25 July 2008

Minchin and Abbott work toward Rudd second term

The next federal election is going to be all about climate change. Labor are going to win it and the Coalition will have to adjust to a vision of conservatism which involves emissions trading and a degree of Australian stewardship of the Australian environment.

There is one issue that is unequivocally a matter for Australian government, one where China or India or the US or the Kyoto Treaty are completely irrelevant: the agreement over the Murray-Darling, which Labor has botched. Since the republic, this has been Malcolm Turnbull's signature issue and one he should have flayed opponents within and beyond the Liberal Party. This is the issue that the Liberals can use to shore up its position in rural seats. This is a prime example of political and press gallery failure: Labor's failure to get an agreement that sticks shows the benefits of wall-to-wall Labor governments are illusory.

The northern border of Victoria is the high-water mark on the southern side of the Murray River. Every drop of water in the Murray River is either in NSW or South Australia. Yeah, Victorian farmers draw water from the river but so what? They don't vote Labor and Victorian rivers are among the worst in the country. The Victorian government had no leverage to gain 'concessions' from the Federal Government and even less to pocket the money without following through. Rudd should have stood up to Brumby and secured the deal. Brumby should have been big enough to cop that, or manage it in such a way that he's a victim of marauding Canberra. Baillieu should have taken Brumby apart.

Labor have failed and the Coalition won't press them on that failure, and the consequences that flow from it. The main reason why Labor will win despite that appalling failure is this failure of strategic judgment.
... some Opposition frontbenchers, such as Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott, who believe the impact of carbon trading is likely to become the Government's biggest electoral vulnerability, particularly in a deteriorating economic climate. The differences of opinion about the need for a more full-frontal assault from the Liberals are likely to lead to vigorous debate in shadow cabinet next week.

Minchin and Abbott are past masters at dressing up dumb strategy and poorly thought-out policy as somehow being tough, and they've done it again. An old experienced reporter like Jennifer Hewett has no excuse for not calling these two on their record. An 'exclusive' from them doesn't have the cachet it may have had, and where else are they going to go anyway but the Oz?

There is still considerable goodwill toward the government. Nobody believes the current economic difficulties are entirely their fault. In terms of environmental action, people still believe that however imperfect their policies may be, the government is at least doing something. Against all this, chuckleheads Minchin and Abbott believe they're going to whip up a scare campaign and that they're going to have such credibility that frightened voters will flock to the Coalition next time around. This is not to overlook the importance of the economy, but voters have shown that in hard economic times, the party with a cohesive strategy beats the scatterbrained mob without.
But despite the contradictory statements from Brendan Nelson over the past few weeks, the basic Liberal position is likely to remain in place as the Opposition prepares for battle with the Government.

So the 'leader' is now irrelevant to Liberal policy. This goes against a generation of 'presidential-style' campaigns. Parties that sell the virtue of a 'team' (like Bill Hayden in 1980, for example, propped up by Wran and Hawke and suffering by comparison) are almost always losers. Good luck selling that at election time, boys.
The political logic is that this still provides plenty of leeway for the Liberals to harden up their attacks on the failings of the Government's scheme.

The Liberals will fall with ill-disguised glee on the economic risks of the Government's options, to be outlined by Treasury modelling when it finally becomes available in October.

This not only means that the Government won't be able to rely on the Liberals in the Senate to allow a 2010 start date. It also means that the Liberals are likely to end up backing their own version of an emissions trading scheme with such flexible targets that the price of any carbon permits would be extremely low, even negligible.

The political logic assumes that the Liberals can and will get away with rejecting such international standards that do exist, and that people will accept the degree of risk that comes with acting on imperfect information rather than muddying the waters and embracing the non-answer of the status quo. Worked for the republic in '99, but you can't fight today's battles with yesterday's strategies.

This also assumes that Rudd won't go for an early election. An incumbent government, armed with data and a few sweeteners (look for an abolition of fuel excise in favour of a carbon-sensitive mechanism, and a system for solar power that rewards longterm investments), will be up against an opposition that hasn't been following the debate and won't be convincing - neither in pulling out the grab-bag of 'non-core' promises, nor in mounting a scare campaign against Rudd as both rabid greenie and Whitlamite spendthrift. I don't fancy the chances of a party with a non-leader and which is unconvincing in both economic and environmental responsibility, and it's pathetic that this is the best they can come up with.
The argument from Opposition Treasury spokesman Malcolm Turnbull and environment spokesman Greg Hunt is that the Liberals cannot afford to be on the wrong side of the climate change debate - particularly given the level of public support for some sort of action.

But they are trying to take advantage of what will be ever louder complaints from business and consumers about the costs of the Government's proposals.

Because the Emissions Trading Scheme hasn't been rolled out yet, this is all just jumping at shadows. The level of support for some sort of action will carry Labor across particular objections. These complaints will not translate into a government-winning coalition and will make it harder for Liberals to demonstrate that they really get the whole climate change thing, and can therefore offer serious policy in response.

Yes, fuel prices are high - but this had nothing to do with the current government or the one before it. If you're going to play the victim role in global climate change you can't then blame the incumbents for high petrol prices, nobody else does. One group particularly affected by any ETS will be coalminers - good luck with capturing that bunch of swingers. Not a lot of them in Bennelong or Lindsay or [insert name of other seat Labor won at the last election by <5%], but don't let that stop you.

Treasury modelling will have to be taken as given by the Coalition in developing whatever proposals it does - to do otherwise would be the act of fringe players, not parties of government. Put down that phone to ACIL Tasman, guys.

Turnbull and Hunt have been at each other's throats over environmental issues - being lumped in together by the Failure Boys could do wonders, but not in the way Nick'n'Tony might want.
Turnbull heads to the North West Shelf this morning to sound extremely sympathetic about what a raw deal Woodside Petroleum and other resource producers are getting and how the Government is just not listening to their legitimate complaints.

There you have the old Nick'n'Tony theme: anyone showing sympathy is soft, whereas only the hard men like them are trying to run a good old-fashioned scare campaign. It could be seen as evidence of their sheer damn toughness that they are willing to run the risk that the Liberals will go backwards - but actually those two won't have to bear the consequences of their failure, their seats are safe and they're all right Jack. Again, Hewett has no excuse for taking this at face value like some starstruck groupie or Malcolm Colless.
To the evident frustration of his colleagues, Peter Costello would have the economic credibility to consolidate the Opposition's warnings about the potential risks to growth. But he's too busy on the back bench equivocating about his own potential.

Costello doesn't have a strong record on climate change either, nor against; he doesn't have the courage of his convictions. If the one example of policy vision and reformist guts that he has going for him is the GST, we're all in trouble. He is, however, wise not to throw in his lot with the Failure Boys.

Minchin and Abbott are sacrificing the longterm credibility of a party of government on a (the?) substantial issue for a short-term scare campaign that can only fail. Here's a tip: if the ALP are actively hoping their opposition will take a certain tack, it's best for that opposition to not take that tack. And if when it fails, the Failure Boys should lose their entirely undeserved reputations as strategic geniuses. The Liberal Party has learned nothing from the pattern that has repeated itself for a decade, whereby through denial they turn a slight loss into an absolute rout at the following ballot. The Failure Boys are leading the Coalition toward an unwinnable position, from which it will take them two or three elections at least to recover.

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