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John Quiggin

Right climate for snap poll

John Quiggin Australian Financial Review

28 August 2008

The Rudd government is less than a year old, but it is already looking possible that it will not run a full term. Rather, we may see the double dissolution mechanism, the first time in Australian history, used as originally intended. Designed as a device by which a government could ensure the passage of vital legislation, twice blocked in the Senate, it has been a tool of political convenience for a century.

The first double dissolution in 1914 set the pattern. Prime Minister Joseph Cook was elected in 1913 with a one-seat majority and faced a Labor-dominated Senate. He quickly obtained and used a double dissolution trigger, but was defeated.

The next double dissolution was called by Robert Menzies in 1951 and, oddly enough, was motivated by the Communist Party Dissolution Act, which had been passed by the Senate without amendment. When the High Court ruled the Act unconstitutional, Menzies wanted to push a constitutional amendment through the Senate. So he used an unrelated banking bill as a double dissolution trigger. Menzies won, but his referendum was (fortunately) defeated.

The double dissolutions of 1974 and 1975 were brought about not by governments but by decisions of the Senate to block supply. The 1974 dissolution was followed by a joint sitting (the only one so far) which allowed the passage of measures including the establishment of Medicare, but this was merely a fortunate by-product.

The 1983 and 1987 dissolutions saw a return to the old pattern in which the device was used for the political convenience of the government. In neither case did the ostensible cause of the election play any significant role in the campaign. But things will be different this time around.

Regardless of any modifications, the Rudd government might make to its proposed emissions trading scheme, the Opposition will not support it. The maxim ‘the first duty of an Opposition is to oppose’ has lost none of its force. Despite its general incoherence, the Opposition has been consistent in rejecting anything remotely controversial the government might propose.

These incentives are amplified by the fact that much of the Opposition, along with virtually all of the rightwing commentariat, has convinced itself that the whole problem of global warming is a fraud, fabricated by grant-grubbing scientists, fanatical environmentalists, and sinister forces in the United Nations.

The independents, Nick Xenophon and Steven Fielding have not been reflexively oppositional. But they have shown no presumption in favor of legislation proposed by the government. They will support or oppose bills based on their own judgement and the horsetrading that has traditionally been the stock in trade of independent Senators.

For the moment, on issues like Fuelwatch and the alcopops and luxury car taxes, it seems likely that the government will get by. On some of these points, such as the Budget measures, they can probably make deals with the Greens and independents. On others, such as Fuelwatch, they can accept defeat and blame the Senate next time there’s a fuss about fuel prices.

Neither of these possibilities looks appealing in relation to the emissions trading scheme. To make the scheme work, the government needs the support of business. But the response of the Business Council Australia to the Green Paper has been reminiscent of the worst days of the tariff debate. Every possible loser must be compensated, it seems, while the fact that large sectors of the economy will benefit has been ignored.

Trying to produce a scheme that is acceptable not only to business but to the Greens and to two independents with radically different views already looks like an impossible task. Given an ambitious target for emissions reductions, the government could perhaps get the Greens to accept (over)generous compensation for industry, but that would make the task of providing adequate help for households, and bringing the independents on board, exceptionally difficult.

A double dissolution fought on the issue of climate change would be a high-risk option for the government, and for the Opposition. The most likely outcome would be the re-election of the government, perhaps with a reduced majority in the House of Representatives, but with a stronger position in the Senate. Labor would be able to pass legislation with the support of the Greens and perhaps also with the votes of independents. Against this is the fact that every election gives voters a chance to change their minds.

As matters are developing, it seems likely that we will soon be asked to decide.

John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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