All in on Climate Change

Australian Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull during an official reception at Parliament House in Canberra on June 24. (Photo: Torsten Blackwood/ AFP-Getty Images)

Australian Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull has described sections of his backbench as "smart arses" as he attempts to clear the air over his leadership on climate change.

Reacting to leaks from opposition MPs undermining his proposed policy of working with the government on an Emissions Trading Scheme (E.T.S.), Turnbull told Fairfax Radio he had no time for anonymous backbenchers who challenged his strategy.

Sources quoted in the Australian media said Turnbull had made his position untenable earlier in the week when he challenged the party room to back his views on the E.T.S. or to sack him as opposition leader.

"I don't place any store on anonymous smart-arses who make comments like that," said Turnbull. "Who are they? If they don't have the guts to put their name to it then I'm not going to waste my time worrying about what they've said."

Turnbull has said an election fought on the issues of climate change and an emissions trading scheme would be disastrous for the Coalition. "If you want to go out there on the climate change sceptic platform, believe me, you'll get about 15 percent of the people voting for you," he warned his more conservative colleagues this week.

"There is no way that I could win or indeed I could conduct a campaign based on doing nothing on climate change," he said.

Opposition to Turnbull's negotiating strategy on the issue has centered around veteran West Australian backbencher Wilson Tuckey who accused the opposition leader of "entrapment" tactics, arguing the party room had never agreed to negotiation on the issue with the government. "Malcolm says the party room agreed to it. Well it didn't. That's rubbish," Tuckey said.

"It's the way he does business, it's entrapment. There's never been a position put to our party room beyond that we should delay our decision until after Copenhagen," he added. "You can't go to an election opposing an emissions trading scheme if you have been in bed with the government on trying to make it better."

Turnbull's argument that opposing the emissions trading scheme in the Senate (where the government doesn't have the numbers to pass legislation) would hand the government a trigger for a double dissolution of Parliament has been met with fierce opposition from elements of his party who see the government's emissions trading scheme as deeply flawed and damaging to Australia's economy.

Damaging split

Turnbull's aggressive response this week to a damaging split within Liberal/National party ranks over the issue has again raised questions among conservative elements of the Coalition about his fitness to lead. Seen as a moderate, Turnbull's abrasive and sometimes aggressive style has made him a number of enemies within his party, particularly within its conservative wing.

Influential Senator and party power broker Nick Minchin, while calling on his colleagues to support Turnbull's leadership, has told the Australian media he sympathised with these sections of the party who are adamantly opposed to dealing with the government on what they see as a poorly-drafted emissions scheme policy.

Senator Minchin also said the opposition must not fear an early election called on the issue. "I certainly don't fear an electoral contest," Minchin told Sky News this week, saying to campaign against such a flawed policy would gain the opposition support in the electorate.

Frontbencher Tony Abbott, also considered a conservative and one of the few leadership alternatives to Turnbull, has said Turnbull deserves support on his strategy and called on the party to rally behind its leader. "The leader has a right to expect party room support for decisions he has arrived at after careful consideration of the interest of the party," Abbott said.

The issue of climate change, considered a major factor for the election of the Kevin Rudd's Labor Government in 1997, ending nearly a decade of conservative rule, has once again emerged as a possibly defining issue in the next election.

Already framed by the key climate talks in Copenhagen in December, the Labor Government has managed to position itself both domestically and internationally as a proactive nation on cutting emissions despite disappointing many Australians with a comparatively weak climate change policy.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd angered many environmentalists earlier in the year when he announced a target of 5 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, with that target being increased to 15 percent only if there was a similar global agreement.

However, as a domestic political issue, climate change has clearly driven a wedge between opposition conservatives—many of whom admit they remain climate skeptics—and moderates such as Turnbull who are looking to move the party away from the policy of the previous Howard Government, a strategy which Australian voters punished in the 2007 poll.

A recent Newspoll survey has found little change in this sentiment with 72 percent of those surveyed (including 57 percent of Coalition voters) backing a carbon emission reduction scheme.

While these figures appear to back Turnbull's comment that his party would be "wiped out" if an election were called on the issue of climate change, Newspoll also showed that only 19 percent supported an early election with 64 percent preferring an amendment to the emissions trading legislation to enable its passage.

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