Monday, 22 August 2011
Carbon Tax Plebiscite Bill 2011; Second Reading
This Carbon Tax Plebiscite Bill 2011 is important legislation because it will, if passed, restore integrity to our democracy. It will, if passed, ensure that this fundamental principle is recognised and acted upon: that governments should have a mandate for the big changes that they seek to make. The problem which this bill seeks to address is the fact that this government, the Gillard government, has no mandate whatsoever for the biggest legislative change that it now seeks to make—namely, the introduction of a carbon tax. Not only does it not have a mandate for the carbon tax, but it has a mandate specifically not to introduce a carbon tax. This bill which I now speak to in the House is designed to give the government a chance to get back the political integrity that it forfeited by promising before the election not to introduce a carbon tax but doing precisely the opposite afterwards.
Much time of this parliament has been taken up this year with discussion of the carbon tax. The carbon tax has dominated public debate this year. The carbon tax is by far the biggest single issue in our public life right now, and yet the carbon tax does not have the kind of democratic mandate which any government seeking to make such a change should have for a change of this magnitude. Never let us forget that six days before the last election the Prime Minister said:
There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.
This was not a statement which just slipped out. It was not just something that she blurted out unthinkingly in response to a question that she had not anticipated. This statement of the Prime Minister was a deeply calculated response to the statements that I had been making consistently throughout the campaign that 'as sure as night follows day, if this government is re-elected there will be a carbon tax'.
To the best of my knowledge, checking the transcripts, I made that observation on at least 15 separate occasions. I was not the only one who was saying that if the government was re-elected there would be a carbon tax. Many of my frontbench colleagues were making exactly the same point. So in order to defuse this issue the Prime Minister deliberately, with foreknowledge, with absolute cold-blooded purpose, went out and said six days before the election, 'There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.' And she did not just say that. She said just before the election—it was on the front page of the Australian the day before the election—'I rule out a carbon tax.' And it was not just the Prime Minister deliberately saying that she ruled out a carbon tax and that there would not be a carbon tax 'under the government I lead'. The Treasurer also, on at least two occasions, said that claims that there would be a carbon tax if the government were re-elected were 'hysterical exaggerations'.
But it is not just the specific statements of the Prime Minister; it is not just the specific statements of the Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister; it is everything else that the Prime Minister said about a carbon tax and an emissions trading scheme in the lead-up to the last election. Let us not forget this was a serious problem for the government. In the wake of the collapse of the Copenhagen conference, the government's previous policy to have an emissions trading scheme—the policy championed by the previous Prime Minister to address what he said repeatedly was not just a big issue but was nothing less than the 'greatest moral challenge of our time'—had become increasingly untenable and implausible. What happened was that the former Prime Minister was advised by the current Prime Minister and the current Deputy Prime Minister to drop it.
So back in April last year the government dropped their commitment to an emissions trading scheme and said that there would be no emissions trading scheme until the rest of the world had put something similar in place. That was the position in April. During the election campaign, to get this matter completely off the agenda, at the end of the first week of the campaign the Prime Minister made a major speech where she said that the whole question of climate change would be given over not to the parliament but to a citizens assembly and that no change whatsoever would be pursued by the government until, in the words of the Prime Minister, a 'deep and lasting consensus' had been achieved. So not only did she deny that there would be a carbon tax, and not only did the Treasurer deny that there would be a carbon tax, but everything the Prime Minister said during the election campaign was designed to convey that nothing at all would happen until a 'deep and lasting consensus' had been achieved—a consensus that, she said, would be impossible if the coalition stayed with the position that we had at the election campaign and, I hasten to add, have today.
It is an absolute principle of democracy that governments should not and must not say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards. Nothing could be more calculated to bring our democracy into disrepute and alienate the citizenry of Australia from their government than if governments were to establish by precedent that they could say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards.
The Prime Minister has sometimes alluded to the example of her distinguished predecessor, the former Prime Minister John Howard, in the course of this carbon tax debate. She said that John Howard had supported a GST and that he had then said, prior to the 1986 election, that there would not be a GST and that he had, in the course of the subsequent term of parliament, changed his mind and said there would be a GST. But the fundamental difference between the current Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister is that the former Prime Minister did not run away from the Australian people; he took his change of heart to the Australian people. He changed his mind in the 1996-1998 term of parliament and took his changed position to the public in the 1998 election. That is the course of conduct that the current Prime Minister should take.
If she really believes that the carbon tax is as necessary as she claims it to be and that the arguments in favour of a carbon tax are as compelling as she says they are, she should not run away from the Australian people; she should revel in the opportunity to take this matter to the Australian people. In fact, the Prime Minister whom the current Prime Minister most resembles in all of this is not former Prime Minister John Howard but former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who before the 1993 election said that tax cuts were 'l-a-w law'; but the 'l-a-w law' turned out to be an l-i-e lie. We all know the political fate of former Prime Minister Keating—a political fate sealed by that deceptive conduct at the 1993 election.
