ETS disillusion and dissolution

Energy Matters0

ETS disillusion and dissolution


ETS disillusionand dissolutionClerk of the Senate Harry Evans’ conclusion that a double dissolution cannot deliver the Rudd government’s Emissions Trading Scheme has the potential to send the administration back to the drawing board and to recast the entire ETS debate.

The precedent for Evans’ belief is the Australia Card double dissolution election of 1987. The parallels are eerie.

Back then, Prime Minister Bob Hawke too was being frustrated by a hostile Senate. But his real political agenda was to go to an early election in order to capitalise on the weakness of then Opposition leader John Howard.


Howard, languishing in the polls, was being dogged on his own side by the federal ambitions of then Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Those ambitions culminated in the Joh for Canberra campaign, putting paid to Howard’s chances of becoming prime minister that year and, some felt, forever.

The issue Hawke chose for his double dissolution trigger was the Australia Card _ in effect a national identity card.

Hawke argued it was necessary to crack down on welfare fraud and streamline the social security and banking systems. He also argued that having just one form of identification would make life easier for Australians.

With the Opposition focused on its own leadership problems and incapable of mounting an effective political argument, the idea proved popular.

With the Senate having rejected the Australia Card legislation twice, Hawke used it as a trigger for a double dissolution election on July 11, 1987.

Prime Minister Rudd finds himself in a similar situation today, faced by a weak Opposition, with a leader in Malcolm Turnbull dredging the depths of opinion poll popularity, and the Coalition divided and incapable of mounting an effective argument against the ETS.

An early double dissolution election is an almost irresistible temptation.

While the issue is substantive – after all, the ETS is the most fundamental reform to the economy since the 1998 introduction of the GST – the subtext of destroying Turnbull and consigning the Opposition to the wilderness for at least another two terms must also loom large in Rudd’s mind.

So Rudd’s situation is similar to  that of Hawke in 1987, but it’s the similarity of their positions that Senate Clerk Evans – the ultimate arbiter of Upper House power – believes could also prove to be Rudd’s undoing, as it was Hawke’s.

After his election win Hawke prepared to call a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament to pass the Australia Card legislation – which by the end of the election campaign had become much more unpopular as civil libertarians pored over its implications.

The same may well end up being the fate of the ETS legislation as voters in the hothouse of an election begin to focus on its implications for jobs rather than feel-good flushes over global warming.

In a dramatic day in the Parliament that stunned Hawke and his senior ministers, John Howard revealed the Australia Card legislation had a fatal flaw, declaring it “dead _ stone dead”.

Howard’s charge rested on the fact that the ID card legislation required the start-up date for the card to be set by “regulation”. Regardless of any joint sitting of Parliament passing the legislation, this meant the anti-Labor Senate still had the power to strike down the regulation that would be needed to bring the card into law.

Hawke abandoned it.

According to Harry Evans, Rudd is now in the same position.

Although his ETS framework is based in law, its real mechanics – what makes it actually work – are based on a myriad of regulation, particularly the most contentious aspects regarding protections for export and job-exposed sectors such as the coal industry.

So even if Rudd won an election and, like Hawke, held a double dissolution to have his ETS legislation passed, the Senate could still strike down the regulations that, in effect, make the system work. It would be “dead _ stone dead”.

And by its very nature a double dissolution election is more likely to guarantee Rudd faces a hostile Senate because of the lower quotas required for such an election, which benefit the minor parties.

For minor parties, read Greens, who are utterly opposed to Rudd’s ETS in its present form; they want it to be tougher.

If Evans is right, this means if Rudd goes to a double dissolution election he faces having to increase emissions targets at the risk of threatening even more jobs at precisely the post-election moment when the ETS may just be proving as unpopular as did the Australia Card.

As for Turnbull, again if Evans is right, he has no need to fear double dissolution and can take a much-needed breather.

By the way, the fatal flaw in the Australia Card legislation was discovered by retired federal legislative draftsman Ewart Smith, who said the thunderbolt came to him when he was awakened in the Canberra pre-dawn by magpies.

This time the “discovery” was made by Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey – whose public attack on Turnbull led me to suggest in a recent column he be taken out the back and, well, you know the rest.

On the basis of this lightning bolt on the ETS, Tuckey deserves a political reprieve.

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