Paul Bongiorno
Tony Abbott’s shadow over government policy

The story of the Turnbull government is hauntingly summed up in the Hughes Mearns poem “Antigonish” and its famous line about the man who wasn’t there. This week, the man turned up again. It doesn’t take much to imagine Turnbull recalling the sentiment, through gritted teeth: “Last night I saw upon the stair/ A little man who wasn’t there/ He wasn’t there again today/ Oh, how I wish he’d go away.”

But Tony Abbott isn’t going away. His disconcerting reappearances are the price Turnbull is paying for the dispatch of his predecessor two years ago. As forecast at the time of the coup, Abbott has become a source of and centre for dissent and a symbol of disunity at the heart of the government.

This last assessment is angrily rejected by some ministers and backbenchers. They say Abbott is not part of the executive, and the ministry is united and cohesive. Maybe, but this flies in the face of his special status as a former leader and especially a prime minister. Furthermore, he is more than willing to exploit that status to undermine Turnbull and his agenda.

The behind-closed-doors speech to an eccentric climate change denialist “educational charity” in London is merely the latest episode. While his “loopy” views, as Labor’s Tanya Plibersek described them, are an embarrassment to the nation, much in the same way as Donald Trump’s are to his, they have Turnbull on the run.

Think energy policy and same-sex marriage. Abbott is the main agitator if not the architect of the way in which they are being handled. Again, some Liberals are annoyed at any characterisation of marriage equality as an Abbott versus Turnbull proxy battle. They point out Abbott is not alone in the Coalition or the parliament in opposing marriage equality. Yes, but he is one of the highest-profile campaigners for the “No” case against the prime minister’s public push for the “Yes” proposition. And besides, the whole survey was an Abbott invention foisted on Turnbull. At least that is the perception fed by his initial criticism of a plebiscite as an unnecessary distraction and a bad idea.

As it turns out, all the signs are the postal survey has backfired on Abbott, but whether Turnbull gets any kudos for the likely success of “Yes” is by no means certain. Much will depend, again, on how the man on the stair reacts and if he and his allies in parliament want to rumble over extraneous issues such as freedom of religion. As if it doesn’t already exist, with constitutional and legislative force.

But marriage equality is a walk in the park compared with the excruciating difficulty Turnbull is having arriving at a credible climate policy he can steer through his party room without prompting a dangerous revolt. And here his predicament is completely due to the dreadfully weakened position the last election created for him.

Abbott’s threat to cross the floor over an energy target would see Turnbull having to rely on the crossbench or Labor to pass any legislation. That presumes Abbott would not drag other like-minded Liberals with him, and there are many. The government would not only lose its majority, it would lose any shred of credibility. Turnbull’s chance to put his own stamp on the government, especially his trademark environmental credentials, came before the election, when there was a belief, bolstered by the polls, that he was an unquestioned winner.

Who can forget the principled and defiant statement from Turnbull as an embattled opposition leader in 2009: “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am”? Midyear it looked like the real Malcolm was making something of a comeback. He had commissioned the chief scientist, Alan Finkel, to come up with a blueprint for energy policy. It took six months, wide consultation and had an emissions intensity scheme pre-emptively ruled out, thanks to Abbott. In the final report, Finkel recommended a 42 per cent clean energy target (CET).

Turnbull welcomed it. At this week’s energy summit, Bill Shorten reminded everyone that Turnbull said it had “very strong virtues”, “a lot of merit” and “would certainly work”. Back in June, the Prime Minister’s Office leaked an “exclusive” preview to The Daily Telegraph. It ran under the headline, “Green is gold for families”. Political editor Sharri Markson’s report was subheaded: “Renewable focus to drive down household power bills”. Next day, the Tele was on a roll. Another headline proclaimed: “A $1000 boost for families”. It quoted Finkel saying prices under a CET would be lower than under an emissions intensity scheme (EIS) or if no action was taken. It cited modelling to show average households would be $90 a year better off from 2020 when the scheme was planned to begin.

Labor signalled it was prepared to deal, abandon its preference for an EIS and accept a CET providing it was a meaningful emissions reduction vehicle. An end to the energy wars – while being very good for the nation – would be a godsend for it as an incoming government. Shorten is not counting his chickens but it is hard to ignore almost a year’s worth of six to eight point leads in the opinion polls. Labor’s offer is treated with great suspicion by Turnbull, but at least the opposition is more welcoming than the prime minister’s own party room.

Veteran Victorian Liberal Russell Broadbent asked Turnbull: “How is it that we have spent the last six months railing against the evils of renewable energy targets and are now proposing one as the answer to the energy policy problem?” Turnbull had been relentless attacking Labor’s 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030 as being reckless. Shorten, he claimed, had no idea how to do it in a way that would provide affordable and reliable energy. For many on the backbench, Finkel’s 42 per cent was too close to Labor’s for comfort. So much for using the national interest rather than partisanship as the yardstick for policy.

Turnbull and his energy minister Josh Frydenberg began crab-walking away from their vaunted plan A almost immediately. That walk is now looking like a sprint. They are trying to make a virtue of second-guessing their own expert report. There is a major credibility problem right there. The energy policy that we are promised by Christmas won’t have a clean energy target but it will still deliver the trifecta of affordability, reliability and emissions reductions. Except Finkel himself warned without something like his CET, prices will rise not fall. And Turnbull has the hide to accuse Labor of policy based on “idiocy as much as ideology”.

Business is certainly not impressed. The line-up backing the CET includes peak business groups and energy companies. Origin Energy chief executive Frank Calabria says it is better than no solution. He told the energy summit that “without an overarching policy mechanism, this means investment is less co-ordinated and timely than it otherwise might be”. He said it’s also likely to come at a higher cost– a cost ultimately borne by energy users. One investment analyst, Roger Lloyd, went further. He warned that the “gold rush” for renewables may not happen without the target.

Some see this as special pleading from vested interests. Even if it is, it coincides with the science-based conviction that something meaningful has to be done to transition away from heavy-emitting energy sources to cleaner ones. It also ignores the urgency of needing to do it. The scientific consensus says 2050 is the deadline to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Flying in the face of science is not something Turnbull or Frydenberg say they want to do. Neither, incidentally, did Abbott when he was prime minister. But now if we are to believe Abbott’s London speech, that was all a charade. He never really stopped believing the science was “crap”. We know his characterisation of the Labor government’s carbon price as a “tax” was also a confection. Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, says they knew it was never a tax, but their description was just “brutal politics”.

It is brutal politics that Abbott wants Turnbull to rerun. There’s another name for it: snake oil. Sure, power prices fell for a few months after the carbon price was scrapped. But four years later they are at record levels, as is pollution. We also have a looming shortfall in generation, thanks to the uncertainty for investors and the fact that commercial reality is on a different planet to Tony Abbott and some of his mates on the backbench such as Craig Kelly.

What hope has Turnbull got when the outspoken chair of the Liberal backbench environment and energy committee is a climate sceptic who continues to peddle the lie that coal-fired power will always be cheaper?

While other Liberal MPs ducked for cover after Abbott’s bomb throwing, Kelly defended him. Hard to disagree with Shorten that “Turnbull is paralysed by fear of infighting in the Liberal Party”. Like dealing with the man on the stair, wishing won’t make it all go away.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2017 as "Stair wars: the phantom menace".

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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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