Malcolm’s sweet spot
The PM needs to get his climate policy right
Anti-terrorism legislation, gas for the domestic market, health insurance, that unicorn known as climate policy … the government seems busy, doesn’t it?
And in fact it is. Remember when Malcolm Turnbull answered a question about whether he’d be campaigning on same-sex marriage by saying he had “many other calls” on his time? It was a poorly constructed answer, even if the message it was trying to get across was reasonable (“Yes, I will be, but it’s not my full-time job.”) Still, it’s this type of policy work that he was talking about.
As it happens, the prime minister has ended up campaigning for a Yes vote, which is a good thing in substance, as well as a good thing politically. When the votes are tallied up, about a month from now, Turnbull will need to treat that as a moment of celebration, and if he hadn’t been visibly saying Yes over this period he would have looked silly doing so. The fact that he won’t look absurd and disingenuous is the main import of his much-publicised FM blitz. I’ve put that in faint-praise terms, but it’s actually crucial.
At the same time, to his credit, Turnbull has managed to convey an impression of a prime minister getting on with other work.
In other words: Turnbull is doing exactly what he should be doing right now. On terrorism, on gas, and on his changes to health insurance, he is trying very hard to focus on what the Coalition sees as the fundamentals of voters’ concerns: economic security and national security. Which are exactly the areas Turnbull said he wanted to focus on in his New Year message [$] nine-and-a-half months ago.
If that all sounds unduly rosy, given the government’s parlous position in the polls, that is because it ignores the thorns on every side. The PM is getting on with work, but of course it’s occurring in the midst of a marriage equality postal survey that overshadows all, and which Turnbull brought on himself. While some voters may thank the government for its focus on their hip pocket – if they end up noticing at all – there is also a significant chunk of voters who will never forgive Turnbull for subjecting the nation, and particularly its LGBTQI citizens, to a vote on equal rights. Finally, while these various bits of policy work might keep the government’s head above water, none of them are large enough to change voters’ perceptions of the PM, which is what he really needs.
Climate policy might seem as though it shouldn’t belong in the above list, firstly because it hasn’t been dealt with yet. According to reports, that is likely to change early next week. Secondly, the other policy areas are important, but not really big attention-getters in a very messy political landscape. Climate, though, is the great government-killer of Australian politics, and therefore will be watched closely.
But by whom? The political classes will be watching, and there will be much interest in who in the Coalition falls down where. The increasingly ignored business community will have their say. But as to the distinctions between clean energy targets and emissions intensity schemes and all the other approaches, how many voters do you think will pay the slightest bit of attention?
This isn’t the same as saying “voters don’t understand the policy, therefore this doesn’t matter politically”. That’s a facile conflation, and doesn’t stand up. Four-fifths of bloody nobody understands exactly how any specific emissions trading scheme works, but that didn’t stop such schemes having dramatic political effects across several elections. My point is broader: there have been so many shifts by now, so many different policies, that everyone is equally befuddled. Mostly they are terribly bored. Until voters get a clear signal from Canberra that the fighting is over – or the fighting ramps back up to 2012 levels – things will stay that way.
That’s why Turnbull’s ideal situation would have been to come to some agreement that satisfied both his party room and Labor. Given that looks unlikely, his task becomes reasonably clear-cut. He needs his party to agree on a policy, in order to deprive Tony Abbott of his favourite plaything, and he needs a reasonable number of commentators and businesses to say, “look, this might not be ideal, but it’s plausible and serious”, so that he doesn’t look a fool.
Some might think it’s enough for him simply to get agreement from his party on any policy, no matter how ineffective, in order to sweep the climate issue away. I doubt that. Turnbull’s claim to the prime ministership has always rested on three things. The first is his business background, which has become a double-edged sword in these strange times. The second is an appearance of conviction on several issues, one of which is climate. The third is the sense that he is – unlike Tony Abbott – a serious person, of serious purpose.
By now, many voters reckon they were dead wrong about two and three. A genuinely implausible climate policy, roundly ridiculed, would cement that. Voters may not be watching closely, but they are always, always, open to having their impressions confirmed. They have not given up on Turnbull yet, not entirely, but he can’t afford to give them another reason.
Does that mean climate policy is all downside for Turnbull? Not entirely. His emphasis will be on affordability and reliability. Voters will be unlikely to notice any increased affordability – they never do. And reliability? Graham Richardson has been saying that blackouts might save Turnbull’s skin [$], and I think there is some truth to that, though I’ll make an addition. We’re in a GFC situation here. It’s widely believed these days that Kevin Rudd did not get much credit for saving the country from likely recession. The theory goes that saving someone from a disaster they never experience doesn’t get you much credit. Energy reliability is much the same. If Turnbull’s policies do a good-enough job quickly enough (or the country simply gets lucky), and we get no blackouts, then nobody will notice. If the whole country experiences massive power shortages, then Turnbull will get plenty of stick for that.
Much like the climate policy itself, the sweet spot for the prime minister is somewhere right in the middle.
In other news
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