The government recovered its poise somewhat after the initial mis-step at the Green Paper’s launch, a little more talking up the pain than trying to feel it.

Janet Albrechtsen stuck her knife straight into the central weakness of the petrol price concession, that it undermined the moral urgency on which the government’s case rests. Andrew Bolt made a similar point on Insiders when he cruelly dubbed the government’s agenda “Carbon watch”.

Bolt is pointing to the central paradox in the government’s case, that on one hand it can freely admit it can do little about rising oil prices, but on the other it is claiming to have a plan to change the weather. This only makes sense as a moral position and it is why the New Sensitivity may be a short-term tactic to deal with anti-politics sentiment, but makes it harder for the government in the long run. The government needs a moral imperative, otherwise its authority will erode. Certainly business has smelt weakness and as the Qantas CEO takes off his tie and pleads hard luck in front of the cameras, the government is going to need to toughen up its line if it is going to handle the ‘argy-bargy’ with the business lobbyists.

Yet while right-wing columnists and business may be able to take advantage of the flaws in the government’s agenda, their political representatives in Canberra cannot. The Liberals’ hands remained tied by internal rather than electoral considerations. Despite the clear polling evidence that suggest the electorate is more likely to be resenting the government for not doing enough, internal needs are forcing the Liberals on the sceptic path to claim that the government is doing too much.

Labor’s dealing with the electorate so far on climate change may be so-so but their handling of the opposition has been astute (although it is admittedly an easy target). The decision to bypass the Greens in the Senate and look for bipartisanship with the coalition is a political masterstroke. Commentators have suggested that Labor is doing this because the Greens will be hard work. On the contrary, now that the government is making climate change central to their platform, it will expose the Greens’ lack of political independence from the ALP and they can safely be ignored.

Rather, the main way the government can manage the contradictions of its agenda, for at least a while, is by wrecking the Liberals. Focussing on getting agreement with the Liberals on climate change will force out the conflict in the party between the internal priority to distinguish themselves and electoral needs (including with some core supporters). Labor’s tactics could particularly start to create electoral problems for the Liberals now because it seems their internal needs are starting to predominate (we certainly see the firm unapologetic hand of the old leadership emerge in the pre-selection for Mayo).

This lurch back will mean that their current incoherent position on the government’s Green Paper, which seems to be; “we thought of an ETS first, but we want to go slowly” will be unsustainable. It was clear watching senior Liberals over the last few days that this is a line with which practically none of them agree – but for very different reasons.

Abbott’s forthcoming book, for example, constitutes a political challenge from the old leadership for the party to go back to its core principles (whatever they may be). It was fun watching him promote his book on Lateline on Friday while talking about climate change. He was clearly bursting to say what he really felt about climate change and spell out the electorally unpalatable ‘truth’ like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.

Government pressure for bipartisanship agreement will bring this out. Not only that but Rudd wants to do it every year. However, the strategy will only work if Rudd simultaneously pressures them through the electorate (like Howard did with the War on Terror, Menzies with the Cold War). Accentuating the electoral damage from a sceptical position will bring out the other side of the Liberals’ debate whose position is also becoming untenable.

For if the Liberals’ current line is incoherent, it is at least doing one thing for the old leadership, destroying Turnbull’s political career. It seems Turnbull’s political challenge lasted about three minutes. He may have made just a small concession to the old leadership by agreeing on excise cuts and now waffling on about the speed at which Rudd is introducing the plan but he has now effectively joined the sceptics. As Barrie Cassidy brought out nicely with his interview on Insiders, Turnbull has ended up adopting just another form of the “wait for the world” position and is getting closer to Nelson’s position of last week that Turnbull stuck his neck out in opposing.

It is not as though Turnbull, politically tone deaf as he is, does not have an example of what is happening to him. Andrew Bolt was dead right, we are now hearing about Costello again because Turnbull is on the wane. It is certainly not because Costello is, or ever was, a realistic threat to Labor. Commentators keep speculating what would have happened if Costello had the opportunity to take on Rudd, but in fact we already know. While Howard was paralysed in 2007 and scratching around for ideas, Costello had many opportunities when the field was clear to put an alternative forward; in the 2007 Budget, during the APEC leadership implosion, for example. But they never came. It was why he couldn’t challenge for the leadership but had to wait for it to be handed to him on a plate, which in politics it never is.

Turnbull has at least made something of a start to a real political challenge for the leadership. However, it is clear that he agreed to those small concessions from the sceptics because at the moment he doesn’t have the numbers. What he fails to realise is that by agreeing to those concessions and failing to provide an alternative, he never will.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 21 July 2008.

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