To use the old adage, a week can be a long time in politics.
Since my last column, the landscape of Australian politics has been reshaped and with it, Australia’s position on an emissions trading scheme.
At the start of last week, Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull had achieved a compromise with the Government on its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, making it more industry friendly.
The sales pitch did not work as well on his Liberal Party colleagues.
Mr Turnbull emerged from a marathon meeting of the Liberal party room last Tuesday battered and bruised but still standing and defiant. He had stared down climate change sceptics, those who wanted the legislation to go before a Senate committee for further scrutiny and the rest in his party who wanted to delay a decision until after the Copenhagen climate change talks.
‘‘The Opposition has today saved tens of thousands of Australian jobs, protected vital industries and secured energy supplies by forcing significant substantial improvements to the Rudd Government’s emissions trading scheme,’’ he declared. ‘‘The party room is committed. I’m the leader. I’ve made the call.’’
It was arrogance, Turnbull-style, that prompted the first of his detractors to come for him. A day later, Kevin Andrews, the former immigration minister in the Howard government and a man more unpopular than a turkey sandwich at a vegetarian convention, brought on a leadership challenge.
Predictably it failed. What was not so predictable was the result; 41 votes for Turnbull, 33 for Andrews. Only seven Liberal MPs were required to switch their votes to oust their leader. Not the view of a ‘‘committed’’ party room.
Once again, this time bloodied and broken, Turnbull reappeared.
‘‘It was a heated debate and strong feelings were held, which is fair enough. These are big issues,’’ he said. ‘‘But the debate has been resolved now and what we have got to do is reunite, come together and move forward.’’
But as Turnbull tried to move forward, a growing number of his colleagues moved behind him — with the knives sharpened. By the end of last week, 12 senior Liberals had resigned from the shadow cabinet.
Right-winger Tony Abbott threw down the gauntlet again, saying he would challenge Turnbull. That was, unless, the shadow treasurer Joe Hockey could be convinced to run.
Hockey, who has publicly and privately supported Turnbull’s position on climate change, spent the weekend in an unenviable position — stand behind a crumbling leader or try and unite the warring party. After seeking the counsel of former prime minister John Howard, Hockey announced on Monday morning he would run as leader and allow all Liberal MPs a free vote on the CRPS.
Abbott said that position was unacceptable and that he would make Tuesday’s leadership challenge a three-way contest, running as the anti-emissions-trading candidate. Hockey went into Tuesday’s leadership spill as the favourite to be handed the poisoned chalice.
But after the first round of voting, Hockey was on the mat, knocked to the ground by many of those who had convinced him to run. He was eliminated in the first ballot, getting only 23 votes to Turnbull’s 26 and Mr Abbott’s 35.
The final round would be Turnbull, who appeared to be as isolated as a penguin on an ice floe, and Abbott, a former seminarian and amateur boxer, who was promising to be the great white hope for the party. The votes in; Abbott 42, Turnbull 41. And while all eyes turned to the absent Liberal Fran Bailey, who through illness did not attend the vote, the die was cast and the result in.
Abbott, dubbed ‘the mad monk’ by the Australian media, had triumphed.
You can see how the political mud fight over the past week has blurred the issue … what is it we are talking about? Oh, that’s right, establishing a credible emissions trading scheme that could possibly elevate Australia as a world leader on global warming.
But that elevation turned out to be a slippery pole and today (Wednesday) the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was voted down for a second time. Even the efforts of two Liberal senators, Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce, who crossed the floor to vote in favour of the CPRS, left the bill five votes short of passing.
The Government’s response was to defer the legislation until February 2, when Parliament resumes after the Christmas break, and put it to the Senate for a third and final time. That will be after Copenhagen, when Australia will have a clearer view on where the world is heading in dealing with climate change.
It has always been my view that the world would have much to learn from Australia’s handling of its emissions trading scheme, and there you have it.