Tony Abbott has issued an extraordinary statement bashing his successor Malcolm Turnbull’s “merchant banker gobbledigook” after suffering a resounding defeat in the Coalition party room on energy.
The former prime minister went into Tuesday’s all-important meeting attacking Mr Turnbull’s proposed National Energy Guarantee policy as “very dangerous”, warning of higher power prices if a mandatory carbon reduction target was imposed.
It was a tactic that worked well in 2009, when Mr Abbott used internal dissent over Mr Turnbull’s backing of the Rudd government’s proposed emissions trading scheme to seize the leadership.
It did not work today.
According to the ABC, Mr Abbott was only able to secure the open support of three other dissenters – named as Andrew Hastie, Eric Abetz and George Christensen. Mr Abbott claimed a total of four, presumably not counting himself, although he said “at least a dozen” expressed “serious concerns”.
Two other Liberal backbenchers, Tony Pasin and Craig Kelly, may also be holdouts.
Whatever the exact numbers, Mr Abbott appears far more isolated than he was almost a decade ago.
In response, the former PM issued a vicious statement aimed, implicitly, at his successor.
“Unfortunately, most explanations of how the NEG (as it stands without price targets) might theoretically get prices down sound like merchant bankers’ gobbledigook,” Mr Abbott said.
He said he felt compelled to issue the statement because of “rampant hostile briefing of journalists while the meeting was underway”.
Mr Turnbull is claiming the meeting as a major win.
Wearing a huge grin, and punctuating each point with gusto, he told reporters his party room had “overwhelmingly” supported the policy.
Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg was similarly upbeat.
With Mr Abbott vanquished, the only remaining impediment for the Prime Minister appears to be the Labor state governments.
The legislation is expected to be put to a teleconference of state energy ministers later on Tuesday.
Mr Frydenberg had a special message for Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews – “stop walking both sides of the street” and sign up to the NEG “before he goes into caretaker mode” ahead of the impending state election.
As for the policy itself, the NEG will start in 2020 and promises to bring down energy bills by about $550 a year.
Crucially, however, it sets a modest emissions reduction target of 26 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.
This is even lower than the one set by the government’s own chosen expert, Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, who proposed a scheme that would have reduced Australia’s total carbon emissions by 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.
And coal could be making a comeback, too.
During question time, Mr Turnbull appeared to confirm the NEG could be used to publicly fund new coal-fired power stations.
“I saw the member for Port Adelaide was out there today talking about renewables and how they were better than coal-fired power. The reality is, Labor can have debates about one technology or another, what we are in favour of is cheaper electricity,” he said.
In another answer, Mr Turnbull attacked Labor leader Bill Shorten for turning “his back on all those coalminers” and “people at work at coal-fired power stations”.
“Recommendation number four of the ACCC report would provide government support for any form of new dispatchable power regardless of its technology, as long as it is not being delivered or built by one of the big retailers.”
The consumer watchdog’s June report did advise the government to sign long-term contracts to buy power from new power plants, to make it easier for those projects to obtain loans.
Recommendation four did not mention coal, but, in an apparent attempt to quell backbench agitation, taxpayer support for new coal plants is being flagged – in addition to the watered-down emissions target.