The Libs' Senate leader is encouraging climate sceptics to speak out. Nick Minchin, the Liberals' Senate leader, is playing a very edgy political game as he tries - in a direct challenge to Malcolm Turnbull - to get the Opposition to vote down the emissions trading scheme. It's high risk for Turnbull, Minchin and the Liberals. Minchin is openly rejecting the science on climate and encouraging other Liberal sceptics to speak out. This is audacious behaviour by the fourth most-senior person in the Opposition, who's in the leadership group.
But it seems likely Minchin, chief of the Liberals' conservative wing, is more in tune than Turnbull with the party's grassroots. Sources report the rank and file has become more critical of the ETS in the past three months, and Minchin's outspoken comments have been getting positive feedback.
The obvious downside for Turnbull is that his pro-ETS view has become increasingly out of sync with the membership (which, of course, should not be equated with the public). However unhelpful Minchin's comments, he's reprising views he expressed in the Howard years. By 2007, the then prime minister, previously himself a sceptic, had shifted, in the desperate hope of getting some ''cred'' on climate, and the government started to look to an ETS.
But Minchin, though government Senate leader, was having none of it. Saying ''scepticism is one of the all-time great Australian attributes'', he told The Age's Katharine Murphy the science of global warming wasn't settled, and ''to have some Mickey Mouse thing in Australia might make some people feel good but will do nothing for emissions and it will hurt the Australian economy''.
If a greater cause demands, he can, however, be flexible on the issue. When in July last year Turnbull and environment spokesman Greg Hunt were trying to stop then Opposition leader Brendan Nelson moving to the right on emissions trading, Minchin backed the Turnbull-Hunt line, presumably fearing that if they were thwarted, the leadership of Nelson, who he supported, would be undermined (it was anyway, even though Nelson gave in).
Minchin is one of the most experienced and savvy Liberal MPs. He is also among the toughest factional warriors, and yesterday was accused by moderate Liberal backbencher Mal Washer of using the climate change issue to pursue the factional war between conservatives and small-l liberals in the party.
In personal style, Minchin is friendly, relaxed and open (perhaps partly because he was always around journalists - his mother was in the federal parliamentary press gallery; his wife worked in The Age's Canberra bureau before their marriage). But in views he's an ideologue, with strong stands on issues ranging well beyond climate. When Howard in 2006 was trying to reassure people he wouldn't bring in even more severe industrial relations changes after WorkChoices, Minchin was caught on tape advocating another wave of reform. He has also championed unfashionable causes such as voluntary voting.
As the emissions trading issue inches towards its dangerous climax, Minchin seems emboldened.
He said last month that even if the Government met all the Opposition's demands, there was no guarantee the party room would approve the legislation (which begged the question of why you'd bother with negotiations).
Then last week came Four Corners, where Minchin said a majority of the Liberal Party wouldn't accept the position that humans were the main cause of global warming; it would be difficult for Coalition members to vote for the scheme, he said.
Addressing the Senate yesterday, Minchin began by congratulating Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce (who won't vote for the scheme in any circumstances) for his ''erudite contribution to this debate''.
In interviews this week, Minchin did not take a backward step. But he insisted it was not about Turnbull's leadership. At one level this might be correct, despite Minchin battling to keep Turnbull out of the leadership after the last election, and later attempting to prop up the failing Nelson. Joe Hockey, the most likely alternative, is a left-winger; his views on climate would be no more acceptable to Minchin than Turnbull's. Minchin would find Tony Abbott's opinions congenial, but knows Abbott lacks one vital attribute - numbers.
Minchin is not, however, going to do Turnbull any favours or worry excessively if his in-your-face campaign against the legislation undermines Turnbull, who has declared that having a credible climate policy is for him a leadership issue.
The tough line taken by Minchin is empowering other hardliners. Earlier, it was thought most critics would be inclined to roll over if they didn't have the numbers. Now their behaviour is unpredictable, which means that if Turnbull gets party support for a deal, the number of Liberals crossing the floor in the Senate could be quite large, putting up in lights how split the party has become.
The irony would be that Minchin, bound by shadow cabinet solidary, would be forced into formal lockstep with his leader.
Posted by John Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.). For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. To keep up with attacks on free speech see TONGUE-TIED. Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me here