Jennifer Hewett

The rumbling of political thunder has been audible in Canberra for a while, but the leadership crisis swamping the Prime Ministership has come on as savagely and suddenly as a late-summer storm.

The latest Fairfax-Ipsos poll showing a big slump in the Coalition’s standing this month – down to 45 per cent to 55 per cent on a two-party-preferred basis – will complete his drenching and the shivers of sodden, dispirited Coalition MPs. Beware a random lightning strike.

But for now the hope of the conservatives – Peter Dutton – is still pledging his support for Malcolm Turnbull and there’s certainly no overwhelming surge of numbers to replace the Prime Minister despite mounting frustrations. The party knows the political costs would be very, very high.

The trouble is that instability feeds on itself. Bill Shorten won’t be able to believe his luck – again.

Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton: None of the latest changes produced by a suddenly desperate Prime Minister will sound ...
Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton: None of the latest changes produced by a suddenly desperate Prime Minister will sound that persuasive to a cynical and confused electorate.


Only a week ago, Turnbull and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg were confident they had survived the worst Tony Abbott and the Coalition party room could offer after a clear majority backed the National Energy Guarantee.


Instead, political power has been switched into an electric shock applied to delicate parts of the Prime Ministerial body.

Energy was never going to be easy to fix after well over a decade of policy contradictions by all levels of government.

Add in the never-say-die attitude of a predecessor determined to kill off both Turnbull and his guarantee.

But for all the complexities of energy policy, it seems incredible Turnbull didn’t combine selling the guarantee with unleashing his latest “big stick” to force down prices.

Given the extreme sensitivity of this issue – obviously freely available for damaging use by those most opposed to his leadership – it was clear taking new dramatic action on pricing needed to be more than rhetorical.

What’s more, the government already had a suitable “big stick” framework waiting to be packaged up as policy, courtesy of recommendations by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission about enforcing a regulated maximum default offer.

Delay in finalising this strategy has only exacerbated the growing opposition in the party room to how energy has been handled.

It means the prospect of having to rely on Labor to get the bill in the Senate also compounded irritation about why the government couldn’t sell a message about its ability to lower prices as well as carbon emissions – in contrast to Labor.

That complaint extends well beyond the long-running energy wars but the symbolises a broader failing.

The same Fairfax-Ipsos poll shows a narrow majority of voters – 54 per cent – actually supported the guarantee, at least as of late last week.

That percentage is likely to have fallen after the weekend’s political bonfire of the vanities, complete with reversals on aspects declared to be not negotiable several days ago.

So regulating rather than legislating the emissions reduction target – previously unthinkable – is now transformed into a sensible option. Say what?

And even if the government kept saying the National Energy Guarantee was not a silver bullet on pricing but merely one of a suite of policies, the focus made it seem to be the government’s main response to community concerns about energy – whether about prices, emissions reduction or reliability.

That this is a distinctly unholy trinity of issues to manage simultaneously was conveniently ignored.

Not that most people could ever comprehend how the guarantee works anyway. But even those the small minority of experts who do understand the detail appreciate that its impact on prices is, at best, indirect and long-term.

Its most important contribution on that front supposedly comes by increasing investment and reducing the risk premium by providing greater policy certainty.

Hmm. Try selling that as a slogan.

The government did try, of course. But its insistence the guarantee would miraculously force down prices for consumers had no chance of being persuasive when members of the Coalition and the Labor party were shouting that it would have no impact at all.

That none of the critics are actually offering more realistic solutions themselves on how to get lower prices becomes lost in the deafening cacophony of politics.

Little wonder then that environmental gesture politics remain extremely popular. Just look at the Andrews government’s $1.25 billion pre-election offer Sunday to pay thousands of dollars per Victorian household for the up-front cost of rooftop solar installation for those earning less than $180,000 a year.

Not only is this cost borne by taxpayers, it also means the cost of maintaining network reliability is shared by fewer consumers dealing with higher prices.

But don’t you worry about that!

In terms of timing, the big profits just announced by the big three – Origin, AGL and Energy Australia – also could not have been worse. Who would believe their claims to have the best interests of consumers at bottom line?

It also means none of the latest changes produced by a suddenly desperate Prime Minister will sound that persuasive to a cynical and confused electorate even as he reiterates his determination to take on greedy energy companies. It looks more like another case of too little too late.

Ahead of a Sunday night dinner in Canberra to convince his anxious cabinet colleagues – with revenge served cold on the menu – Turnbull relied on Facebook to enlighten the public about his government’s solution.

He promised to set “a price expectation which should be the most anyone pays”.

“Through more competition and our other changes, that price will come down,” he declared. “If the prices remain too high we will implement the toughest penalties.”

He knows if this doesn’t persuade his colleagues, he may face the toughest penalty of all.

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