As of this morning, there is either a rift over emissions trading between Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Hunt on the one hand, and Brendan Nelson on the other, or Brendan Nelson is struggling to understand his own party’s position.

Within hours of Greg Hunt assuring us yesterday of the Coalition’s “rock-solid” commitment to an unconditional 2012 start-date for an ETS, Brendan Nelson was saying the “commencement date should occur in the context of having firm commitments from the rest of the world in terms of what they are going to do … it should occur in an environment where the blowtorch (that word again) has been applied to the major emitters throughout the world and we have a commitment from them in terms of the action that they will actually undertake.”

Let’s be a bit careful about interpreting all this. Usually the media is too ready to play up divisions within political parties as a fatal flaw, instead of being legitimate differences that are a critical part of the policy debate. Given the top-down control exercised over Coalition MPs during the Howard years, policy differences on the conservative side are a healthy sign at this stage of the electoral cycle. But when differences illustrate deeper tensions they begin to take on a greater importance.

The official Coalition line — articulated last night and repeated this morning to Crikey and the mainstream media — is that the Coalition leadership agreed to an unconditional 2012 start date last week and that position has been reaffirmed this week. Each time Nelson has spoken about conditional start dates, queries to his office from his colleagues — specifically, Turnbull, Hunt and Julie Bishop — have met with the response that there has been no change in the agreed position.

Coalition spokesmen and MPs are — in some cases rather halfheartedly — pushing the misinterpretation line — that Nelson is not backing away from an unconditional start date, just emphasising that the big emitters must be signed up before we adopt an ambitious target under the scheme. But there’s no misinterpretation. Nelson’s words are clear, if slightly softer yesterday than on Monday, when he talked about being “absolutely sure” that other countries had a start date for their own scheme.

Julie Bishop has been loyally arguing the agreed position but she really doesn’t have a dog in this fight. Emissions trading — and the 2012 start date — is Turnbull and Hunt’s policy — not to mention the previous Government’s. In hewing rightward on an ETS, Nelson is opening up an opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to seek to restore the Coalition’s climate change credibility — or what little it obtained with its late shift under John Howard. Judging by his Lateline comments, one senses a certain exasperation on Turnbull’s part about having to deal with this.

An alternative is that there is indeed no difference, but Nelson doesn’t grasp the nuances of the Coalition’s position sufficiently to argue them effectively. The Coalition has spun its wheels for the best part of a week on one of the big issues facing Australia at a key moment in the debate. Nelson is solely responsible for this, not anyone else in his team. The Greens were moving yesterday to take advantage of the confusion, declaring that they should be the Government’s main negotiating partners over the ETS rather than the Opposition, who had “abandoned the territory.”

Perhaps Malcolm Turnbull needs to reclaim it, a task best done from the leadership.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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