 election is a “referendum on the carbon tax”. Rudd is now effectively saying, “we’ll have a referendum on this issue, but it will be a double dissolution election next year”; and, most importantly, “I will fight that election all the way”.
This is very bad news for leadership aspirant Bill Shorten. Back in May, Business Spectator reported rumours from within parliament that Shorten was lobbying Caucus members to get ready to walk away from carbon pricing after the expected defeat of Julia Gillard at a September election (Is this the end for Labor’s ‘CarbonChoices’?, May 17).
The theory was that Shorten, as Opposition leader, would treat carbon pricing the way the Coalition had treated WorkChoices – like a radioactive corpse that had to be whisked away by apparatchiks in protective suits and buried, preferably with a large reinforced concrete slab over the grave.
That story was followed by public assertions from both Julia Gillard and then Climate Change Minister Greg Combet that they would not walk away from carbon pricing under any circumstances.
Shorten did not go that far, but he did hotly deny Business Spectator’s story, telling worried environment group Lighter Footprints: “... a carbon price is the best way to do something about climate change, so we can pass on the planet to our kids and grandkids in the best shape possible.”
It’s hard to remember, given the airbrushing from the newspapers of a number of members of the Gillard cabinet, how different things looked in May. Gillard was headed for defeat, and there was daily speculation over whether or not Rudd would return as leader.
Labor sources were telling this columnist at the time that Shorten has made it his mission, practically from the day after the 2007 election, to get rid of Rudd. The ‘Rudd vs Faceless Men’ fight is the deep, dark structure underneath the whole fiasco of the Rudd execution, the Rudd campaign to undermine Gillard, and the eventual reforming of a ‘Rudd camp’.
As I stood with the gaggle of journalists surrounding Bill Shorten on the night of Rudd’s comeback, I took a call on my mobile from the source that had first explained the Shorten carbon-backflip story.
That source had told me just days earlier that “Shorten will do whatever it takes to get Rudd to run”, because the only sure-fire way to get rid of Rudd was to have him contest the election and lose.
As Shorten arrived to tell us he’d defected to the Rudd camp, my source just said, “See? I told you.” Some have even suggested the apocryphal ‘petition’ to get Rudd to run came not from the Rudd camp, but from Shorten himself. I guess we’ll know when the explosive memoirs of all these players are written in a decade’s time.
Let me stress that this is only a theory, though one reinforced in numerous private conversations with Labor, Coalition and independent MPs and staffers.
The decisive win for the ‘faceless men’ would be a shellacking at the polls for Rudd, which could well be the result of Saturday’s election.
However, Rudd has now raised the prospect of hanging on to power within Labor. If the election result is closer than current polling suggests, Rudd is likely to argue that only he can win the argument over the “greatest moral challenge of our time”, with just the hint of an outside chance that he could win power at the double dissolution election.
To understand how that could happen, two factors must be considered.
Firstly, it is six long years since the end of the Howard era and memories have faded of the protest marches on capital city streets over issues such as industrial relations and the Iraq conflict – large cohorts of unionists were at every march.
Newspaper headlines in those days baited Howard daily, and built a bogeyman of his IR laws in much the same way as they have turned carbon pricing into a demonic foe in the past three years. It is likely that Abbott’s early months in power would start to generate similar protests and similar headlines.
Secondly, much of the Abbott agenda is still secret (Abbott’s secret fightback plan, August 27). However, after this general election the fig leaf will be removed and the Coalition’s plan will be there in all its glory – yes, it will be many months until the various inquiries such as the Commission of Audit are complete, but Abbott will have to start ‘doing’ things, and Labor and the unions will start the kind of pitched policy battles seen in the Howard years.
Moreover, there are plenty of signs that unemployment will be rising, GDP growth moderating further, the dollar falling (good for GDP, but bad for those used to overseas holidays and flash cars) and the boats most likely continuing to come – Labor’s even more draconian boat arrivals policy isn’t working, throwing doubt on whether Abbott’s plan will do any better.
So it is quite feasible for Rudd to argue, the day after the election, that “this ain’t over, folks”. Caucus members will have to vote with great intestinal fortitude if they are to pick Shorten over Rudd.
Do they try again with a man who is still one of the best orators and salesmen (and worst policy makers) the Labor Party has ever seen, or try a double dissolution election with Shorten and possibly lose even more ground, and more Labor MP and staffer jobs, to Abbott?
To Labor's old guard, Rudd looks like a man who won't stop running until there's nothing of the ALP left to lead.