Turnbull’s challenge begins

Thursday, 10 July 2008 

Turnbull’s appearance on Lateline last night was very significant.

It marks the beginning of something that keeps being talked about as a constant fact of Australian political life, but we haven’t actually seen before, Turnbull’s real political challenge for the Liberal leadership. As those subjected to the hammy escapades of the former Treasurer will know, telling everyone you want to be leader does not constitute a political challenge, what Turnbull did last night does.

In the interview Turnbull undermined the entire climate change U-turn conducted by the Liberal leadership over the last fortnight. He flatly contradicted his leader’s main point of opposition to Rudd’s climate change agenda; that the ETS should be conditional on other countries getting theirs up and running. More importantly, he didn’t make much effort in portraying the difference as a mistake of interpretation and kept repeating that he has had ‘discussions’ with Nelson over his position since he made it on Monday.

Unusually for Turnbull, who tends to be politically tone-deaf, he did it in a way that was fairly savvy. He posed it as nothing more than a continuation of the position adopted by the Howard government a year ago when it announced the setting up of an ETS by 2012. It is not so much that this is going to change his colleagues’ minds. They would all have seen Howard’s abandonment of his scepticism last year as the politically expedient move it was. But it will at least neutralise any attacks on Turnbull as disloyal.

More importantly in the interview he touched on the point that will really make some of his colleagues stop and think; by November this year, dragging heels on an ETS will not only be out of line with the global political agenda, but with the US as well. Both Obama and McCain fully support the setting up of an ETS. Just in case there is some doubt, let’s reiterate a basic law of Australian politics, it is simply not possible for the governing party, or the one that hopes to be, to be out of line with US foreign policy for any sustained period.

In reality, Turnbull probably had little choice. To have gone along with the U-turn would have destroyed his credibility as it has probably already done for the coalition’s environmental spokesman Greg Hunt. Turnbull’s challenge is on an issue that will most annoy the old leadership but on which they are the most vulnerable. It is why climate change has the potential to be the most dangerous issue for the stability of the coalition.

Things might get interesting now. Turnbull may cite Howard’s name but in reality the old Howard leadership is behind the Nelson’s U-turn as indicated by Nick Minchin’s backing of Nelson on Tuesday. The problem for them is that while the sceptic line may be politically destructive in the long term, the Liberals are desperate for a distinctive position to cohere the base right now. Turnbull’s criticism of Rudd for choosing 2010 rather than 2012 hardly does the job. Always an interesting one to watch in this is Julie Bishop, who would be identified with the old leadership but once again, as with the apology, has distanced herself from their more politically difficult positions. It’s a clever move given that Nelson has now undermined his position as compromise candidate for a problem the Liberals can’t, in the long term, resolve.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 10 July 2008.

Filed under Political figures

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