The Politics    Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Turnbull's greatest danger

By Sean Kelly

Turnbull's greatest danger
Turnbull looking serious in discussion with Justin Trudeau and David Cameron at last year's Paris climate conference. Source
When you look like a coward for long enough, people will draw an inevitable conclusion

The danger for Malcolm Turnbull in this week’s climate farce is not that Australians suddenly rise up in outrage at this new, self-wrought, entirely avoidable political crisis. The threat is not that voters suddenly discover a smoldering passion for carbon pricing, and are therefore furious that Turnbull has knelt in supplication to the right wing of his party once again.

The far, far greater problem for Turnbull is that those who are still paying attention to the prime minister – and this number is shrinking all the time – are shaking their heads in weary resignation at the tedious predictability of it all.

Coalition hardheads – not the Bernardis, but the moderates who fancy themselves political pragmatists – will be telling themselves that it’s December, and nobody’s paying attention. They’ll be saying to each other that there are more pressing issues for most voters than acting on climate change, and that nobody understands what an emissions intensity scheme is anyway.

And they’ll be right.

But what that blissfully naïve analysis is missing is that every time Turnbull gives up on something he once stood for, and adopts instead the approach forced on him by the right of his party, the public’s ears become a little more blocked. Forget spills and recessions: Blocked ears are the greatest danger of all to a political leader.

This has been a dreadful week for Turnbull. On Monday, the energy and environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, said the government would look at an emissions intensity scheme, which would basically be a carbon price on electricity. Thirty-three hours later, after spending part of Tuesday talking to dissenters in his party, and a Cabinet meeting, Frydenberg backed away entirely. He also flat-out lied, saying “I didn’t mention an emissions intensity scheme”, when the words were there for everyone to see. Today, Turnbull said, “We will not be imposing a carbon tax and we will not be imposing an emissions trading scheme, however it is called. An emissions intensity scheme is an emissions trading scheme. That is just another name for it. That has been our policy for many years now.”

But if that has been the Coalition’s policy for many years now, why was Frydenberg suggesting otherwise on Monday? What happened?

Did Frydenberg go out on a frolic of his own? This is possible. Certainly Turnbull looked mighty annoyed this morning, and when asked about Frydenberg’s comments he said you’d have to ask Frydenberg. It was cold-shoulder stuff – a humiliating way to treat a minister.

Everyone knows carbon pricing – in any form – is the hot-button issue in the Coalition. Turnbull lost his leadership over it back in 2009. If Frydenberg is stupid enough to have opened the door on it without checking with Turnbull’s office, then he won’t last long. But if it was a frolic, and Turnbull was surprised, then it should have been killed off that day, before the right of the party had made their views (opposed, naturally) very clear. The hesitation made it look like Turnbull was merely following, as usual.

The alternative is that Turnbull or his office was told in advance, and decided to see how it went. Turnbull was asked today whether his office had known, and he didn’t answer.

And so Turnbull is left looking like a coward. Frydenberg floated looking at something – not actually doing it, just considering it. The right said no thank you. Turnbull ruled it out. We’ve seen this show so many times now.

And this is the problem – not that Turnbull looks like a coward. The conclusion is hard to avoid: Turnbull looks like a coward because he is a coward. Whoever’s idea the bloody thing was, whatever the ins and outs of political management, all that actually happened was a minister said he’d look at something. Some noise from unhappy MPs, and a day or so later the minister was overruled.

This is the insanely caged place from which Turnbull leads the nation.

Remember when Turnbull was in favour of carbon pricing? Remember – much more recently – when he said he wouldn’t play rule-in-rule-out games?

Turnbull’s supporters may have a point when they argue that tackling climate policy was a bridge too far for the fragile Coalition. Practically, that might be true. But sometimes you don’t die from one huge axe blow. Sometimes you just slowly bleed out.


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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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