Turnbull's election 'trickery' simply creates a climate of confusion

In order to show who's really running the country, the Prime Minister just told us that the Senate can decide whether we will have an early election. Is that decisive?

And if the furious crossbench senators choose a half-Senate election in September over a double dissolution in July, what are the odds that the May budget will be rubber-stamped by those same senators? Is that long-term strategy?

Malcolm Turnbull's pseudo-election campaign launch on Monday, complete with cunning constitutional trickery, was definitely "headline grabbing", but so was Julia Gillard's decision to name the election date six months in advance. The question isn't whether such decisions excite the commentariat; it's whether they work in Parliament and on the public.

Just as Treasurer Scott Morrison wasn't in the "inner circle" that knew when the budget would be, Turnbull is no longer in the "inner circle" that knows when the election will be. While the Prime Minister might be willing to suck it and see, such ambiguity will place enormous pressure on both his cabinet and his back bench. Take the budget, for example.

Is the Treasurer supposed to be working on a budget that will act as a July election platform or is he supposed to be working on a set of policy initiatives that have some chance of being passed through a grumpy Senate by September? Will he be judged on the clarity of his "budget message" in the lead-up to a July election or will he be judged on his capacity to negotiate spending cuts and tax increases through the Senate between May and September?

Should the Treasurer be trying to mollify Jacqui Lambie by including extra funding for Defence Force pay rises in the hope she might be more likely to approve the rest of the budget measures by September? Or would such a move in May simply provide the Tasmanian senator with the perfect platform to demonstrate she can deliver from the cross bench in the lead-up to a July election?


No wonder Morrison is reportedly unhappy.

But the problems don't stop with the budget. If the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner bill passes through the Senate in May, what will the industrial relations agenda be in the lead-up to a September election? Few people outside the Melbourne Club care much about the ABCC bill and fewer still will switch their vote to the Coalition if it passes. Needless to say, union officials are rightly enraged that their common-law rights might be stripped away but, once the bill passes the easiest way to have it repealed is via the election of a Shorten government. At a time the NSW Electoral Commission is withholding $4 million from the Liberal Party for non-disclosure of previous donations, Turnbull is doing the ALP's fund-raising for it.

And then there's climate change. No policy issue has generated more heat and less light than how best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. Tony Abbott transformed a technocratic debate about the best way to design a carbon price into a culture war. It put him into The Lodge, but put Australia back a decade.

Climate change will provide the clearest test of whether Turnbull is running on Abbott's platform or on his own. "Direct action" is very much Abbott's policy. Indeed, Turnbull once said the best thing about it was that it was easy to repeal. But while unwinding the direct action policy might be administratively simple, it will not be politically simple. Abbott will make sure of that. So what is Turnbull to do?

Luckily for Turnbull, the Climate Change Authority was set up by the Gillard government to help advise the Parliament on both Australia's emission-reduction targets and the best policy mechanisms to achieve them.

Back when Turnbull was communications minister and Clive Palmer had three votes in the Senate, Abbott agreed to commission three reports from the climate authority as part of the deal to introduce direct action. The first two reports were scheduled to come out before the Paris climate talks and helped pressure the Australian negotiators to go further than Abbott would have liked. The third report is due no later than June 30.

Few people outside the Melbourne Club care much about the ABCC bill and fewer still will switch their vote to the Coalition if it passes.

So two days before the date Turnbull says any double-dissolution election will be held, the Climate Change Authority must report on the most efficient ways for Australia to meet it emission-reduction goals. Given that everyone is more committed to climate action than Abbott, one would imagine that any new direction on climate policy could only be an improvement for Turnbull and Australia.

The false choice between a carbon tax and direct action delivered good politics for Abbott but a poor policy debate for Australia. When it came to tackling smoking, even Abbott agreed that tobacco taxes helped discourage consumption. But no public-health experts, and no Australian governments, argue that price alone is enough to reduce smoking. Regulations on where you can smoke, where you can buy cigarettes, who can buy cigarettes and a wide range of other "direct actions" all help to support the policy goal. The successful, long-term strategy to reduce smoking in Australia never got itself caught up in a philosophical debate about whether tobacco taxes were good or evil.

Last year, federal Labor committed itself to a 50 per cent renewable energy target. Here in Canberra, the ACT Labor government has committed itself to a 100 per cent renewable energy target. Neither policy requires a carbon price to drive significant change. Both are popular in the electorate.

Turnbull has committed himself to "driving innovation" but, to date, he's had to tiptoe around the link between supporting new renewable energy, electric cars and battery technologies for fear of enraging backbenchers like Abbott and Cory Bernardi. A carbon price, or a "penalty price" for firms who don't undertake enough "direct action", would allow him to fund a lot more innovation.

New energy-efficiency standards for cars and houses can just as easily be framed as solutions to declining air quality and rising energy costs as they can be called climate policy. Are policies to encourage energy efficiency "direct action" or are they "wasteful climate policy"? The answer is not just in the eye of the beholder, but in the tone of the salesperson.

While the timing of the election and the climate authority's next report are now beyond Turnbull's control, the shape and tone of his government's climate policy is not. The Prime Minister has stumbled badly on tax policy and has abandoned control over the timing of his first election. He can't afford to be pushed around by Abbott on climate policy if he is to retain the public's respect.

Dr Richard Denniss is chief economist at The Australia Institute, a Canberra think tank.