The Nationals haven’t “turned on Turnbull” at all, contrary to claims in The Australian today. In fact, the Coalition’s positions (note the plural) on emissions trading remain the same as they’ve been for a while.

Some might suggest that The Oz is running a campaign to undermine any action on climate change and Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, but I’ll leave that for what’s left of its readership to determine.

Here’s what actually happening. For some time, the Liberal leadership has been resigned to the Nationals voting against any form of emissions trading. The Nats don’t believe in climate change and have developed a psychosis about emissions trading. Hell, if you slapped “ETS” on a good old-fashioned Nats-style pork barrel they’d vote against it.

That this amounts to a breach by the Nationals of their election promise to introduce an ETS probably doesn’t matter a great deal given the party’s struggle for relevance anyway, but Liberals such as Christopher Pyne are only too happy to point this out.

The Liberal leadership is also resigned to some Liberal backbenchers voting against it. Wilson Tuckey, obviously, but we knew that anyway. Dennis Jensen presumably will, but that, too, is hardly unexpected. Corey Bernardi, the right-winger from South Australia, is also expected to vote against it, and other senators such as Mathias Cormann are expected to as well. C’est la vie. Broad church, Liberal tradition, etc, etc.

That’s not to say the Nationals — or at least the more sensible ones — aren’t involved in the drafting of the Liberals’ ETS amendments. The amendments are being drafted by a group headed by Andrew Robb, with Greg Hunt and Turnbull’s office — and with input from Nationals Senators John Williams and Fiona Nash on issues such as biosequestration, where Turnbull, Hunt and Robb still harbour ambitions to steal a march on the Government.

The amendments the Liberals eventually put forward are therefore likely to be supported by at least those Nationals capable of rational thought on the issue, given they will offer incentives to farmers, even if they object to the ETS itself.

This may not be that important to whether they succeed or fail in the Senate, but it will be important for ensuring the Coalition joint party room approves the amendments. It would be a disaster for Turnbull — OK, yet another disaster — if his backbench rejected the amendments,  in terms of weakening his leadership and in depriving him of any basis for negotiation with the Government. In fact, it could well be fatal, something you can bet the Government is factoring in to its own calculations about if and when Turnbull’s demise might come about.

The Turnbull strategy is to minimise the amount of time that headlines such as  today’s keep occurring. The sooner the issue is off the agenda, which will only happen if an ETS is passed, the sooner he can get over perceptions of disunity and move the debate back onto economic policy. He doesn’t have a much stronger hand there to play against the government, but there is far less division on his own side — both among his own troops, and in the Liberal Party membership as well. Barnaby Joyce, whose primary interest is self-promotion, will doubtless find another issue to carry on about, but climate change hurts the Coalition because of a genuine community desire for change.

Despite the headlines and incessant criticism from the government, Turnbull is playing a shocking hand as well as he can. Given the government’s priority is undermining his leadership rather than getting its ETS legislation passed, Turnbull has no choice.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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