What do you do when you need to dump your signature policy to save your political skin, but don’t want to give your political enemies the satisfaction? You keep the policy, but completely eviscerate it.
That’s what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did today when he announced “changes” to the National Energy Guarantee, along with a bunch of other policy decisions to bring down electricity prices.
Telling the assembled media that he was simply following the iron laws of arithmetic, the PM said he was removing the emissions reduction target from the NEG because the “small number” of Coalition MPs who were opposed to it would prevent the legislation from being passed.
This is because the Turnbull government has only a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives and “up to 10” government backbenchers had threatened to vote against the NEG if it included the target.
According to some of those backbenchers, enshrining the target in legislation was tantamount to ceding Australia’s sovereignty to Paris.
According to the limited detail provided by the PM at the media conference, the emissions reduction target part of the NEG will be “shelved” until the government has the numbers to pass it in the Parliament. This leaves the NEG to deal only with providing “reliable” electricity.
The problem is, if you don’t have an emissions reduction target driving an increase of renewable energy into the grid, you don’t need a reliability mechanism to balance out the variable supply of renewables. The whole point of the NEG was to deliver more reliable, low-emissions electricity.
Without the target, there’s no need for the reliability mechanism, rendering the NEG a hollow joke of an energy policy.
Malcolm Turnbull will claim to his fretful supporters that this means he did not completely capitulate to the ever-shifting demands of the troglodyte right in the Coalition. But it’s clear he has mostly surrendered.
If those forces have their way, it won’t be the last surrender extracted from the PM. Next they will call for Mr Turnbull to officially withdraw from the Paris agreement, drop the company tax cuts, and cut immigration. As each capitulation is delivered, there will be no thanks but much shaking of heads about this “not being the way to run a government”.
Team Abbott might claim this is all about policies and not personalities, but it has also made it clear that – even if Mr Turnbull did make a wholesale change to the reactionaries’ policies – he couldn’t be trusted because he’s not a “true” Liberal.
In reality, these demands have very little to do with policy and everything to do with stripping away what little authority Malcolm Turnbull has left. Once Liberal MPs “reluctantly” accept that Mr Turnbull is mortally wounded, it is expected they will shift their support to the ostensible leadership alternative, Peter Dutton, who reportedly does not yet have the numbers to beat the PM.
Meantime, Labor at the federal and state levels has been dialled completely out of the energy policy discussion. The federal Opposition won’t get the chance to try increasing the NEG emissions reduction target in the Senate. And the state Labor governments can stop worrying about how to convince voters that it was the right thing to cooperate with the feds on energy policy.