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It’s Crunch Time For Turnbull

19 November 2009 1,214 views No Comment

NEXT week’s ETS debate will reveal whether Malcolm Turnbull has made the transition from gifted amateur to professional politician, argues Ross Fitzgerald.

Malcolm Turnbull believes in an emissions trading scheme. He was the Howard government minister who brought a proposal for one to cabinet and he has never wavered in his view that it’s the best way to impose a price on carbon. But governments and oppositions have different roles. The government has to run the country. The opposition has to hold the government to account. It normally does so by disagreeing with the government, not by agreeing with it. The government is unlikely to be put under much pressure by an opposition which doesn’t argue, just as the general public are unlikely to understand an issue better if there’s no debate.

Does Turnbull appreciate this essential truth of politics? We’ll find out next week when the Opposition has to respond to the Rudd Government’s reaction to its proposed amendments to the so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme bill.

Another great truth of parliamentary politics is that the first task of a leader is to preserve unity. It is only in rare exceptions that a party leader has the luxury of a personal view; at least to the extent that such a personal view splits the party. John Howard could have a personal view on the Iraq war and on border protection because he was able to take the vast majority of his parliamentary colleagues with him. Although Howard could also have a personal view on the monarchy, he actually had to drop the Coalition’s unquestioning support for it in order to avoid a split in the run up to the 1998 constitutional convention.

Everyone knows that Turnbull thinks that man-made climate change is real and that an emissions trading scheme is the best way to deal with it. His problem is that a majority of his party room (if Senate leader Nick Minchin is right) doesn’t agree with him and would rather not vote for the Government’s bill however much it might be amended. The question for Turnbull is not where he personally stands — he supports an ETS much as Howard supported the monarchy — it’s how he manages an issue which has the potential to break the Coalition and split the Liberal Party.

Until recently, the orthodox view has been that the environment is a political disaster area for the Liberal and National Parties which should do whatever they can to avoid an election fought on this issue. For instance, when frontbencher Tony Abbott formally outed himself as an opponent of the theory of looming climate catastrophe and as a critic of creating a new market for carbon, he was careful to say that the Opposition shouldn’t try to run the country from the wrong side of the parliament. It was enough, he said, to point out that the Government’s scheme would end in tears, without dying in a ditch to prevent it.

There’s still a view that the Coalition should wave it through in order to focus on issues with more traction for the conservatives such as Rudd’s asylum seeker fiasco and the Government’s fetish for debt and deficit. However, the big change since mid-year is the general public’s growing scepticism, reflected in polls saying take no action until after Copenhagen, that this really is the great moral issue of our time.

As well, there’s Liberal Party MPs’ increasing reluctance to look like a half-hearted echo of the Rudd Government. The National Party has all but confirmed that it will vote against the Government’s scheme regardless of any amendments. So too have about a dozen Liberals in each house of parliament. Turnbull’s options are to support a flawed scheme and risk a huge split or to oppose the scheme and risk losing his environmental credentials. In a case like this, sensible leaders normally take a hit on their intellectual consistency rather than on their party’s unity.

Suppose the Rudd Government accepts the Coalition’s proposed amendments and then demands that the Liberals provide the senate numbers to get the legislation through. If Turnbull insists upon shadow cabinet accepting such a deal, he has an immediate split with his three National Party colleagues. If they vote against the legislation they would have to resign from cabinet, thus breaking the Coalition, unless a special dispensation from cabinet solidarity had been given to them. If they are allowed to vote against the bill, how can Turnbull hold the line with Liberal shadow ministers who feel just as strongly or who are in rural seats and face potential political competition from the National Party?

Turnbull’s leadership might temporarily survive the biggest act of floor-crossing at least since Philip Ruddock defied John Howard on Asian immigration in 1988 but it would almost certainly doom his already remote prospects of winning the next election. Voters can respect a political party that they don’t always agree with but it’s impossible even for natural supporters to respect a rabble.

This looming self-inflicted disaster is all the harder to explain because Turnbull, of all the Coalition’s senior figures, is the one best placed to oppose an ETS with the least possible political downside. Apart from republicanism, environmentalism is probably the only political stance with which he is strongly associated. His speech to the Young Liberals in January enunciated what he argued was a clear “plan B”: various means to achieve deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions without an ETS. Should Prime Minister Rudd choose to make the next election a referendum on an ETS, even Turnbull ought to be able to get some traction recycling Paul Keating’s line from 1993: “if you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it”.

ROSS FITZGERALD Newmatilda 19 Nov 2009