Grattan on Friday: Has Turnbull’s credibility deficit reached a point of no return?

Malcolm Turnbull prides himself on being a pragmatist. There is a significant if fine line between pragmatism and buckling. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Despite briefly being able to dine out on the legislation passed before parliament wound up last week, Malcolm Turnbull is headed to a not-very-happy Christmas. This week has surely been one of the worst of his prime ministership.

News of a quarter of negative economic growth – only the fourth since 1991 – came hard on the heels of Turnbull’s surrender to the noisy right when, ahead of the long-scheduled review of climate policy, the government kiboshed any possibility of contemplating an emissions intensity scheme (EIS).

Experts believe economic growth will come back to a positive number in the December quarter. But observers must doubt whether Turnbull can turn his personal credibility deficit around.

Turnbull prides himself on being a pragmatist. There is a significant if fine line between pragmatism and buckling.

It was sensible pragmatism to compromise in order to secure the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The price Turnbull paid to the crossbench was a weaker body, but the alternative was no ABCC at all – and, anyway, some of the changes, notably in relation to individuals’ rights, were for the better.

But to refuse even to consider an EIS for the electricity sector – which is a long way from a broad emissions trading scheme, or a carbon tax – is abject surrender, and a major failure of Turnbull’s nerve and leadership.

It also puts the government embarrassingly at odds with its own chief scientist, Alan Finkel, whose report before Friday’s Council of Australian Governments (COAG) gives a positive nod in the direction of an EIS.

At the most basic level, a good policy process is one that examines everything, especially an option which has wide support including in the relevant sector.

As Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg noted on Monday, when saying an EIS would be looked at in the review to be led by his department: “We know there’s been a large number of bodies that have recommended an emissions intensity scheme, which is effectively a baseline and credit scheme”. Under such a scheme, a baseline would be set for what could be emitted per unit of power generated; producers with emissions under the base would get credits, which they would sell to higher emitters.

If an EIS has the drawbacks Turnbull would now have us believe (not that it is likely he really believes them himself), then presumably the review would elucidate them.

If on the other hand, the review gave such a scheme a positive rap – well, why not let the public hear the case and have the issue fought out with all the facts on the table?

And how does the review now deal with the suddenly taboo issue of an EIS, which presumably will be supported in some submissions to it? If it declines to think about it, won’t its findings be relatively valueless?

If it is not permitted to look at it, shouldn’t its terms of reference – which include examining “the opportunities and challenges of reducing emissions on a sector-by-sector basis” – be rewritten to specify the exclusion?

The bottom line is that the government’s decree is absurd – a product of ideology (on the right), expediency (hey, let’s score against Labor, which supports an EIS) and fear (Turnbull feeling the bounds of the not-so-gilded cage to which his party has consigned him).

Turnbull’s tension was obvious this week in a couple of tetchy performances. Pressed on whether Frydenberg had been initially sent out to say the EIS was on the table, he said: “If you want to ask questions about what another minister said, you should address them to him”.

Sources deny Frydenberg was despatched to float an EIS, and there’s no reason to disbelieve this. They maintain the usually careful minister just went further than he should have when elaborating on the review’s terms of reference, which had been approved by cabinet. Certainly Frydenberg has accepted full responsibility.

The question remains why, given the Frydenberg statements were made early Monday, it took until late Tuesday, after cabinet, to have him kill the EIS option in his humiliating backdown. Perhaps it was thought, just for a while, that common sense could prevail.

Turnbull is letting the right inside and outside the Coalition progressively tighten their grip on him. He’s become, or maybe always was, a whatever-it-takes man, and it’s taking more and more to deal with situations as the power of the right strengthens, post Brexit, post Trump and in the age of Hansonism.

With a note of condescension, Tony Abbott recently described Turnbull as “growing into the role of prime minister”, saying he was “now governing as an entirely orthodox centre-right” prime minister. It was the sort of compliment that wasn’t one, if you were Turnbull.

Yet whatever he throws to the wolves will never be enough to satisfy them. Liberal senator Cory Bernardi has won the day on the EIS but now wants Australia to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. Columnist Andrew Bolt endorses Kevin Rudd’s assessment that Turnbull is the most ineffective conservative prime minister since Billy McMahon.

The future is always another land but it is hard to see how Turnbull can become anything like his own man in 2017. If he had secured a big rather than wafer-thin victory at the July election, he’d have some political capital – and that capital, like the financial kind, carries its own strength. As it is, he’s at the beck and call of those who hold the mortgage over him and, just now, they are not actually the voters.

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