Malcolm Turnbull is caught in a pincer movement between Liberal conservatives and Kevin Rudd and both appear determined to destroy him.
If Turnbull had a solid core of support amongst moderates, he might be able to face this challenge with some confidence. But even former supporters believe he is treading water.
Now that the Oceanic Viking debacle is behind them, the Government can concentrate on applying maximum pressure on Turnbull on the CPRS. The best means of doing that is, peculiarly, to give him what he has asked for, or some semblance of it, creating the impression the Government is willing to compromise in order to strike a deal.
On one side is acceptance of all the Coalition’s demands, which won’t happen, partly because of the sheer cost to the Budget. On the other side is rejection of most of the Coalition’s demands, which will be sufficient for Turnbull to recommend to his colleagues that they say no.
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There’s a gap in between, an uncertain space into which the Government would dearly love to lure Turnbull, so that he has to seriously consider recommending to his partyroom acceptance of the compromise, thereby putting the Coalition’s deep divisions on show. Yesterday six Liberals told the joint party room there should be no deal of any kind. They included some of the usual suspects — Tuckey and Jensen — diehard Turnbull opponents like Bronwyn Bishop, and, significantly, Mitch Fifield, a shadow Parliamentary Secretary who has more substance than a renegade like Corey Bernardi. Fifield was the erstwhile Costello supporter who — in the bizarre way the Liberals conduct their factional affairs — was the party conservatives’ choice to replace Bernardi when the latter was sacked for bringing his war with Christopher Pyne into the open.
While, based on Treasury’s numbers, the Government is constrained in what additional compensation it can offer to polluters, it has some options on how it meets the Coalition’s demand for extra handouts. It can increase or extend compensation in later years — extending compensation for electricity generators beyond five years, for example, or agree to remove the tapering that will progressively reduce compensation to EITEs. This has the biggest effect in the latter part of the next decade, but at the moment may as well be Monopoly money, about which only perhaps Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner is professionally concerned at this point. That would also give the Government a handy response to Opposition criticisms about “debt and deficits” — to wit: “you’re the ones who blew the budget out in future years with your CPRS amendments.”
They could also fiddle with household compensation, based on the idea that the more compensation for electricity generators, the lower the price effect on consumers.
In the end, if they can’t agree a compromise package, there’s no downside for the Government. The Prime Minister simply gets to go to the next election as the man who did everything he reasonably could to get a deal on climate change.
Some conservatives, meantime, will be hoping for exactly the same outcome as the Government — for Turnbull to take a deal to the partyroom. This would become a proxy leadership vote. If they could roll him — and there’s no indication at this point they have the numbers — Turnbull by his own rhetoric would be in an untenable position.
That’s why Nick Minchin continues to give voice at every opportunity to his climate denialism. Minchin may not believe in climate change, but he doesn’t have Wilson Tuckey’s inability to resist a microphone. Nor does he have Corey Bernardi’s bitterness. He is one of the Coalition’s smartest, most experienced figures and he knows better than anyone the value of unity and when it’s better to keep internal battles out of the public gaze. His ongoing commentary is deliberate and aimed at encouraging the partyroom to reject any deal with the Government, in effect destroying Turnbull’s authority and, most likely, his leadership.
So Turnbull has two cold-blooded political killers after him on the ETS. Given Turnbull’s combativeness, you’d normally say that would be just the way he likes it. But the stakes here are his political survival itself. And even if he manages to strike a deal that wins the support of his colleagues, it would simply give Rudd a major political victory. Both Rudd and Minchin would still be hunting him.
Oh — what’s that? Doing something about climate change? Don’t be silly. This is politics.