Federal Politics

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Malcolm in the middle

Who'd be Malcolm Turnbull right now?

Turnbull is preparing to give one of the most notable speeches of his political career. But when he rises from his backbench seat next week, the former opposition leader will be arguing the government's case on the (doomed) emissions trading legislation, not that of his own side.

He'll be defending the deal he and Ian Macfarlane forged, on which the new version of this legislation is based. The deal that brought Turnbull down.

The more eloquent and effective his speech, the more he alienates his Liberal colleagues. And Turnbull is likely to be eloquent: he will be arguing a case in which he believes passionately.

For Tony Abbott, and the alternative policy he revealed this week, Turnbull's speech will be an unavoidable knock. As leader, Turnbull had knowledge and conviction about climate, but limited political skills and was out of touch with many of his followers. Abbott has no belief that this issue is a crucial one of substance, having described the argument as ''absolute crap''. But he knows it's both opportunity and risk for him.

As soon as he became leader, he started exploiting the opportunity, with his ''great big new tax'' mantra. This week marked the effort to defuse the risk - which is that his opposition will be seen as having no policy clothes.


Abbott's $3.2 billion policy, with its centrepiece emissions reduction fund, is based on incentives for industry and farmers. There will be money for behaving well; threatened penalties for those who fall below ''business as usual standards'' (whatever they may be) are vague.

The Abbott alternative is not a serious contribution to dealing with climate change, but a loose political bathrobe. Even without accepting the government's claims that under it emissions would go up rather than down, it is only an around-the-edges plan.

Abbott's strengths and weaknesses in the climate debate were starkly evident this week. He's strong on attack, able to cut through with demolition messages.

He said when he became leader: ''The natural instincts of an opposition are to oppose.'' Given this approach, and his lack of personal conviction or credibility on the climate issue, it's not surprising he's less than convincing in promoting his own policy. It's as though he's saying: ''Look, I've put in my assignment, let's get back to tearing down the other fellow's work.'' Abbott has the anti-GST campaign in his mind: he wants the election to be a referendum on the ETS.

In its attacks on the Abbott scheme, the government is running the old ''where's the money coming from?'' line. Politically, Abbott is sensible not to respond with a detailed answer now - that would be inviting a debate about whatever proposed spending cuts he put up. Later, of course, the opposition must reconcile its spending and saving.

The Abbott scheme has attracted the predictable mixed reactions: criticism from environmentalists; encouragement from those sections of business that are strongly anti-ETS. Significantly, the Business Council of Australia, which last year called for the passage of the Turnbull version of the ETS, is now, in the absence of bipartisanship, noncommittal about both the opposition policy and the revamped ETS. Given the gridlock that now exists in Parliament and the fracture across the political divide, some sections of business don't want to be in the crossfire. A reassessment of views may also be going on.

Heather Ridout, from the Australian Industry Group, which has been very supportive of the ETS, said yesterday her organisation would ''refresh'' its stand after studying the new situation. Ridout says: ''One of the big questions that needs to be answered is: are we talking about [the need for] major transforming policy, major economic reform, or a lesser policy response?''

Until the change of Liberal leadership there was bipartisan agreement (though the Nationals and many Liberals were not part of it) that transformational reform was needed. Now Labor is saying it is, while the opposition is saying it is not.

The opposition's position will be helped by US President Barack Obama's admission yesterday that an American cap-and-trade scheme may not pass Congress this year.

Rudd this week made it increasingly obvious that he sees a double dissolution as the most likely route if he is to get his ETS through. But that wouldn't be until much later in the year.

The government seems to have abandoned previous inclinations that the current legislation - a more business and farmer-friendly package than the original, thanks to Turnbull and Macfarlane - would be put to Parliament twice, so that it would be the version available to be sent to any joint sitting. The thinking now is the current legislation will be dealt with only once, with as much dispatch as the Senate allows. In those circumstances, if the Government won a double-dissolution election it would have to put last year's legislation to the joint sitting. (Double-dissolution bills have to go to a joint sitting in their original form.) The ''Turnbull amendments'' would be added in the new Parliament, if a Greens-dominated Senate allowed that.

This week, some Liberal MPs were trying to persuade Turnbull not to cross the floor to vote with the government on the legislation. Their argument, reportedly, is that it would be better for his future career prospects, if he wanted to stay in politics, to simply abstain.

But, as one source close to Turnbull said: ''Malcolm is not the kind of man who'd get caught in the stairwell.'' When he sits in the Labor ranks, not a few MPs will wonder whether he would have fitted better there all along.

Michelle Grattan is Age political editor.


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