Gosh, suppose they gave an execution and the firing squad never showed up?

Yesterday wasn’t so much a damp squib as sopping wet. Where were the hordes of Coalition MPs that we were told, several weeks ago, were inimically opposed to any sort of negotiation of any kind? Where was the imminent collapse of the Turnbull leadership? Where was the partyroom revolt?

Journalists spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon milling around the Coalition partyroom chanting “fight fight fight” to no avail.

All they got was a marathon partyroom meeting, which eventually broke up just after it had clocked up its fourth hour. Malcolm Turnbull, who had the glazed eyes of man who had just endured several hours of speeches saying much the same thing, emerged to tell of his success.

It wasn’t for a dearth of breathless coverage. Barnaby Joyce had missed his flight, we found out early on. Pitifully, a major discussion on the complex economic mechanism designed to address climate change would have to start without the benefit of the views of a man who understands neither economics nor climate science. On the way in, Dennis Jensen refused to rule out crossing the floor. Hardened journos picked themselves up off the floor in shock.

But it had been clear for some time that what some in the media were pitching a while ago as the gunfight at the OK Corral would be a borefest.

Let’s reprise Turnbull’s tactics, for the umpteenth time. He has been working slowly and – for the most part – patiently to drag his party from a position of outright opposition to the CPRS to the point where it at least had a choice of strategies – either head off the possibility of a double dissolution election on climate change by voting for an amended version of the CPRS, or fight one from a position of protecting Australian jobs. Neither option is, one suspects, particularly good for the Opposition, but at least they’d be masters of their own fate, rather than reflexively yelling “no” and being pummelled by Kevin Rudd at an election.

Turnbull’s opponents in this quest have been the Nationals, who don’t think climate change is happening or, more to the point, probably don’t care, and who won’t vote for anything to address it, some Liberal climate sceptics like Jensen and Corey Bernardi, and the likes of Wilson Tuckey who believe in climate change but who are strongly opposed to an ETS and strongly enamoured of a high public profile for themselves. And you can count among Turnbull’s opponents elements of the right-wing media who want to see the back of Turnbull as leader and who, either because they are scientifically illiterate or just plain bloody-minded, oppose action on climate change as well.

Throw in your usual Gallery interest in leadership issues and that’s why yesterday was being billed as high drama.

But, perhaps conveniently, everyone else was in on the giggle as well. Turnbull was happy to play up the drama, hoping to emerge from the meeting triumphant. He nearly wrecked his own strategy when he lashed out at Tuckey and co as “reckless and irresponsible” and “smartarses” the other week, but it played out pretty much as planned.

And Penny Wong – well, a press conference hasn’t gone by for the last six months in which she hasn’t declared that one thing or another was a “test of Mr Turnbull’s leadership” and this, too, was another one.

It’s not an end point, of course. It’s just another milestone on Turnbull’s slow journey of dragging his colleagues to his desired destination of having some options on climate change. Barring a point-blank refusal by Penny Wong to negotiate seriously with Ian Macfarlane – and such is Wong’s intransigence and utter unwillingness to negotiate that that’s a real possibility – the Government and the Liberals will now talk seriously about each of the Coalition demands, in a way that hasn’t previously happened. It’s hard to see the Government rejecting all of them outright, but equally hard to see them accepting the tens of billions of dollars extra that the amendments will cost.

Turnbull might get half of his amendments, and alternatives or poor replacements for the other half, to take back to the party room, again to try to drag his colleagues closer. If they can find a way of delaying the ETS vote until next year, that will go a long way toward solving Turnbull’s dilemma or, given the likely outcome of Copenhagen, at least postponing it until Coalition MPs start demanding to know why Australia should take any action when the rest of the world is sitting on its hands.

But that crisis is a while off. Time is Turnbull’s ally, and every day that goes by he inches closer to his goal.

That doesn’t mean the fate of his leadership isn’t uncertain, because as we keep seeing, he is prone to brain explosions of one kind or another on a regular basis. But his internal strategy on the CPRS have always been sound.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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