Contrary to the nonsense peddled by Kevin Rudd in Question Time yesterday, Malcolm Turnbull didn’t get rolled by his party room yesterday at all.

Turnbull is much smarter than that. He carefully prepared his package before he went to the party room. He wasn’t about to risk a repeat of that freezing cold day last year when Brendan Nelson emerged from a prolonged shadow cabinet meeting to explain to the assembled media, in carefully-coded words, that he’d been beaten to a pulp by his colleagues on the issue of delaying an ETS.

Turnbull’s problem can be summarised by that marvellous biblical phrase, long since descended into cliché, that was first deployed by Abraham Lincoln over another emotive issue: a house divided cannot stand. The Coalition house is not so much divided as subdivided and ready for an exciting new 20-townhouse development. “Rural charm, urban lifestyle” is the line from developer’s sign, but no one wants to buy off the plan.

The Nationals will not vote for any emissions trading scheme. Doesn’t matter what it looks like. Not even if it’s the US scheme with 100% protection for trade-exposed industries. Hell, you could actually increase assistance to 150%, or 200% — you could start paying big polluters to spew carbon into the atmosphere — and the Nats wouldn’t have a bar of it. So as far as the Nats are concerned, deferral or defeat are all as one. This is Ron “the planet is cooling” Boswell this morning:

Q: What do you think about delaying the ETS?

Boswell: I support it as long as we end up voting against it. That’s the thing we’ve to go over the line we’ve got enough people to defeat it if that means we’ve got to wait a couple of months, well fair enough I’m prepared to do that but as long we’ve got enough people to defeat it.

Then there are those who genuinely want to address climate change such as Greg Hunt, most particularly, but also Malcolm Turnbull himself (the Liberal Party is the only party in Parliament other than the Greens led by someone who actually wants to do something about climate change). Their hope is that they can drive the debate toward other “tools” to address climate change, such as biosequestration and better land use.

Then there are those who may not be fully convinced about climate change but are inclined to “give the planet the benefit of the doubt”. They’re usually to be found living next door to those who worry about being perceived as climate change sceptics by voters regardless of their personal views.

Then there are the Dennis Jensen types who think climate change is a crock and oppose doing anything at all and don’t care who knows it. The sort of people who take Ian Plimer seriously.

And of course there’s Peter Costello, who isn’t sure what he believes in on climate change or anything else, but so despises Malcolm Turnbull that he’ll do anything to make life difficult for him.

Yesterday Turnbull got agreement to a package that accommodates everyone except, possibly, Costello. As an exercise in internal politics, it was extraordinarily skilful stuff from Turnbull. The Nats are in the tent because they’re happy to delay as long as they can kill the ETS; the proponents of action are happy because the 5-25% target has been accepted and a voluntary scheme has been proposed from 1 January 2010. Those who just wish the issue would go away are happy because they don’t have to resolve the issue now and there’s a good excuse — the Yanks are working up their own legislation — to delay further.

However much it’s a cliché, though, Lincoln was right. You can’t stay divided on a critical issue for very long. Malcolm Turnbull’s deferral is a deferral of the inevitable. The day of reckoning will come one way or another. Turnbull is hoping that the delay will give him some means of keeping his house together, that the Government will make a crucial blunder, that he can move the debate away from an ETS on to other measures more acceptable to conservatives.

In short, that something will turn up.

But the risk is that, when he runs out of reasons to delay, circumstances are even worse than they are now, and he’ll have no control over them.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

Peter Fray

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