You can’t say no forever

IN case you missed it, the carbon tax bills were passed by the House of Representatives yesterday. I’m pleased to report the sun came up this morning. I presume it will set again tonight and in spite of the nation’s dilemma, the world will most likely move on.

Julia Gillard and her minority government have a lot of problems and a lot of faults, but they’re correct when she says they’re on the right side of history here (or, more accurately, that Tony Abbott is on the fag end of it). It’s just a shame it took so long to get to this point, and that the debate over this issue in particular has exacted such a shocking toll on rational and civilised political discourse – not that things were exactly tea and biscuits inside or outside the parliamentary chamber when John Howard was in charge, mind you.

I am, in some ways, almost a cartoon stereotype of the lapsed Labor voter: having voted with not a little optimism, goodwill and hope for Kevin Rudd in 2007, my faith collapsed after his abandonment of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in early 2010. It was bad enough that the legislation was so utterly compromised in its desperation to appease big polluters that it offered virtually no incentive to change their practices at all. The fact that Rudd was by then already running scared of a craven chancer like Abbott – who has already supported all possible positions on this issue depending on which way the political wind was blowing – only made it more galling.

For me, Abbott’s ascent – his relentless cynicism, his willingness to all but sell his arse for power that would be singularly dangerous in his hands – has made Australian politics all but unbearable. Taking his cues from the US Tea Party Republicans, Abbott’s tactics since taking on the opposition leadership, almost by default, have been simple and brutally effective: oppose everything.

Unfortunately, the times suit him. Anne Summers, in her Monthly profile on Andrew Bolt, notes that to succeed in the media today, you need to create controversy: politics is less about a conflict of ideas than an increasingly shrill, rolling conflict of opinion. I’ve already written that, in this environment, expertise counts for nothing in the face of a howling mob – the kind that stormed the parliamentary gallery yesterday screaming that “democracy is dead”.

Abbott, an old rugby prop forward, is perfect to lead a mob. It’s the extreme language that he uses – most recently, yesterday’s “pledge in blood” to repeal the carbon tax if and when he takes office. It’s this sort of thing that gets him into trouble sometimes, such as when he stood in front of placards demonising Julia Gillard as a witch (and worse) at an earlier rally against the tax. I doubt it would even have occurred to him, until it was pointed out, that implicitly condoning such behaviour was less than prime ministerial; that it was his own fitness to govern that would be called into question.

But what’s Abbott to do now? You can’t say no forever, as the Go-Betweens once said. One wonders if this pledge in blood is a “carefully scripted remark”, or just part of the cut and thrust and bloody gore of politics, Abbott’s way. The business community at least now knows what it’s getting, and the smarter elements of it have been preparing accordingly for some time.

This is an issue that isn’t going to just go away. Everyone, including a large percentage of the same business community, knows Abbott’s so-called “direct action” policy to mitigate against climate change is a joke and at any rate, the legal obstacles against repealing yesterday’s legislation are formidable.

Former Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley never got the chance to keep his promise to roll back the GST. Abbott may be luckier than Beazley, but he is creating an almighty rod for his own back should he take office. If his pledge in blood turn out to have been made with his fingers crossed behind his back, the mob he has proved so adept at whipping up will surely turn on him.

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