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Australian Climate Madness

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Playing politics with the ETS

It's been a rollercoaster week in climate change politics, with Malcolm Turnbull throwing down the gauntlet and staking his leadership on the Coalition negotiating with the government on the ETS before Copenhagen. The commentary in the media is mixed, with many saying Turnbull is taking the only sensible course, whilst others question his hot-headed reaction to the issue. Peter van Onselen in The Australian sums it up well:
At the beginning of the week The Australian surveyed the entire Liberal Party back bench. It is something the leadership team should have done a long time ago. Of the 59 parliamentarians contacted, a staggering 41 said they did not support Turnbull's desire to negotiate with a view to passing the government's ETS legislation ahead of the Copenhagen conference on climate change in December. Only 12 MPs agreed with their leader's position. That's one in five.

Initially Turnbull chose to question the survey's findings instead of learn from them. At a press conference on Wednesday, soon after returning from a short holiday in Italy, he said: "We can have journalists, you know, ringing up backbenchers and purporting to do surveys. Who knows how accurate they are?"

If Turnbull wants to question the findings of the survey, then that is his prerogative; shooting the messenger is one way to deal with a leadership crisis. Another would be to take stock of the findings and try to do something about it.

Perhaps Turnbull is more persuaded by established survey operations such as Newspoll, which for many months has shown him to be the least popular opposition leader in our nation's history.

After initial attempts to cast doubt on the findings of the survey, Turnbull turned half circle and realised he should probably emulate it and began ringing his colleagues to better understand their views on the ETS. Better late than never.

However, by the end of the week, Turnbull had had enough with soundings and consensus building, choosing instead to describe backbench colleagues critical of his leadership as "anonymous smart-arses". He boldly declared that if his party didn't support his position on ETS negotiations he didn't want to be leader. (Why he wants to be leader now anyway is another matter.) That was the threat.

So where to from here for Turnbull and the Liberal Party? He can't let the partyroom discredit his leadership by blocking him from even negotiating with the government, but the partyroom won't want a vote on the ETS legislation ahead of Copenhagen.

So the face-saving compromise is likely to involve getting the partyroom to support tough amendments that the government won't accept. The vote could then be delayed in the Senate by the Coalition dragging out debate and using its numbers to deny the government the chance to speed up the process. That would effectively meet the backbench desire to wait until after Copenhagen without embarrassing Turnbull (well, not too much anyway).

Turnbull would thus get to the end of the year before being forced to choose between supporting the wishes of his back bench and his desire to pass an ETS, thereby avoiding a double-dissolution election on climate change. In a sign late in the week that he was planning for the worst on this score, he weakened his rhetoric on the chances of the ETS passing, noting that he might well end up voting against it.

There is no easy way out for the besieged Opposition Leader. He has certainly made the situation harder for himself.

Read it here.


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