Cal it a brain snap if you like, but it was an entirely understandable one.

Malcolm Turnbull had just spent a fortnight in England, a country in which man-made climate change is a given and the need for action accepted by both side of politics. There is ongoing debate about exactly what should be done and how much of it, but no even half-serious politician suggests that standing on the sidelines is an option.

Both Labour and the Conservatives agree that there is a real problem that requires real policy measures and that if these measures require sacrifices on the part of both industries and consumers, that is a price that has to be paid. Indeed, in some respects Tory leader David Cameron is more radical on the subject than Prime Minister Gordon Brown. So we can assume his conversations with Turnbull on the subject were amiable and supportive. It must have been a refreshing change.

And then Turnbull returned to Australia and to headlines claiming that a large majority of his own party room (never mind the Nationals) were adamantly opposed to his policy of negotiating with the government over emissions trading. They wanted to do nothing until at least next year and perhaps indefinitely; a program of concerted inaction. So, finding himself surrounded once again by drongos and knuckle-draggers, Turnbull decided to crash through or crash, as Gough Whitlam, a politician whom Turnbull admires (another reason for his colleagues to distrust him) once put it.

Whitlam’s ultimatums, with which he threatened both his party organization and his caucus critics, were based on the belief that they needed him more than he needed them; that he was the only leader who could take them back to government after more than 20 years in opposition. Turnbull’s position is not nearly as strong — indeed, given the polls, he might even be seen as something of a handicap to the coalition’s chances.

But no one else wants the job, and the only remotely credible contenders — Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey — have both declared their support both for Turnbull and for his policy on climate change. Thus the likelihood is that Turnbull will prevail, but not that he will win a total victory. He has already admitted that there will be recalcitrants, and that some may cross the floor and vote against him. He dismisses this as a matter for the individuals concerned, but whether his party, and perhaps more importantly the government, will see it that way is another matter.

Kevin Rudd has always said that he is willing to talk to Turnbull about amendments to the Emissions Trading Bill only when they have been approved by Turnbull’s party room. The Nationals have more or less locked themselves out already, and there is a hard core of Liberals taking the same line in the name of ideological purity (another of Whitlam’s bon mots was that the impotent are always pure).

There is little doubt that when the crunch comes Turnbull can persuade a majority of his own party to agree to the amendments which he will take to Rudd; but what happens if Rudd rejects some or all of them and Turnbull has to go back to the party room and give them a choice of either voting for a bill they find unacceptable or facing an unwinnable double dissolution, after which the bill will be passed anyway?

If the worst comes to the worst, Turnbull could probably deliver enough Liberal senators to get the bill through the senate; he only needs seven Liberal senators out of 32, and he already has six cabinet ministers who are theoretically at least committed. But such a victory would give new meaning to the term Pyrrhic; it would certainly split the coalition, would probably split the Liberal party and would certainly make Turnbull’s leadership untenable.

So it might appear that the opposition is having a certain amount of difficulty over climate change — or in other words that it’s a long way up shit creek in a barbed wire canoe without a paddle.

This is true, but the situation is not totally without hope. All that is necessary is for each member to take the simple test set out below. Please read the instructions carefully: members of the National Party and Wilson Tuckey may move their lips while doing so.

Pens, pencils and thumbnails dipped in tar ready? Then go …

Either: (a) you accept the science of man-made climate change or (b) you don’t.

If (b) retire to your cave. If (a) then either: (c) you think we should do something about it or (d) you don’t.

If (d) go to the cave, taking a large amount of emergency supplies with you. If (c) either: (e) you believe an emissions trading scheme should be part of the solution or (f) you don’t.

If (f) go to the cave and don’t come out until you’ve had a better idea. If (e) either: (g) you accept the government’s version of an ETS or (h) you want to amend it.

If (g) — oh, hang on, there aren’t any of you. If (h) go and talk to the cave-dwellers about your ideas. And either: (j) convince a majority of them to agree or (k) don’t. If (k) scream and scream and scream until you turn blue in the face. It won’t work, but nor will anything else. If (j) take your amended plan back to the government, who will either: (l) accept it or (m) not.

If (l), it all ends happily. If (m) go back to the cave and start working on an election slogan. And sorry, but “Troglodytes rule, OK?” is unlikely to hack it.

And on that cheerful note I’m off to Bali to attend the Ubud Writers Festival. Back in a fortnight. Endure your day.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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