Tony Abbott’s carbon price referendum was a flop

Below I have reposted my most recent Guardian article.


Just five days before polling day, then-opposition leader Tony Abbott declared at Australia’s National Press Club that the 2013 election would be a referendum on the carbon price.

“More than anything,” Mr Abbott said, “this election is a referendum on the carbon tax.”

The Australian federal election was held on Saturday 7 September, an event notable for vast absenteeism at the polling booths in a nation with compulsory voting.

Factoring in early voting and postal voting, there are likely to be more than two million enrolled voters out of over fourteen million, who chose to pay a fine rather than vote on Saturday. The electoral commission’s website is being progressively updated as votes are still being counted, but it is likely that fewer people voted this year than in the previous election three years ago.

Mr Abbott, who leads a coalition of parties comprised largely of climate deniers, made it clear in during the election campaign that he has no plans whatsoever to tackle climate change. His single climate policy, called “Direct Action” was jettisoned days before the poll when he revealed that he would spend no more than the slated $3.2 billion in industry hand-outs for carbon reductions and tree planting — even if that meant missing the bipartisan five percent emission reduction target. Analysis of the Direct Action policy by the Climate Institute shows that it would have been $4 billion short to reach the 5 percent target.

Although Australia is still in care-taker mode, Tony Abbott has directed the public service to commence drafting legislation that would abolish the carbon price.

The ABC reported:

Mr Abbott’s spokesman – and likely minister – for the environment, Greg Hunt, says scrapping the carbon tax will be new government’s “first order of business”.

The cost of repealing the carbon price has been estimated at over $6 billion over four years. This is in addition to the $3.2 billion that Mr Abbott would waste on its Direct Action policy

To successfully abolish the carbon price, Tony Abbott would need to navigate the relevant bills through a newly constituted Senate that from next year will be comprised of a cross bench of conservative minor parties, the Greens party and the opposition Labor party. Both the Greens party and Labor have said they will oppose moves to abolish the carbon price.

Alternatively, Mr Abbott could take the bills to the current Senate, where the balance of power is held by fewer independent senators, notably anti-poker machine senator Nick Xenophon and socially conservative senator John Madigan.

Returning to Saturday’s election, it is worth recognising that if 2013 was a referendum on the carbon price, then there was no clear result.

Despite Australia supposedly experiencing a “conservative tide” following the three years of minority government under Labor, Mr Abbott’s relentless campaign against the carbon price resulted in a paltry 1.7 percent swing to his Liberal National party coalition. In the Senate, Australia’s house of review, the LNP saw a swing against it.

In fact, more pro-carbon price senators were elected than anti-carbon price (35 to 33). Mr Abbott needs thirty nine votes to pass legislation through the senate.

This is hardly a decisive result in the “referendum election”.

In his victory speech, Mr Abbott said: “In three years’ time, the carbon tax will be gone.” This was the sole reference to the issue that “more than anything” the election was about.

The result on Saturday is far from a mandate for Mr Abbott’s agenda to abolish the carbon tax. Given the choice, after three years of negative campaigning by the prime minister elect, to rush to the ballot box and vote against the carbon price, Australians seem to have preferred to stay home instead. His referendum was a failure.