With opponents inside and out, there’s no plain sailing for PM Turnbull

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I want to do something very simple this weekend to cut through the staging and the static in Canberra right now. I want to talk about what’s happening rather than what people are saying.

Over the next few weeks two things are likely to happen. The Turnbull government appears likely to unveil a deal that will allow some of the wretched souls detained in Nauru and Manus to finally be settled in other countries.

Assuming no outbreak of extreme crazy (which is a big thing to assume in the current climate, I’ll admit), it is also likely to ratify the agreement it signed up to in Paris last December, the one that produced commitments for all countries to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to 1.5C to 2C.

In normal political times, in that fantasy scenario where Malcolm Turnbull won the July election resoundingly, banked his personal mandate and was permitted to act more or less consistently as the politician voters have seen in the past, these things could be just transacted and presented to the public on their merits.

But Turnbull has two problems. The first is that Labor is within striking distance of government. When you can feel the hot breath of your opponent on your neck, the backroom wisdom in such circumstances tends to dictate that daily politics becomes about maximising the points of difference with your opponent. We can call this survivalist mantra – pick a fight, any fight.

The second problem has been on full display since the prime minister failed to win the election in the convincing way he wanted to win. Tony Abbott will play every point he thinks he can get away with, and even some he can’t get away with. Even if he’s a lone assassin, and right now he is, disowned by mostly everyone in the Coalition for different reasons, the voters see division and the net effect on a government is corrosive.

Quite apart from the bruised feelings and antics of the prime minister in exile, the government remains divided philosophically and factionally, and the Coalition lacks Labor’s institutional mechanisms to enforce internal discipline.

Everything is contested. Nothing is straightforward.

So instead of just producing these two developments, the third-country resettlement deal and the Paris agreement ratification, as straightforward achievements, as statements of what kind of government the Turnbull government aspires to be – a government that won’t tolerate offending a basic principle of liberalism by keeping people arbitrarily detained offshore when they’ve committed no crime, and a government that knows we have to deal with the existential threat of climate change – they have to be presaged by bouts of extremism.

Hence the proposed bill banning asylum seekers from ever setting foot in Australia for the remainder of their days, because that will fire up the base, wrong foot your opponent and lull the Fox News Lite night shift on Sky News – just in case anyone had a transitory impulse to wonder if Peter Dutton had suddenly gone soft – which could easily trigger an outbreak of cognitive dissonance from Ray Hadley and then Dutton might have to find a Bible to swear on.

Then there’s all the shouting about windfarms, which makes absolutely no sense, given that Turnbull knows precisely what has to happen by way of transition to low-emission technologies and Josh Frydenberg is one of the brightest people in the parliament.

Both of these characters know full well coal is on the way out, and Australia will need the much-maligned windfarms and the solar farms to decarbonise the grid in sufficient time to meet our international commitments, and to try to mitigate against the dangerous effects of climate change.

Both were called out diplomatically, but comprehensively, on the political bollocks, in a speech the chief scientist made on Thursday night.

Turnbull and Frydenberg, and the renewables bull horn do make a bit more sense if we tumble to the fact the government has not yet ratified the Paris deal, and doubtless wants to be able to ratify the Paris deal with only the mildest tut-tut from the Quadrant corner, rather than the whole process triggering yet another bout of internal cage fighting within the Coalition about climate change and whether it’s happening or not.

Frydenberg and the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, are going to the planned meeting of leaders in Marrakech, Morocco, which starts this week.

This pow-wow has been convened to decide the global rules towards achieving net zero emissions, which was the core of the Paris agreement.

In no rational universe does the Australian government want to be in a position of going to that meeting and telling other countries we don’t intend to ratify the Paris agreement, but nothing is done until it’s done and the process isn’t yet locked down with a cabinet ruling.

Obviously, this whole play – “look at those dreadful renewables and, oh look, here’s the Paris agreement” – is a lot more complicated than a simple game of bait and switch.

But for a bit of light relief at the weekend, you could think of this as a drawing room comedy in which the lead character says, “My, aren’t windfarms terrible, Rupert,” while Rupert placidly signs another piece of paper guaranteeing a proliferation of windfarms into the future.

Thanks, Rupert. Rupert always was a good sort. Provided Rupert is a good sort, of course. On that score, we are going to have to watch and wait.

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