So Much For Getting Back In


It’s been a tough week, month and year for Malcolm Turnbull. Struggling all year to gain traction in the polls, in September he took a trip to the UK to meet British Conservative leader David Cameron. No doubt they talked of many things, not least about how to get conservatives to believe that global warming is real.

Returning to Australia last week, Turnbull supposedly laid his leadership on the line, telling the climate sceptics in his party to fall into step. "If the party room were to reject my recommendations to them that would obviously be a leadership issue," he told ABC Radio. "That’s perfectly plain, quite clear. And I am asserting my leadership and my authority as the leader of the party."

The weekend was barely over before senior Liberals let him know what they thought of his leadership, attacking Turnbull’s ETS position (more than once) and announcing in various media outlets that the second vote (you know, the one that would give Labor a trigger for a double dissolution) on the ETS should be delayed.

How Malcolm Turnbull must envy his conservative colleagues in the US and UK.

In Britain, Tory leader David Cameron is riding high in the opinion polls and seems almost certain to take government from a badly wounded Gordon Brown. After a decade and a half in the wilderness, the Conservatives have rallied behind a modern, environmentally aware and socially liberal leader that Turnbull would dearly love to emulate.

In the US, an aspiring leader doesn’t even need to lead his party in opposition. This allows prospective presidential candidates to stay out of the melee of day-to-day politics, raising campaign money and burnishing their image while the attack dogs of the media do the dirty work of tearing into a popular incumbent.

In Australia, by contrast, Malcolm Turnbull leads an increasingly unwieldy coalition of two political parties. One of them, the Liberal Party, is badly in need or renewal, in both policy and personnel. The other, the Nationals, are a fractious and disputatious rump, who may only be two terms from electoral oblivion. No wonder he looked so exhausted on the 7.30 Report last night.

It’s often said that voters generally give governments at least two terms in Australia, but this is not necessarily true. In 1996, after a crushing election defeat much worse than that suffered by John Howard’s government, Labor regrouped surprisingly well. Howard’s first year in particular was socially disruptive and accident-prone; led by Kim Beazley, the ALP went within a whisker of winning back power in 1998.

But Kevin Rudd’s Government has performed far better than John Howard’s in its first term. Lacking the huge mandate bestowed on John Howard, Rudd has by and large governed from the centre, implementing the bulk of Labor’s election promises and rising to the challenge of the global financial crisis.

In contrast, the Coalition has basically fallen apart. In part because of Kevin Rudd’s astonishing popularity, but also for reasons entirely of its own making, the Liberal Party has squandered its chance of a quick return to power in the wake of John Howard’s defeat in 2007. No comprehensive analyses of the reasons for its 2007 defeat have been canvassed. Few new policies have been formulated. Despite the encouraging preselections of 32-year-old Kelly O’Dwyer for the seat to be vacated by Peter Costello in Victoria, and Paul Fletcher in Brendan Nelson’s seat in New South Wales, too many tired faces (Phillip Ruddock), blow-hards (Wilson Tuckey) and party hacks (Julian McGauran) continue to occupy safe seats which should be turned over to fresh talent for the good of the party.

Worse, the conservative side of politics seems incapable of confronting the defining issue of the next generation: climate change.

It seems amazing that in October 2009, the Liberal Party still can’t unify around a sensible policy position on what to do about global warming. You might remember that one of Brendan Nelson’s many problems was his inability to articulate a coherent climate policy. The election of Malcolm Turnbull, a supposedly strong leader who was John Howard’s final environment minister, offered a chance for the Opposition to neutralise this clear electoral winner for Labor, allowing it clean air in which to present itself as an alternative government. Their failure to deliver on this is all the more astonishing when you recall that an ETS essentially identical to Labor’s eventual model was in fact Coalition policy at the last election.

But in opposition, without the discipline of government to hold it together, the many climate change sceptics in the party have come to the fore.

This has been an unmitigated political disaster for Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberals, because climate scepticism is a minority position in the Australian electorate. Not for the first time, the Coalition finds itself far to the right of most Australian voters. The last time this happened was in 2007 on the issue of industrial relations. We all know what happened on that occasion. But far from learning their lesson, many in the Coalition seem hell-bent on repeating the error.

Climate change has become a talismanic issue for many conservatives. In the wake of its enthusiastic adoption as an issue by environmentalists and the left, climate change has come to be seen by many conservatives as emblematic of a hegemonic ideology that seeks to withdraw economic freedoms and impose new taxes and regulations in the name of environmental purity.

It doesn’t help that, unlike Margaret Thatcher, few Australian politicians have trained in scientific disciplines, allowing many to be seduced by the siren call of the climate sceptics and denialists. Many Australian conservatives and libertarians instead see climate change through the left-right prism of the culture wars. Applying their usual hard-headed scrutiny to the wishy-washy mumbo-jumbo of lefty tree-huggers, they have concluded that climate change is not a real problem. Once the party that prided itself on facing up to reality, the right is now splintering on a wedge of scientific fantasy.

The result is that the Liberals are adrift. The obvious political tactic, indeed the only really viable long-term position, is a Cameron-like position which accepts the science of climate change and embraces the least costly and least economically disruptive response to it. This was the whole justification by policy-makers like Peter Shergold and Ross Garnaut for an ETS in the first place.

As it turns out, there is plenty of scope for the Coalition to move in this sphere. When senior Liberals intone that the Government’s CPRS is badly flawed, they are actually right. Labor’s ETS will give serious subsidies to big polluters, paid for by small businesses and consumers. In that sense, it is a distorting tax. The smart response would be to point this out, and to argue for amendments that strip away subsidies to electricity generators and the emissions-intensive trade exposed industries. The Coalition only has to look at the Treasury modelling to see how few jobs this will actually cost.

But the lobbying efforts of Australia’s big polluters has convinced most politicians this is electoral suicide. They’re wrong. Labor won elections throughout the 1980s and 90s despite much more serious economic dislocations caused by liberalising the economy, while John Howard narrowly won the 1998 election despite the GST. It is more than possible to argue that a better-designed ETS will be pro-growth, setting Australia up for the coming clean-tech revolution.

In the long-run, I expect this kind of "clean-tech neo-liberal" to emerge in the Liberal party. And the party will probably make the necessary room for such people by itself — after Kevin Rudd sweeps an extra 15-20 Liberals out of their seats next year.

UPDATE (Thursday): This morning’s laughably uncomfortable press conference with Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

It was always likely that senior members of a disunited party would continue to plot against Turnbull, particularly in the light of Kevin Rudd’s crushing ascendancy in the polls. It is equally obvious that Hockey doesn’t want to lead the party to almost-certain electoral defeat. Hockey’s best chance lies after the next federal election. Turnbull’s best chance does too; in the interim he must exceed expectations at the next general poll, hopefully saving many marginal Liberal seats currently in grave peril. Therefore, Hockey and Turnbull need each other. And, believe it or not, the Liberal Party needs them too. Who else can credibly lead the party? The other alternatives are either unelectable (Tony Abbott) or leaving the Parliament (Peter Costello). The best younger candidate, whip-smart Victorian Greg Hunt, is just as socially liberal and climate-committed as Turnbull. It must gall many in the party room to admit it, but Turnbull is their best available leader right now.

Expect no spill — but plenty more "outbreaks of disorder".

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