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Fog of war thickens after Abbott’s climate comments

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Tony Abbott harnessed conservative opposition to climate-abatement measures to oust Malcolm Turnbull as party leader. Photo: The New Daily
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A heavy fog enveloped the national capital at the beginning of the last sitting fortnight before the long winter recess. It was a timely metaphor for the Turnbull government battling forces within its own party room and across the Parliament.

A sure sign that the fight isn’t going completely to the Prime Minister’s liking is the early framing of the fortnight in national security terms. Make no mistake, that is the real intent of changes to Australia’s citizenship laws.

Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton is goading Labor to reject his “timely updating” to make sure that whoever becomes a citizen is a proficient English speaker on Team Australia.

In briefings to the opposition, the degree of proficiency required is university-level English.

It has resonances of the old White Australia policy dictation test. That was unapologetically aimed at Chinese and other Asians.

This time it’s aimed at Muslims from non-English speaking countries. Muslims suspected of being particularly susceptible to murderous extremism.

You won’t find that in the bill when it is finally revealed. It’s the dog whistle ringing in the ears of the opposition and the Greens.

Whatever else it is, it is a distraction from a much bigger battle threatening to blow the government apart. And not for the first time, it is over climate change and energy security.

The protagonists here are privately dismissed as the usual suspects – dumped prime minister Tony Abbott and his fellow travellers on the hard right. But that is a misreading of the mood in the Liberal and National parties.

There are MPs usually more at home in the centre who see anything to do with reducing carbon pollution only in terms of retail electricity prices and the cost of living.

They are still to be convinced that business as usual, as chief scientist Alan Finkel warns, will lead to higher electricity prices. They are blind to the fact it already has.

Shadow environment minister Mark Butler during House of Representatives question time at Parliament House Canberra, Wednesday, May 28, 2014. (AAP Image/Alan Porritt) NO ARCHIVING
Labor’s environment spokesman Mark Butler says Tony Abbott is trying to wreck climate negotiations before they’e even begun. Photo: AAP

As a tactic it has already been found to be a huge confidence trick. The “carbon tax” repeal was one of the first acts of the incoming Abbott government. Electricity bills did not fall by $500 as promised – instead they have more than doubled and are skyrocketing.

Undeterred, Mr Abbott is now describing Dr Finkel’s Clean Energy Target as a new carbon tax because it favours renewables and lower-emitting gas over coal.

His denialist ally Craig Kelly, who was appointed by PM Malcolm Turnbull as the chair of the Coalition’s climate change and energy policy committee, says he doesn’t trust the Finkel review’s modelling. He’s calling for others to have a go, no doubt to second guess results he doesn’t like.

If this view prevails and Mr Turnbull is forced to retreat it will be the end of any rational resolution of the so-called Climate Wars.

The loss of credibility for the Prime Minister with voters and business will be every bit as damaging as Kevin Rudd’s abandoning of his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

Labor’s climate change and energy shadow minister Mark Butler says the PM needs to pull his party into line, “particularly senior Liberals like Tony Abbott who are clearly trying to wreck this process before it even begins”.

The first shots have been fired. The meeting of the government party room on Tuesday is where Mr Abbott is expected to take up the fight with Mr Turnbull and will press his demand for a “big, big debate”.

Dr Finkel is a good start, as everybody except for the naysayers in his ranks and the rent seekers in the coal industry. The nation, if not the planet, can’t afford for it to be still born.

Other battles like Gonski 2.0 education funding will also rage this fortnight in the Senate. But unlike the energy imbroglio, this policy reset appears heading for a Turnbull win.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

For more columns from Paul Bongiorno, click here

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