Malcolm Turnbull achieved a major victory yesterday, and on a critically important policy issue.

Except, due to the Government’s clever stage-management, the complex internal politics of climate change and, seemingly, his own stolid refusal to do anything other than oppose, he didn’t exploit it.

There should be no hiding the complete surrender by the Government yesterday — not merely to polluters, but to the Coalition, which has criticised the scheme for its impact on business, its failure to recognise the global recession, its low targets and for starting too soon. It is testament to how badly Penny Wong has fumbled things that what was a killer issue for the Government in 2007 and 2008 required a monumental backflip.

But the Government worked hard, and with some success, to obscure the abject nature of its retreat, with a bravura piece of stage-management.

For months its ETS hasn’t had a single supporter outside the Government. Indeed, this was one of its virtues, Penny Wong argued. But in recent weeks, the Government worked assiduously to bring groups on board with its revised model. The ever-reliable Heather Ridout was consulted, as was the Business Council. And a concerted effort was made to bring in the Southern Cross Climate Coalition, composed of the Australian Conservation Foundation, ACOSS, the ACTU and the Climate Institute, through meetings in the last fortnight. Key figures like Sharan Burrow and John Connor were called to Canberra on Sunday evening and preparations made for a coordinated response to the package.

Within half an hour of the Prime Minister’s announcement, the Southern Cross group were holding a press conference at Parliament House to support the changes, even if individual members like the ACF were less than thrilled with the delay and greater assistance to polluters. The BCA produced a supportive press release and Heather Ridout gave her endorsement. Key unionists also appeared to be worded up, with the CFMEU’s Tony Maher offering praise for the changes.

Moreover, the entire backflip had been developed and costed (complete with numbers in next week’s budget papers) in secret, with no leaks from ministers, bureaucrats or the non-government groups involved. Rumours only began circulating yesterday morning as Cabinet was signing off on the package and the announcement came barely two hours later. It was an astonishingly disciplined and organised performance — the sort Rudd specialises in.

Rather than point out that the Government had caved in to the Coalition’s arguments, however, Malcolm Turnbull said it still wasn’t good enough, yielding yet more grabs of him on the evening news appearing negative. Nothing will serve the Government’s agenda of contrasting its own moderation with the Coalition’s extremism better than Turnbull continuing to oppose the Government’s scheme. The Coalition is correct that there is no need to rush the legislation through, that there is no more certainty for business from legislating a Copenhagen-dependent range of targets than waiting until next year. But the Government’s rush to introduce its legislation is aimed entirely at making life difficult for a leader with climate sceptics in his own party and global cooling adherents in the party with which he’s in Coalition.

Turnbull’s dilemma will be made more acute by the fact that, unlike alcopops, the double dissolution may be a live option for the Government, which can now say it bent over backwards to meet Coalition demands about the scheme and still couldn’t get its support. Double dissolution threats don’t have to be plausible to make marginal seat holders start sweating, and this one, complete with tales to journalists of Government polling showing the community wants action on climate change, is the most plausible one yet.

There’s also the problem that most voters don’t have the faintest idea how an ETS will work, but support it, meaning debates over how it will work are likely to go right over their heads.

The Greens, meanwhile, were wrongfooted in their campaign against the Government’s ETS. They brought forward the launch of television ads targeting the CPRS with a poorly-attended press conference yesterday afternoon that suggested the Press Gallery had decided they were now irrelevant. Bob Brown was quick to point out they had been vindicated before on other issues where they were deemed “irrelevant”. The Government’s new 25% target notionally complies with the Greens’ bottom-line demand of a target of at least 25% and preferably 40% but the additional handouts to polluters and clumsy household action mechanism take the design of the scheme ever further away from what the Greens might feel inclined to cave in on.

However, all attention will be on the Liberals. On the economy, there may possibly, just possibly, be benefit in appearing remorselessly negative about the Government if economic conditions deteriorate massively between now and a 2010 election. There is no possible upside to appearing negative in climate change. Yesterday’s win is likely to be as good as it gets for the Liberals. They should accept it and use it to kill the issue before the Government uses it to hurt them again.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey