Can the National Energy Guarantee Save Turnbull?

Malcolm Turnbull might now have shed his image as a climate change warrior. The Coalition partyroom on Tuesday agreed to dump the proposed Clean Energy Target (CET) recommended by the Finkel Climate Review. The CET would have forced energy companies to provide a certain percentage of electricity from low energy technology.

The Coalition partyroom instead agreed to a National Energy Guarantee (NEG) which instead will require energy companies to use a certain percentage of electricity from reliable energy sources. It also has no subsidies for renewables. It is pretty much the opposite of the CET and is clearly designed to thwart the actions of virtue signalling corporations such as AGL who claim they want to get out of coal.

The new policy sailed through partyroom with ease which is a much-needed victory for Turnbull. Labor and Turnbull’s conservative critics have claimed he is capitulating to Tony Abbott’s demands following Abbott’s address to the Global Warming Policy foundation in London last week when he reasserted his scepticism of man-made climate change and claimed that abatement policies have been destructive to our nation.

Given that Malcolm Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership to Tony Abbott on the issue of climate change policy in 2009 and is now leading a Liberal Party that wants to force coal and gas to continue to be used, it is worth asking the question whether he had any principles on the issue at all?

One might draw the conclusion that Turnbull made an error in political judgement in believing in 2009 that action on climate change was electoral winner. In 2017 with blackouts, power prices constantly rising forcing many Australians into energy poverty and now energy rationing he has realised the tide has turned and the voters’ first priority is making sure the power is on and affordable.

Turnbull has also come to this realisation because he wants to keep his job as Prime Minister. This week he lost his 21st Newspoll in row and he is fast approaching the 30 he used as justification for his challenge against Tony Abbott. He is not just losing these polls but losing them badly with them hovering around 46%-54% two party preferred to Labor.

When the polls are this bad leadership speculation is no surprise. However, Turnbull still leads Bill Shorten in the preferred Prime Minister rankings and also Turnbull is the preferred Liberal leader by both the voters at large and by Coalition voters themselves. It puts Liberal MPs in a difficult position. They are going off a cliff under Turnbull but on the face of it there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative.

It is for this reason Turnbull is safe for now, he has the support of the two most senior conservatives in the Government Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann. But the closer we get to the next election that is when MPs panic and leadership change could be entertained.

The adoption of the National Energy Guarantee gives the Coalition an important differentiation on energy policy from Labor and the Greens. Labor can criticise the government’s new policy all they like but they are seriously misreading the shift in public sentiment on the energy issue.

It certainly does not go as far as some conservatives would like in abandoning the Paris Climate Accord or having the government invest in a new coal fired power station, this is because unfortunately the climate change theory still has too many adherents in government and the wider community still desire some form of action on climate change. But at least it’s an acknowledgment by the federal government that we have an overreliance on renewables which is a danger to our nation’s energy security.

Turnbull will also soon have the same sex marriage postal survey result which takes that issue off the table and he can tick off another election commitment fulfilled. He has another differentiation point from Labor with his proposed citizenship changes designed to make sure we have immigrants to adhere to Australian values and are capable of work.

But Turnbull’s biggest weakness is that he is still unwilling to embrace fully conservative positions on the key policy issues, it appears to be always a compromise for him as he wants to find a way to still please the media and cultural elite. The public don’t seem to believe he has become more of a conservative. It is appears that the only way he can save himself is making sure the old Malcolm is completely dead. But does he have the will to do that?