It’s not everyday a political leader tries to redefine democracy, but today Tony Abbott gave it a shot. He came out (after some nice leaking to every news.ltd tabloid) and said he was going to move in parliament for there to be a plebiscite on the carbon tax – a vote on the question: “‘Are you in favour of a law to impose a carbon tax?’
The media reacted the way you would expect the media to react (especially those who had been given the leak) – they lapped it up like little puppies. Some of the more serious journalists tried to point out that they really knew what was going on:
A good stunt? Wow. Talk about the harsh eye of the fourth estate holding our politicians to account. We know it’s a stunt, but hey, why should we hold that against him? Hell we want stunts – good ones mind, take your bad stunts elsewhere – give us stunts that we can run with and make our own – to whit The Daily Telegraph editorial pretty much campaigning for the plebiscite like it was its own idea:
Words are cheap.
At an estimated $80 million, the plebiscite would be anything but - but that may be the cost we bear to make federal parliament answerable to the people.
Actually no, what makes a parliament answerable to the people is regular, freely-held elections. There will be one in later 2013, until then you need to put up with the one that was voted in at the last freely-held election. Don’t like it? Well vote it out next time. It’s a system that has worked well in this country for around 110 years. I think we can say it has passed the test.
Now I know some of you will say, yeah we know all that, but it really is a good stunt – I mean it sounds great – it sounds democratic, who in their right mind would not agree to it?
And I would almost be with you – after all if the Independents voted against it Abbott could say they were against democracy. He would almost have a case (well not really, but he at least would sound like he almost had a case if you didn’t examine it too closely) except this morning Malcolm Farr of news.com.au was reporting this:
10.10am Tony Abbott says the Opposition won't adopt the Government's carbon pricing scheme if it was put to a plebiscite and passed.
The Opposition Leader indicated today only the Government would be bound by the result.
When asked his position should a carbon price be accepted at a plebiscite, he told news.com.au:
"I would still think a carbon tax was bad."
The Opposition argues it is up to the Government to get a mandate for its plan to reduce carbon emissions by penalising polluters.
So Abbott wants the people to have a say, but he doesn't want to have to listen to them?
Wait on – wasn’t this Abbott’s idea in the first place? Isn’t he the one who actually wants the people to have a say? I’ll have to go look in my little book of political phrases, but I am pretty sure being able to call for a vote but not being obliged to have to abide by that vote is not within the confines of the English meaning of “democracy”.
Here was Abbott trying out his strategy on radio station 2UE:
JASON MORRISON: The obvious question to ask, if it comes back that in fact more people support the tax than don’t – which would go against all the polls – but if it comes back that way, would you change your party’s position on it?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, obviously, that would be a very powerful message but I don’t want to speculate on what might happen.
Really? What’s there to speculate about? The people vote one way, you agree with them? No? Really? I mean… really?
How about this on 3AW:
NICK MCCALLUM: But you won’t be able to convince the independents though, surely?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, what could be more democratic than having a vote of the people?
Gee I don’t know Tony, what could be more democratic? Oh yes, I know – abiding by the decision of the people! You see holding the votes is easy. Lots of countries hold votes. You seem them reported quite a lot in the foreign news section of the papers. But the democratic ones are those that both sides abide by the result of the vote. Those systems where only one side has to abide by the decision of a vote struggle with the use of the word “democratic” in their system of Government (they generally put it in the title of the country to try and make up for the lack of it in reality). But kudos to you Tony, keep trying to broaden the definition. In time democracy may come to mean what you think it does.
But if you really look at the proposal you know immediately that democracy is not what Abbott is after. You only need to look at the timing. This is the last week in which the Senate will consist of the numbers from the 2007 election. After this the Senate will be made up of those since the 2010 election – and the Greens will hold the balance of power. After this week Abbott loses a lot of power. He no longer can seriously hope to block legislation in the Senate. And he certainly can’t do it by cajoling Steve Fielding (who will be gone) and Nick Xenophon (who will be somewhat redundant).
Abbott wants a vote this week because he does not want to have to accept the views of the people from the last election.
`As a general principle, you should (ask the people),'' he told reporters.``But the question can't be loaded, it should be about the specifics, not slogans.''
Hmm. specifics, not slogans? Oh dear. That ain’t Abbott’s strong suit.
It was also ``a bit simplistic'' having a plebiscite asking: ``Do you support a carbon tax, yes or no?''
Senator Xenophon believes the people should be asked to vote specifically on the government's proposed legislation on a carbon tax.
But Abbott wants and needs it simplistic! And waiting for the proposed legislation? That’s no good, because that sure as heck won’t happen by the end of the week.
But in any event, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakschott won’t vote for it, so that kills it.
But thanks Tony, nice try.
I noted earlier this year that Abbott never utters a word without a political intent. Even when the occasion is bipartisan and calls for statesmen like words, Abbott can’t help himself. Last year when Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono addressed Parliament last, Abbott decided to use the bipartisan moment to say in his introductory remarks:
We have worked to end people smuggling before. It worked when we worked together before. People smuggling has started again and we can stop it again, provided it is done cooperatively and with a clear understanding of our mutual interests and with the right policies in place here in Australia.
So when today, the New Zealand Prime Minister was present to address the joint parliament, the odds of Abbott demeaning himself and using his welcoming address to raise a political point were pretty short. And so he did:
I also congratulate you Prime Minister for dramatically watering down the Emission Trading Scheme that you inherited. In this country, your sister party will go further and do better. Should we inherited any carbon tax we won’t just reduce it, we will rescind it.
At least while Abbott was laughing to himself while he said these words, and behind him Luke Hartsuyker and Chris Pyne dutifully grinned like idiots as well, Joe Hockey sat stony faced and non-plussed. Good to see, Joe.