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Turnbull is heading for a showdown with the party

9 October 2009 1,396 views No Comment

Imagine that, when John Howard was proposing a goods and services tax, all the media focus had been on Kim Beazley and Labor’s mixed views on the merits and politics of a GST.

It’s almost inconceivable that the opposition has managed to make itself the issue when it’s actually the government that is proposing a new carbon tax to cascade through the entire economy. But that’s what Malcolm Turnbull has achieved.

Turnbull is a highly intelligent, articulate man who has succeeded in a series of highly competitive fields. It’s a credit to his sense of public service that he’s been prepared to offer himself to parliamentary life. Still, leading a political party is too hard for gifted amateurs, as Turnbull seems to be finding out in the hardest possible way. John Howard often described politics as a great test of character. It’s even harder in opposition, because almost nothing is ever finally decided and there are few consolation prizes for people who don’t get their way.

The big difference between Turnbull’s situation and that of his predecessor a year ago is that no one is stalking him for the leadership. Only Turnbull can end his leadership. No one will do it for him. Yet by raising the stakes in the way he has, Turnbull has turned his survival into an even-money bet.

On the Rudd government’s proposed emissions trading scheme, Turnbull had three options: to support it in principle while reserving the right to be critical of its implementation; to oppose it in principle but to let it through the parliament on the grounds that the government had a mandate; or to oppose it in principle and to use every parliamentary opportunity to stop it.

The right course to adopt would have depended on Turnbull’s own assessment of the merits and the politics of the issue. And because democratic leaders can’t simply dictate to their followers, it would also have depended on his assessment of just how far he could take his colleagues. As things have turned out, Turnbull has neither argued a consistent line himself nor kept abreast of his colleagues’ misgivings. Too often, people have been left guessing as to Turnbull’s personal convictions and about his political view of the issue.

If, from the outset, Turnbull had a clear understanding of what he wanted, he has never made that apparent to his MPs and to the wider world. His most definitive statement was a speech to the Young Liberals in January, in which kept his options open regarding the ETS by stressing alternative means of securing deep cuts in carbon emissions. In June, when the government first put its ETS proposal to parliament, he said that any Australian scheme finalised before the Copenhagen conference and binding international agreements would be premature. Further, to be acceptable to the opposition, any eventual Australian scheme would have to give our jobs and industries at least as much protection as the proposed American scheme. But instead of refusing to negotiate with the government prior to Copenhagen, he then offered to negotiate a compromise during the very period when he had previously said that no legislation should be concluded. It’s hardly surprising that opposition backbenchers became restive when their leader seemed to be doing precisely what he had said shouldn’t be done.

It’s far from certain that Turnbull can now extricate himself from this extraordinary tangle. It was probably frustration rather than a subliminal desire to chuck a job that had become too hard that prompted his ‘back me or sack me’ outburst. It’s pretty clear, though, that it has crystalised many MPs’ doubts about his judgment and suitability as leader. It’s not that Turnbull isn’t accessible; it’s his reluctance to take other perspectives seriously that is annoying his party and its supporters. Unless he’s now prepared to craft a position that respectfully accommodates his party’s views, he could soon be the latest federal opposition leader to become political roadkill.

There is a way forward. The opposition’s new climate change spokesman, the highly-regarded and steady Ian Macfarlane, is preparing amendments that will exempt farmers from the need to buy emission licences, give more support to the coal industry, and make any deep cuts conditional on reciprocal action by the big emitters. If the government substantially accepts these amendments, Turnbull could claim to be the joint author of an ETS that helps the environment but protects Australian jobs. Such a victory is a remote possibility, because it would require Kevin Rudd to concede that he alone couldn’t save the world. The government’s likely rejection of the opposition’s key amendments means that Turnbull could claim to have done his best to secure a climate change solution while leading a united Coalition and all his fellow Liberals in voting against a bad bill.

Unpassed, the ETS would remain an issue for the Liberals and a distraction from focusing on debt and deficit. On the other hand, any attempt to wave through an ETS without serious amendments would now be an even bigger political problem, splitting the Coalition, dividing the Liberal Party and, most likely, terminating Turnbull’s leadership. Although Turnbull’s formal position would certainly allow him to reject the government’s legislation in the event that the Coalition’s amendments are not accepted, his obvious frustration suggests that he just wants the bill to pass. It’s at this point, sometime in the next sitting fortnight, that he risks a fatal showdown with his party room.

The conduct of his two potential successors has been illuminating. Tony Abbott hit the airwaves, acknowledging his scepticism about the science of climate change but arguing for Turnbull’s position as sensible insurance if the alarmists are right. In the process, he probably annoyed his fellow sceptics as much as those who don’t like any questioning of climate change pieties. Seemingly, he helped Turnbull but not himself. Joe Hockey, on the other hand, avoided public discussion but was reportedly calling on colleagues to support Turnbull’s position. It showed why Hockey is the Liberal most likely to get Turnbull’s job, but not to do it particularly well. Despite some scepticism in the media and among his fellow Liberals, Tony Abbott is still the best alternative to Turnbull, if or when the leader falls over.

Spectator Australia, 9 October 2009

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