It’s all over but the shouting — Tony Abbott has signed the government’s death warrant by creating disunity within the Coalition over the Finkel review. For as the battle-scarred Labor opposition is so fond of saying: we’ve seen this movie before, and there’s nothing to suggest it will end any differently this time.
Abbott knows the old maxim “disunity is death” is more than a glib three-word slogan — it’s an undeniable political reality.
But once again, a petulant and embittered former leader has judged his revenge is more important than the interests of the party to which he pledged fealty and the nation he swore to serve. And on polling day, voters will again express their disdain — not only for the perpetrator but the subject of his vengeance — by tossing out another “chaotic” government because it can’t keep its house in order.
The Coalition’s debate over the Finkel review appears to be about electricity prices, but it’s really about killing off Turnbull’s attempt to redeem himself with voters through an integrated energy and emissions policy. Just as Abbott did with Julia Gillard’s emissions reduction policy, the former PM is trying to provoke voter (and backbench) anxiety about Finkel’s Clean Energy Target by claiming it will increase the cost of living.
Turnbull and his team did their best to inoculate the report from such attacks. Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg spoke personally to the government MPs most likely to have concerns, against a backdrop of public support for a Clean Energy Target being expressed by energy sector and other business leaders through the media.
The minister delivered a detailed briefing on the report to his colleagues at the joint party room meeting on Tuesday, and he made Chief Scientist Alan Finkel available for a lengthy Q&A session after that. Then at a second meeting that day, every government MP was given the opportunity to express their views.
This was a worthy (if not somewhat masochistic) and seemingly genuine attempt by the PM and his Energy Minister to give everyone a say before preparing the government’s response to the Finkel report.
But Abbott’s interventions have made it almost impossible for that response to meet both the original objective of the exercise — making low-emissions energy affordable and reliable — and a new set of objectives that Abbott claims should be the priority. These are to lower energy prices, continue the use of coal-fired power, and have a strong manufacturing sector.
According to Abbott, the “problem’ with the Finkel report is that it’s “all about reducing emissions” when Australia’s Paris commitments are merely an aspiration, and while “it’s nice to reduce emissions” we shouldn’t do so if it’s going to “clobber power prices, hurt households and cost jobs”.
In a departure from his earlier tendency to backflip every time Abbott complained, Turnbull has notably pushed back against his predecessor on the Finkel taunts. The PM observed that “glib answers and one-liners” had not helped to keep Australian energy affordable and secure, that “glib leadership” was responsible for increased energy prices and decreased energy security, and that Australians needed “wise leadership, not glib leadership”.
According to Turnbull, there’s been “too much politics, too much ideology, not enough economics, [and] not enough engineering” in the discussion of Australia’s energy future. “My commitment is to ensure that Australians have affordable, reliable energy, and that we meet our commitments, our international commitments to cut our emissions.”
Interestingly, Abbott’s strategy is based on an outdated belief that voters are open to the argument that low-emissions energy causes high energy costs. At the very least, voters in the 2 million Australian households that generate clean and cheap electricity from their rooftops will be resistant to Abbott’s ploy. Many of those households contain Liberal voters.
And judging by the fact that Abbott could muster only a dozen Liberals to speak against the Finkel report (the rest were Nationals, who don’t have a vote for the Liberal leadership), it’s fair to say he doesn’t have anywhere near the numbers for a spill.
However, the broader community of Australian voters, who are barely watching federal politics this far out from an election, will register only that Turnbull is still squabbling with Abbott and the government is still wracked with division when it should be focused on serving the nation. Barring a very public –and genuine — rapprochement between the two men, this is the perception that will endure until polling day.
It’s tempting to wish the PM would find a way to spare himself — and us — from the months of soul-destroying civil war that lie before us, in what are undeniably the dying days of the Turnbull Coalition government. The PM could do us all a favour by dropping in to Bill Shorten’s office, conceding the match and handing over the keys to Lodge, before visiting the Governor-General to deliver his letter of resignation.
Of course, that won’t happen. No matter how this plays out, Turnbull can’t avoid the ignominy of defeat, and we voters won’t be spared from witnessing the ordeal.
However, there is a way that Malcolm Turnbull can emerge from the conflagration that is yet to come with what little remains of his integrity. Given he has little else to lose, the PM could fight to the death on the Finkel reforms, developing a credible energy and emissions policy and using his authority to gain cabinet endorsement, even if unanimous support from the joint party room is unattainable.
Yes, that would inevitably lead to usual Liberal and National insurgents crossing the floor to vote against any such “greenish” policy. But with Labor’s support in both houses of Parliament, the Finkel reforms would still prevail. This bipartisan signal would give the energy industry the certainty it desperately needs to make the investments that will bring electricity prices — and emissions — down.