THE Gillard government has lost the first week of the real carbon tax debate and is unlikely to recover ground any time soon, if ever. In strategic and tactical terms the Labor Party was beginning from behind on July 1 and actually went backwards. For Julia Gillard the even worse news about the carbon tax emerging during the first week of its formal implementation was that it was not her only problem.
The simultaneous introduction of the carbon tax and the minerals resource rent tax, the removal of the private health insurance rebate and the superannuation changes for higher income earners has masked uncertainty and electoral anger connected to those changes.
It tends to be forgotten that in the first failed GST campaign — John Hewson’s attempt in 1993 to win an election while introducing a new tax — the Coalition’s proposed changes to Medicare played an important role in turning voters away from the Liberals.
Polling after Hewson lost the “unloseable election” showed that a lot of women voters were more concerned about the threat to Medicare than the GST and it was instrumental in many people making up their minds at the last minute.
But there is an even more important additional factor for the Prime Minister apart from the mining tax, private health insurance and superannuation — and that is time.
From last Sunday the countdown has begun to the time when Gillard can call a “normal” House of Representatives and half-Senate election and Labor now knows it is less than a year.
While the Prime Minister’s strategists calmly play down the prospect of any early recovery in the disastrous Labor polling after July 1 during the continuing roll out of billions of dollars in carbon tax compensation for households and industry bailouts, the realistic chances of turning things around diminish by the day.
What’s more, Labor MPs who have gone home for the winter break are being confronted with ongoing anger about the carbon tax. They realise when they return to parliament for the spring session they will have an election deadline in sight.
Gillard’s supporters have been keen to promote the idea that there is a plenty of time before the election “in the second half of next year” and that, over time, Tony Abbott’s exaggerations on the carbon tax will be seen to be hollow and the polls will turn.
At one stage Gillard herself said the election wouldn’t be for “500 days” and then had to jokingly correct herself to rule out holding a September election during the football finals.
The general premise of Labor and Gillard — that the Coalition’s exaggerations will be seen to be hollow — still has time to come to fruition and it is still more likely than not that Gillard will lead Labor to the next election.
But time is her enemy.
Of course, a prime minister can call a House of Representatives election at any time. But this is considered unlikely — except in the event of a sudden Labor leadership change — as polling suggests Labor would be wiped off the map in at least two states and be reduced to a parliamentary rump. There is also the consideration of putting the Houses of Parliament out of kilter and the need for a half-Senate election before May, 2014.
If the government gets a double-dissolution trigger in the next session of parliament, which is possible, there is the option of an election for both Houses called by the end of March next year. This is also considered unlikely.
Which means the most likely outcome is a normal house and half-Senate election, which can be called at any time from July 1 next year — 359 days from today — and must be held by the end of November. Because of the constitutional requirements, the window available to Gillard for the calling of the election is narrower than usual and falls between July 1 and the last week of October, 2013.
While it is a prime minister’s last prerogative to try to squeeze some surprise out of the election date the mood of the Australian electorate is such that there will only be even greater anger directed towards any prime minister who does not call the next election at the earliest opportunity.
Calling an election in July next year for an August date is not only possible — and falls neatly with the third anniversary of the last election — but will also be unavoidable. Gillard really won’t have a choice.
In any case Abbott, who is most likely to be the Leader of the Opposition at the time, will simply declare the election on and send the Coalition into a campaign.
This all means Labor MPs are now faced with the prospect of an election campaign within a year and of having to make up more electoral ground than any previous Labor government — in a third of the time available.
A recovery from the levels of Labor’s present polling would be miraculous compared to the recovery of the Keating government between 1991 and 1993 and is not analogous to the Howard government’s recovery in 2001.
There is no doubt the carbon tax is the fundamental problem for Labor and Gillard. Labor’s vote plummeted in the polls along with Gillard’s standing and credibility when she announced there would be a carbon tax in breach of her election promise.
There is equally no doubt Labor’s selling of the carbon tax has failed dismally. This week it has come down to piling hyperbole on exaggeration and fighting the basic argument of whether people will be worse off financially under the carbon tax. Such a fight is impossible to win, especially when there are millions of voters who are deliberately designed to be worse off so that a price signal is sent on carbon use and when even those getting compensation will not believe it is sufficient as prices continue to rise — whether as a result of the carbon tax or not.
While Craig Emerson’s absurd singing about the carbon tax was a low, his colleagues in general have overplayed the Opposition Leader’s exaggerations of the carbon tax impact.
Labor lost the argument on principles some time ago and has been reduced to its own negative campaign on Abbott. Even more disastrously Labor is now considering a fundamental change to the floor price of carbon, which undermines all of its previous arguments and heaps dissembling and propaganda on top of betrayal.
This is the right thing to do in a policy sense and should have been done at the beginning, but it now comes as a backdown, vindicating all of Abbott’s arguments.
Gillard has known all of these difficulties all along and offered various unfulfilled hopes of turning the debate and lifting Labor’s popularity along the way.
Carbon Sunday, looming as her last hope, now appears to have been even worse than expected and comes with the relentless countdown to an election she cannot avoid and one which Labor MPs fear to the point of panic.