Sunday, November 29

My word is my bond. What a quaint idea.

Once upon  a time, children, conservative men regarded their honour as paramount. Proud men would face one another with pistols at dawn if somebody questioned their integrity.

Even today, the words dictum meum pactum (“My word is my bond”) feature as the motto on the heraldic coat of arms awarded to the London Stock Exchange in 1923.

Sadly, I have to tell you the world where a conservative's word was his bond has long vanished, if it ever did exist. Today lies and treachery are de rigueur, especially for senior right-wing members of Australia's Liberal Party.

You'll all know what I'm talking about – it's been in all the papers. Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull and his lieutenants have spend weeks in intensive negotiations with the Labor Government's Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, to achieve an agreement under which they would pass the Emissions Trading Scheme through the Senate before it rose for the year.

They obtained many concessions (too many, in this grumpy old journo's opinion) and the Liberal Party leaders had a deal they believed they could take to their party room to be quickly endorsed and passed by the Senate.

That's when the “Treacherous Ten” revealed their duplicity. Ten leading Liberal politicians who had previously indicated they would support the ETS legislation if the Libs could negotiate significant concessions – which was achieved – quit the front bench and made it clear they would never vote for an ETS.

In essence, the hard-liners had duped Turnbull into believing he could negotiate in good faith with the Labor Government.

Why would they do that? The answer is simple. It's part of the filibuster you have when you're not having a filibuster. The foremost of the Liberal rebels, Tony Abbott and Senator Nick Minchin, made this clear when they demanded Turnbull agree to have the ETS legislation referred to a Senate committee for consideration.

If Turnbull agreed to that, he would be welching on his deal with Labor.

But the strategy appeals to the hard-line climate change sceptics because it may allow them to defer the legislation for months while avoiding the risk of a double dissolution. It all comes down to interpreting one of the “triggers” the Australian Constitution provides for the simultaneous dissolution of the full Senate and the House of Representatives when they're deadlocked.

Section 57 allows the Prime Minister to ask the Governor-General to dissolve both houses if the Senate rejects “or fails to pass” legislation passed by the Reps, or passes it with amendments unacceptable to the Reps, and does so a second time if the Reps again passes the legislation after at least three months.

If the Senate's climate change sceptics used a plain filibuster to stall the legislation until the Senate rose for the year, it probably would give a double dissolution trigger. But referral to a Senate committee for examination could be seen as a normal part of the legislative process, and most likely would not be held to be a trigger.

This opinion was provided by Robert Ellicott QC, a former Federal Court judge and Coalition Attorney-General, in a Weekend Australian article last October. And it appears retiring Senate Clerk Harold Evans supports his view.

[I've just come across this opinion by ABC election analyst Antony Green, posted to his blog yesterday. It covers the “failure to pass” issues in detail. And in this earlier post, Green points out that whenever he received a trigger, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd could delay requesting the double dissolution until August 10, 2020, with the election taking place in September.]

Not that Rudd necessarily wants or would use a trigger to call a double dissolution, but it's handy to have one – or preferably, a handful of them – at the ready if required. That time might come mid-way through next year.

It sticks in the craw to admit the vacuous right-wing columnist Miranda Devine might have called something right. But even I thought she might be correct back in August when she wrote a column jeeringly headed, “Bring it on, Labor, pull that trigger.” which claimed the Government would be defeated if it called a double dissolution on the Senate's rejection of ETS legislation.

A few weeks later, The Australian's Newspoll contradicted Ms Devine when it reported strong support for climate change legislation, even among Coalition voters. Yesterday, The Weekend Australian relied on the September figures in its lead story, “Libs facing electoral rout.”

But that was September. Today, the Sydney Sunday Telegraph and other Murdoch Sunday tabloids around the nation reported a Galaxy poll taken last Friday night. The Sunday tabloids'  report said:

MALCOLM Turnbull's hopes of fighting off a Liberal rebellion over climate change to hold on to the Opposition leadership have been shattered by a poll showing a whopping 60 per cent of Australians are against Kevin Rudd rushing the Emissions Trading Scheme through parliament.
Despite Mr Turnbull insisting the ETS must be passed now - ahead of the UN's Copenhagen summit - the poll overwhelmingly backs his opponents - with 81 per cent of Coalition supporters wanting the vote delayed.
Incredibly, nine out of 10 Coalition supporters - and three out of four Labor voters - say they don't understand the ETS and want the Government to explain it better.
The Galaxy poll, conducted exclusively for The Sunday Telegraph on Friday night, shows a huge 80 per cent of voters do not believe the Government has provided sufficient details about an ETS with only 26 per cent now supporting the Turnbull-Rudd push for the Senate to pass it into law immediately.
Fewer than one in five Australians believe the Government has provided sufficient information about the ETS.
Even 73 per cent of Labor voters are in the dark over the ETS.

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