According to Adam Bandt’s logic, the Greens are responsible for the devastating bushfires sweeping parts of NSW. Last Wednesday, the Greens MP for Melbourne accused the Prime Minister of ”donning a volunteer firefighter uniform for the media”. This was nothing but a slur, since Tony Abbott has been an active volunteer firefighter for more than a decade.

Bandt went on to suggest Abbott’s firefighting was a ”con” because he was ”helping start fires that put people’s lives in danger”. In other words, the Prime Minister is not only a con artist but also an arsonist. Then, as if to prove when muck-racking the muck can go even lower, Bandt tweeted on Thursday, ”Tony Abbott’s plan means more bushfires for Australia”.

Bandt’s attack overlooked two essential facts. First, the Coalition’s policy aim on the reduction of carbon emissions by 2020 is the same as that of the Labor Party (which the Greens were aligned to for most of the past three years).

Second, if the Greens had supported Kevin Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme in 2009 and 2010, Australia would already have a form of an emissions trading scheme in place. Bob Brown, Christine Milne and their Greens colleagues in the Senate opposed Rudd Labor’s reduction scheme and prevented it passing into legislation.
Of course, if Australia had introduced Rudd’s scheme it would have done nothing to stop the bushfires. Australia’s carbon emissions are but a tiny fraction of world output. Moreover, the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events remains uncertain. NSW experienced record bushfires half a century ago and earlier. It is just that there were no alienated political types around to lay the blame on political leaders. It appears that Labor, under its new leadership team of Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek, is intent on thwarting the Abbott government’s determination to junk the carbon tax. This despite the fact that before the 2013 election Rudd said Labor would terminate this tax.

Labor’s position appears to be that it will only support Abbott if he agrees to replace the carbon tax with an emissions trading scheme. This overlooks the fact that Abbott went to the election with a promise to junk the carbon tax and not to introduce an ETS.

There are some forthright Labor backbenchers who want Labor to cut its losses and drop its carbon pricing policies – just as the Coalition dropped WorkChoices after its comprehensive defeat in 2007. The South Australian MP Nick Champion is in this camp as is West Australian senator Mark Bishop. But they appear to be in a minority.

Certainly, as backbenchers, Champion and Bishop have a freedom to speak which is not shared by many of their colleagues. However, their approach is politically sound. Rudd lost his way in early 2010 when Labor dropped the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme without replacing it. From that time he was deauthorised and was replaced by Julia Gillard in June 2010.

Gillard at least managed to form a minority government after the August 2010 election. However, the former prime minister also became deauthorised when, in February 2011, she broke her promise not to introduce a carbon tax. Rudd and Gillard are victims of Labor’s carbon pricing obsession, which does not enjoy popular support.

Shorten could be heading the same way. If Labor and the Greens defeat Abbott’s carbon tax repeal legislation, there could be a double dissolution. Alternatively, the Coalition may have the numbers to abolish carbon pricing after the new Senate takes effect on July 1.

The problem for Shorten is that even if Abbott gets his carbon tax abolition through the Senate, this issue does not go away while Labor remains committed to a trading scheme. Unless Labor does to carbon pricing what the Coalition did to WorkChoices, Shorten will have to campaign in the election scheduled for late 2016 on a promise to introduce an ETS or some other form of carbon pricing. It is quite likely that neither the US nor Canada will have a nationwide ETS by then. In such a situation, Abbott would be able to paint Labor as the party of higher energy prices that will make Australia less competitive on world markets.

Labor’s choice right now is not helped by the sense of urgency engendered by the tragic NSW bushfires and the perception that unusually high temperatures are the cause. Yesterday, a colleague sent me a clipping from the Herald reporting that on October 13, 1946, the temperature in Sydney reached 35 degrees. At least the Prime Minister can’t be blamed for that.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.