Penny Wong’s pathetic stunt of linking the Renewable Energy Target legislation to the passage of its ETS bill has been rendered moot by Steve Fielding getting support from the Coalition and Nick Xenophon to refer the bills to a Senate inquiry even before they’ve been introduced into the Senate.

The Government introduced the bills yesterday in the House of Representatives but they have yet to be debated or passed there.

The link between the RET bills and the CPRS bill is courtesy of a definition in the section of the RET bill dealing with exemptions, where industries that will be exempted from the renewable energy target are defined with reference to the CPRS legislation. Without a CPRS Act , the definition has no meaning. The “delinking” would be an entirely simple matter of pasting the CPRS definition into the RET bill.

Opposition sources believe that this was originally a drafting error that Minister Wong and the Prime Minister decided should be retained as it offered a good opportunity to increase the pressure on the Coalition — which has hitherto been supportive of the RET proposal — to pass the CPRS and split the Coalition. The Coalition is deeply, and rightly, angered that the Government is so blatantly playing politics with an issue it says is one of “the great moral challenges” of our time, especially when it had indicated support for the RET, despite misgivings amongst the Nationals.

The Government is happy to sacrifice its Renewable Energy Target for political expediency.

The more immediate problem for the Coalition now is how it handles the CPRS bills in the Senate next week. The Government has been ramping up the pressure on the Senate, threatening to keep it sitting until the bill is passed or defeated and briefing journalists about the Senate’s poor work rate in dealing with legislation.

The Coalition’s formal position is to defer a vote on the bill until next year, but a deferral is sufficient for the Government to create a double dissolution trigger. There was a suggestion this morning that Coalition and Nick Xenophon may move for yet another inquiry into the Bills, but both Xenophon and the Coalition denied this to Crikey. Xenophon wants further modelling work done by Treasury as a prelude to a vote immediately on return from the winter break (11 August) and the Coalition wants the Productivity Commission to assess the scheme, but neither would amount to a formal inquiry of the kind that might muddy the issue of whether, as the Government would like to suggest, the Senate had failed to pass the bills in a constitutional sense.

An alternative was floated this morning of an old-fashioned, US-style filibuster, with Coalition senators lining up to fill next week with extended speeches about the bill, but we’re unlikely to see Opposition senators reading from recipe books given they would need the minor parties to support them and Anthony Albanese appears content to keep Parliament sitting over next weekend if necessary.

The fate of the CPRS bill is now a procedural issue. It won’t pass, but quite how it won’t pass depends on Steve Fielding, whose position remains unclear. He could elect to support Xenophon’s deferral until August (when the inquiry into the RET bills Fielding initiated today will report), he could support the Coalition’s deferral until 2010, he could back the Government or the Greens on passing or killing the bill, or, more likely, he’ll do something different altogether.

You can bet the Government will be getting — if it hasn’t already — some top-flight legal advice on the definition of “failure to pass” under the Constitution. But if the High Court eventually decided the Government hadn’t had the grounds for a double dissolution election, it would only do so after the bill had been passed in a joint sitting after the Government had had won an election and someone had challenged the Act’s validity. Intriguing as that would be, we’re a long way off that yet.

Peter Fray

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