Following what can only be described as a horror opinion poll at the beginning of this week, and an uprising driven by Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull probably signed his political death warrant on Monday.
He probably also brought an end to any political civility that may have occurred between now and the next federal election.
The Fairfax-Ipsos poll was a shocker, suggesting the Coalition’s primary vote had dropped six percentage points in a month to 33 per cent. Although most of those votes went to One Nation and not Labor, the final result was not pretty, with the gap in the two-party preferred vote stretching from two to 10 points (55-45) in Labor’s favour.
As they say in the classics, the writing is on the wall for Malcolm Turnbull.
Whether it occurs this week or later this year, Liberal MPs will either replace Mr Turnbull as leader or he will orchestrate a handover to one of his conservative supporters.
Just as Tony Abbott was unable to recover his authority after the empty chair challenge, Mr Turnbull is unlikely to recover from Monday’s humiliating defeat over the NEG.
Unfortunately for Australian voters, it’s also likely we’ll have difficulty recovering from the election campaign that will result from Mr Turnbull’s decision. By dumping the emissions reduction target in an effort to placate his critics, he has doomed Australian voters to a dumbed-down battle over power prices at the next federal election.
In fact the campaign will probably be as mind-numbing and brutal as the successful one run by Tony Abbott against the ‘carbon tax’ in 2013. Much of the government chaos we’ve seen in recent times can be directly attributed to Mr Abbott claiming he can repeat this feat in 2019.
With the dumping of the emissions-reduction target (though Mr Turnbull claims it’s just resting, not dead), the government’s new energy policy now focuses almost exclusively on forcing down power prices. It plans to do this by implementing some of the 56 recommendations recently made by the competition regulator, the ACCC, following its lengthy inquiry into electricity prices.
Treasurer Scott Morrison, who’s responsible for the ACCC and fancies himself as a retail politician, summarised these new powers on Monday as a “safety net, a big stick, and a way to get new generation”.
The safety net will be a price guarantee that essentially acts as a price cap. The big stick will be a new government power to force companies to keep a power station open beyond its planned retirement. (I’m looking at you, AGL). And potential developers will be offered a government guarantee to build new power stations to supply big industrial users. Team Coal sees this as producing more coal-fired power, but it could also be gas, hydro or renewables with battery storage.
The Prime Minister and his frontbench have been testing their lines for months, claiming that under Labor there will be “higher power prices, higher taxes, less investment and less jobs”. The death of the National Energy Guarantee allows the government to strengthen that attack.
Freed from having to defend the ‘emissions obsession’ apparently embodied in the NEG, we shouldn’t be surprised if the government also adjusts its ‘technology agnostic’ position to one that ratchets up the demonisation of renewable energy and how it allegedly pushes up power prices.
This is probably as good a time as any to mention that renewables are not the main cause of power price hikes. We’re going to be hearing that faux claim a lot in coming months, probably as often as we heard about the $100 leg of lamb and the destruction of Whyalla under the Gillard government’s carbon price.
Whatever our politics, or what we want in a leader, Malcolm Turnbull’s loss today is a loss for all of us.
By capitulating to Tony Abbott and his supporters on the NEG, Malcolm Turnbull has not only surrendered his authority to the insurgents within his government. He’s also surrendered Australian voters to the rebels’ aggressive and hyper-partisan politics.