Remember, remember, the 2nd of December

Today, the second of December, has often been an amazing day in Australian politics.

This was the day in 2003 that Mark Latham “shook up the world” and seized the Labor leadership by the narrowest of margins, 47 votes to 45.  It is now easily forgotten how many shared in the excitement of the following year.  That ballot, Latham reminded many, came on an anniversary of the day in 1972 that Gough Whitlam swept to power against what he called a “ramshackle, reactionary coalition” – the Government of Billy McMahon.  And in turn, Gough, always with an eye to the history of progress, never forgot that he defeated his coalition on the anniversary of Napoleon’s great victory over the Russians and Austrians at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.

But there is another 2nd of December in Australian politics – the 2nd of December 2009.  And the prosaic realities of that day have much more to tell us about politics now than the audacities of 2003, or 1972, or even 1805.

Because today, it is five years precisely since Bob Brown, Barnaby Joyce, Nick Minchin and Christine Milne – can you imagine a more “ramshackle, reactionary coalition”? – sat together in the Senate to vote down the Rudd Government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme.  That means it’s five years today since Australian politics changed for the worse, and maybe changed for good.

Put it this way.  If there’s one piece of conventional wisdom you could pick out of the tip jar of any barber’s shop in inner suburban Australia, it’s that Kevin Rudd lost his moral mandate when he abandoned his support for a carbon price in 2010.  If you haven’t had a conversation in which someone says “he should have gone to a double dissolution, he should have fought on”, you haven’t had a conversation about this subject.

Here’s the catch.

That inevitable person, in that unavoidable conversation, is undeniably right.  But morally, surely they are only allowed to say Prime Minister Rudd should have “fought on” if they also remember that fighting on meant fighting on not just against the Liberals, the Nationals, the coal lobby and the climate deniers – but against the parliamentary Greens, who voted in the very same division, against the very same scheme.

One of the most striking passages of the Labor Party’s 2013 campaign review reflected on this paradox:

While it is hard to fathom today, it is important to remember that prior to the 2007 election, there was bipartisan and vocal support for action on climate change and for a scheme that priced carbon. It is a matter of record that had the Greens Party acted in the interests of the environment, rather than their own political advancement, they would have supported the groundbreaking CPRS in the Senate and it would have passed. 

Australia would have transitioned to a carbon pricing scheme years ago, and with a supportive Australian public.  Rather than seize this historical opportunity, harness the mood of the nation and build on the momentum, the Greens Party set in train a bitter and divisive political storm.

What does that mean for politics today?

Well, this week, Labor has come to State office in Victoria on a mandate for change.  In the same moment, at the margins of the electoral pendulum, it may prove that the Greens Party has also taken away a Labor seat, while making a strident public case against the Labor preference arrangements in the upper house.

Yet what 2009 in the Senate tells us is that what matters isn’t the seats you win, it’s the votes you cast.  So what we need to know isn’t who wins upper house Victorian seats, it’s what they do with them.

If you got a Greens MP elected in Victoria, how can you be really sure they won’t vote against climate change action like they did in 2009?

There is always a touch of Guy Fawkes in the Greens Party – and there should be a touch of the nursery rhyme in our memory of their works.

Remember, remember, the 2nd of December.


About Michael Cooney

Michael Cooney

Michael is a former Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre. He was previously Speechwriter to Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard MP, Senior Adviser at the HR Coombs Policy Forum, Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, and was Principal Policy Advisor to Federal Labor Leaders Kim Beazley and Mark Latham.

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