How hard will Tony Abbott run against the Finkel plan?



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The government faces a hard internal sell on the Finkel plan, not least to Tony Abbott.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Bedding down an energy security policy based broadly on the Finkel model is now crucial for Malcolm Turnbull. But the issue will also test Tony Abbott’s judgement and influence, in what has long been a marquee area of difference between the two men.

Abbott is poking and prodding at the Finkel plan, raising questions and doubts about it.

He told 2GB’s Ray Hadley on Monday that two criteria were essential when judging the chief scientist’s proposal for a clean energy target (CET) that, his report says, “will encourage new low emissions generation [below a threshold level of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour] into the market in a technology neutral fashion”.

Abbott’s criteria were:

  • Did Finkel’s scheme take the pressure off power prices?

  • Did it allow coal to continue?

“My anxiety, listening to reports of the report and this statement that they’re going to reward clean or low emissions fuels while not punishing high emissions fuels, is that it’s going to be a magic pudding,” Abbott said.

“Now we all know that there is no such thing as a magic pudding. And if you are rewarding one type of energy, inevitably that money has got to come from somewhere – either from consumers or taxpayers”.

“And if it’s from consumers, well it’s effectively a tax on coal and that’s the last thing we want”.

For Abbott, the magic word “tax” conjures up his glory days of fighting the Labor government’s “carbon tax”.

Labels can make a lot of difference. As Abbott’s former chief-of-staff Peta Credlin said earlier this year of the carbon tax: “It wasn’t a carbon tax, as you know – it was many other things in nomenclature terms. We made it a carbon tax. We made it a fight about the hip pocket and not about the environment. That was brutal retail politics.”

The CET is not a “tax”, and Finkel argues that consumers will be better off than if the status quo continues – a status quo that businesses and most other stakeholders consider not to be an option.

But the scheme would disadvantage coal relative to renewables – and the extent of the disadvantage will be crucial in the debate within Coalition ranks.

In a softening up exercise, Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg lobbied backbenchers individually about the Finkel plan before Friday’s release. Government sources say the feedback is good and believe there is a strong majority that believes Finkel offers a potential way forward.

But the chairman of the government’s backbench environment and energy committee, Craig Kelly, a hardliner, wants more work done “by a couple of other independent organisations”.

In the end, the argument may come down to how “Finkel” is interpreted and the precise form in which it would be translated into practice.

Tuesday’s Coalition meeting is set to provide the first indication of whether the government’s optimism about the positive reception of the plan is solidly based.

The Nationals are vital, given their passion for coal and their original role in mobilising Coalition feeling against an emissions trading scheme. Their general position is they can live with the Finkel framework but it will be a matter of the detail, notably the threshold, with its implications for coal.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is on board, based on his pragmatic assessment that this is better than possible future alternatives. He said on Friday: “I think that if we don’t bed this down, you can see what’s happening in England or anywhere else. If you lose the election, you’re going to get a worse outcome.

“So I’d rather bed down an outcome that secures coal miners, that secures coal-fired power, because I strongly believe in its capacity to provide baseload power that fulfils our obligations in international treaties.

“If we can do that and make sure Mr and Mrs Smith get cheaper power, then of course I’m going to consider that.”

Outspoken Nationals George Christensen is waiting on more information. “I’ve got some mixed thoughts,” he says of Finkel’s plan, and wants to talk further to Frydenberg.

“I’m comfortable with measures to bring down electricity prices. But I’m not comfortable with anything like an emissions trading scheme, or a derivative thereof” – and he is not sure whether this proposal is a “derivative”.

The position of the Liberal critics will be much weakened if the Nationals get behind the Finkel plan.

Abbott will have to make a call about the mood of his colleagues and decide how hard to go on this issue in coming weeks. This area has been a signature one for him and his weakness would be highlighted if he could only attract a handful of naysayers.

The ConversationObviously, the stakes are a great deal higher for Turnbull. If things went badly for Turnbull in his pursuit of the Finkel option, it would be a major disaster for him and his government. When it comes to emissions policy, Turnbull is always walking on the edge of a sinkhole.

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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Abbott questions Turnbull’s schools plan


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Former prime minister Tony Abbott has taken a swipe at Malcolm Turnbull’s schools plan, pointing out it did not go to the Coalition party oom and predicting it will be “pretty vigorously debated” there when parliament resumes next week. The Conversation

In provocative comments on the government’s major attempt to neutralise Labor’s advantage on education, Abbott said it was a “a very big change of policy that the prime minister announced”.

The government on Tuesday committed to an extra A$18.6 billion in funding to Australian schools over the next decade, including more than $2.2 billion in this budget for the first four years.

“I note that at this stage it’s hard to see that any of this extra funding is specifically tied to better academic outcomes and better student performance,” Abbott said.

“I’ve always thought that the problem with our school system is not so much lack of funding, because there’s been very big increases in education funding over the last decade without a commensurate increase in outcomes.

“The problem is that we need better teachers not just more teachers.

“We need much more academic rigour in the curriculum, we need much more principal autonomy and we need much more parental involvement. That’s what we need in schools,” he said on 2GB.

Abbott did not mention the inquiry to be done by David Gonski – who prepared the 2011 report on which the funding commitments are based – into how the money can be invested to get better student outcomes. This review was announced as part of Tuesday’s plan. It is to report in December, and the government wants the recommended reforms tied to the states’ funding.

Under the government’s plan, a handful of wealthy non-government schools stand to lose some money. Asked whether he would be speaking up for two schools in his electorate that would go backwards, Abbott said he would not flag what may or may not be said in the partyroom.

“I just know that it’s been almost an article of faith in our party since the time of Menzies that we were the party that promoted parental choice in education, we were the party that promoted choice in health care, and I think it’s very important that we maintain our traditional position as the party which respects freedom of choice in both education and health,” he said.

The Greens on Wednesday signalled they are open to negotiations to pass the government’s schools package through the Senate.

As Labor, the states, and Catholic schools authorities attacked the plan, Greens leader Richard Di Natale said that while it was “early days”, the government’s announcement “puts the issue of needs-based funding firmly on the national agenda” and “we are open to a conversation about it”.

If the government got support from the Greens it would require just one additional vote in the Senate.

Nick Xenophon, who commands three Senate votes, said his team needed to get a full briefing. He said that in getting Gonski to give his imprimatur, the government had “pulled a rabbit out of the hat”.

The announcement was certainly an improvement on the government’s earlier position, Xenophon said. Gonski’s statements would carry “a fair degree of weight, but that’s not the only consideration”. “We will sit down constructively with the government and engage with other stakeholders,” he said.

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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Turnbull turns shock-and-awe on Abbott


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Malcolm Turnbull has unleashed massive retaliation against Tony Abbott as appalled Liberals, who can only fear where it will all end, watch the former prime minister tear at the leadership of the man who overthrew him. The Conversation

Abbott will never be prime minister again – at least that’s as certain as anything can be in the volatile world of politics. What’s unknown is how much damage he can do his successor. At a guess, quite a lot.

Abbott’s latest assault on Turnbull comes at a further cost to Abbott’s own reputation among Liberals. Many on the right, let alone others in the party, are increasingly angry at his destructiveness.

But while Abbott’s attacks might rally the troops around Turnbull, they reinforce the message that the government is divided, feed into criticisms coming from conservatives about its performance, and provide yet another free kick for Labor.

“I am not distracted by political outbursts,” Turnbull tried to claim during a news conference completely distracted by the affair.

Abbott’s Thursday onslaught was swingeing and calculated. Launching a book of conservative essays, he outlined his alternative policy agenda, helpfully dubbed a “manifesto” in media reports, which included lower immigration and torpedoing the Renewable Energy Target.

He threw in a broadside against Turnbull’s latest pet and ill-founded idea of subsidising so-called “clean coal”. As he put it succinctly: “We subsidise wind to make coal uneconomic so now we are proposing to subsidise coal to keep the lights on. Go figure.”

In his accompanying performance on the Bolt Report, Abbott declared that: “the risk is that we will drift to defeat if we don’t lift our game”. In his speech he said the election was “winnable” (on his agenda, that is) – the government’s “challenge is to be worth voting for … to win back the people who are giving up on us”.

There are three ways for a leader to try to deal with a predecessor forcibly removed who has turned feral. Appease him by inviting him into the tent. Grit teeth and suggest a little freelancing is really OK – just what an “ex” does. Or hit back hard.

On Friday there was no pretence, let alone compromise: Turnbull let fly with barely repressed fury, first on Melbourne’s 3AW and at a news conference.

His message about substance was that Abbott had talked about doing things – such as abolishing the gold pass, restoring law to the building sector, cutting taxes – but he, Turnbull, did them.

Gone is the old line that there was some continuity, among the differences, between the Abbott and Turnbull governments. Now ministers, presumably following talking points, are falling over themselves to say, in effect, that the Abbott government, of which they were senior members, wasn’t much good.

As for Abbott the tormenter: “Tony Abbott is a very experienced politician … He knows exactly what he’s doing and so do his colleagues,” Turnbull said.

So exactly what is Abbott doing?

Obviously, he’s indulging himself, finding therapy and purpose by letting his pain and fury come in a sort of primal scream.

If Turnbull won’t put him in cabinet, as he thinks his due as a former leader and experienced minister, well, he’ll do just what he wants. He’ll make himself a centre of attention, an alternative voice, a critiquer of a floundering government. He will find comfort in the emails from people in “the base” who thought he was treated badly.

What he is not doing by this week’s behaviour is gathering internal support. Surely he must know this.

He must have winced to hear on Friday morning Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who described the TV interview as “deliberately destructive. It was completely unhelpful. It was not designed to be helpful. He was not trying to help our cause or help our country. It was quite self-indulgent”.

Cormann is a senior conservative. As he pointed out, he’d been “loyal and supportive and reliable” for Abbott until the very end of his leadership. On the night of the ballot that Abbott was clearly going to lose, Cormann went out to publicly back him.

In recent times Turnbull, as he’s become frustrated with Treasurer Scott Morrison, has grown closer to Cormann. So his intervention, which was powerful, was still met with some cynicism. “Have you dispatched Mathias Cormann … to blow up Tony Abbott because you’re concerned he’s going to blow up your party?” one journalist asked Turnbull.

In terms of leadership, it does seem Abbott has harboured the unlikely thought that lightning can strike twice. In 2009 he became leader against the odds – sometimes strange things happen in ballots.

It’s said he’d hoped to get allies to stir party support on his behalf but that’s not happened. Sky News reported he told Cory Bernardi late last year that he would not challenge Turnbull, but left the door open for a second coming if Turnbull quit before the election.

Maybe he now thinks that, if he can’t wrest the leadership back, he can influence who might get it if Turnbull collapsed. He’d push conservative Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, and be particularly anxious to hold off Liberal deputy Julie Bishop and Morrison, both of whom he believes were disloyal to him.

As tends to happen after one of Abbott’s guerrilla attacks, on Friday he struck a sort of “who me?” attitude.

But his declaration of loyalty to Turnbull was formulaic. “He’s the person that the party chose to lead the government and obviously I support the leader of the government.”

And there was this, which can only be described as breathtaking: “My duty as a former party leader is to try to ensure the party and the government stays on the right track.”

One Liberal backbencher summed up the whole 24 hours: “Tony was right about one thing, they are drifting towards losing – except it’s no longer a drift.”

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tony Abbott says government’s challenge is ‘to be worth voting for’


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Tony Abbott has laid out his policy alternatives to make the next election “winnable” for the Coalition, in a provocative speech that again highlights his differences with Malcolm Turnbull. The Conversation

The former prime minister said the government should say to the people of Australia that it would cut the renewable energy target, reduce immigration, scrap the Human Rights Commission, stop all new spending, and reform the Senate via a referendum held with the next election.

Launching Making Australia Right, a book of essays by conservatives edited by James Allan, Abbott brought together several proposals he has previously argued for.

He took aim at the government’s current signals about the future direction of its energy policy, and attacked its preservation of the 23% Renewable Energy Target (RET), which was negotiated in his time as prime minister.

“The government is now talking about using the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to subsidise a new coal-fired power station – creating, if you like, a base-load target to supplement the renewable target,” he said.

“We subsidise wind to make coal uneconomic so now we are proposing to subsidise coal to keep the lights on. Go figure.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to abolish subsidies for new renewable generation and let ordinary market forces do the rest?”

“Of course that would trigger the mother of all brawls in the Senate, but what better way to let voters know that the Coalition wants your power bill down, while Labor wants it up?”

Abbott said the government’s challenge was “to be worth voting for” and to “win back the people who are giving up on us”.

“In or out of government, political parties need a purpose. Our politics can’t be just a contest of toxic egos or someone’s vanity project.”

The next election was “winnable”, he said, outlining the pitches he saw as needed to secure that win.

“If we stop pandering to climate change theology and freeze the RET, we can take the pressure off power prices.”

“If we end the ‘big is best’ thinking of the federal Treasury, and scaled
back immigration – at least until housing starts and infrastructure have caught up – we can take the pressure off home prices.”

“If we can take our own rhetoric about budget repair seriously and avoid all new spending and cut out all frivolous spending, we will start to get the deficit down.”

“If we refuse to be the ATM for the states, there might finally be some microeconomic reform of our public education and public health systems.”

“If we stopped funding the Human Rights Commission and leave protecting our liberties to the parliament, the courts and a free press where they belong, we might start to look like the defenders of western civilisation that we aspire to be.”

Speaking on Sky, Abbott said that “plainly there are lots of people concerned about our direction” and warned “the risk is we will drift to defeat if we don’t lift our game”.

He also criticised Turnbull’s decision to stay in his own home in Sydney.

“I think it would be a better look if the prime minister did live in Kirribilli House,” he said. He understood Turnbull not wanting to be a burden on the taxpayer but “by trying to avoid being a burden to the taxpayer, in the end, you end up costing the taxpayer more”.

When he was prime minister Abbott was reluctant to move from his own home to Kirribilli but was persuaded to do so.

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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Malcolm Turnbull ousts Tony Abbott in dramatic party coup


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Malcolm Turnbull has seized the prime ministership from Tony Abbott by 54 votes to 44 in a late-night vote that transforms the federal political landscape, presenting Bill Shorten with potentially a much more formidable opponent.

Turnbull’s victory culminated an extraordinary day, which saw him launch his challenge with a scathing public assault on Abbott’s failures, followed by bitter counter attacks from ministers backing Abbott as he fought a desperate rearguard action.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who joined the Turnbull push and went to Abbott before question time to tell him he had lost his party’s support, was re-elected deputy leader, defeating Abbott backer Kevin Andrews 70 votes to 30. Bishop had indicated she would not serve as deputy if Abbott held his job.

Turnbull, with a big task to unite the party, will comprehensively reshuffle the ministry with Treasurer Joe Hockey a certain casualty and Social Services Minister Scott Morrison favourite to replace him.

Turnbull’s victory reverses the defeat that Abbott imposed on him in 2009 in opposition.

A moderate, Turnbull has consistently outpolled Abbott as preferred leader. His victory – which comes despite the suspicion of him by many Liberals in the right-leaning party – reflects the deep fears of an election loss under Abbott.

The day began with most Liberals believing that although a leadership contest was nearly inevitable, it probably would not come this week, which is the run-up to the Canning byelection.

Abbott, speaking in Adelaide on Monday morning, tried to shrug off talk of a leadership spill, saying he was not going to get caught up in “Canberra gossip”.

As the prime minister was on his way to Canberra, the Turnbull camp was plotting its strategy.

Turnbull met Abbott after Question Time to tell him he would challenge, and resign as communications minister.

He then went out to lambast Abbott’s failures when he announced his candidature at a news conference.

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Turnbull said Abbott had not been capable of providing the economic leadership the nation needed and would not be able to win the election. A new style of leadership was needed, including “advocacy not slogans”. The trajectory was clear; the Coalition had lost 30 Newspolls in a row. “It is clear the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership.”

Announcing the party meeting, Abbott said the leadership should be earned by a vote of the Australian people and the Liberals should avoid “Labor’s revolving-door prime ministership”.

The leadership uncertainty has dogged the government all year, with an unsuccessful spill motion moved by backbenchers in February. Turnbull did not put up his hand because he did not have the numbers.

Morrison, a key figure on the right of the party, flagged before the ballot that he would vote for Abbott, but would not seek to be deputy leader.

The Abbott camp rolled out a string of ministers to try to discredit Turnbull before the party meeting, which started at 9.15pm.

Hockey denounced Turnbull’s claims about bad economic leadership, saying they were “completely unfounded. He has never said to me or to the cabinet that we are heading in the wrong direction.”

Hockey said that the “disloyalty of some has been outrageous”.

Senate leader Eric Abetz said it was a question of “core beliefs not personalities”. Like other Abbott backers, Abetz said the “flood of messages” to Liberal MPs was clear: “one, keep Tony Abbott as PM and, two, don’t behave like the Labor Party did”.

Andrews said office telephones had been in “meltdown” with messages of support for Tony Abbott. “The party base overwhelmingly supports the PM as do our Coalition partners the Nationals.”

Andrews said there was a clear choice. On the one hand, Abbott had shown he could fight and beat Labor in two elections. On the other hand, Turnbull had never fought an election as leader.

“He talks today about being behind in the Newspolls. Don’t forget that he never actually won a Newspoll when he was leader,” Andrews said.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton strongly defended Abbott. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg also publicly backed Abbott.

National Party Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss confirmed before the meeting that while the leadership was a choice for the Liberals, any change would require a new Coalition agreement.

This is expected to be a formality.

Truss praised Abbott, saying he had been a “very inclusive leader” and “the progress and the processes of government have been very constructive and well organised”.

The Turnbull camp did not hit the airwaves with a bevy of public figures before the vote. But strong Turnbull supporter Senator Arthur Sinodinos, John Howard’s former chief of staff, said there needed to be a change of both style and substance in national leadership.

“I believe Malcolm Turnbull can bring real substance to the economic debate. He will lead from the front,” Sinodinos said.

Canning Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie, a former SAS officer, said in a statement: “People have called me today worried about this byelection, that somehow events in Canberra have made my job more difficult. And believe me, in my previous career I’ve experienced much worse.

“In fact, I’m going up a gear now for the people of Canning. This byelection is not about political games, it’s about the people of Canning and they’re losing faith in the political class.”

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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