The Western Australian state election has made life for the troubled Turnbull government even worse. The WA Liberals’ deal with One Nation, and Arthur Sinodinos’ idiotic use of the phrase “more sophisticated” about Hanson and her crazies, has created an unwanted association between the government and the racist extremist. When Hanson reiterated her scepticism about vaccinations and her enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin on the weekend, the Prime Minister was only too happy to find issues on which he could distance himself from her. But a Labor victory in the west, especially after Turnbull has been conspicuous in his absence from the state, will redouble questions about his leadership, even if not quite in the same way the ousting of Campbell Newman was a body blow for Tony Abbott.

But changing leaders won’t fix the problem that the Liberals are on the wrong side of two of the biggest policy debates in Australia: energy and housing affordability. In both cases rational policymaking has given way to scare campaigns. Treasurer Scott Morrison admitted negative gearing had “excesses” but pulled back and became its greatest defender and ardent critic of Labor’s plans to overhaul it; the government began investigating capital gains tax changes but had to signal a retreat when word leaked. Now the government is relying heavily on a successful housing affordability package in the budget to restore its political fortunes, ignoring the fact that budgets rarely provide any lasting improvement for a government — and ignoring the fact that it has abandoned its key policy lever on affordability, tax.

And in a policy rinse, repeat, the government included an emissions intensity scheme in its climate action review announced at the start of December, before abandoning it within days under pressure from the denialist right. In January that morphed into an absurd “clean coal” propaganda push linked with a scare campaign about renewable energy that had Turnbull dancing on the head of a pin when it was revealed he’d been explicitly told renewables had nothing to do with blackouts in South Australia.

As with capital gains tax and negative gearing reform, there’s widespread consensus among economists about the effectiveness of an emission intensity scheme for finding the most efficient way to transition to renewable energy, but it’s been shelved by the Liberals as a tool for political reasons.

Problematically, however, the policy ground is shifting under the government. Not merely has the energy industry rejected “clean coal” out of hand, big power generators EnergyAustralia and AGL Energy have both called for an emissions intensity scheme, as has BHP. And while big business in Australia has a track record of “supporting” climate action but bagging whatever mechanism governments come up with, now the National Farmers Federation has called for one as well. The government’s ruling out of an EIS in December is now looking very Canute-like. And not even the property industry can be relied on any more — last week the CEO of Stockland called for changes to rein in the “excesses” of negative gearing.

These problems will remain there, demanding a response, no matter who is Prime Minister. Perhaps a leader from the party’s right could, in a Little Golden Books version of “only Nixon could go to China”, force the Liberals to shift toward where mainstream thinking is. But that wouldn’t deal with the climate denialist Nationals, and anyway, it’s far more likely a Dutton or Abbott would simply revert to the constant scare campaigns that marked Abbott’s time even as prime minister. It didn’t work for him and it hasn’t worked for the Abbott-lite currently in the Lodge. Some deeper thinking is required in Liberal ranks than who has the numbers.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey