Abbott and Whitlam's only common ground?

Abbott and Whitlam’s only common ground?

It’s been a long time since Australia had a double-dissolution election, but I have a suspicion we will get this singular pleasure soon, and that it will be fought out between the major parties as a referendum on climate change. I refuse to elevate my suspicion to the level of a prediction, but I’m going to lay out my reasoning here. [obviously this post is on Australian politics so if you’re from overseas you may find it a little mind-bending].

Perusing the senate election results today I noticed that the Australian Sex Party are likely to get into the Senate through Tasmania. From July 2014 the make up of the upper house will be:

  • 33 Liberal/National
  • 35 Labor/Greens
  • 1 Xenophon
  • 1 Palmer United
  • 1 Australian Motor Enthusiasts (!)
  • 1 Australian Sports Party (!)
  • 1 Liberal Democrats (!!)
  • 1 Australian Sex Party (!)
  • 1 Family First Party
  • 1 Democratic Labor Party (DLP)

So, assuming that on most crucial topics (except abortion) the DLP vote with Labor/Greens, it will be 36 vs. 33 in favour of the left, with 7 independents. To get legislation through the house the new prime minister (PM) Tony Abbott – who holds a vast majority in the lower house – will need the support of at least 6 of the independents. If we assume that the DLP and sex party vote with ALP/Greens on the carbon price, then it will be 37 vs. 39. So if one other independent – e.g. the Aussie sports party or Xenophon – refuse to unravel the carbon price legislation then Tony Abbott’s core election promise is toast. Of course it’s possible that the Aussie sports party will agree with him that “climate change is crap” but it’s also possible Xenophon will refuse to unwind legislation passed by the last government (he seems that type). From the perspective of September 2013, having promised to revoke the carbon price immediately, waiting until July 2014 and then being rejected in the senate probably won’t sit well with Abbott’s reputation.

This isn’t his only problem either. If he wants to get socially conservative legislation – on RU486, gay marriage or whatever – through the parliament he will almost certainly face opposition from the Liberal Democrats (insane libertarians) and Sex Party. For weakening tobacco legislation he will face opposition from Xenophon and the Sports Party. Basically, the range of possible permutations amongst 7 senators hailing from a range of political perspectives – from the socially extremely liberal to the batshit insane – mean that negotiating with the new senate is going to be a big challenge for Abbott even if he can be confident it will deliver him his big ticket options. It’s even possible his paid parenting leave scheme could fail, since the ALP might be able to muster enough independents to squish it even if the Greens go with Abbott.

On top of that, most of the independents will surely be aware that they are only going to be in the Senate for one sitting. The Liberal Democrats know they are simply a fluke of the ballot paper; the motorists, sexers and sporties will also be thinking that they were flukes (some of these parties got less than 1% of the vote). If they ponder on this a little, one or more of these guys are surely going to realize that this is their only chance to “make Australia better,” and that they can’t lose anything by tough negotiating. Palmer United have already suggested that support for repeal of the carbon tax may be contingent on repayment of all money already raised, and I think it’s possible that the Liberal Democrats might make their support conditional on abolishing Abbott’s Direct Action plan. The Liberal Democrats are opposed to gun control, speed limits and medicare, and at some point Abbott is going to be faced with a deal that puts those things on the table. Gun control being a matter of faith in Australian politics, he’s going to find himself over a barrel at some point if he doesn’t deal with these people.

These considerations, plus the fact that he promised to unwind the carbon price as soon as he was elected, make me think that it is in both his short term and long-term interests to run a double dissolution election before the new senate sits. He has promised a government free of surprises and chaos, “the adults are back in charge,” but he’s going to get more chaos than he can handle trying to negotiate with 7 radically different political independents, especially if they decide to use their six year term to make tough calls. He knows that he can get the trigger for a double dissolution in place before July next year, and so I suspect he will choose to pull it rather than face such an uncertain terrain.

If he does this though – or if he is forced to by intransigence on carbon pricing in the new senate after July – then he is going to face the prospect of an election fought over one topic: carbon pricing. This is going to be extremely hard for him to pull off, especially if the opposition get organized. He will need to pull off a big win too, since a double dissolution raises the risk of more Greens getting into parliament, not less. If he has introduced some nasty public service cuts this could be a very challenging election for him. It might appear that this is too risky, but I think it is going to be very hard for Abbott to maintain his popularity long term if he has to do extreme horse-trading every time he wants to get any legislation through parliament. Just as an example, today there is talk about overriding ACT legislation on same sex marriage. To do this requires approval from the federal house and senate. It is basically a guarantee that he would fail to pull this off from July next year, because the Liberal Democrats, Sex Party, and probably also Xenophon would oppose it. He will also face the continual problem of putting contentious legislation (or for that matter routine legislation) into the parliament, and having it rejected in the senate. This is going to be a goldmine for any remotely crafty opposition, and the media love this ready-made story of “legislative incompetence.” Looking at this, and with a conservative agenda to follow as well as some big corporate mates to satisfy, I think he is going to have to do something about the senate. So my suspicion is he will try to push through a double dissolution – if not on carbon then on the mining tax or paid parental leave – to try and grab a clear majority in the senate.

If he does, it will be the first democracy to go to the vote directly over global warming. Interesting times …