Labor's carbon tax bind: surrender or die fighting
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Labor's carbon tax bind: surrender or die fighting

She's offered it only within the confines of the government, but word is Peta Credlin has some world-weary advice for rookie Labor leader Bill Shorten: if you're serious about making Labor competitive again in 2016, you best swallow hard, take a deep breath, and turn your back on carbon pricing. And you best do it now.

It's that simple. Or is it?

<i>Illustration: Simon Letch</i>

Illustration: Simon Letch

That Credlin is Tony Abbott's chief of staff, is enough to provoke suspicion. Indeed, coming from the respected but highly partisan Credlin, such unsolicited advice is just as likely to make the ALP cling ever more determinedly to its carbon pricing commitments like the proverbial … to a blanket.

But some in Labor are beginning to question the longer-term implications of an automatic assumption of staying the course. Ever so quietly, they are whispering ''hold on, let's just think about this''.

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One of those is thought to be Shorten himself - the man Abbott described this week as ''nothing if not pragmatic''.

Abbott's super-focused Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, agrees the term ''pragmatic'' was a coded appeal to Shorten's personal exceptionalism - his sense that, more so than his colleagues, he is a realist and will do the political maths pretty dispassionately when needed.

Credlin, of course, knows first hand about the wilderness Shorten has just entered.

As an adviser in the Howard government and then as chief of staff to a succession of leaders - Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, and finally Abbott - she has seen her share of political failure.

At the front of her mind is the painful but necessary jettisoning, in the days after the 2007 defeat, of the signature policy of the final Howard term, Work Choices.

Labour market deregulation, or more pointedly smashing the domestic hegemony of unions and the Labor-ACTU complex, had been an article of faith for Liberals. Work Choices, a policy that would have been impossible without control of the Senate, was its most pure expression. It was also however, the single most costly policy to that government's standing with middle Australian voters. Its catchy market-tested title had been designed to stick, and stick it did, for all the wrong reasons. In fact its potency as a negative political tag has been surpassed in recent times by just one other, the carbon tax.

Labor's carbon price-slash-climate change equation is fraught with risk for the party, invested as it is in explosive battles of the past - the bloated rhetoric of Kevin Rudd and broken promises of Julia Gillard - the scientific realities of the environment, and the electoral dangers of the future. And these dangers, it should be remembered, are present on Labor's right and left flanks, thanks to the Greens.

The alternative arguments seem obvious enough. For most in Labor, the path of least internal resistance is also the correct strategic choice. Muscle up to Abbott for as long as possible, and use the numbers in the Senate to frustrate his attempts to dismantle the hard-won carbon pricing regime.

With the Greens unlikely to bend in any way, Labor can hold out at least until July 1, and perhaps well beyond, depending on the unpredictabilities of the new Palmer-independent dominated Senate from there on.

The approach brings with it the advantage of consistency in values and policy presentation - rarely a bad thing in a political party - and gives back to Abbott what he so willingly dished out to Labor for three years, total opposition.

It's an obvious course bolstered by an equally obvious rhetorical question: ''If we roll over on climate change, what was it all for?''

Voters, the argument goes, would see a capitulation as the final proof that Labor stood for nothing - that there was simply no principle on which it was not prepared to fold under pressure.

But some hard-heads are thinking along a different track and it goes like this:

That like it or not, the carbon wars have been fought and lost. They say it would be nothing short of political suicide to line up in 2016 on the same ground that proved such a quagmire in 2013. Better to yield to Abbott's (spurious) mandate argument, and shift the political contest to education, health, cities, and broadband.

As an argument, its starts well behind the alternative, because its most immediate beneficiary is the Coalition.

Yet it must be confronted.

Consider the likely path of events if Labor succeeds in delaying the repeal of the carbon regime until some time in the second half of next year. In the meantime there's an unseemly battle over mandate in which the business lobby daily smashes the ALP for adding to business-investment uncertainty and harming the economy. After that, Labor does what precisely? What policy is it then advocating in the lead-up to 2016? Bear in mind that Abbott has kept Labor's carbon price household assistance package including tax cuts, pension increases and so on.

Labor would be faced with the politically difficult task of proposing to reintroduce a carbon price of some sort, sans additional compensation, and it would be doing it from the inherently weaker position of the opposition benches.

The government by contrast would be selling a message that it had driven down energy costs, and reduced cost-of-living pressures on ordinary families.

After the havoc this policy area has visited on the polity and the economy, it wouldn't take expensive polling to work out which one of those two packages would be easier to sell.

It is no coincidence that this was the core of Abbott's message to Shorten.

''The absolute lesson of recent Australian political history,'' he said, ''is that political parties cannot defy the public view, and the public view is overwhelmingly that they don't like this toxic tax.

''We are giving the Labor Party a chance to repent of its massive breach of faith with the Australian people in the last Parliament. I think that the Labor Party, being pragmatic political survivors, will ultimately embrace that opportunity.''

On the conservative side, there is palpable incredulity that Labor would even consider fronting up in three years, committed to a renewed carbon price.

Shorten is wrestling with the same problem.

But he must also consider the cost of walking away. After all, Labor put this on the backburner once before and its numbers went decidedly south. And he might also remember that the Coalition still lost the 2010 election after ditching Work Choices.

Mark Kenny is the national affairs editor for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House