Thursday, October 19, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly


Decision time
Labor needs to choose between striking a deal and derailing it

Supplied by ABC News

Labor needs to decide what it wants, and it needs to decide fast.

Now that Malcolm Turnbull has announced his climate policy – the skeleton of it, anyway – what is Labor’s main game here? Does the Opposition want to end the climate wars? Or does it want a fight? Does it want to fire up division in the government? Might it even desire that Turnbull be torn down by his own side?

I don’t mean a decision regarding an official caucus position. Nor do I mean an official public position. The caucus will have to be managed. The public-facing argument can evolve over time. What is crucial is that the Opposition’s leadership team comes to an internal decision over what it wants.

Perhaps it already has. But, in that case, the strategy is a little odd.

First, I’ll tell you what I think Labor wants. As I wrote yesterday, Labor is obviously aware of the political benefits of signing up to Turnbull’s deal. My guess is that conviction is firming up. And you could see baby steps being taken towards that in this morning’s papers. Mark Kenny had sources saying “the national interest ‘probably dictated’ that the ‘energy wars’ must be brought to an end”. Further, “Labor frontbenchers conceded that yet more ‘trench warfare’ extending to the next election was counter-productive, with one calling it ‘unconscionable’.”  

Significantly, both Kenny and Phillip Coorey [$] had Labor sources saying that if Turnbull’s policy were to be adopted, a Labor government could later legislate to ramp up the emissions target. It’s important to note here that Bill Shorten could adopt key elements of the policy while retaining Labor’s greater commitment to renewables, which might still satisfy South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill.

But if Labor is going to end up accepting the policy, should it be attacking the policy at all?

Yes, it should, and for a couple of reasons. The first is that the role of an Opposition should be to interrogate government policy. It’s clear to everyone that the government has rushed out this policy with very few details. Any decent Opposition would be pointing at that and pressing down on the weaknesses.

The second is the political reason. You might think that an Opposition signing up to a policy it has criticised would look a little silly. Perhaps a little, but it happens all the time. The greater danger for an Opposition is that a new government policy looks like a success. So in spending a while questioning the benefits Turnbull is spruiking, Labor is keeping its options open. It can turn its back on the policy should problems emerge with the detail, while saying it was onto Turnbull from the start. Or it can turn around and say, “This is not the best policy, we’ve been clear about the problems with it, but there is a national interest in certainty and we can smooth the rough edges in government.”

Therefore, there is sound political logic behind Labor’s attacks on Turnbull being led by Tony Abbott, on the rubbery $115 savings figure, and the undignified haste of a roughly sketched policy.

Labor launched another attack in the last 24 hours, which was to point out that the prime minister’s policy was a carbon price by another name.

That’s true. The chief of the Australian Energy Council, Matthew Warren, yesterday said it was in effect a carbon price. Hugh Grossman of RepuTex said something similar. The advice provided to government even makes the point that there might develop a secondary exchange between retailers to achieve the cap on emissions: creating a carbon market of sorts.

This is where Labor needs to tread carefully. There is a constructive reason for Labor to raise this, as well as a destructive reason.

Let’s start with the destructive one, which is obvious: to stir up trouble in the Coalition party room by convincing pro-coal and anti-renewable MPs that they’ve been masterfully conned by the not-a-real-conservative Malcolm Turnbull into supporting a carbon price. Some of Labor’s attacks today headed in that direction, by explicitly referring to Liberal divisions, or by making it a focus of attack in Question Time.

If the Opposition has decided it has no interest in agreeing to the PM’s climate policy, then fine. There are advantages to delivering certainty, but then there are also significant weaknesses in this policy, so if the Opposition has decided its approach is to create maximum havoc, then I can’t really find a moral reason to tell it not to.

But – and this is a massive but – if Bill Shorten and his team have decided, or might be in the process of deciding, that they want a deal, then now is the time to back the hell away.

The constructive reason to make the carbon price point, which shouldn’t be forgotten, is that Shorten also needs to manage his caucus. If he wants this policy, then he needs to be able to explain to his MPs why. The fact it’s a carbon price – which is what Labor’s policy has been, in one form or another, for about a decade – will help enormously. That’s something many of his MPs will care about. His MPs on the left, especially those facing the Greens in inner-city seats, will need an argument they can make to their voters, too. And Labor could not have simply left that argument until later.

But making that point – from time to time, and especially once a deal is concluded – and using it to attack the government are two different things. They have two different aims. One is about getting a deal, the other is trying to derail it. Oppositions like to have their cake and eat it too, and most of the time they get away with it. Sometimes, though, they have to choose.


A NEW PODCAST FROM SCHWARTZ MEDIA
Episode 7: Education and harassment
Richard Denniss speaks to Jane Caro about the rate of return on investing in education, and Karen Middleton on what the Harvey Weinstein revelations mean for Australian politics.

LISTEN NOW

In other news


MUSIC

On a mission

Reviving a century of Indigenous music through the Mission Songs Project

Zoë Morrison

“‘When the Irex sails away / Across the sea / Leaving me / So far away / And all my thoughts / Will be of you / So farewell / Till we meet again.’ The song’s dipping, soaring melody is lightened by the strum of a ukulele. South Pacific influences shine through its instrumentation. The composer is unknown; the song has travelled; families change the name of the boat. But Jessie Lloyd says the sense and purpose of the song remains: ‘how to deal with being removed’, ‘enabling people to process through song what was happening’. You wished your loved ones well; you wished to see them again.” read on


ARCHIVE

Power corrupts

How network companies lined their pockets and drove electricity prices through the roof

Jess Hill

“Since 2009, the electricity networks that own and manage our ‘poles and wires’ have quietly spent $45 billion on the most expensive project this country has ever seen. Allowed to run virtually unchecked, they’ve spent vast sums on infrastructure we don’t need, and have charged it all to us, with an additional fee attached. The spending was approved by a federal regulator, and yet the federal government didn’t even note it until it was well underway.

Let’s be clear: this is the single biggest reason power prices have skyrocketed.” (July, 2014) READ ON


‘Artists in Conversation’

Readers in Victoria can register for free tickets to artist conversations as part of Melbourne Festival, led by the editorial team of The Saturday Paper and the Monthly.

The conversations will feature Melbourne Festival’s artistic director, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from the festival program, to discuss their work and its place in the world. The conversations will take place at the Forum Theatre on Saturdays from 12.30 pm.

To register, simply click the title below and enter your details in the form provided. More details on the conversations and terms and conditions can be found here.

Saturday, 21 October – A Chronicle of Life

Hosted by Nick Feik, editor of the Monthly, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Germinal and EVER.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is The Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly

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