The Australian Government has gone to war with itself

by Bernard Lagan / 24 April, 2018
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a welcoming ceremony in Berlin. Photo/Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a welcoming ceremony in Berlin. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Australian Goverment

Sydney swelters and the ruling Liberal Party is bitterly divided between progressives and pro-coal conservatives. 

It’s autumn. And strange. The frangipani trees are not losing their leaves but flowering. The bougainvillea are luminescent and the star jasmine promises another burst of high-summer colour.

We awake, again, to a smoke-streaked sky and the smell of burning wood and leaves from big fires across the city’s south-west.

Days are so hot that the weather bureau has brought out a special report that tells us to prepare for the heat to stretch into June. Temperature records are being smashed – again. Monday, April 9, was the hottest April day ever recorded in Sydney, when temperatures at the Bureau of Meteorology Observatory Hill site near Millers Point reached 35.4°C. A couple of days later was the city’s second-hottest April day on record.

Through the stifling autumn, our Government has gone to war with itself, using the proxies of climate change and the future of big coal. This war is between the progressives, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the conservative, pro-coal, climate-change sceptics, lined up behind his predecessor and still-furious nemesis, Tony Abbott, whom Turnbull ousted in an internal coup 30 months ago.

The trigger for the latest dispiriting infighting was not the April heat but rather the publication in the Australian on that sweltering Monday of the 30th consecutive Newspoll, the country’s most authoritative, in which Turnbull trailed Labor’s Bill Shorten. A similar stretch of poor polls was the basis of Turnbull’s case in September, 2015, that government MPs should dump Abbott.

Abbott, keen to ensure it would be a day of reckoning for Turnbull, pulled on his stretchy gear and cycled with supporters through Victoria’s coal country, where he told anyone who would listen that only more coal-fired power could lower electricity prices and that the Government should pay millions for one of Australia’s oldest and largest coal generators to keep it from closing. He senses support for the Government among the many disaffected voters in Australia’s coal regions, who see Turnbull as having turned against coal, though Australia is the world’s largest exporter.

The Liberal Party is now bitterly divided over what it stands for: Abbott and the conservatives behind him say Turnbull’s policies – especially on energy – are wrong. They don’t want to jettison big coal in favour of renewables, they want Australia’s annual immigration intake slashed from 180,000 to 110,000 a year and they want to reduce government spending.

Neither Turnbull, a liberal progressive, nor most of his Cabinet will support such policies. The exception is Peter Dutton, the former Queensland cop who is now the powerful Home Affairs Minister. On the day Turnbull lost his 30th consecutive poll, Dutton said he wanted Turnbull’s job, eventually.

Turnbull might have got through the 30th poll unscathed were it not for Barnaby Joyce, the wayward Deputy Prime Minister, more or less forced by the PM to resign in February after news broke of his affair with a young staffer. Joyce, who still has a lot of sway with rural, conservative Australia, urged Turnbull to do the “honourable thing” and step down if he cannot revive his political fortunes by the end of the year.

It was a calculated, incendiary public intervention and it resonated inside the party, where even those MPs who desperately want Turnbull to succeed are now weighing leadership options if polls don’t recover in the second half of this year.

Abbott’s knifing has left an open wound, and he is engaged in a quest for revenge against Turnbull, which has for more than two and a half years stymied implementation of a policy on energy that recognises climate change.

Australia burns and so does its Government.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the April 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Why Marlborough, the jewel of NZ's wine industry, is your next destination
My low-rent version of Sisyphus in hell
109522 2019-08-15 00:00:00Z Humour

My low-rent version of Sisyphus in hell

by Michelle Langstone

Michelle Langstone on being injured.

Read more
Requests denied, delayed and redacted
109441 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Politics

Requests denied, delayed and redacted

by Mike White

Frustrations of the fourth estate.

Read more
Stats NZ could need years to regain public trust
109503 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Politics

Stats NZ could need years to regain public trust

by Craig McCulloch

The census botch-up has prompted fears the debacle will do long-lasting damage to the public's trust in statistics.

Read more
Gentleman Jack: Suranne Jones on the remarkable Anne Lister
109439 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Television

Gentleman Jack: Suranne Jones on the remarkable An…

by The Listener

A historical drama about a 19th-century landowner who secretly diarised her relationships with women comes to Neon.

Read more
Hannibal Lecter's creator returns with Cari Mora
108448 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Books

Hannibal Lecter's creator returns with Cari Mora

by Craig Sisterson

In his first post-Hannibal Lecter book, Thomas Harris heads for Elmore Leonard territory.

Read more
Kiwis in the kitchen: A bite-sized history of NZ cuisine
109468 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Food

Kiwis in the kitchen: A bite-sized history of NZ c…

by Lauraine Jacobs

Lauraine Jacobs traces the evolution of eating in NZ, from the spartan diet of the war years to the vibrant multi-ethnic melting pot of cuisines...

Read more
The chef bringing the world's cuisine to Kāeo
109526 2019-08-14 00:00:00Z Food

The chef bringing the world's cuisine to Kāeo

by Jenny Ling

Anna Valentine holds cooking workshops in the kitchen of her century-old kauri villa in Kāeo.

Read more