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Malcolm Turnbull politics

There’s a storm brewing for Malcolm Turnbull that may erupt on a number of fronts in the next week or two. When the tempest hits, it will be due to the prime minister’s increasingly bold moves to shift the government closer to the political centre.

Given these moves involve shifting the Coalition’s administration to the left, it’s causing considerable angst for conservative warriors — both outside and inside the government.

First there was this year’s federal budget, which seems to have the whiff of socialism for anyone who dresses to the right of the political spectrum. These conservative stalwarts were reportedly prepared to hold their noses on the condition that the treasonous budget delivered dividends in the opinion polls.

Tony Abbott initially toed the line, after failing to instigate a party room revolt over the Gonski 2.0 reforms. Abbott told his tabloid radio fans the budget was the best the government could do in the circumstances, given the Senate’s unwillingness to pass a “savings budget” like the one he tried to implement in 2014.

However Turnbull’s uneasy truce with conservative MPs was shattered when Pauline Hanson unsuccessfully tried to get the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to confirm there was a connection between refugees and terrorism.

Conservatives were already cranky the PM had seemingly avoided giving an Abbott-like rant against Islamism in the days following the Sydney siege inquest and the terrorist attack in Manchester. The concomitant refusal by Australia’s chief spook to tar all refugees with the terrorist brush sent them into apoplexy.

Following the latest terrorist attack in London on the weekend, the conservative right will be bristling with righteous vindication and wishing they’d been the first to think of the appalling meme posted by Pauline Hanson on social media.

They’ll also be ramping up pressure on Turnbull to “open up” a conversation on the connection between Islam and terrorism and take a more forceful position on the issue.

Against the background of a dead-cat budget that the conservatives hate and their heightened calls for Turnbull to man-up on Islam, the PM will reportedly provide his detractors with yet another line of attack this week.

Tactical leaks and background briefings to the media have been preparing the ground for the government to respond to the Finkel review due to be released at the end of this week with a proposal to adopt a technology-agnostic low emissions target to strengthen the security of Australia’s electricity supply.

The low emissions target is Plan B after an earlier proposal to adopt an Emissions Intensity Scheme (EIS) was dropped almost as soon as it was raised. This was due to Liberal conservatives protesting that an EIS was the same as a carbon tax. They argued the Coalition needed to be able to use Labor’s support for carbon pricing as a key point of differentiation, given electricity prices are a deciding factor for voters on low and middle incomes.

Finkel’s low emissions target is meant to mollify the Coalition’s hard right, because it will be open to low emissions technologies that use coal. It remains to be seen whether a new low-emissions coal-fired plant or the retrofitting of old plants with carbon capture and storage will stack up, even with a government subsidy.

Even so, adoption of a low emissions target will likely be depicted by the government’s far right MPs as muddying the clean line of distinction between the Coalition and Labor. Their preferred path for coal is for Turnbull to follow Trump and withdraw from the Paris treaty.

By holding fast to this increasingly progressive approach, Turnbull is starting to deliver the centrist government many voters expected of him. But in doing so the PM will also incite a perfect storm of resistance from the conservative insurgents within his own party.

Peter Fray

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