The government has shelved any move to implement the 26% reduction in emissions because it cannot get the numbers to pass legislation in the House of Representatives. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Malcolm Turnbull shelves emissions reduction target as leadership speculation mounts

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Malcolm Turnbull has announced the government will shelve any move to implement the 26% reduction in emissions because it cannot get the numbers to pass legislation in the House of Representatives.

The desperate attempt to quell the rebellion in his ranks comes as Turnbull’s leadership is under mounting pressure, with speculation about a leadership bid sooner or later from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

But Turnbull told a news conference that Dutton had been at Monday morning’s leadership meeting and “has given me his absolute support”.

“I enjoy the confidence of cabinet and of my party,” he declared.

In a package of changes to the National Energy Guarantee, Turnbull announced the government would move for extraordinarily strong measures to be available against companies that do not give consumers a fair deal, including ultimate divestment.

The government has retreated from Turnbull’s Friday compromise move of implementing the 26% reduction target by regulation. That idea, aimed at denying critics the opportunity to cross the floor, sparked a fresh backlash from Coalition MPs who thought it would make it easier for a Labor government to increase the target.

“Our policy remains to have the emissions intensity standard in the legislation,” Turnbull said at a news conference.

But “as John Howard said, politics is governed by the iron laws of arithmetic and in a House of Representatives with a one seat majority, even with strong support in the party room, if a small number of people are not prepared to vote with the government on a measure then it won’t get passed. So that’s the reality.”

He said the government would bring the target legislation forward “where and when we believe there would be sufficient support in the House of Representatives and obviously in our party room to progress this component of the scheme”.

Turnbull has been frantically seeking any means to pacify his critics, as Tony Abbott and other hardliners are determined to use the energy issue to try to bring him down.

However, it is unlikely his latest move will satisfy his most trenchant opponents. Critics such as Eric Abetz are broadening their attacks on Turnbull to call for government policy changes in other areas, including immigration.

Turnbull admitted he had not personally spoken to Labor to determine whether it would support the emissions legislation, which would give it the numbers in the House.

The shelving of the emissions legislation could cause the Labor states – yet to sign off on the National Energy Guarantee – to walk away from the broad NEG scheme.

Under the initiatives to try to drive down electricity prices announced by Turnbull, a “default market offer” would be set, from which all discounts would be calculated.

“Consumers will be able easily to compare offers from different companies and recognise when they’re being ripped off or when they’re getting a fair deal,” Turnbull said.

He said the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission estimated that for average customers on an inflated standing offer, the savings on moving to a new default market offer could range between $183 and $416 a year. For the average small to medium business the move could save between $561 and $1457.

Turnbuil said the ACCC would be given new powers to “step in where there has been abuse or misuse of market power.

"In the most egregious cases of abuse, additional powers will be conferred on government to issue directions on operations, functional separation and even, as a last resort, divestiture of parts of the big power companies,” Turnbull said.

At his news conference, where he was flanked by Treasurer Scott Morrison and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, Turnbull rejected a reporter’s suggestion that he had just delivered Tony Abbott’s policy. Abbott has wanted the emission target dropped and Australia to walk away from the Paris climate agreement.

“Our energy policy remains the same, but we are not going to present a bill into the House of Representatives until we believe it will be carried,” Turnbull said.

“We obviously need the support of sufficient of our colleagues to get it passed and that means, you know, substantially all of them.”

On Paris, he said: “We are parties to the Paris Agreement and the government has committed to that”.

The president of the Queensland Liberal National Party, Gary Spence, is urging MPs from Queensland – a vital state at the election – to replace Turnbull with Dutton.

Meanwhile, Western Australian Liberal senator Linda Reynolds strongly backed Turnbull, telling Sky she “absolutely” believed he would be prime minister at the election.

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce welcomed the government’s crackdown on power companies saying it was a good outcome. He was particularly pleased with the divesture power, which meant “if you play up, we can break you up”. Turnbull had shown his “capacity to listen”.

Throwing his weight behind the revised package, Joyce said “it’s a great move today.” Asked on Sky about the leadership, he said “I don’t think changing prime ministers looks good.” He also dismmissed Spence’s call for a move to Dutton saying the parliamentary wing should not be confused with the branch members.

Monday 2:33pm

UPDATE: Nationals enthusiastic about revisions but energy industry is critical

The Nationals have swung in strongly behind the revised package.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and his senior ministerial colleagues held a joint news conference to back the enhanced measures to attack high prices.

Nationals who previously had been dissidents, including former prime minister Barnaby Joyce, made separate supportive comments.

The fact the backbench Nationals have been brought back into the tent is important for Turnbull, because it leaves the Liberal hardliners more isolated.

The Nationals are particularly enthusiastic about the commitment to embrace the ACCC recommendation for the government to underwrite investment in projects for new dispatchable power undertaken by new players.

Although the recommendation is technology-neutral, the Nationals see this as a pathway for new coal projects. Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie said: “I’m not afraid to say the C-word: coal, coal, coal is going to be one of the areas we invest in.”

Queensland Nationals backbencher George Christensen, said: “We have a new energy policy thanks to a band of ‘Liberal National rebels’ who stood firm and fought for common sense.”

Christensen said: “What has been announced this morning puts price reductions first and foremost, so pensioners struggling to pay their power bills come before the ‘feel good’ Paris Agreement.”

Another Nationals backbencher, Andrew Gee, welcomed “plans to abandon the National Energy Guarantee”. “It shows that if you stand up and be counted you can actually make a difference, but it’s disappointing that it took this long”.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten labelled Turnbull “truly a white flag prime minister”. “Every day it is a new policy from the government, a new policy not designed to lower energy prices but just for Mr Turnbull to keep his job from his enemies,”

“Mr Turnbull has demonstrated that he is not the leader this nation needs. Real leadership is about fighting for the principles you believe in. Real leadership is about not always giving in to your enemies every time they disagree with you,” Shorten said.

Labor states and the ACT were scathing.

Victorian Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said: “I’m not sure Malcolm Turnbull knows what the NEG is anymore - or if it still exists.”

“We’ll carefully consider whatever energy policy emerges out of the infighting going on up in Canberra.”

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said “what we are seeing today is energy policy in free fall”.

The ACT minister for Climate Change, Shane Rattenbury said the federal government had now completely capitulated on emissions and climate change, and abandoned the Paris Climate Change commitments.

“The NEG is dead. It was hailed as a policy to address the ‘trilemma’ of prices, reliability and emissions reduction. Instead, Federal energy policy is being determined by the worst, climate change denying elements of the Liberal Party,” Rattenbury said.

The Australian Energy Council’s chief executive, Sarah McNamara, criticised the government’s announcement, saying it “has left the most critical policy, the National Energy Guarantee, in limbo.

"Re-regulation of electricity prices and aggressive market interventions are not the long-term answer to high energy prices,” she said.

“The NEG and policy stability remain the long-term solution to bringing down prices.”

McNamara said that “replacement investment demands bipartisan policy and the lack of it remains the biggest drag on the energy market.”

“This is policy with no consultation,” she said. “Re-regulation has the very real potential to damage competition and confidence.”

McNamara said increasing the ACCC’s powers to allow divestment of private assets was not supported by the ACCC’s own report.

The Council represents 21 major electricity and downstream natural gas businesses operating in competitive wholesale and retail energy markets. They collectively generate the overwhelming majority of electricity in Australia.

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Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Canberra provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.