Malcolm Turnbull Deals Environment Out To Get Himself Back In


It’s a tricky business, this vaulting ambition.

Malcolm Turnbull has coveted the position of Prime Minister for a long, long time. To get there required plenty of patience, as he waited for Tony Abbott to make so many mistakes that his Liberal Party colleagues could no longer countenance keeping him as leader.

Turnbull also showed considerable cunning. After his flame-out in 2009, he retained few friends in the party room; support for a Turnbull leadership has been rebuilt slowly over a number of years.

In retrospect, a key moment in Turnbull’s ascension was the sacking by Abbott of New South Wales Senator Arthur Sinodinos as Assistant Treasurer in March 2014, after Sinodinos ran into some uncomfortable moments in a New South Wales corruption inquiry.

Sinodinos, a former chief of staff for John Howard, is a wily operator in the Liberal Party backrooms, and a dangerous enemy. He soon became a key supporter and numbers man for Turnbull. The announcement of veteran Liberal hard head Tony Nutt (another former consigliere for Howard) as Turnbull’s transitional chief of staff shows that Turnbull now has the full backing of the New South Wales Liberal machine.

But Turnbull required more than just factional support to take the top job. He also clearly cut deals with a number of key Liberal Party figures, in order to win over their support. Liberal front-benchers that went over to the Turnbull camp included Christopher Pyne, George Brandis and of course “deputy for life” Julie Bishop. 

Now that he’s got the top job, we’re going to find out just what those deals entailed. How many compromises was Turnbull prepared to make to get the keys to The Lodge?

Plenty, as it turns out.

The first compromise, and perhaps the most surprising, was on climate policy. Turnbull has long been a vocal critic of Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt’s risible Direct Action policy. Yet no sooner had he taken the reins of national government than he was complementing Greg Hunt on the policy and vowing to keep it.

In Question Time yesterday, Turnbull went out of his way to praise Direct Action.

“We are talking about a very specific policy that was carefully put together by the Minister for the Environment, that was carefully considered by the Government, and it is working,” he told the House of Representatives.

Greg Hunt confirmed that Direct Action would stay, telling reporters that “the emissions reduction fund has been a spectacular success. So the policy is continuing.”

As usual, Hunt is wrong. Direct Action has not been “spectacularly successful” – after falling during Labor’s carbon pricing scheme, emissions are rising again after its abolition.

Endorsing Direct Action is a massive backflip for Turnbull.

Way back in 2010, Turnbull was savagely critical of Direct Action as a wasteful public subsidy for big polluters. “I've always believed the Liberals reject the idea that governments know best,” he said in a well-publicised speech in Parliament. “Doling out billions of taxpayers' money is neither economically efficient, nor will it be environmentally effective.”

Keeping Direct Action appears to be the first big compromise Turnbull was prepared to make, no doubt to win over some of the hardline climate denialists on the Liberal back bench. Let’s remember that Turnbull was rolled as Liberal leader in 2009 on precisely this issue, after he negotiated with Kevin Rudd and the Labor government to introduce a bipartisan emissions trading scheme.

It’s difficult to believe Turnbull really thinks Direct Action is a good policy. There is not a single independent expert in the land that thinks Direct Action can actually meet the Coalition’s 28 per cent emissions reduction target by 2025. The simple math tells us it will fail: the most recent Direct Action auction of emissions reduction bids bought around 15 per cent of the emissions reductions the government needs, but spent a quarter of the Direct Action budget.

Closer inspection of Direct Action’s so-called “safeguards” reveals that they actually let big polluters increase their emissions.

So you can chalk up Turnbull’s claim that Direct Action “is working” as his first big lie in the top office.

But climate was just the first of the Turnbull backflips we learnt about in his first 48 hours as Prime Minister.

Another policy backflip announced yesterday came in water policy.

As part of the renegotiated Coalition agreement between Turnbull and the National Party, responsibility for national water policy has been moved from Greg Hunt’s Environment Department to the Agriculture Department of Barnaby Joyce.

This is a big deal. A very big deal. It potentially means the evisceration of national water policy, which is predicated on a supposedly scientific approach to inland rivers and irrigation rights, in which water rights will be bought up by the federal government to return environmental flows to hard-pressed river systems.

Turnbull would know this, because he used to be in charge of water policy under John Howard. Now water policy has been given to the National Party.
Downstream communities are already worried. South Australian Liberal Tony Pasin told the ABC yesterday that he was concerned about giving the Nationals control of water policy, given that they largely represent upstream irrigators and farming interests.

“I'm just a little concerned about the fact that we now have a deeper involvement by the National Party, with respect to the implementation of the plan, and you've heard the reports this morning, geography and political architecture is such that the National Party don't have significant interests in the lower end of the river system that I'm responsible for,” Pasin said.

Labor slammed the move to transfer water out of the Environment Department. “South Australians are acutely aware of the consequences if governments don’t get the balance right on water,” Labor’s Environment spokesperson Mark Butler said in a statement.

“One thing is for sure,” Butler continued, “the National Party doesn’t want the water portfolio so they can increase environmental flows.”

Butler is right. Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce is a well-known supporter of big irrigators in south-west Queensland, such as the big cotton farms around St George like Cubbie Station.

As the Australian National University’s James Horne points out today, giving Joyce control of water policy also means he takes control of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. This is the body charged with setting national irrigation quotas across the river system. “It would also mean that much of the water bureaucracy in the Environment Department would be transferred to the Agriculture Department,” Horne writes. There are obvious opportunities for Joyce to take water away from environmental allocations and give them to farmers.

Let’s remember that Malcolm Turnbull is a former Environment Minister. He has repeatedly spoken and written about his environmental credentials. But his first big policy announcements as Prime Minister have been retrograde steps for the environment.

On climate change and water, Turnbull has made some very unprincipled deals – deals that should make progressives hopeful for a kinder and gentler Coalition government very nervous.

How many more deals has Turnbull cut to get the Prime Ministership? We’ll find out in coming weeks and months.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.