Outspoken Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly wants the nation to seriously believe he and at least 20 other Coalition MPs, including a former prime minister and deputy prime minister, pose no threat to Malcolm Turnbull’s hold on his job.
“Malcolm Turnbull has my full support,” Mr Kelly assured several media interrogators on Tuesday.
What does not have his full support is the way the Prime Minister is pursuing his signature energy policy – the National Energy Guarantee.
Mr Kelly, who heads the Coalition backbench energy committee, is the frontman for a new ginger group calling itself the Monash Forum. The architects of this move are all identified with the policy druthers of Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce, both now morosely sitting on the backbench.
The other names in this who’s who of troublemakers for the Prime Minister are dumped ministers Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz. Their scribe is George Christensen, who claims upwards of 30 Liberals and Nationals share their call for multibillion-dollar investment of taxpayers’ funds in new coal-fired power stations.
Contrary to the nation’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to below 2 per cent by mid-century, Mr Kelly insists only coal can deliver cheaper and reliable electricity and “clean coal” can do it responsibly.
Except the international investment community, as well as Australia’s major banks and even generators like AGL, know this is rubbish. That’s why they won’t invest in coal-fired power generation.
Mr Kelly and his gang ignore, or are wilfully ignorant of, AGL’s plans to replace its ageing and polluting Liddell power station with a mixture of renewables, gas and batteries.
In what amounts to a call to renationalise the very sector the Liberals were hell-bent on privatising, they want the Turnbull government to spend $4 billion rebuilding a power station at or near Hazelwood in the Latrobe Valley.
Mr Kelly denies this push is designed to maximise pressure on Mr Turnbull at a moment of confirmed weaknesses with the 30th consecutive bad Newspoll due next Monday. Few expect it to be good for the PM and the government.
Never fans of Mr Turnbull anyway, the polling confirms their conviction he doesn’t have the cut-through to win the next election. And in what can only be wishful thinking, the stirrers are looking for a repeat of Mr Abbott’s successful anti-carbon tax campaign.
Except the Coalition is now in its sixth year of government and could not credibly counter a Labor campaign along these lines: “Who gave us the highest electricity prices in our history? Malcolm Turnbull.”
And he did this after Mr Abbott’s scrapping of the carbon tax gave only brief price relief and triggered costly market uncertainty for investors and consumers.
There are rumblings in the Liberal party that a change of leader is the only option.
Mr Turnbull has been doing his best to straddle the divide between the coal champions on his hard right and Australians’ embrace of renewable energy.
But according to a submission from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the current design of the NEG would only entrench the dominance of the three big generators, which is likely to drive prices up.
A further concern is that it would also strangle investment in renewables.
It’s hard to see how Julie Bishop, seen by some as Malcolm Turnbull-lite, or even the conservatives’ champion Peter Dutton offer a viable path through this quagmire.
Labor’s Mark Butler is close to the mark when he says the ideological divisions within the Coalition are holding Australian households and businesses to ransom.
Mark Butler says ‘ginger group’ will cause trouble for government
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics.