“If Australia is greatly to reduce its carbon emissions, the price of carbon intensive products should rise… a new tax would be the intelligent sceptic’s way to deal with minimising emissions.” Tony Abbott, 2009 (link since removed)

“I have nothing to move.” Senator Glenn Lazarus, July 10, 2014

One of the problems Labor encountered in its efforts to deal with then-opposition leader Tony Abbott was his refusal to be bound by any sense of consistency or evidential rigour. Abbott adopted whatever position was politically convenient at the time, regardless of whether it accorded with the facts, or whether it accorded with his own position previously — even after his notorious insistence to Kerry O’Brien that the only words of his that he could be held to were those in writing, he’d welsh on written agreements the moment it was no longer convenient to adhere to them.

Now, in Clive Palmer, the Coalition faces someone who makes Abbott look like he has a maniacal obsession with consistency.

The key to understanding Palmer is that he’s always about what’s ahead. What’s in the past is irrelevant. The issue of consistency simply doesn’t arise, because Palmer eternally moves forward, toward the next announcement, the next stunt. Clive only ever stops moving so he can momentarily bask in the media spotlight. Then it’s onward again.

Thus, with PUP-linked Ricky Muir now amenable to voting with the PUP today to end debate on the government’s efforts to repeal the carbon pricing bills, we expected the carbon price to be executed just before lunchtime. Muir and the PUP duly voted for the government’s gag motion at 10am. Except, shortly afterwards, Clive appeared at a media conference. Palmer had earlier flagged that something out of the ordinary might happen — although that warning appears to be unnecessary when it comes to him. There was no Al Gore this time, but former Liberal leader John Hewson (not unfairly, perhaps, Hewson could introduce himself, Gore-like, as “I used to be Australia’s next prime minister”, except no one under 35 would get the joke).

Palmer and Hewson were appearing with the Australia Institute to launch a report on renewable energy. It was there that Palmer waxed lyrical, or as close to lyrical as Clive waxes, about the need to address climate change, and railed at climate sceptics — among which of course he was numbered until a couple of weeks ago. He even flagged strengthening the Renewable Energy Target. Yeah, huh. So far, so Clive. Readers may remember that time we had Abbott debate himself about climate change and what to do about it because he’d held so many different positions on it. If we tried the same thing with Palmer, we’d need 6 point font to get it on the screen.

But, Palmer said, the government had double-crossed PUP about his precondition for passing the carbon tax repeal, the legislative amendment for cost reductions to be passed through to consumers. Palmer had seized on an act of pure smartarsery by Qantas, which yesterday announced it was removing the carbon price surcharge in expectation of repeal, but, erm, wouldn’t actually be reducing fares. Funny that. So PUP wouldn’t be voting for repeal until the amendment matter had been sorted out.

That would have induced panic in the office of Greg Hunt, the man masquerading as the government’s Environment Minister, the sort of panic only the procedural and drafting challenges of a last-minute amendment on the morning of consideration of a bill can cause (I’ve been there, it’s hell). The government suddenly began filibustering in the Senate — having previously accused Labor and the Greens of filibustering — while they tried to turn the PUP senators around. A funny thing to do just while you’re gagging debate.

The panic was unsuccessful: despite a huddle outside the Senate chamber involving Palmer, PUP senators and the Coalition’s senate leader Eric Abetz, the problem couldn’t be resolved in time for the vote the government had brought on itself. “I have nothing to move,” Glenn Lazarus rose to tell the Senate when it came time to vote on his party’s amendments, amid deep confusion over what exactly the Senate was voting on. Eventually, the repeal bill went down at the hands of Labor, the Greens, PUP and Muir.

So, the carbon price will be repealed, but it isn’t yet (and the repeal will involve another trip back to the House of Representatives — remember that celebratory picture from last week – to be finalised).

Palmer’s Abbott-like inconsistency thus produced extraordinary, shambolic scenes as the government tried desperately to keep up with him. But for the moment, they’ll deprive the government of its long-awaited moment when, finally, it will have a legislative win on a key issue — indeed the key issue of an Abbott government, the removal of Labor’s carbon price. And Clive Palmer continues to dominate the political narrative, creating an impression of disorder, on-the-wing policy and a government that can’t regain control of events — not even what the government says is the most important event of its term.

Back in the days of the Gillard government, its minority status was continually used by its media critics to suggest dysfunction, incompetence and illegitimacy. And even the slightest appearance of events deviating from Labor’s carefully laid plans produced headlines about “chaos”. Strange that few such headlines appear now, even as Clive does to Tony exactly what Tony did to Labor, and more so.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey