The Government’s CPRS bills slipped to a quiet and deserved defeat this morning in the Senate, to much excitement here in Parliament House but, one suspects, yawning non-interest from voters.

Right, well that’s the Garnaut Review, a Green Paper, a White Paper, a revision and delay and two Opposition-commissioned reports wasted then.

One wonders how the bill would have fared if a smarter operator like Julia Gillard had been its shepherd, rather than the one-note dogmatist from Adelaide, given Gillard managed to woo the Greens, Xenophon and Fielding into the tent on IR, an issue every bit as controversial. But that probably misses the point that the CPRS has, first and foremost, been about making life hell for the Liberal Party.

To the death this morning, Steve Fielding was demanding a debate on climate science, with the air of a Titanic passenger insisting that the boat is unsinkable. Fielding had his denialist briefing yesterday for Senators and MPs even as the ANU’s Will Steffen was releasing a succinct but savage hatchet job on the likes of Bob Carter.

I thought a long time ago that the refusal of the Senate to pass the CPRS would be a problem for the Senate, not for the Government, and I’m still convinced of that. For all that we know the CPRS is a dud — and not just any old dud but a dud on a multi-billion dollar scale — the ETS may be taking on the sort of “just do it” logic that the notion of an apology to the Stolen Generations took on in the Howard years. Australians want to be able to tick the issue off and don’t really understand what the problem is. Those arguing that the CPRS is too harsh or not harsh enough — that’s most people here — might face the same fate as conservatives who insisted an apology would open the floodgates to compensation claims. If so, it will become a powerful tool for a Government already overburdened with political fortune.

The outcome of the vote will be framed in terms of double dissolution triggers. That’s slightly misleading, because the Government will get a double dissolution trigger sooner or later even if, as Antony Green has so amusingly identified, reports of the availability of such triggers have been decidedly exaggerated. That’s not really the issue: the issue is whether Kevin Rudd, who is as a percentage player, as conservative a political tactician as he is on social issues, would risk an early election that would throw away one of his most powerful assets, the public’s genuine regard for him, which is a luxury in good times but might yet prove much more of a necessity when times turn bad — which they inevitably will, even if it’s not before the next election.

This is a bloke who is planning well into the next decade when the Opposition is struggling to plan for next week.

Nevertheless, the Government will make an effort to demonstrate its willingness to compromise. Expect some high-profile meetings; shots of Wong sitting down with Andrew Robb, or of Greg Combet chatting earnestly with Nick Xenophon. The message will be of a Government eager to do whatever it can to get its bill through; the reality will be that beyond a few token concessions like more help for the coal and electricity industries — already agreed upon within the Government — the CPRS will return in the same form late in the year.

Watch Question Time today. The tenor of the Government’s attack on the Liberals will show the political strategy at work here. Lots of references to disarray and denialism. And it won’t stop for months to come.

Peter Fray

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