Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull returned to parliament today, and promptly hit the party he once led with some harsh words.
Speaking briefly to reporters before a reception for Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Mr Turnbull slapped down backbench Coalition MPs who are pushing for more government support for the coal industry.
“The cheapest form of new generation is a combination of renewables plus storage. Literally, that is no longer a contentious proposition,” he said.
“And these people who are advocating that the government should fund coal-fired power are basically making a case for higher emissions and higher energy prices. And that is nuts.”
That comment came a few hours after Mr Turnbull shared an article about the Coalition “missing the memo” on renewable energy.
The government is once again dealing with internal divisions on the subject of climate change and energy policy.
There is a rift between a group of backbench Nationals MPs – including Barnaby Joyce and Matt Canavan – who are pushing for more support for the coal industry, and urban Liberal MPs who believe their constituents want more action on climate change.
With a majority of just two MPs in the House of Representatives, it’s a delicate situation for the government.
I see some are saying that we should not help coal fired power stations provide jobs because we should leave it to the market. Well if that’s the view be consistent and argue against the billions we give to renewables every year!
— Matthew Canavan (@mattjcan) February 9, 2020
“It’s not the business of the commonwealth to be building or funding coal-fired power stations,” backbench Liberal Trent Zimmerman told Sky News this morning.
“I don’t think we should be funding coal-fired power stations.”
One of the pro-coal Nationals backbenchers, George Christensen, fired back at Mr Zimmerman directly – though instead of referring to him by name, he merely described him as an anonymous “inner city Liberal”.
“Despite claims by one inner city Liberal MP on Sky News this morning, the Morrison Liberal National government is providing funding to coal-fired power projects, principally because they provide stable and reliable baseload supply,” Mr Christensen said in a statement.
“It is very encouraging to read recent reports that the Prime Minister has stated he will not be ‘bullied’ by ‘inner city’ interests when it comes to climate policy and his support for reliable and affordable power.”
Mr Christensen said the government had granted $4 million to a coal-fired power project in Collinsville, Queensland, which could become eligible for consideration under the Underwriting New Generation Investments program.
In truth, the government has merely committed to fund a feasibility study.
Mr Christensen’s assertion was news to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who was asked about the coal-fired project earlier this morning.
“Well let’s just see what the feasibility study comes back with. I wouldn’t want to pre-empt a judgment until such time as the work has been done,” Mr Cormann said.
Meanwhile, independent MP Zali Steggall unveiled a new plan to deal with climate change this morning, calling for an end to the political “climate wars” – just as the issue sparked renewed, bitter division inside the government.
Speaking at a press conference in Canberra, Ms Steggall outlined a draft private member’s bill which would commit Australia to a target of zero net carbon emissions by 2050, a goal she said was “not revolutionary”.
It would mirror the one already adopted by some other nations, such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
“2020 is a new decade. And let’s run a line in the sand on the past divisions we’ve had in terms of where we’re heading as a country,” Ms Steggall said.
“This is as apolitical a bill as we can make it. We’re putting forward a sensible plan for Australia to have a long term, safe future when it comes to dealing with the impacts of climate change.”
The bill would set up an independent climate change commission, run by experts, which would then advise the relevant federal minister on the best course of action to reduce carbon emissions, and report on the effectiveness of existing policies.
Ms Steggall’s proposal would also require national climate change risk assessments to be carried out every five years, with the government preparing a fresh national adaptation plan in response to each one.
“I really urge my fellow MPs to think of this as a matter of principle. This is for the long term safety of Australians,” she said.
Ms Steggall defeated former prime minister Tony Abbott in Warringah at last year’s election, winning the historically safe Liberal seat with a campaign focused primarily around greater action on climate change.
She was joined at today’s press conference by fellow crossbenchers Helen Haines, Andrew Wilkie and Rebekha Sharkie, the latter of whom will second her bill.
“What Zali is doing here is providing an opportunity for all those members on the government side whose communities are urging them for greater action, who feel a disquiet in this place,” Ms Sharkie said.
The crossbench group called for a conscience vote on the legislation, which would allow members of all parties to cross the floor without negative consequences.
A major United Nations summit on climate change is scheduled for November. The government plans to have its own long term plan ready before then.
That isn’t going to stop Ms Steggall from pressing for more action.
“My goal is to make sure all the people worried about bushfires and climate change, and drought and planning and agriculture in regional areas, and air pollution in urban areas – that they all be aware that this is on the table, and that this is an opportunity,” she told The Guardian.
Ms Steggall intends to pressure “modern Liberals” in particular to support her plan.
“I think they have to be mindful of their electorates feeling disenfranchised if they aren’t voting in accordance with their majority wishes,” she said.
“The Liberal Party is the party of the free vote. I am not asking them to do something they have never done before, and I think crossing the floor to vote for a Climate Act is something they need to do to represent their constituents.”
Originally published as ‘That is nuts’: Turnbull’s blunt retort