On the weekend over sixty bush fires were burning across New South Wales. It’s just gone mid-August. Last week saw the earliest total fire bans on record. 2018 is on course to be the fourth-hottest year globally on record — behind 2015, 2016 and 2017. Summer bush fires have killed scores in Europe and the US. Heat waves have killed scores more across the northern hemisphere.
But in Canberra, the argument over an energy policy that would do virtually nothing to curb Australia’s rising carbon emissions has become the ignition point for yet another bitter split that threatens the Liberal Party. The only fire a lot of people in Canberra are focused on this week is the one that threatens to engulf the Prime Minister.
So this morning a panicked Turnbull dumped his policy, jettisoning the emissions reductions targets from the National Energy Guarantee entirely and replacing them with a grab-bag of savage competition measures, including divestment powers, aimed at punishing power companies. The emissions targets remain a kind of vague aspiration, but one that Turnbull says he can’t get through parliament, so they’re on hold. It’s a complete capitulation to denialists in an effort to douse the fire around his leadership — not to mention an embrace of a whole new level of government interventionism from a government we were once promised would be “thoroughly liberal”.
Will it be enough? That seems unlikely now, with reports that the LNP president Gary Spence called on Queensland MPs to dump Turnbull in favour of Dutton to stave off a collapse in the party’s vote in Queensland. Remember, it was the wretched performance of the LNP and its candidate in Longman that sparked this conflagration in July; Spence in effect is demanding that Turnbull pay the price for his own and his party’s failure in a seat that, given One Nation’s preference decision, should have been a gimme.
Moreover, there are of course some in the Coalition who won’t be satisfied with anything Turnbull does because it’s not about policy. Turnbull, after all, was literally implementing Tony Abbott’s climate policy from when he was Prime Minister. Abbott demanded Turnbull change the NEG, and when he did, Abbott attacked the change over the weekend as “policy on the run”. We know that Abbott is the most inconsistent hypocrite in federal politics; if he really was a weathervane, his high-speed gyrations could power much of the energy grid.
Today’s Ipsos Fairfax poll only ups the pressure. Even The Oz, which normally looks askance at other polling, dutifully reported a shocker for the government, 55-45. Turnbull has had truly rotten luck with polls. He is well past due for a narrow Newspoll win, simply based on statistical variability, but hasn’t got one. And today’s poll looks bizarre. The Greens do not have 13% support across the country. And whether One Nation’s support is high enough to push “Other” to a remarkable 19% is also unclear. For all that, though, there’s a core truth in the poll: Labor can comfortably win with a vote in the mid-30s, because it gets back nearly all those Green votes via preferences. But the Coalition can’t win with a vote in the mid-30s because it only gets around two-thirds of One Nation and other right-wing preferences back. On current form, the Coalition is starting a fight with one hand tied behind its back.
But the election is down the track. For now, the dominant question in politics is whether today’s surrender to the denialists and permanent naysayers will be enough to extinguish a push for Peter Dutton. It may stave off that push for now. But the problem with policy surrender is that it prompts the question of what you really stand for — a question most of us have been asking about Turnbull for some time but which will now be universal. He is desperate to avoid a repeat of 2009. Fair enough. But while he lost the leadership then, he emerged from it having regained the respect of the electorate for standing up for his principles. This time, he might end up losing both.