The handsome lead the Coalition has now built in the polls on the back of the Government’s carbon price announcement – six points, according to Essential, more according to others – will have two direct effects.

One will be to encourage the Opposition to push for an early election, on the basis that the plan for a carbon price should be put to the sort of electoral test the Prime Minister, and the Labor brains trust, dodged last August.

How far that will get when none of Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie or the Greens will be keen to go to the polls any time soon isn’t too clear, but we’ll hear a lot from the Opposition and its media cheerleaders about the need for a carbon pricing scheme to be validated by the electorate.

The pending and long-anticipated Labor wipe-out in NSW will only bolster that. As Peter Martin spotted, the NSW Liberals are running an ad referring to the Prime Minister $500 a year carbon tax, another in an increasingly long list of made up figures from the Opposition. A vote for Barry O’Farrell will be, among many other things, a vote against Julia Gillard’s great big new tax on absolutely everything.

The second will be to seriously test the nerves of Labor MPs, and particularly those in the Right faction who are happy to play along with, or actually believe, the notion that the Greens and Labor are too cosy at the moment. That’ll be exacerbated by the fact that the polls are unlikely to have bottomed out yet. It’ll be surprising if the Coalition doesn’t further extend its lead in coming weeks.

Conversely, there’s a miniscule positive: there’s no alternative. Labor can’t credibly back away from a carbon price, not again. It would deservedly be reduced to a laughing stock. The only solution for the Government is to put together a decent policy, get the support of Windsor, Oakeshott, Wilkie and the Greens, pass it and get it up and running, then use the fourteen months between commencement and the scheduled election date to finetune it.

If they do that, even if the Coalition wins, the carbon price will be here to stay, regardless of what the Liberals say at the moment.

If the Parliament goes full-term, the election won’t be fought on Julia Gillard’s broken promise, as much as the Coalition would love it to be. Voters learnt quickly, courtesy of “non-core promises” that they couldn’t trust John Howard, that he played with words and engaged in sophistry to explain things away, but they kept re-electing him, because they perceived him as competent and in tune with their values. The anger about Ms Gillard, yet another politician breaking yet another promise is real enough – and all the worse for building on the perception that Labor has no backbone and will say anything to stay in office – but it’ll be ancient history if the Government makes it to 2013.

Whether the Government is capable of putting together a decent policy, though, is highly debatable. Its precarious polling position will make it even more nervous about rentseekers threatening to run “mining tax style campaigns” against them. Executives will start looking at marginal seats, working out who is now vulnerable on the sorts of polling numbers we’re now seeing.

But still, it’s better than the alternative. At least people are angry at the Prime Minister for doing something, rather than the idle drift that characterised Labor in 2010. Better to go down trying to implement a major reform, however ineptly, than fool around with nonsense like citizens’ assemblies and cash-for-clunkers.

Paul Keating always believed you had to move quickly on reform rather than find excuses for delay, because you never knew how long you really had in government to make the changes you wanted. He was right, of course. The cost now is high, but Labor is right to decide to cop the anger and get on with the huge reform of decarbonising the Australian economy.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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