Malcolm and the mincer
I have been waiting for this civil war since August 12, the night I went to dinner at the Cape Cod restaurant in Canberra. It's an excellent little seafood restaurant tucked into the Deakin shopping centre not far from Parliament House. It is also a haunt of Senator Nick Minchin. We dined together that night.
I've known Minchin for a long time. What we discussed that night, as with nearly every other discussion we've had over the years, was off the record. But it has all come to pass now.
Minchin was worried. He could see a train wreck coming. He believed the Rudd Government's proposed emissions trading scheme would be a disaster for the economy. He formed this view from an ultimate insider's perspective - 10 years as minister for industry and then minister for finance.
This was even before he got to the issue of climate change science, which Minchin regards as highly contested.
Here is the core point, the source of the heat. This civil war is about bad legislation, not bad science. It is not a choice between climate rationalists and climate deniers as the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, in their surreal and self-serving mutual agreement, would have us believe.
I won't try and re-create Minchin's argument at the Cape Cod because it was almost perfectly reflected in a column by Terry McCrann published on Saturday. Having trawled through Hansard seeking to articulate the depth and breadth of feeling within the Coalition, I found McCrann's comments, from outside the Coalition, and by a noted economic analyst, did the best job of explaining the passion. So I will breach convention and quote a News Ltd commentator:
''The Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader this week joined hands to declare economic war on their own country. That, plain and simple, is what Kevin Rudd and now also Malcolm Turnbull's emissions trading scheme is . . . [What will it] do about climate change? Nothing. Zip. Nada. Absolute zero. But it will do an awful lot to our economy . . . For a PM to propose such a policy is economic treason. For an opposition leader not to lead the opposition to it is beyond stupid and a dereliction of his most basic duty . . .
''The [emissions trading scheme] is first and undeniably a tax. Broadly it's equivalent to increasing the GST from 10 to 12.5 per cent . . . [It] is the return of the rent-seekers: the greatest sucking at the taxpayer teat since the dismantling of tariffs. This was a week that will live in infamy and insanity.''
This is the train wreck Minchin saw coming. Since then, Malcolm Turnbull has exacerbated the tensions by turning an internal policy fissure into a referendum on his leadership. Six weeks ago he declared: ''I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.'' Six nights ago he told a dissident, Alan Ferguson, to ''get stuffed'' and stalked out of a party room meeting. Ferguson is a friend of Minchin's.
Yesterday Turnbull was again raising the stakes, and personalising the debate, putting the party itself into play, telling Channel Nine: ''The Minchinites do not . . . believe that climate change is real, they do not believe that humans are causing it, and they do not want to do anything about it . . . If Nick Minchin wins this battle he condemns our party to irrelevance . . . There is a recklessness and a wilfulness in these men which is going to destroy the Liberal Party.''
Destroy the Liberal Party? Turnbull himself has already done a sterling job of fomenting instability. On November 29, 2007, the day the Liberals chose Brendan Nelson as their leader amid the wreckage of electoral defeat, Turnbull, having just lost the vote by 45 votes to 42, walked up to Nelson as the Liberals were filing out of the party room and delivered a patronising critique of his first performance as leader. He described the speech as ''funereal''.
The white-anting of Nelson's leadership began that day. And who was standing near Nelson and overhead this insult? Nick Minchin.
Barely 14 months into Turnbull's leadership and the party is in turmoil. A critical moment in the unravelling of the leader's standing came at midday on Friday when Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells of NSW, one of the two critical swing votes who ended Nelson's leadership and put Turnbull in charge in September last year, announced her resignation from the shadow ministry:
''This has been a very difficult time for the Liberal Party. I acknowledge the avalanche of correspondence and feedback conveyed to me from a wide cross-section of the community, most especially after the decision of the joint party room to amend and support the legislation. It is also especially clear from the Liberal base in NSW that the mood is strongly against that decision. In all my years of involvement in the party, I have never seen such an extraordinary reaction . . . I feel compelled to heed their concerns. Accordingly, I will be voting against the [emissions trading scheme] legislation.''
This is the second time that Turnbull and Minchin have clashed in an epic public debate. The first was over the republic, and Turnbull led his forces to defeat in every state. Now it is Turnbull v Minchin, Part II, and for the second time in his public career, at the climactic moment of his leadership, Turnbull has submitted to the Australian people a dud model.
He may survive this political civil war. He may even seek and win re-election tomorrow. But he will never, ever, enjoy the confidence of the electorate. The only question remains is how much damage Malcolm Bligh Turnbull will cause on his way out.