As if to demonstrate the basic fallacy of the global warming hypothesis, Brendan Nelson’s press conference yesterday in the Opposition Leader’s courtyard at Parliament House was held in arctic conditions, forcing the best and brightest of Australian political journalism to huddle together for warmth while waiting for Nelson to emerge and announce a harder stance on emissions trading.

The Australian — via which Nelson and his conservative backers had prepared the ground last week — was already declaring victory for Nelson, with its online edition quoting climate sceptic sources within the Coalition that Nelson had triumphed. And indeed, with Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Hunt adjusting their rhetoric in the days leading up to the meeting, it had looked like some deft political footwork from Nelson.

As it turned out, there was deft footwork all right — Nelson’s own cabinet delivered him a good kicking. It took Nelson a good five or six minutes of circumlocution to finally explain that Coalition policy remained exactly the same. Call it a triple backflip with verbiage. With a lengthy introduction about the need to do something about climate change, Nelson seemed on the verge of uttering that crucial “but” that would link doing anything to international efforts. It never came. Instead, he talked about the need to give the planet the benefit of the doubt, and be informed about what major emitters were doing, and how important international efforts were, and then… invited questions.

What was going on? Had Nelson found yet another position, different again to all the ones he had tried lately? Was he just not being clear about his victory? As journalists talked over one another to try to get him to explain the position further, it became clear that his new position was exactly the same as his old one. Lenore Taylor and Michelle Grattan drilled in, trying to pin him down on what had changed and what the “new” policy meant.

Nelson talked of the need to be “absolutely clear” when he was being anything but. Matt Franklin caused exasperated groans when he changed the subject to the Queensland merger, but the questions soon switched back to emissions trading (although, such are Nelson’s communication skills that he only needed that momentary diversion to accidentally dump on Ian Macfarlane).

“Have you been rolled?” he was asked, inducing a brief stumble that looked terrible on Nine News last night.

It was not characteristic of his performance — Nelson was his usual amiable, easy-going self, despite suffering the biggest defeat of his leadership so far. You’ve got to give the guy credit: when he’s not Emo Man, he’s very cool under pressure.

Not that you would’ve known it from News Ltd, which after the press conference was still describing Nelson’s triumph — ABC NewsRadio foolishly picked that up and ran with it as well. It wasn’t until a couple of hours later that reality set in and they began explaining that Nelson had copped a drubbing.

While there still might be some angry debate in the joint partyroom meeting from 10-3 today, this is a major victory for Turnbull and Hunt. Hunt told Crikey last week he was relaxed about the party’s internal processes and confident that they would reach a united position on emissions trading. His confidence was well-founded.

There has been plenty of commentary that there has been too much focus on the Opposition’s policy when the Government itself doesn’t have a settled position, and that in any event there’s not a great deal of difference between the two anyway. But Nelson’s preferred position wasn’t some marginal change in timing. It would have ensured Australia did nothing serious about carbon abatement for years, and minimised our capacity to contribute to any international agreement.

It would’ve meant massive uncertainty for business, and represented a step back from his party’s own position at the last election. And it would have ensured Australia was at the back of the pack in addressing climate change, confirming our reputation as having our collective heads deep in the sand on the issue.

However bad the Government’s proposed emissions trading scheme is, even with a low carbon price it’s better than doing nothing, and sets us up to quickly do more when we need to. And the sooner it starts, the lower the costs of actually reducing our emissions.

Nelson also, significantly, invited the Government to talk to him about emissions trading, and particularly the issue of starting in 2010. This might be an attempt to minimise the damage from his woeful handling of the issue, but on its face it is a commendable attempt to seek bipartisanship on a critical issue. Let’s see if the Prime Minister and Penny Wong are smart enough to accept it.

As for the impact of all this on Nelson’s leadership, well, don’t get too carried away. Nelson has shown he hasn’t the faintest idea what he is doing. But everyone knew that already, didn’t they?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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