Crunch time for Turnbull

This week’s long-promised vote on the emissions trading scheme is crunch time for Malcolm Turnbull, certainly; but the whole Liberal Party, and indeed the Coalition, have a lot riding on it too.

Unless they can come up with a formula that gives at least the impression of some kind of common purpose, they can forget not only the next election, but probably any future as a meaningful political force. If they simply splinter screaming abuse at each other and defiance at their leaders, the prospects are not bright.

The Nationals are already decided: when the Senate vote comes up, they will just say no. This is not a problem for their Senate leader, Barnaby Joyce, who has declined to serve in the shadow ministry. However, his deputy, Nigel Scullion, is Shadow Minister for Human Resources, and would thus traditionally be bound by any decision of the shadow cabinet, where Turnbull is believed to have the numbers.

The same, of course, would apply to the Liberals Eric Abetz, George Brandis, Helen Coonan, Michael Ronaldson, David Johnston and, most significantly, their leader Nick Minchin, the high priest and thunderer of the climate change denialists. Minchin has said he will abide by any decision of the party room; he has not said where he stands on the principle of the solidarity of shadow cabinet. Clearly he believes that while Turnbull might push a recommendation for a yes vote through the latter, he has little hope in the former.

So will Turnbull be humiliated by his party as a whole? If Minchin is right about the numbers, it could happen. But the most likely result is a compromise: a decision to offer all members, including shadow ministers, the right to a free vote. This highly unusual procedure is also referred to as a conscience vote. It is usually only applied to what are called “moral” issues, such as abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia. Decisions on matters of less concern to the Roman Catholic Church, such as war, poverty, and especially the environment, are deemed to have no moral component at all. To turn an emissions trading scheme into a conscience issue would be, to say the least, unprecedented.

But it gives the Coalition parties their best hope of getting through the week without blood on the sawdust. The government only needs seven Liberals to vote with it to pass the scheme; it should get them comfortably. There are still that many rational beings left on the Senate opposition benches. Turnbull will be desperately hoping so. The alternative, not only from his own point of view but that of the whole conservative movement in Australia, is almost too terrible to contemplate.

For a man condemned by his opponents as a master of spin, an iron fisted controller of the media and an Olympic-class manipulator of public opinion, Kevin Rudd sure made a meal of the Oceanic Viking affair.

By the end of last week his repeated assertions that the 78 Tamils aboard were receiving no special treatment looked not just dishonest, but very silly and even a touch insane. Yet our beloved Prime Minister continued to seek his own refuge behind desperate weasel words like “non-extraordinary,” claiming in Bart Simpson vein that he had not be at the meetings, he did not know the details, but he stood by everything that had been done, and whatever it was it was completely normal procedure.

Among his colleagues dropping jaws quickly gave way to sweating brows and even rising gorges as they realised that they were seeing their great hope of re-election piss his most valuable public asset up against the wall, and that there was absolutely nothing that they could do about it. Their glorious leader, the man of integrity, the politician you could trust, suddenly gave the impression that he was, in Winston Churchill’s immortal phrase, either labouring under a misapprehension or he was guilty of a terminological inexactitude – in other words, he was either a fool or a liar.

This would be bad enough even if the crisis was now over, with the Tamils, deal done, safely ensconced in Tanjung Pinang detention centre and the Oceanic Viking finally out of Indonesian waters. But it doesn’t end there. Rudd’s insistence that in this case everything was done according to the book means that those not following the same script, which includes fast processing and resettlement, English lessons, family search and daily consular access are presumably doing it wrong. In particular, the implication is that the treatment of those already in Tanjung Pinang, which includes none of the above, is cruel and inhumane.

This will not amuse the Indonesians who administer the camp, which, as they point out, was built at Australia’s suggestion and largely with Australian money. Now apparently they are running some kind of hellhole, so the Australian government can shift the problem out of its own jurisdiction. Like Nauru, they have become Australia’s dumping ground, and so much for the much-vaunted equal partnership between two proud and sovereign nations.

As a result Prime Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has deferred his planned visit to Australia for a few weeks, but that may not be enough. Now he plans to arrive just about the time the Tamils are due to finish their processing and begin their resettlement, presumably in Australia – that is if the deal actually works out. But whether it does or not, the issue will be well and truly back in the headlines then.

The meal has turned into a dog’s breakfast. The key diplomatic element in the agreement with Indonesia was that it had to be done in a way that allowed Indonesia to save face. But Rudd decided that saving his own face in front of the Australian media was more important. It is perhaps his first serious political misjudgement since becoming Prime Minister. But now that it’s finally come, it’s a real ripsnorter.


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