Abbott wants climate to be Turnbull’s downfall, again
Tony Abbott tweeted a bunch of times over the past day or so. He tweeted praise for Roger Corbett, who had defended voting “no” on same-sex marriage by saying, “A black man and a white man are equal, but they're clearly different. A black man will never be a white man and vice versa.” Abbott shared a photo of the Newtown Young Liberals (and kudos to the young man who rebelled by taking off his suit jacket for the occasion). He tweeted a number of videos of himself talking.
There is an obvious omission here: at no point has Abbott tweeted anything to challenge the story that appeared this morning alleging that he was prepared to cross the floor [$] to vote against a Clean Energy Target (CET). Abbott, on previous occasions, has been more than willing to leap to his own defence via Twitter.
Not that there was really much doubt about the accuracy of the story, which stated that Abbott had told a senior member of the government that “he could not in good conscience vote for a policy that continued to subsidise renewable energy sources”. It came amid a flurry of typical Abbott punches. Yesterday he told 2GB the CET should be dumped. Last night, he appeared on Sky in a conversation with – and, yes, this is what Australian politics has become – his former chief of staff Peta Credlin, and said that the Liberal party room had “extremely serious reservations” about the CET.
At some point, Abbott needed to find a way of doing what he always does, which is to ramp things up. And that’s what we saw with his relayed threat, and his ostentatious lack of a denial.
One of the takeaways from this – and almost the most depressing – is just how accustomed we’ve become to sustained, deliberate interference by former prime ministers in the operations of their own governments. It takes something special to keep our attention.
Let’s not be coy here: a former PM saying that he will cross the floor to vote against government policy is something special. When the suggestion was floated recently that government MPs might cross the floor to deliver same-sex marriage, Abbott said, “It’s obviously a dramatic loss of discipline inside the government and it’s a serious attack on the authority of the leadership.”
The same would go for Abbott’s floor-crossing.
That sounds like a negative for Abbott, a charge of hypocrisy, but in this case I suspect he wouldn’t mind in the slightest. A “dramatic loss of discipline” and a “serious attack” on Malcolm Turnbull’s authority is exactly what he’s going for.
From the report in the Australian: “Mr Abbott would likely be followed by as many as six backbench colleagues, with several telling the Australian they would be compelled either to abstain or to vote against the government on the issue.”
Of course, we don’t know how sincere those backbenchers are – anonymously promising a journalist you’ll do something and actually doing it are, for some people, very different things.
But that’s to miss the point. What’s clear is that Abbott desperately wants the Clean Energy Target to become the rallying point for a final successful assault on Turnbull’s leadership. This stage is about convincing the rest of the party that he’s serious. And that those who have doubts, either about the CET or about Turnbull, are not alone. One backbencher was quoted as saying, “We have been through this before. You could assume that we are just as motivated as before.” When the MP says “as before”, you can assume they mean 2009, the last time climate change destroyed Turnbull’s leadership.
But Abbott wanting something and Abbott getting it are not the same thing. There is certainly a mountain of disquiet in the Coalition about climate policy, and predicting how that will play out is tough. But that doesn’t mean there’s genuine appetite in the Coalition for using it to tear down Turnbull, at least not right now. After all, the six MPs might be serious people – or they might be the likes of George Christensen and Eric Abetz.
Now, the very important point to keep in mind is that Turnbull doesn’t necessarily need Abbott and his merry band of disrupters – at least not for the vote on climate policy. Labor has indicated it could vote for a CET that technically allows for clean coal-fired power. If Turnbull can come up with a policy that satisfies most of his party, and the Labor leadership, then he could get a policy through both houses of parliament.
Abbott would continue to carp and whine afterwards, but, in most cases, once a policy is passed most of the heat goes out of a debate.
In a strange way, Abbott’s recalcitrance could even free Turnbull.
Previously, when the hard right has said “no” to something, Turnbull has bowed his head and said okay. There was one major exception, on schools funding, where he refused to give in entirely to concerns about Catholic schools (there was a compromise), and delivered what he now claims as one of his major achievements.
Abbott’s declaration means that it will be all but impossible to satisfy the hard right. That’s the whole point. Which offers Turnbull an opportunity, if he has the guts to take it: ignore Abbott, come up with a middle-ground policy, and broker an agreement with Labor. If Abbott actually crossed the floor against the government, that might be enough to sideline him forever.
But I’m being entirely serious when I say that would take real guts from Turnbull. It may even fall into the category of crazy-brave, rather than just brave. If I’d lost the leadership once, by doing a deal with Labor on climate, I’d be pretty terrified about history repeating. And Turnbull’s form – even on the Catholic schools issue – is to negotiate within his party until he’s found consensus.
Still, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that, one way or another, things are always going to end somewhere like this. Abbott and his cronies will keep pushing until either voters give up on Turnbull altogether, or he pushes back, precipitating a crisis.
When that crisis comes, Turnbull will want it to be over an issue on which he is on firm ground. And remarkably, on energy and the CET, he has managed to keep most of his MPs in the tent – even the oft-difficult Nationals. What if this is, after everything, Turnbull’s issue? If climate were the policy on which Turnbull finally vanquished Abbott, that would be a truly amazing turnaround.
So amazing, in fact, that it probably won’t happen.
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