Paul Bongiorno
Heat on for Malcolm Turnbull ahead of Paris conference

As he heads to Paris for the 21st conference of the parties (COP 21), Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t have the survival of the species top of mind. The United Nations-sponsored climate talks have the ambition to lay the framework for an international protocol to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. No, the prime minister’s priority is his own political survival.

“Malcolm understands that he needs to consolidate and get a strong mandate of his own,” is the way one of his most senior colleagues put it to me. You would think with his runaway approval in all the opinion polls and the restoration of the Coalition’s 2013 dominance over Labor it would be an easy task. But it’s clear he is shackled by entrenched resistance in his own Liberal party.

As Labor’s environment spokesman Mark Butler put it, he flies to Paris weighed down by the baggage of Tony Abbott’s policies. These came from a bent of climate change denialism and were designed to do as little as possible. Appeasement of this view is the hard lesson of Turnbull’s defeat by Abbott for the Liberal leadership in 2009. Lined up supporting the Abbott approach are powerful vested interests. Not least is the coal lobby. 

Its narrow economic arguments are taken as gospel truth by conservatives. Sure, coal is a major contributor to the nation’s wealth; but it’s not the only one and its days are numbered. Whatever the outcome of Paris, appetite for fossil fuels will emerge diminished. A recognition of this would see an agile, innovative government with its eye on the future be more urgent in its embrace of alternative energy sources and technologies. So far, according to the Climate Institute, all the Turnbull government is delivering on renewables is détente after Abbott’s hostilities.

Turnbull is vulnerable here on two grounds. He is failing to seriously address Australia’s emissions reductions and he is doing it despite his conviction that it needs to be done. Bill Shorten in parliament tried to ping the prime minister on both. Turnbull deferred to his environment minister, Greg Hunt, who is proudly telling the world we will achieve our minus 5 per cent emissions reductions by 2020 – an outcome seen as minimal at best.

The opposition leader is now heading to Paris with a much more ambitious program. He is committing to a process for 45 per cent emissions reductions by 2030. A long way ahead of Turnbull’s 26 to 28 per cent. Spurring that goal is a further commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. That, of course, will carry no weight at the conference but, with a bit of luck, Shorten reasons, it could carry more weight with concerned voters. This may not be a vain hope.

A Lowy Institute poll found that 62 per cent of people backed Australia boosting its emissions reduction targets if it would help achieve a global agreement. The same poll found a surprising 43 per cent supported the reintroduction of a carbon price. More than enough for a popular Turnbull to build on if he had a mind to return to his preferred mechanism. 

The Greens’ Adam Bandt also tested the prime minister’s commitment to the cause. He noted the government’s approval of the giant Carmichael coalmine in Queensland. He asked Turnbull if he realised it was not a good look to go to the Paris climate talks admitting he had approved a single coalmine that alone would generate more pollution than the entire European Union in one year. The answer was positively Abbottesque. Turnbull spoke of clean coal. He denigrated the questioner for hating coal and said it would be part of the energy mix for many decades to come.

No yanking of his conservative colleague’s chains there. Perhaps he’d heard of the regular lunches during sitting weeks of the “government in exile”. This week’s was hosted by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in the “monkey-pod room” of the ministerial wing. The space is dominated by a monkey-pod wood table. The West Australian reported that Tony Abbott turned up with a chocolate cake baked by his “landlady”, Peta Credlin. He stays with his former chief of staff and her husband Brian Loughnane – the party’s former federal director – when he’s in Canberra.

This week, according to several reports, the lunch conversation was dominated by discussion on national security – the one issue Abbott camp followers such as Andrew Bolt insist Turnbull has comprehensively failed on. The mumblings have spilled out of the lunch room. Tony Abbott himself was the first to take a much harder line on our efforts in Syria. His calls for “boots on the ground” were echoed by his close ally, former defence minister Kevin Andrews. Another luncher, former military man Andrew Nikolic, is worried about the vetting of Syrian refugees and the difficulty of tracking terrorists.

More mainstream Liberals are furious. They see this resistance as delusional. While some in the party frame the contrary positions on national security as healthy policy debate, the view of that argument is pretty blunt. It was put to me as follows: “Bullshit.”

The Liberal source says Sydney right-winger and assistant minister to the treasurer Alex Hawke is keeping an eye on the numbers for Abbott and his boss Scott Morrison. Why anyone would be doing this when the mood change overall in the government and in the nation is one of relief that Abbott is gone beggars belief.

For some Liberals, it seems saving the nation from Malcolm Turnbull is as noble a task as saving it from Bill Shorten and Labor. Of course, it’s a recipe for political disaster: just ask Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. But if you believe your way is the only right way, restoring the old order can take on an urgency. Its chances of success are minimal. Apart from a hardcore, reckoned at about 30 big C conservatives, any party room ballot now would see Turnbull’s leadership vote dramatically increase, according to one veteran MP.

The prime minister hit back none too subtly in his national security statement: “Our response must be as clear-eyed and strategic as it is determined. This is not a time for gestures or machismo. Calm, clinical, professional effective. That’s how we defeat this menace [Daesh].” 

The tone and content were in stark contrast to Abbott’s alarums. Turnbull infuriated the former prime minister’s mates by inferring Abbott was calling for unilateral deployment of Australian combat troops. The government’s best advice was that this “is not feasible or practical”. And he rejected his critics’ assessment that he was weak on national security: “As your prime minister my highest duty, and that of my government, is to keep Australians safe.”

There was no quibbling from the opposition on how he was doing it – although Bill Shorten mischievously sided with the Liberal hardliners, saying Peter Dutton should be permanently on the national security committee of cabinet. Turnbull ignored the call. He apparently didn’t think his consolidation strategy demanded he go that far.

Labor was more critical of the government’s response to the Ian Harper competition policy review. It claimed that all the hard decisions had been either avoided or delayed. A hallmark, it says, of Turnbull so far. Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen homed in on Scott Morrison’s decision to keep the so-called “effects test” alive. If implemented, this would give the consumer watchdog ACCC the power to prevent supermarket chains, big business, or shopping centres using their clout to damage competitors. Instead of proving intent, the regulator would have to show only that the effect of any action achieved the same result.

Labor thinks it’s all about milk for a dollar a litre on offer in Coles and Woolworths. This infuriates the Nationals and they made further consideration of the test part of the price for their remaining in coalition. Always a hollow threat, Turnbull still thought it prudent to at least humour his rural partners. While Morrison says consumers are his main concern, the opposition says the test would work against them. In cabinet, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann agreed.

Peter Strong, of the Council of Small Business of Australia, is giving Morrison the benefit of the doubt. He believes, maybe hopes, that the treasurer will stare down the Business Council, Coles and Woolworths when he finally gets around to making a decision next year.

After Shorten’s preferred prime minister number in Newspoll hit 15 per cent this week, the opposition leader consoled himself with the fact Turnbull hasn’t actually been subject to any real economic test yet. So far Shorten’s own leadership hasn’t been subject to his backbenchers fearing they will lose their seats with him at the helm, either. Although it’s becoming a near run thing. 

The poll average gap between parties is now 7.6 percentage points for a government lead, 53–47. That is the mirror reverse of Labor’s lead when the Liberals dumped Abbott. On that, the 55 Labor MPs would probably survive, but it would be tight. Any widening of that gap next year when the election is due and Anthony Albanese’s prospects of becoming leader would considerably brighten. The Right in New South Wales is already sympathetic to the prospect.

More than two points would be catastrophic for the climate. For Shorten, it could be fatal.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2015 as "Pay Peta, get monkey-pods".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.