It’s been clear for several weeks that Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership would suffer serious damage if his backbench colleagues knocked back the raft of amendments Ian Macfarlane is preparing for the Government’s CPRS bill. Turnbull’s statement yesterday that it would become a leadership issue if they did so was only a statement of the obvious.

Just to make things crystal-clear, Turnbull said he wouldn’t “lead a party that is not as committed to as effective action on climate change as I am”.

Putting aside that he has been leading just such a party for over 12 months, if he had confined his remarks to those, it would have been an aggressive but fairly safe gamble to force recalcitrants into line.

Turnbull isn’t worried his backbench will reject his strategy. He is confident he will convince most of his backbenchers of the implacable logic that rejecting the CPRS amendments would be electoral suicide. By lifting the stakes in the way he did yesterday, he increases the pressure on the holdouts to fall into line. It also enables him to paint a successful partyroom outcome as a major victory, and perhaps a circuit-breaker for a leader mired in months of terrible polls.

And the true recalcitrants are small in number once you ignore the Nationals, who are in denial about climate change, the desire of Australians to address climate change, and the fact that they themselves committed to an ETS before the last election. They were never going to vote for emissions trading of any kind. So who in the Liberal Party is the problem? The same names keep recurring. Wilson Tuckey, who can’t resist a microphone. Corey Bernardi, a right-winger bitter about being sacked by Turnbull for indiscipline. Turncoat Nat Julian McGauran. Outright denialist Dennis Jensen.

As John Hewson put it so aptly this morning in an interview, there are some politicians who prefer being in Opposition, where it’s easier to get a profile, than in Government.

But in his language today, Turnbull is changing this argument from one about climate change and electoral tactics to one about his own style and leadership. You can tell from the reaction of some of his colleagues, who started to use terms like “brain snap”.

Calling those among his own MPs who refused to fall into line “reckless and irresponsible” and, later, “anonymous smartarses”, is not merely likely to get their backs up — making negotiation and compromise an ever-more distant outcome — but will again concentrate everyone’s minds on the way Turnbull does politics.

Remember that Government campaign about Turnbull’s judgment? The incessant suggestion, in the aftermath of the Godwin Grech business, that he lacked it? By so aggressively going after a rump of disaffected backbenchers, Turnbull will again prompt even supportive colleagues to wonder if he simply lacks what it takes to succeed at the highest level in politics.

The thing is, on this issue, Turnbull has until now been uncharacteristically patient, slowly shifting his party inch by inch toward resolving the CPRS issue. There’s been no crash-or-crash-through, none of the usual Turnbull-at-a-gate tactics so vividly displayed in the famed email disaster.

Until today. Maybe he had exhausted his patience, and simply had to lash out. Maybe he was so sick of Lilliputian attacks from the likes of Tuckey that he felt he needed to slap him down. But all he needed to do was hang on for a couple more weeks.

Confirming that his leadership was on the line is one thing. But now he’s not merely done that, he’s attacked his own colleagues – that last thing a leader who wants to forge a united position should have done. By doing so, he’s increased the possibility that the leadership issue, which he has put on the table, could spiral out of control.

Some observers wonder if Turnbull is deliberately setting himself an impossible hurdle that will give him an excuse to resign on an important issue. That might make sense if Turnbull had ever walked away from a fight of any kind, did not enjoy fighting more than not fighting, and was not obsessed with becoming Prime Minister. You could construct a complex scheme in which Turnbull resigns rather than “lead a party that is not as committed to as effective action on climate change as I am”, sits on the backbench for a couple of years, then replaces his replacement in time to take the Coalition to the 2013 election, which they might have a greater chance of winning. But that involves Turnbull sitting on the backbench twiddling his thumbs for an extended period. John Howard might have been content to do that, but not Turnbull, who has a few more strings to his bow than his former leader.

The Government must be quietly rubbing their hands in glee. As usual when the Opposition undergoes its now-regular bouts of turmoil, senior ministers have dropped out of sight to let them hog the media’s attention, although the earthquakes and a community cabinet meeting in Geraldton mean that’s even more the case than usual.

The strategy to use climate change primarily as a political weapon is surely succeeding beyond their expectations.

This morning John Hewson posed the question “why is the Government so determined to use this to destroy Malcolm Turnbull — are they that worried about him?” The answer is not that they’re worried about him — they haven’t worried about him since the Godwin Grech disaster – but simply this: because they can. Labor doesn’t give anyone a break. Never has, never will.

What they probably didn’t count on was Turnbull’s propensity to do their work for them.

*Listen to yesterday’s Canberra Calling, “The two 22s and a large fried rice podcast

Peter Fray

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