You might even say that, by putting forward this private member's bill for a plebiscite on a carbon tax, I am giving the Prime Minister an opportunity to redeem herself by making an honest politician of herself; that I am giving the Prime Minister an opportunity to overcome the democratic deficit and the honesty deficit which she currently displays. I am proposing in this bill that we can have a vote on the carbon tax without an election and without, necessarily, a change of government. I am making it easier with this bill to actually have this matter put to the people. By proposing a plebiscite I am allowing this matter to go to the public for a vote, as it should, without the prospect—indeed, under current circumstances, the probability—of an election producing a change of government. I am giving the government and other members of this parliament an opportunity to restore faith with fewer adverse consequences for themselves than would otherwise be the case.
I make it absolutely crystal clear that, should this bill pass the parliament and should there be a plebiscite on the issue of a carbon tax before the end of November, I will of course accept the result—as I hope the Prime Minister would accept the result should this bill pass. Whatever differences of opinion we might have in this chamber, in the end this is a democratic parliament—this is a democratic country—and every single member of this parliament has to accept the processes of our democracy. The result of a plebiscite may not change the argument one way or another about the merits or otherwise of a carbon tax, but I tell you this: it would certainly settle the politics of this issue once and for all, and that is what we need in the face of a divisive and damaging debate which is entirely the government's fault, because, if they had not made a commitment one way before the election while doing the opposite after the election, they would not be in their current predicament.
I draw the House's attention to a couple of features of the bill. The bill says:
The question to be submitted to electors in accordance with section 5 is "Do you support the Government's plan to introduce a price on carbon to deal with climate change?"
It is about as neutral question as I could possibly come up with. The actual formulation of that question was arrived at after consultation with independent members of this parliament, because I want to give independent members of this House and of the other chamber every opportunity to say yes to this bill; I do not want anyone to think that this plebiscite is some kind of stitch up, and, I think, no fair-minded observer could say that a question couched in those terms was anything other than a fair question. The other point I make about the legislation is that the plebiscite will in all other respects be conducted in the same way as a referendum would be conducted: with the usual provision for compulsory voting. It is a fair question, to let the people determine an essential point. This argument—should we or should we not have a carbon tax?—is so important that the public must have their say. It is important that the public should have their say before the government proceeds with legislation, not afterwards. That is what this bill is designed to achieve.
I say to decent, honest members of the government—and there is at least one of them sitting opposite now on the backbenches: there must be times when you are troubled in your souls on this whole question. How can decent, honest members of a government not feel embarrassed and ashamed of the fact that their Prime Minister said one thing before the election and is doing the complete opposite afterwards? She spoke for all of them; she was not just expressing a private view, you know. She was the leader of the Labor Party and the Prime Minister at the time, so she spoke for the member for Hunter, she spoke for the member for Werriwa and she spoke for the member for Brand. She spoke for them when she said there would be no—
An honourable member: He's the member for Fowler.
An honourable member: It was Werriwa then.
The member for Fowler—it is hard to keep up with the changes on the other side of the chamber!
But the Prime Minister spoke for all of these members when she said, 'There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.' They are all complicit in this deception, and this bill gives them a chance to come clean, to make a break with this deception and to redeem themselves with the electorate. So I urge them—as I urged the Independent members of this parliament—to consider this legislation.
I know the Independent members of this parliament do not want an election. They want to preserve their position in this parliament. My bill offers them a chance to keep faith with the electorate without prejudicing their position as balance-of-power Independents. I urge them if they do not want to change the government then to please, at the very least, let the people have a say on this matter by supporting my bill.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a fraught time in our nation's history. We know, because Paul Howse has told us, that there is a crisis in manufacturing. We have heard of the job losses from Qantas and from OneSteel. We learned today that BlueScope, our biggest steelmaker, is ceasing exporting steel because of the difficulties that manufacturing industry now faces. This country will not be an exporter of steel because of the difficulties that manufacturing industry faces.
I know that the carbon tax is not the only difficulty that manufacturing industry faces; I know that the carbon tax has not been an instrumental factor in the decision of BlueScope announced today. But let us not forget how the carbon tax is hovering over all the decisions that manufacturers are making right now. Let us not forget that companies like BlueScope have to make decisions now for the next 40 years, and the assistance package announced as part of the carbon tax lasts for but four years. Let us not forget the statement that the chairman of BlueScope made when the carbon tax was first announced back in February, that compensation for the steel industry would be like putting a bandaid on a bullet wound. Let us not forget these statements. Let us not forget the tremor of fear, anxiety and uncertainty now running through manufacturing industry generally and manufacturing workers right around our country, and let us make a bad situation better by not proceeding with this carbon tax. This is the worst possible time to proceed with what is a bad tax, based on a lie. This bill of mine is a way of ensuring that the public have their chance to have their say.
I have often said, and members of this House will no doubt hear me say it again, there should be no new tax collection without an election. But this bill is an opportunity for members opposite to meet me halfway. It is an opportunity for members opposite and members on the crossbench to meet the Australian public halfway, to put this to a vote without necessarily changing the government and to put this to a vote without all of the trauma of an election. I think this is a good faith attempt by a democratic opposition to allow the government to do the right thing by the Australian people. That is why I commend this bill to the House, and I table the explanatory memorandum.
Leave granted for second reading debate to resume at a later hour this day.