Will Labor hand Abbott the weapon he needs?

Tony Abbott's newly unequivocal declaration against minority government is actually a push for control of the Senate. It's aimed at turning Labor into a Greens executioner.

It is a measure of the Coalition government’s confidence it is on track to win the September 7 election that Tony Abbott was able to say today that: “Under no circumstances will I allow the Coalition to enter into a minority government arrangement.”

The history of the negotiations to form minority government in 2010 is well known. Both sides had much to promise the key independents – Andrew Wilkie, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor – but Julia Gillard won the day. After Bob Katter had balked at supporting Labor, it came down to Oakeshott and Windsor – both who wanted the NBN and carbon pricing to go ahead.

But Wilkie, who had already joined with Labor, told newspapers at the time that Abbott had offered him $1 billion for a new hospital in his seat of Denison, and Windsor reported that Abbott has said he’d “do anything to win government, except sell my arse”.

All pretty tawdry stuff. But what if, this time around, Abbott was forced to form minority government with the support of Bob Katter? Where would the grave conflict on philosophical or policy grounds be? And wouldn’t Abbott be doing a disservice to conservative voters if he handed power to a Labor minority government?

The unequivocal language of Abbott’s statement is revealing. He can smell outright victory, and if research conducted for Business Spectator (A Rudd-slide in the wrong direction, August 14) is right, it will be with a large majority in the lower house.

But what’s really behind this statement is the Coalition’s push for control of the Senate. By preferencing Greens last, and pressuring Labor to do the same, Abbott is polarising swing voters into their elemental left-right cohorts. He is saying: “If you don’t want Labor, you must vote Liberal/National – a Greens protest vote won’t do.”

It is one of the great mysteries of our voting system just how many voters lodge contradictory House of Reps and Senate ballot papers. Anecdotal evidence from exit polls suggest some voters like to hedge their bets this way, but given that most voters choose a single party ‘above the line’ rather than number every candidate below the line, it’s clear that often voters don’t know where their senate preferences would go.

So by polarising bemused voters into straight ‘Labor’ or ‘Liberal’ voters – and therefore not Family First, Greens, DLP or so on – Abbott thinks he can pick up extra Senate seats. He will still think a Senate majority in his own right is possible, but knows a voting alliance with the likes of the DLP’s John Madigan is far more likely.

Madigan is staunchly anti-carbon-pricing, with him, and perhaps a Katter or Palmer senator onside, Abbott can abolish the carbon price – his core promise going into this election.

Greens psephologist Stephen Luntz says this leaves Labor with two options.

Firstly, Rudd can ignore Abbott’s call for Labor to also preference the Greens last (after all, both are welded to the carbon price in one form or another) and, by sharing leftover quota votes, thereby scrape in with enough senators to defeat Abbott’s carbon repeal legislation. That would force a double-dissolution election, which could return a very different result to Abbott from the September election.

Secondly, Rudd can bow to some severe pent-up hatred within his own party and preference the Greens last so as to 'destroy the Greens forever'.

The first option is the wiser for Labor, though it does not guarantee that Labor can prevent Abbott storming the upper house with the help of a few independents.

The second option is very dangerous for Labor – it would risk a massive voter backlash from long-term ALP voters and would virtually ensure Abbott does not have to face Labor at a double-dissolution election late in 2014.

Sure, a lot of Labor MPs have grown to loathe the Greens – but surely not enough to hand Abbott the weapon he needs to destroy the carbon-pricing legislation that was the major battleground of the Gillard government.