Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could be facing a backbench backlash over plans for a Clean Energy Target after a number of government MPs spoke out behind closed doors on Tuesday night.
During an extended party room meeting, backbenchers grilled Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg about the proposal, which has been recommended by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel to end a decade of energy policy uncertainty in Australia.
Of the 32 MPs who spoke, about a third expressed serious misgivings about the measure, including some who were openly hostile to it, while another third were said to have probed Mr Frydenberg for more information, government sources said.
The final third backed the proposal and complimented Mr Frydenberg’s handling of the review, according to that account of the meeting.
Division in Coalition ranks now threatens to derail the government’s ambition to end the climate wars after Opposition Leader Bill Shorten indicated Labor would consider a Clean Energy Target instead of its preferred Emissions Intensity Scheme.
Mr Frydenberg sought to play down talk of a backbench revolt over the Finkel Review.
But he was non-committal when asked if he could win the support of the Coalition party room, saying it was “too early to say”.
Most who spoke against plans for a Clean Energy Target were concerned about electricity affordability, while a handful of regionally-based MPs raised the possible impact of regional jobs.
Mr Frydenberg conceded that his colleagues were also worried the review’s recommendations would damage the future of the coal industry in Australia.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott, who railed against the Clean Energy Target on Tuesday night, has claimed the mechanism would be a “tax on coal”, a claim denied by Dr Finkel and a slew of Coalition ministers.
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Earlier on Tuesday, Labor attempted to wedge the Prime Minister during Question Time by asking him to confirm Dr Finkel’s proposal would effectively mean no more coal-fired power plans were built.
The Prime Minister was said to have mostly stayed quiet during the party room meeting, with Mr Frydenberg, the minister responsible, fielding questions and presenting the findings of Dr Finkel’s review.
Mr Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership to Mr Abbott in 2009 after government MPs turned on him over his support for an emissions trading scheme.
The government was keen to stress that Tuesday night’s meeting was an information session for MPs and not a “decision-making meeting”.
Other backbenchers such as Liberal MP Craig Kelly and Liberal Senator Eric Abetz have already publicly cast doubt on Dr Finkel’s review.
Handed down last week, Dr Finkel’s review was commissioned amid growing frustration from industry that policy uncertainty was leading to increased electricity prices.
The Chief Scientist’s report cites modelling that suggests the policy would result “in lower residential and industrial electricity prices than leaving policy settings unchanged under a business as usual scenario”.
However, some MPs have expressed skepticism about the modelling, concerns that were again raised on Tuesday night.
Dr Finkel addressed a number of backbench MPs during a special briefing during the day.