The Coalition war is over climate change and whether the city-based moderates or the reactionary rural rump will prevail.
For once, the conservative commentariat has got it right – up to a point.
The silent majority don’t give a rat’s arse who becomes deputy speaker in the House of Representatives, and nor does anyone else outside the innermost reaches of the bubble.
The news that Llew O’Brien rather than Damian Drum, the guardian of the secret vote on his party’s leadership – is that karma? — will preside over the quaintly named Federation Chamber has left the punters positively agog with indifference – if they even registered it at all.
And even among the most fanatical followers of political manoeuvring, the coup that delivered it has been acknowledged as no more than a stunt. But what a stunt – an all guns blazing, ripgut ball-tearer of a stunt.
O’Brien’s agreement to run against his leader Michael McCormack’s (and Scott Morrison’s) nominee for the plum perk left the government flat-footed and embarrassed
And when at least five of their own members defected to vote for Labor’s motion it was a humiliation that will not be forgotten or ignored as the long-running feud over both coalition parties’ key core agendas and strategies moves towards a climactic showdown.
The fight has now come into the open. Ostensibly, it is over McCormack’s leadership or the lack of it – about whether he is to be replaced by the belligerent egomaniac Barnaby Joyce, or perhaps the more moderate and more photogenic David Littleproud.
Certainly McCormack is dead meat – if he was not terminally wounded by the leadership vote, he has certainly been made utterly redundant by O’Brien’s win masterminded by Labor’s stuntman Tony Burke. His final demise is only a matter of time, and probably not much of it.
But he is not the ultimate target. The real objective of the war is over climate change and whether the city-based moderates or the reactionary rural rump will prevail.
For years the issue has been evaded by a series of Liberal prime ministers and their National Party deputies; they have successfully argued that it was not a vote-changer, that the punters could be reassured that as long as the economy was plodding along and their hip pockets would not be assaulted, there was no serious reason for alarm.
Indeed, this was still the message that Morrison and his increasingly desperate treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, were shouting across the parliament last week. But, as the National’s implosion has demonstrated, it is no longer sufficiently sedative even for the most quiescent Australians.
The Nats, or at least a majority of the 20 still left in the party room, are wedded to coal – and they want more of it in the form of a new coal-fired power plant in Collinsville, in the heart of their Queensland coal constituencies. One of them George Christensen, spells it out in uncompromising detail – five seats, he insists, depend on it.
But the Liberals, emboldened by their own research, are now warning that many of their own marginals are looking fragile as a result of what is seen as government intransigence and denial. The trigger, of course, was the bushfires: ironically most of the damage was in the bush, but most of the angst was in the suburbs.
Once the rains came, Morrison and McCormack must have hoped that the notoriously short term concerns of the voters would be allayed and they could go back to procrastination as usual. But the rains brought new problems of their own: the government is now faced with the extraordinary situation of providing disaster relief for drought, fire and flood simultaneously – even in the same places.
Adapt and resile as he might, Morrison cannot shrug this off as just another weather event. Even the sceptics are now realising that climate change does not just mean a few more hot days in summer – it means that everything is more extreme and is likely to get worse, that blathering on about meeting and beating inadequate targets and demanding that someone else takes the responsibility is no longer going to cut it.
And the idea of a new coal fired power station, which would have to be funded by the Australian taxpayers because no-one else will touch it, is not merely pointless – it is positively perverse. But that no longer matters – we are not talking about economics, or engineering, or even the most basic science.
The new and utterly irrational line from the reactionary rump is that the activists are motivated not by science but by belief – the deniers are the ones who worry about the facts, which is no doubt why they spend so much time cherry picking the ones that suit them from the fringe.
Presumably they do not expect to be taken seriously; one of their champions, the Liberal senator Jim Molan, boasted recently on Q&A that when it came to the science of climate change, he was not relying on evidence. So it was, we must assume, blind ideology that has persuaded him that it is all a conspiracy to destroy capitalism.
The latest suggestion (and it is no more than that) is that McCormack should quietly stand down in favour of his brand new deputy David Littleproud, who would include Joyce not necessarily in his cabinet, but at least in his ministry.
This assumes that Joyce would be grateful and conciliatory and would henceforth abandon any further ambitions of regaining the leadership – talk about hope trumping experience. At the very best it might buy a bit more time. So not a solution, not even a decent stunt.
The essential schism would and will remain – the irreconcilable division between those who accept the science and those who deliberately and proudly reject the evidence and no amount of shuffling the deckchairs will resolve it.
And it is now clear that compromise is no longer on the table – if it ever was. This is not a fight that can lead to a points decision, in which the losers can regroup and prepare to a return bout – it is winner take all.
Except, perhaps, for Llew O’Brien, the turncoat deputy speaker. Alone among the coalition, he is laughing all the way to his lavishly provided sinecure. Such are the rewards of the double cross.
Mungo MacCallum is a former senior Canberra Press Gallery correspondent and author.