This article by journalist Michelle Grattan (The Conversation 21 September 2017), gives an idea of how the gang behind Tony Abbott is campaigning against the Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister Malcolm Turn bull. It also provides an indication of how Turnbull is playing into their hands, by putting himself in the worst position to come out a winner.
Even in today’s often bizarre political environment, Tuesday night’s encounter between Tony Abbott, Peta Credlin and Alan Jones on Sky News was surreal.
Ms Credlin, Mr Abbott’s former chief of staff, now works for Sky, where she more often than not is a sharp critic of the Turnbull Government. Jones, a highly opinionated voice on 2GB who has a weekly Sky program, spruiks for the former prime minister’s return to the leadership.
Mr Abbott is running a jihad against renewables, increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as the Government struggles to bring together an energy policy.
It was a cosy threesome, and the off-air chit-chat would have been gold.
Among the on-air gems was Ms Credlin asking Mr Abbott whether he trusted Mr Turnbull, because “you know and I know what happened in 2009”. What they both knew, according to Ms Credlin, was that Mr Turnbull ordered one line to be taken in negotiations over an emissions trading scheme while “telling the partyroom something completely different”.
Ms Credlin wondered: “Do you trust the Prime Minister is going to do the right thing or is he going to sign you up to a clean energy target without proper debate?”
Mr Abbott said the important thing was that the decision would have to go through the partyroom where there were “extremely serious reservations about this clean energy target”.
Mr Abbott has poked and prodded at Mr Turnbull on a range of fronts for two years, steadily raising the heat in recent months.
Now his disruption has reached a new level — so much so that one wonders how it can go on without coming to a blow-up.
Abbott also campaigning hard on same-sex marriage
Constantly out in the public arena, Mr Abbott currently is upping the ante over energy policy, and campaigning hard for a No vote in the same-sex marriage postal ballot.
On the latter Mr Turnbull, a strong Yes advocate but leading a Government split on the question, is in the hands of those who chose to vote in the voluntary “survey”. On the former, he’s ultimately in the party room’s hands. On both issues, these are uncomfortable and risky places to be.
Mr Abbott’s onslaught against renewables is more than just disgruntlement from a man deposed. It’s a well-honed attack. Just like the one he and others mounted against Mr Turnbull in 2009 over carbon pricing, which triggered Mr Turnbull’s fall as leader and Mr Abbott’s (unexpected) ascension.
Liberals still don’t think Mr Abbott could recapture the prime ministership. But his power to harm an embattled Mr Turnbull is enormous.
He is working on fertile ground in the energy area. A sizeable section of the Coalition is deeply antipathetic to renewables.
The Nationals’ federal conference recently called for the renewables’ subsidies to be phased out.
Turnbull warming to coal
Mr Turnbull initially seemed enthusiastic about chief scientist Alan Finkel’s clean energy target, although he always made it clear a policy based on it must include clean coal.
But he has stepped further and further towards playing up the role of coal, to the point of his face-off with AGL over its determination to close its Liddell power station.
In his comments, Mr Abbott notes Mr Turnbull’s greater emphasis on coal, saying — with a touch of condescension — that he thinks Mr Turnbull has “got the message” which is to his “credit”.
But Mr Abbott has put the bar as high as possible. It’s not just a matter of allowing coal into the clean energy target — a target mustn’t be countenanced.
“It would be unconscionable — I underline that word — unconscionable for a government that was originally elected promising to abolish the carbon tax and to end Labor’s climate obsessions to go further down this renewable path.”
In that one sentence Mr Abbott seeks to own energy policy, both past and future.
The Australian on Wednesday reported that Mr Abbott has threatened to cross the floor if there is any attempt to legislate a clean energy target, and would likely be followed by others. He wrote in an opinion piece for the paper that “the Liberal and National backbench might need to save the Government from itself”.
Ministry can only dodge and weave
He is inciting the followers to constrain their leader before or, at the extreme, after the decisions on energy policy are made. Usually, the decision-making flows downward, from the prime minister and the cabinet to a backbench that is consulted but basically told what will be done.
It’s nearly impossible for Mr Turnbull and ministers to handle the rampaging backbencher. They try to dodge and weave.
“I don’t think a former prime minister is going to move to put a Labor government into power,” Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said on Wednesday.
It’s counterproductive for them to get into a slanging match with Mr Abbott, not least because the policy formulation still seems to be in shifting sands and also because they don’t want to agitate an already touchy backbench.
If Mr Turnbull and the Government embrace a clean energy target the danger is that Mr Abbott might indeed be able to foment a revolt which, depending on the outcome, could be humiliating, or a lot worse, for Mr Turnbull.
To the extent that Mr Turnbull is forced to gesture to the Abbott line in the decisions made, Mr Abbott will claim the credit.
But the more Mr Abbott’s anti-renewables position can get traction, the worse the policy problem for the Government. Mr Turnbull may ensure coal has some prominence in the long-term policy mix but if the government were perceived to be turning against renewables, a growing industry would be set back, causing further investment chaos.