Turnbull Takes Abbott To The Cleaners


You have to hand it to Malcolm Turnbull. Just when most of us thought he might fade away, he’s come out swinging with a typically bold attack on his own party’s new climate change policy. In doing so, he’s positioned himself to resume the Liberal Party leadership if and when Tony Abbott fails at the next election.

With impassioned phrasing and measured speaking tones, Malcolm Turnbull yesterday declared he would vote for Labor’s emissions trading scheme, the CPRS.

Turnbull makes the obvious — and highly ironic — point that by using "market forces" to address climate change, the Government’s CPRS "is far more in the great traditions of modern liberalism" than Tony Abbott’s new policy. (You can see footage of the speech on this Fairfax article by Michelle Grattan and Tom Arup.)

"After all," he continued, "I have always believed that Liberals reject the idea that government knows best and embrace the idea that government’s job is to enable each of us to do our best. This ETS allows Australian businesses to make their own decisions as how to reduce their emissions."

Turnbull pointed out that "schemes where bureaucrats and politicians pick technologies and winners, doling out billions of taxpayers dollars, [are]neither economically efficient, nor will [they]be environmentally effective."

He also skewered, once and for all, the idea that Australia should wait for action from the US and other big polluting nations before implementing our own emissions reduction measures. "Far from being in front of the world in action to reduce emissions, we start way behind because our per capita emissions are so large and because our sources of energy are overwhelmingly dependent on burning coal."

It was a double-barrelled broadside at the Coalition’s new climate change policy, released last week, which eschews a cap on carbon and instead proposes exactly what Turnbull decries, doling out billions in taxpayer dollars to big polluters.

Of course, so does Labor’s CPRS, in the form of free permits to pollute, but Turnbull’s point remains substantial. As I noted last week, the party of the free market has now turned its back on market forces as a tool to address climate change.

Of course, there are many who must wonder why this speech comes now and not late last year when it might have influenced the debate about climate, and perhaps swung the crucial party room votes Turnbull needed to retain the leadership. Liberal party watcher Peter van Onselen poses exactly this question. The Australian‘s grey eminence Paul Kelly goes further, arguing that the content of Turnbull’s speech should have provided the talking points for Kevin Rudd throughout last year.

There seems to be a view developing in the Canberra press gallery and commentariat that on climate, as Kelly writes, "the short-term politics is decisively breaking Abbott’s way." I think that’s just another example of wishful thinking from the political media, who as usual have been bewitched by a couple of polls into suddenly believing that Australians favour Tony Abbott’s approach to climate change over Labor’s ETS.

As Possum Comitatus points out, it’s much more complex than that, with generic support for an ETS remaining solid even while specific support for Labor’s CPRS drifts and Abbott rallies his conservative base.

A number of different trends have been developing in the polls on climate policy in recent months. The first is that climate scepticism has continued to grow but in highly polarised terms. Coalition voters are much less likely to believe in the anthropogenic global warming thesis than Labor or (unsurprisingly) Green voters.

The second trend is that while the Coalition’s change of tack on climate policy has been popular with its conservative base, there is no evidence to suggest it is a winner with younger voters, women, or voters in capital cities.

Perhaps the key quote to take away from Possum’s analysis of the latest Neilsen poll was this one: "We continue to see the same old patter[n]s emerge that we’ve witnessed in previous Morgan and Nielsen polls on this issue, where women and capital city residents have much higher levels of generic support for an ETS than men and non-capital city residents."

The big problem for Abbott and the Liberal Party is that these are the voters whose minds must be changed if the Coalition is to regain government. The Coalition already holds most of the rural and regional seats and has typically polled well amongst older males for some time now. On the other hand, urban women are the kind of swing voters who often decide the marginal seats that determine elections. Keep this in mind when you read wild reports about the supposed electoral popularity of Tony Abbott’s climate change policy.

Perhaps the most interesting effect of these polls has been on the Government, not the Opposition. There’s nothing like a couple of bad polls to jolt any politician out of complacency, and that is exactly what appears to have happened to Labor this year. While Abbott has been far from terrible in his first week sitting in the green chair opposite the Prime Minster, the Government has been focused and savage in their parliamentary attacks. Lindsay Tanner in particular got in a couple of zingers about Barnaby Joyce as "the bearded lady of Australian politics" and Government morale in Parliament appears high.

Just as importantly, Kevin Rudd and his senior ministers have finally got their message straight on climate. On last night’s Q&A, Rudd took questions from an audience of 16 to 25-year-olds and was relentless in delivering his simple three-point message about the ETS — that it charges the polluters, puts a cap on carbon and compensates working families. Labor’s new strategy is to link climate policy with economic policy, to run on its record of dodging the global financial crisis, and to viciously attack Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce’s economic credentials.

Labor has been stung by the poll results and the criticism that it has failed to go out and sell the CPRS. Whatever happens to emissions trading legislation in the Senate, Rudd and his ministers have entered this election year with a renewed focus and vigour.

Abbott will need to move quickly to address the economic responsibility issue if he is to keep up his early momentum. Further gaffes by Barnaby Joyce could be telling.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.