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The Australian Government has gone to war with itself

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a welcoming ceremony in Berlin. Photo/Getty Images

Sydney swelters and the ruling Liberal Party is bitterly divided between progressives and pro-coal conservatives. 

It’s autumn. And strange. The frangipani trees are not losing their leaves but flowering. The bougainvillea are luminescent and the star jasmine promises another burst of high-summer colour.

We awake, again, to a smoke-streaked sky and the smell of burning wood and leaves from big fires across the city’s south-west.

Days are so hot that the weather bureau has brought out a special report that tells us to prepare for the heat to stretch into June. Temperature records are being smashed – again. Monday, April 9, was the hottest April day ever recorded in Sydney, when temperatures at the Bureau of Meteorology Observatory Hill site near Millers Point reached 35.4°C. A couple of days later was the city’s second-hottest April day on record.

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Through the stifling autumn, our Government has gone to war with itself, using the proxies of climate change and the future of big coal. This war is between the progressives, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the conservative, pro-coal, climate-change sceptics, lined up behind his predecessor and still-furious nemesis, Tony Abbott, whom Turnbull ousted in an internal coup 30 months ago.

The trigger for the latest dispiriting infighting was not the April heat but rather the publication in the Australian on that sweltering Monday of the 30th consecutive Newspoll, the country’s most authoritative, in which Turnbull trailed Labor’s Bill Shorten. A similar stretch of poor polls was the basis of Turnbull’s case in September, 2015, that government MPs should dump Abbott.

Abbott, keen to ensure it would be a day of reckoning for Turnbull, pulled on his stretchy gear and cycled with supporters through Victoria’s coal country, where he told anyone who would listen that only more coal-fired power could lower electricity prices and that the Government should pay millions for one of Australia’s oldest and largest coal generators to keep it from closing. He senses support for the Government among the many disaffected voters in Australia’s coal regions, who see Turnbull as having turned against coal, though Australia is the world’s largest exporter.

The Liberal Party is now bitterly divided over what it stands for: Abbott and the conservatives behind him say Turnbull’s policies – especially on energy – are wrong. They don’t want to jettison big coal in favour of renewables, they want Australia’s annual immigration intake slashed from 180,000 to 110,000 a year and they want to reduce government spending.

Neither Turnbull, a liberal progressive, nor most of his Cabinet will support such policies. The exception is Peter Dutton, the former Queensland cop who is now the powerful Home Affairs Minister. On the day Turnbull lost his 30th consecutive poll, Dutton said he wanted Turnbull’s job, eventually.

Turnbull might have got through the 30th poll unscathed were it not for Barnaby Joyce, the wayward Deputy Prime Minister, more or less forced by the PM to resign in February after news broke of his affair with a young staffer. Joyce, who still has a lot of sway with rural, conservative Australia, urged Turnbull to do the “honourable thing” and step down if he cannot revive his political fortunes by the end of the year.

It was a calculated, incendiary public intervention and it resonated inside the party, where even those MPs who desperately want Turnbull to succeed are now weighing leadership options if polls don’t recover in the second half of this year.

Abbott’s knifing has left an open wound, and he is engaged in a quest for revenge against Turnbull, which has for more than two and a half years stymied implementation of a policy on energy that recognises climate change.

Australia burns and so does its Government.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the April 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.