Mr Turnbull is trapped in a dilemma of his own making
Malcolm Turnbull may yet win the battle convincing the majority of his Coalition colleagues to go his way in supporting the Rudd Government on an emissions trading scheme before December, albeit with certain caveats.
But in calling a special joint party meeting to resolve the issue once and for all, he may be heading for a calamitous defeat in his wider objective of becoming Australia’s next Prime Minister.
In fact, such is the fractious state of the party that there is now the distinct possibility that Mr Turnbull will now not survive until the election, either departing voluntarily or through a forced resignation.
The problem for Mr Turnbull is that he has become so bogged down in an issue which is barely likely to change a vote, that he is yet to show Australian voters a clear vision why they should vote for him rather than re-elect Kevin Rudd for a second term.
In other words, he has wasted an entire year after impatiently and ruthlessly tearing down Brendan Nelson’s leadership in September 2008.
After himself experiencing months of sniping from his backbench and policy confusion on how to respond to the Government’s proposed ETS, Mr Turnbull decided he had to finally stand up to his detractors and declare that the Coalition must support the Government’s supposed urgent efforts to mitigate Australia’s carbon “pollution” before December’s Copenhagen conference.
He also demanded that the “anonymous smart-arses” on the backbench (presumably among them the outspoken Western Australian MP Wilson Tuckey) start to respect the party line, while calling upon his anonymous detractors to put up or shut up.
In a certain sense, Mr Turnbull had no choice but to take this path, which has been described by the media as akin to Gough Whitlam’s “crash through or crash” strategy.
Polls say 70 per cent of Australians support doing “something” about climate change. (Unfortunately, those same polls do not ask voters whether that support would also involve the acceptance of a reduction in living standards or a loss of potentially hundreds of thousands of jobs.)
As a result, it has become a mantra amongst Mr Turnbull’s leadership team that opposing an ETS is electoral suicide and that a double dissolution election must be avoided at all costs.
At the same time, recent pre-selection contests suggest the exact opposite view among grassroots Liberal members – that there is very little support among rusted-on Liberals for supporting Mr Rudd’s ETS.
Similarly, the entire WA branch of the Liberal Party called on their federal MPs to oppose negotiations with the Rudd Government before Copenhagen.
Mr Turnbull argues that the Coalition should simply agree to pass the Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill to enable the Opposition to get on with the real business of criticising the government over the growing debt and Budget deficit.
But Mr Turnbull’s problem all along is that he has been one of the strongest and most consistent climate change “believers” on either side of politics.
He was (according to a major Cabinet leak just before the last election) virtually a lone ranger among senior Howard Government ministers in supporting the signing of the Kyoto Treaty.
And, as the former environment minister, Mr Turnbull is also fully versed in the arguments in favour of an ETS and the intricate policy detail involved.
Finally, Mr Turnbull believes it is inevitable that, sooner or later, Australia will have an emissions trading scheme, which is emerging as the preferred international model for individual governments to try to reduce global man-made carbon dioxide emissions.
Despite his personal convictions, Mr Turnbull’s views are not shared by his parliamentary colleagues who are either true-blue sceptics about claims of man-induced global warming, suspicious about backing a largely symbolic policy which will potentially harm Australia’s economic future ahead of the rest of the world, or merely unwilling to hand Kevin Rudd an early version of an ETS so that the Prime Minister can show off his climate change credentials to the rest of the world when he goes to Copenhagen.
In short, Mr Turnbull is in a diabolical position of his own making.
Parliamentary Secretary Senator Mitch Fifield has already broken ranks about going ahead with an ETS before Copenhagen, and others are now likely to follow.
Whatever the outcome of the special joint party-room meeting, Mr Turnbull is going to lose out.
Either he asserts his authority over a reluctant party, dragging them to the negotiating table with Mr Rudd, or he suffers an ignominious rebuff which will inflict a mortal wound on his leadership.
About the only thing going for Mr Turnbull at the moment is that there is no leadership alternative.
Neither of the more credible alternatives, Joe Hockey or Tony Abbott, is in any rush to take over the leadership given the prospects of the Coalition at the coming poll, and neither is undermining Mr Turnbull.