By Dr Zareh Ghazarian
The passage of the carbon tax through the lower house of the Australian parliament was greeted by cheers and jeers. Supporters of the carbon tax were heralding the vote as one of Australia’s greatest reforms while those who opposed the scheme have marked it as a dark day for the country.
Notwithstanding the hyperbole that has accompanied the debate thus far, the passage of the bills signals a shift in the Australian political landscape.
For Julia Gillard, this was a rare triumph. As Prime Minister she has been on the back foot ever since forming minority government in 2010. This successful carbon tax vote may allow her government to appear more in control of the policy agenda than they have over the last year.
The win may also diminish leadership speculation within government ranks. After all, by passing the carbon tax, Gillard was able to achieve what Rudd could not. Rather than appear to be a ‘lame duck’, Gillard has the opportunity to position herself as a prime minister who can actually govern and introduce significant reforms.
The passage of the bills may also impact on Tony Abbott. As Opposition Leader, he has been a master of highlighting the perceived shortcomings of the Government. By positioning himself as a clear opponent of the Government’s agenda, Abbott has attracted significant support from those concerned with the implications of a carbon tax.
Now the debate moves to another level. The carbon tax may no longer be the central issue in the Australian political debate. With the scheme to be introduced in 2012, the Government will have ample opportunity to stress its potential benefits to the electorate. They may also have a number of other policy ‘victories’ over the coming period and thus take the heat out of the carbon tax debate.
If there is such a change to the landscape and the opposition continues to invest heavily in opposing the carbon tax, Tony Abbott may appear to be obsessed with this single issue. This may be off-putting to those voters who have (or will) come to accept the introduction of the scheme. Furthermore, Abbott’s promise to repeal the changes may provide a sense of uncertainty, something industry groups will not appreciate.
While the major parties continue to focus on the pros and cons of the carbon tax, the Greens may consolidate their role in Australian politics. By exercising its power in the Senate, the party can take credit for its role in introducing measures that seek to reduce emissions.
Despite these changes to the political debate, it remains unclear as to how voters will respond. Opinion polls have clearly shown that voters have been uncomfortable with the Government’s proposal and have supported the Coalition. But now the bills have been passed by the parliament. Upcoming opinion polls will show whether the government has been able to claw back support or whether voters have already made up their minds.
Dr Zareh Ghazarian works in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University. He is the co-author, with Dr Nick Economou, of Australian Politics for Dummies.