Paul Mur­ray GST top-up bad pol­icy Mark Ri­ley Lead­ers’ ig­no­rance not bliss

The West Australian - - INSIDE COVER - MICHELLE GRAT­TAN Michelle Grat­tan is a pro­fes­so­rial fel­low at the Univer­sity of Can­berra. This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared on the­con­ver­sa­

The Turn­bull Govern­ment can dither no longer, and it knows it. To use the po­lit­i­cal jar­gon, it now has to “land” its en­ergy pol­icy very quickly.

With Par­lia­ment re­sum­ing on Mon­day, the back­benchers are want­ing clear lines.

With busi­ness fur­ther con­fused af­ter the Govern­ment this week ef­fec­tively walked away from a clean en­ergy tar­get, it is de­mand­ing to know “what now?”

And with an early Queens­land elec­tion on the cards, the Lib­eral Na­tional Party in that State needs a Fed­eral en­ergy pol­icy in place.

The Turn­bull Govern­ment, in­ci­den­tally, is very wor­ried about its own sup­port in Queens­land. Mon­day’s ag­gre­gated July-to-Septem­ber Newspoll had the Fed­eral Govern­ment be­hind La­bor there 46 per cent to 54 per cent. It led 54-46 at the 2016 elec­tion.

On Wed­nes­day, Cabi­net’s en­ergy com­mit­tee was at work on the pol­icy.

The con­cen­tra­tion of one mem­ber, Barn­aby Joyce, would have been tested, with half his mind in­evitably on the High Court hear­ing that was un­der way to de­ter­mine his par­lia­men­tary sta­tus. Still, the Na­tion­als had al­ready had a win on en­ergy, with the clean en­ergy tar­get’s demise.

The en­ergy pack­age, said to in­volve an “in­no­va­tive ap­proach”, is set to go to the coali­tion par­ty­room in the com­ing sit­ting fort­night. The aim is, if pos­si­ble, to get it to Cabi­net on Mon­day, and the par­ty­room on Tues­day.

Given the wa­ter­ing-down since the re­lease of the Finkel re­port, which had a clean en­ergy tar­get at its heart, Turn­bull shouldn’t have much trou­ble in the par­ty­room.

The dis­si­dents when the is­sue was dis­cussed there in June were those who didn’t like the Finkel plan.

Even in its first, rel­a­tively hal­cyon days, the tar­get never had a hope of be­ing im­ple­mented in its pure form. It’s un­likely there will be a mil­i­tant group an­gry at the re­treat from it.

The ques­tion is whether Turn­bull and En­ergy Min­is­ter Josh Fry­den­berg can sell, out­side the par­ty­room, the pol­icy the Govern­ment comes up with. That means to the pub­lic, who vote, and to the busi­ness sec­tor, which in­vests (or fails to).

Sur­pris­ingly, given one ar­gu­ment for in­stalling Turn­bull was that he was seen as a good per­suader, the Turn­bull Govern­ment has been poor at com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

In to­day’s 24-hour news cy­cle we’ve never heard a prime min­is­ter and min­is­ters talk­ing so much, but the mes­sage is of­ten messy.

Re­flect­ing on the Hawke-Keat­ing govern­ment in his just-pub­lished mem­oir, In­cor­ri­gi­ble Op­ti­mist, for­mer La­bor min­is­ter Gareth Evans writes that: “Hawke and Keat­ing (were) both out­stand­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tors, and Paul, in par­tic­u­lar, ab­so­lutely re­morse­less in his de­ter­mi­na­tion to en­sure that the ma­jor opin­ion moul­ders knew what we were try­ing to do, why and how”.

Too of­ten this Govern­ment thinks it can sell a pol­icy or win an ar­gu­ment sim­ply by me­dia blitz­ing. Its ap­proach tends to be ar­ro­gant and in­ef­fec­tive.

Keat­ing, when deal­ing with some re­ally hard pol­icy sells as trea­surer, put in an enor­mous amount of grunt work, in­clud­ing us­ing pol­icy ex­perts on his staff to back­ground the me­dia.

Busi­ness will need to be con­vinced the en­ergy pol­icy is cred­i­ble and the Govern­ment is com­mit­ted to it. But if, as ex­pected, the Govern­ment is set on a path that will ac­cen­tu­ate the dif­fer­ences with La­bor, this will deeply dis­ap­point busi­ness, which has an eye to the opin­ion polls sug­gest­ing a Shorten govern­ment next term is more likely than not.

The pub­lic will wel­come the pol­icy’s em­pha­sis on con­tain­ing price and en­sur­ing re­li­a­bil­ity.

But peo­ple know ap­pear­ance is not nec­es­sar­ily re­al­ity: the Govern­ment needs them to be­lieve there ac­tu­ally will be down­ward pres­sure on their bills — and that will be a judg­ment for later. Also, down­ward pres­sure doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean smaller bills.

“Re­li­a­bil­ity” will be first tested by whether there are power short­ages and black­outs this sum­mer. And if there are, who will win the blame-shift­ing ar­gu­ment?

Some coali­tion MPs are wor­ried the Govern­ment is in the en­ergy space at all, rather than leav­ing it as a State mat­ter. One says: “We’ve man­aged to take own­er­ship of the prob­lem — but can we solve it?”

It’s gen­er­ally thought that when the pol­icy emerges, there will be sig­nif­i­cant over­lap with what Tony Ab­bott has been ad­vo­cat­ing, most re­cently in this week’s con­tro­ver­sial speech in Lon­don.

Although Ab­bott goes fur­ther than be­ing against a clean en­ergy tar­get — say­ing for in­stance the re­new­able en­ergy tar­get should be frozen, the Govern­ment should build a coal-fired power sta­tion, and the ban on nu­clear power should be lifted — there is likely to be enough com­mon­al­ity to present the for­mer prime min­is­ter with a dilemma. Does he wel­come or crit­i­cise where the Govern­ment fin­ishes up?

There’s gen­eral agree­ment that as far as the coali­tion is con­cerned, Ab­bott made a pest of him­self this week. But sug­ges­tions that Turn­bull should man up to the man who’s try­ing to bring him down are short­sighted.

For one thing, it would cre­ate a dis­tract­ing row, just when Turn­bull needs the at­ten­tion to be on what he is de­liv­er­ing.

Sec­ond, a sub­stan­tial num­ber in the coali­tion would agree with much of what Ab­bott is ar­gu­ing, while dis­agree­ing with what he did. It’s an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion.

One Govern­ment man puts it more starkly: “Ab­bott’s sup­port base for what he says is greater than his sup­port base to be leader.”

For Turn­bull “the Ab­bott fac­tor” can be nei­ther man­aged nor dis­patched. In­di­vid­ual points Ab­bott makes should be dealt with, and in­con­sis­ten­cies with his past state­ments and ac­tions pointed out(as the PM has done). But a full-on stoush would only el­e­vate Ab­bott and be a sign of Turn­bull’s weak­ness.

Any­way, Ab­bott is about to have a loss, on an is­sue he has made one of his own. All the signs are that the same-sex mar­riage bal­lot will de­liver a strong “Yes” vote. That will be seen as a blow to the for­mer prime min­is­ter and a good out­come for Turn­bull.

Illustration: Don Lind­say

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