MUNGO MACCALLUM. Turnbull running out of energy.

Aug 14, 2018

Neg can be an abbreviation of either negative or negligible, both terms the vociferous critics from left and right have used to denigrate Malcolm Turnbull’s masterwork in progress.

But for the hapless Josh Frydenberg, charged with the task of delivering the deformed infant, neg means negotiate – compromise, tweak, dicker, quibble, whatever it takes to produce an outcome.

And frankly any outcome will do as long as it can be spun as a solution to our self-inflicted energy crisis – certainty for investors and consumers.

Of course it doesn’t have to be certain for very long; the next election, which Christopher Pyne assures us will be in next May, will do for the moment, and then we can get back to negging the NEG. Who said you can’t nunscramble negs?

Turnbull and Frydenberg would much prefer to just bully their way through with carrots and sticks – bribery and threats if you want to be honest about – as is their usual path through the chaos of the senate crossbench. But alas, the senate is certainly the last and may well be the least of their problems, the main one is, as so often, the bloody constitution.

The  hard reality is that for all the bravado, the federal government has far less power over energy than it would like. It can and does set a national emissions target, which the Labor states (and everyone else who is serious about climate change) regard as hopelessly inadequate, but when it comes to the really tricky bits, the states and even the lowly territories decide, essentially, how the day-to-day administration of energy policy will be implemented – or not.

So it only takes one of them to veto the NEG in its current form – which is precisely what they have done. Time for more negging.

It is all very frustrating for the feds, who had hoped to remove the albatross from their collective necks as soon as this week. The idea was to get conditional approval from the states, whip it through the party room past the coal fetishists and persuade them not to cross the floor while it can be barrelled through the House of Representatives and then assume that the senate will play ball.

But like so many of Turnbull’s grand nimble schemes,, this one has had to be placed back on the backburner: the states, reasonably enough, refused to sign off on a half-baked scheme which could easily be unpicked in the coalition party room.

So the timetable has been rejigged: first deal with the party room and do a bit of hard negging there. And when and if the Abbotistas and their like can be persuaded to see the wonder and beauty of the creation, go back to the states, with the final (?) blueprint which is then to be displayed for scrutiny for four long weeks.

And this is where the crunch comes, because very shortly after that the Victorian government goes into caretaker mode for the state election, and when that is out of the way we have the silly (well, sillier) season, followed shortly by the New South Wales election and then, of course, the big one: the federal poll, which Turnbull can no longer avoid.

So effectively the NEG has to be passed by September, or not for quite a while. And given the almost hysterical build up to the event, failure is not an option, which is why Frydenberg will have to keep negging – it is no longer about the science, if it ever was; it is all about the politics.

As such, it will never produce an optimum result, and was never really intended to. There may be a drop – probably temporary – in consumer prices, but there may perhaps be an increase. There could be less blackouts, but this will depend on individual events – natural disasters of one kind or another will increase due to the influence of global warning, and given the influence of the denialists of the hard right, nothing can be done about that without provoking outright rebellion.

But most importantly, whether or not some version of the NEG is finally enacted, the long running climate wars, which have now been subsumed into the wider culture wars, will remain. If there was any doubt about that, step forward (or perhaps backward) Tony Abbott, who repeated his threat to cross the floor over the issue, just because he can. For a fleeting moment he has become politically relevant again and he intends to make the most of it.

So even if the premiers eventually succumb, the real crunch will come in the parliament – as it should. Turnbull rightly says that a large majority of his party room has endorsed his NEG, but if the rump who haven’t pursue their mission to destroy it, what the majority want does not matter: if a few of them are ready for open warfare, Turnbull is at real risk of losing a vital vote in the House of Representatives, with potentially fatal consequences.

As we know our timorous leader is not a risk taker. But withdrawing the legislation would be almost equally disastrous; the prime minister has invested virtually all his remaining political capital in the scheme. To salvage it he may have to plead with Bill Shorten to provide the numbers – a terrible humiliation but the only option left.

If it comes to this, Shorten may or may not agree, but will certainly string out the tortuous process for a few days of unbridled gloating. This will have to be the mother of all negs.

Coincidentally there is yet another definition of negging, an urban slang term which Wikipedia defines as: an act of emotional manipulation whereby a person makes a deliberately backhanded compliment or other flirtatious remark to another person to undermine their confidence and increase their need of the manipulator’s approval.

Sounds just like the job for a lawyer-banker, which Malcolm Turnbull certainly is, rather than a politician – which he certainly is not.

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