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Malcolm in the middle

Date

Michelle Grattan

Illustration: Dyson

Illustration: Dyson

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.

28 comments

  • When Turnbull rises in his seat next week I suggest he walk across to Rudd and ask him to make room for him on Labor's front bench as that's where he's best suited. Either that or walk out of the chamber and back to lying in his money Ebenezer Scrooge like.

    Commenter
    Greg Graham
    Location
    Artarmon NSW
    Date and time
    February 05, 2010, 6:53AM
    • Turnbull is a poor politician and in spite of his success so far I'm not convinced that Rudd is much better, but at least they are trying to do the right thing. Now that an international scheme isn't going to happen they should simplify everything and just bring in a moderate carbon tax. The CPRS was always too compromised and too complicated for something so controversial.

      Commenter
      milo
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      February 05, 2010, 7:09AM
      • Turnbull understands the environmental issues? I really don't think so. As has been coming out about the IPCC reports, there's huge areas of doubt about a lot of the claims.

        Rudd's ETS had no chance of doing anything useful anyway, if 'useful' meant reducing CO2 emissions. What it was going to do was produce a brand new source of money and possibilities for dodgy trading, arbitrage and other rent-seeking behaviour, under the FIG LEAF of CO2 emissions.

        I had high hopes for Malcolm when he entered politics. Now my highest hope is that he departs before doing more damage.

        Commenter
        DWP096
        Date and time
        February 05, 2010, 7:47AM
        • Any leader of any party who took the stand against his colleagues as Macolm Turnbull did when leader of the Opposition deserves the treatment he got. He did not represent the majority view of his fellow parliamentarians and paid the price.

          Should he cross the floor to vote with the government, which is his right as an individual, he merely shows that as a politician he is naive.

          As for the Greens, I hope that at the elections, whenever it comes, that they get the hiding that these closet Laborites deserve.

          Commenter
          mags
          Location
          Queensland
          Date and time
          February 05, 2010, 7:54AM
          • When will the people of Australia wake up to the fact that persons such as Turnbull, Rudd and the like are nothing but nest featherers. Our country is one of the most over taxed in the first world. Why because the average Australian could not be bothered in taking a stand. ETS Well Tax the polluters not the people and when the polluters try to raise the cost of living. Then elected government should be there to stop it. Not run and hide for fear of upsetting them.

            Commenter
            Sean
            Location
            Brisbane
            Date and time
            February 05, 2010, 7:57AM
            • I feel we ought to congratualte Turnbull in having the courage of his convictions rather than simply towing the party line, which has become almost the only way to 'do' Australian politics.
              Sean, in response to your claim that Australia is one of the most over taxed in the world, i suggest you check the figures. Australia is actually 31st in tax as a percentage of GDP behind most OECD countries.

              Commenter
              chris
              Location
              melbourne
              Date and time
              February 05, 2010, 8:33AM
              • The media ought to place a moratorium on quoting the opposition's ''great big new tax'' mantra as political advertising: it is certainly as annoying!

                Commenter
                malibbis
                Location
                Nagambie
                Date and time
                February 05, 2010, 8:55AM
                • Actually our country IS NOT one of the most highly taxed in the world... According to OECD figures from 2008 we're 8th lowest (on a list of 30 nations).. with Mexico, Korea, Ireland, Spain and Japan being notably lower and New Zealand and Switzerland within 2% of us filling out the 7 below us.
                  USA and UK are taxed 2 and 3% more than us at 14th and 15th lowest (on average) and Belgium and Germany 20% more than us at 29th and 30th.

                  I'm for a Carbon Tax.. add it onto all imports as well if the country of origin doesn't have a Carbon tax system themselves.. That way Aussie stuff wont be price disadvantaged by cheaper imports where their environmental damage is massive. (which already happens of course, ie Chinese products made in polluting factories)
                  The money from the Carbon Tax should go into it's own fund which can be used towards the subsidies we already pay out for like the Solar Panels, Insulation, Solar Hot Water and the Green Car Fund.. as well as fund research into new Green technology.
                  Therefore the pollutors help pay to reduce pollution..

                  Commenter
                  StevoTheDevo
                  Date and time
                  February 05, 2010, 9:08AM
                  • So the Greens are closet Laborites? Conservative Lord Monckton calls them the new hitler youth and accuses them of wanting to create a disgusting monster of a world government. Labor in Victoria is so frightened that it runs smear campaigns against the Greens, and big business runs lawsuits against them in Tasmania. And a commenter can dismiss this complex situation with a ridiculous one-liner?

                    Commenter
                    barfiller
                    Date and time
                    February 05, 2010, 9:22AM
                    • Malcom Turnbull is clearly getting his riding instructions from his old firm Goldman Sachs and is following their well established career path of starting as a trader, earn your way to partnership, then move on to powerfull positions throught the world in business or politics. We mere mortals can not begin to guess at the fees involved in churning carbon credits in what would be a whole new market covering the worlds energy supply. It can't happen, as China and India will clearly never be a part of it, and in recent days even Obama has seen the writing on the wall, but Malcolm is refusing to give up owing to his lack of ability to accept failure and the vast amounts of potential fees.

                      Commenter
                      ERNEST
                      Location
                      Bathurst
                      Date and time
                      February 05, 2010, 9:48AM

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