What really happened?

August 29, 2018

Readers of Chris Kenny's opinion pieces in The Australian will not have been surprised that Malcolm Turnbull ran into internal strife over climate and energy policy. The media voices Turnbull and his supporters blame for fuelling moves against him surely were the ones warning him. His handicap was not in having critics but in ­ignoring them.

The Conservative Party had been pointing to the "green" failings of the Turnbull government since the party's inception.

As with any leadership coup, a range of factors was at play, including resentment, ego, polling and ambition. Turnbull failed the Newspoll test he set, making him vulnerable from the day he lost his 30th in a row.

The Longman by-election, where a Liberal National Party primary vote below 30 per cent put the fear of obliteration into Queensland MPs, supercharged anxieties.

In this climate, Turnbull must have known he needed to avoid provocations. Yet he walked into this conflagration in the most predictable way. A party voted into office largely on a pledge to repeal costly carbon emissions reduction policy (axe the carbon tax), led by a man who previously had lost the leadership for trying to do a deal with Labor on climate policy and was trying to bed down another costly emissions reduction plan by striking a deal with Labor — this was ­always going to end in tears.

This is not hindsight.

On radio, television and in the pages of The Australian, Turnbull was warned his national energy guarantee would test the party almost two years ago, when environment and energy minister Josh Frydenberg floated an energy intensity scheme.

As far back as April 7, Chris Kenny wrote in The Australian: “The prime minister has been given an opportunity to retreat in the name of common sense, economic sanity and political advantage. But he stands in a no man’s land of stranded coal assets and stored hydro schemes where he risks another insurrection on the same futile battleground.”

Nine days before he called last week’s first spill, Kenny's column said Turnbull would “face open revolt over his national energy guarantee."

Turnbull and his cabinet persisted with the policy too long ... MPs’ concerns deepened as they realised Australia would become the only country to write the Paris targets into law. It became an issue of economic sovereignty.

The gallery zeitgeist has ridiculed the latest coup as a failure, misunderstanding its aims and origins. It was not a methodical, well-planned insurrection involving leaks and subversion but a policy-driven push by a growing number of MPs convinced the party was drifting too far from mainstream conservatism.

At the end, their view was confirmed by Turnbull, who described his administration as a “progressive government, a progressive Liberal Coalition government” ... it is anathema to what many Liberal MPs and voters thought they had enlisted.

Unlike most leadership challenges (but similar to the Liberal knifing of Turnbull in 2009), this had policy at its heart.

The prime aim of the conservative challengers was not to install Dutton but to change direction on climate and energy, call time on a drift to the Left, depose Turnbull to do so, reclaim the party on behalf of a mainstream membership and elect Dutton as the man prepared to deliver.

For the drawn-out shambles it became, largely attributable to Turnbull’s delaying tactics, the plotters achieved four-fifths of their goals.

They expect the government will now do better in Queensland, the regions and western Sydney. They may be right, or wrong, but that is what happened and why. Some observers either don’t realise this or don’t want to know.

From the party’s perspective the outcome is perhaps a little better than expected because Morrison is a more well-rounded and saleable leader than Dutton, certainly outside of Queensland, and he has been elevated without blood on his hands. How well the party unites will be crucial, of course, as will next steps on energy.

Angus Taylor is a smart appointment. Barnaby Joyce has taken up his drought envoy role with gusto and Abbott last night accepted his indigenous affairs role.

Still, recriminations are likely. The most opaque and worrisome outcome might be that Morrison’s rise through the middle could have further empowered the lobbyist and factional powerbroker ­Michael Photios, whose patronage and power is the unexplained and unresolved flaw in the NSW Liberal Party. If his influence has entrenched itself in Canberra, the foundations of the Coalition could be undercut.

Conservative Party leader Cory Bernardi has told Sydney radio station 2GB, however you look at it, we're going backwards.

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