Paul Bongiorno
Comparison to John Key unflattering to Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull looked across the Ditch this week and found in the resigning New Zealand prime minister John Key the template for a reforming leader. He said, “What he has been able to do is demonstrate that if you make the case for reform, clearly, cogently, persuasively, you can win and retain strong public support for economic reform.”

This is the conservative Kiwi leader who steered same-sex marriage through a parliament in which he didn’t have a majority in his own right, and who was open to the idea of a trans-Tasman emissions trading scheme. The praise Turnbull heaped on the man he described as “one of the most outstanding national leaders in the world today” only served to demonstrate how poorly the Australian prime minister rates by comparison. And this week was a sad and dramatic illustration of this.

On Monday, Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, with his pleasant and assuring tone, something akin to the bedside manner of an avuncular GP, opened up a wide-ranging discussion on climate change policy. He released terms of reference for a review that would look at “the opportunities and challenges of reducing emissions on a sector-by-sector basis”. On the AM program he was more specific: “We know that there’s been a large number of bodies that have recommended an emissions intensity scheme, which is effectively a baseline and credit scheme. We’ll look at that.” Nothing radical there. Certainly no commitment to implement such a scheme. It would enable high-emitting electricity generators to trade credits with lower-emitting ones when they went above a predetermined pollution baseline.

But by midweek Frydenberg was feeling the heat. On his way to Antarctica he held a news conference in Hobart to implausibly deny he had ever put emissions trading on the table. He was doing so after a cabinet meeting the night before reviewed the rumblings coming from within the government.

Serial conservative stirrer Senator Cory Bernardi had gone on Sky News to slam Frydenberg for picking the scab of the old carbon pricing debate. “This is one of the dumbest things I’ve heard in politics in recent times,” he said. Fairfax cited 10 backbench government MPs all angry about it. One, the Abbott-supporting Craig Kelly, went on Radio National and equated the proposal with raising electricity prices. The Nationals’ leader, Barnaby Joyce, ruled out ever supporting a carbon tax, and even staunch Turnbull ally Christopher Pyne got in on the act.

Frydenberg threw away any attempt at calm rationality. Gone were the nuances. No distinctions between prices and taxes. He adopted the old Abbott approach of ruling out a return to “Labor’s great big tax on everything”. His leader, Turnbull, echoed his deposed predecessor: “We will not be imposing a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme, whatever it’s called.”

Economist Danny Price, who designed such a scheme for opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull back in 2009, says it is definitely not a carbon tax because it raises no revenue for the government. He argues it would in fact put downward pressure on electricity prices as cleaner energy sources become cheaper. It certainly puts a price on carbon, but it’s a price the polluters pay and not the taxpayers, as is happening now under the Emissions Reduction Fund.

Turnbull was certainly convinced. He said at the time: “I believe the only effective way to reduce emissions is to put a price on carbon.” The Labor opposition has helpfully put together 26 A4 pages of quotes from Turnbull that establish without doubt that he accepts the science of anthropogenic global warming and the need to do something about it. In May 2010 he said, “I will always make the case for an emissions trading scheme but I cannot always guarantee I will carry the day.” He went on, “People know what I stand for.” And that is his problem on two fronts.

The voters identify “Brand Turnbull” with his rational acceptance of climate change reality and with a market mechanism, such as an emissions intensity trading scheme, as the best way to ameliorate it. And his right-wing sceptics in the Liberal and National parties know this is what he believes and are hell-bent on stopping him implementing his convictions. There is no credibly easy way for Turnbull to reconcile these differences. Even the tiniest opening on the first front invites, as we saw this week, fierce push back on the second.

But instead of launching, Key-like, on a “clear, cogent and persuasive” campaign to achieve the outcome he believes is the most cost effective and responsible, Turnbull ran for the hills at the first whiff of grapeshot. The explanation proffered is that Turnbull didn’t want a repeat of the tax fiasco of last summer. Remember at the end of 2015 he put an open-ended discussion of tax reform on the agenda. The GST element was embraced by the premiers of New South Wales and South Australia and the options were let run for two months. Labor’s Bill Shorten hammered the proposal to raise the GST relentlessly. When Newspoll resumed business in February, Labor’s stocks had risen and the government’s had plummeted.

 But surely in the case of climate change it is a misplaced fear on Turnbull’s part. It’s not really an equivalent situation. For one thing, linking the emissions intensity proposal with an automatic electricity price rise is, as we have seen, a moot point. And that’s putting aside that industry, including electricity generators, as well as the CSIRO and a raft of scientists, support the proposal. It certainly is not designed to raise billions of tax dollars as Labor’s Greens-imposed carbon tax did. Furthermore, public opinion agrees with the Turnbull view of climate change and accepts something has to be done. Why couldn’t he leverage that, especially as Labor, the Greens and most of the crossbench in both houses are open to a carbon-pricing mechanism?

On Tuesday, before the capitulation, Turnbull played down the static he was getting and described the review as “business as usual”. He pointed out that Tony Abbott in 2015 foreshadowed it to assess government climate policies. Removing emissions trading from the review is similar to Labor’s treasurer Wayne Swan removing the GST from his tax review. But any number of commentators and the Labor opposition saw the “business as usual” tag in a pejorative sense.

Shorten saw it as another example of the way the government does its own business. “Who is this guy in charge of the country?” he scoffed. “Because he’s totally changed what he believes. The real problem here is that we’ve got a prime minister who is too afraid to fight for anything except his own job.” He said Labor, unlike Turnbull, is not afraid of the right wing of the Liberal Party. He warned that if you don’t have policies to deal with climate change, home owners’ insurance bills will go up, tourism on the Great Barrier Reef will be negatively affected and “we’ll have more extreme weather events”.

There is a question over the strategy of foreshadowing the climate change review so late in the year. Why not wait until February? One Liberal old hand says, “What was wrong with basking in the union-busting victories in the parliament, going home, and seeing the opinion polls improve after a summer of doing nothing?” It’s more likely there was a miscalculation on just how ideologically driven and sceptical of Turnbull his internal critics are. They think nothing of raucously rocking the boat. What the hell if you torpedo sensible debate, as long as Turnbull knows what agenda he has to ply to keep the party together. Bernardi, ironically, couldn’t believe how hyper-partisan American politics was when he got a close look during his three months in New York. But here we are seeing hyper-partisanship inside the Australian government. It is also the transactional cost Turnbull is still paying for striking down a sitting prime minister. And much of this week’s messiness came from Abbott arcing up over the reported dumping of his Green Army to fund a Landcare deal with the Greens.

Abbott posted on Facebook: “It is a bad principle to axe your own policy for the Greens policy because it means that their priorities are more important than ours.” And then the menacing clincher: “That would hardly be a smart move for a centre-right government.”

It is why comparisons with John Key can only go so far. He was a prime minister who led his party from opposition to the treasury benches and, despite always fielding a minority government, New Zealand has a much less fraught political culture. Key certainly didn’t have a deputy PM who led another party that had a deep antipathy to, and suspicion of, him.

One of Turnbull’s ministers believes he needs to rein in Joyce, the colourful and eccentric Nationals leader. Joyce made a point of disagreeing with Turnbull this week on the classification of the Adler rapid-fire shotgun. But, with a majority of one and the Nationals considerably strengthened in the Coalition, that is not on the to-do list.

In a post-truth political world where emotion and not facts rule, there’s not much room for “clear and cogent” argument to be persuasive. At least not on this side of the Tasman.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 10, 2016 as "Malcolm’s missing Key".

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

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