Turnbull’s Problems Coming to a Head

In my last Commentary on 8 December I asked “How Long Can Turnbull Stay as PM?” That question has become even more pertinent after Friday’s disastrous meeting with the Premiers and the apparent confirmation in the media that Turnbull was behind the move to have an emissions intensity scheme examined in the 2017 review of climate change policy announced on 5 December. Today’s media is replete with reports of the meeting and the events surrounding the 5 December announcement but an exposition by Laurie Oakes in Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph captures the “thrills”(see Oakes on Turnbull). Bear in mind though that Oakes has probably embellished the story.

The story as run by Oakes suggests that

  • Cabinet approved the terms of reference of the review which specified it would look at, inter alia, “the potential role of credible international units in meeting Australia’s emissions targets”. This clearly implied the pricing of carbon;
  • When asked, Frydenberg told the media that “we’ll look at” the possibility of an emissions intensity scheme (EIS);
  • Some backbenchers and one Minister publicly condemned any such scheme as it would mean the adoption of a carbon price opposed by the Coalition and that would drive up the price of electricity;
  • Turnbull “caved in” and, after a further Cabinet discussion, Frydenberg went out and told the media there would be no such scheme;
  • While Turnbull acted as though the very idea of an EIS was a surprise, he had in fact discussed the possibility with SA Premier Weatherill;
  • Turnbull would have known that the man he had handpicked to head the inquiry, Chief Scientist Finkel, would have been interested in such a scheme;
  • In a discussion paper prepared for the meeting with the Premiers, Finkel says an EIS had the lowest costs and the lowest effect on electricity prices.

More generally, these events highlight the problem of how Turnbull can credibly reconcile his past statements supporting emissions trading and the “saving the planet” nonsense with the agreement he made when taking over from Abbott that he would not support a pricing or tax on carbon as leader of the Coalition. As indicated by the heading to Crowe’s reaction to the meeting with the Premiers (see C/W State Meeting Fails”) , Turnbull has kicked his own goal. The problem was exacerbated by the indication in the preliminary report by Chief Scientist Finkel (Turnbull’s appointment) that other investigations had found that an emissions trading scheme would be the most efficient way of obtaining the emissions reduction target to which Australia had agreed in Paris.

In its editorial on the meeting,  The Australian rightly says “Malcolm Turnbull has deflected blame on to Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, but in reality the Prime Minister shares the embarrassment. It was Mr Turnbull who had to handle the fallout at the Council of Australian Governments meeting yesterday, when he rightly reaffirmed the predominant energy priorities of security and affordability”. But the editorial dodges the need to recommend a basic change in policy by concluding only that “the time for grand climate gestures in energy policy is over. Australia produces only 1.3 per cent of global emissions, which are still rising despite our cuts, so we cannot save the planet. We should play our proportionate role and no more”.

The AFR’s editorial says Turnbull “badly mismanaged the politics of the gathering east coast power crisis…that spilled into yesterday’s excruciating …meeting, pitting a prime minister talking nonsense against premiers whose reckless renewable policies threaten to black out their own states”. But it too dodges the policy problem. As might be expected, The Age’s editorial (written by a deputy ed as the ed has been suspended for alleged harassment) complains that Turnbull has “allowed himself to become widely perceived as shackled by a small number of blustering backbenchers …gormless recalcitrants on what the climate policy review might examine… (which) only served to underline how servile the nation’s leader has become”.

The main media “saviour” has again come from Terry McCrann in the Weekend Australian. He rightly refers to the insanity of the discussion of climate change and concludes “it is also why the only course forward to sanity and reality is for the government to abandon the 26-28 per cent and renounce Paris. Let’s hope president Trump leads the way”. That becomes more possible now that Trump has announced the appointment as head of the US Environment Authority of  Oklahoma Attorney-General Scott Pruitt, a climate sceptic. Trump said  “We’re going to end the EPA intrusion into your lives …for too long …the EPA had spent … taxpayer dollars on an out-of-control anti-energy agenda that has destroyed ­millions of jobs”. Reports suggest that Pruitt will remove as many as possible of the restrictions imposed by Obama on the usage and development of fossil fuels.

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