Can Turnbull save the carbon price?

There is a belief amongst supporters of the carbon price that Tony Abbott's unpopularity with the electorate will lead the Coalition to turn to Malcolm Turnbull and save the carbon price. Could this dream possibly come true?

With Labor’s slight improvement in the polls, and Abbott being made to look like a dill in recent interviews (see 7.30 Report and AM), I find myself in conversations with optimistic people unwilling to concede that the carbon price will die.

This often involves the following chain of logic:

1. Over the next few months it will become apparent to the electorate that the impact of the carbon tax is nothing like what Abbott has been saying.

2. With the carbon tax scare campaign exposed as a lie, Abbott’s credibility will be shattered and he’ll be exposed as a one-trick pony without any genuine ideas.

3. Abbott is already unpopular with the electorate; in fact, he is less popular than Gillard. With his credibility on the carbon price undermined, his popularity will plummet.

4. Labor will narrow the gap in the polls.

5. The Liberal Party in a panic to turn things around will then turn to Malcolm Turnbull because out of all the leadership contenders he is by far the most popular in the polls. And remember he only lost the leadership ballot to Abbott by a solitary absent vote.

6. Turnbull will support the continuation of the carbon price.

And voila, the carbon price will stay.

Get real. This idea that Malcolm Turnbull will come to the rescue like some white knight out of the shadows is a hopeless dream. Yes Abbott’s credibility will suffer badly in the coming months, and a narrowing in the gap between Labor and the Coalition seems more likely than not. But it won’t lead the Coalition to Turnbull. 

Here’s four reasons why:

1. His own party doesn’t see Turnbull as ‘true blue’

There’s a misconception amongst a number of people not all that close to the Liberal Party that because Turnbull has been a successful businessman, with a highly credentialed background in merchant banking, and has a pro-market outlook, he is the perfect symbol of all that the Coalition stands for.

This fails to recognise that a large proportion of the Liberal Party base are conservatives rather than liberals. And their core constituency is small business who can be highly suspicious and resentful of big businesses.

For these people, Turnbull is a bit of a turncoat. His prominent role in the republican movement and his support for gay marriage, not to mention that  he takes the advice of scientists seriously on climate change, all make them think he’s a bit suspect. His role in Goldman Sachs is also not necessarily seen as a positive.

2. Abbott completely reversed the Liberal Party’s standings in the polls

Supporters of the Turnbull resurrection seem to forget how badly the Coalition was doing in the polls at the time he was leader. They were on the brink of annihilation, which is why a lot of people were speculating back in 2009 that Rudd would use the opportunity of the defeat of the CPRS as a trigger for a double dissolution election.

Abbott completely reversed that dire position within the space of just six months, and put them within a whisker of winning the election in ten months.

Considering this remarkable turnaround achieved by Abbott, it will take some seriously bad poll results before Liberal Party MPs would consider turfing him out.

3. Attacking the carbon tax has been a successful tactic that the Coalition will be incredibly reluctant to abandon

Sure Abbott’s monotonous scare mongering about the carbon tax will become a liability as it becomes blindly obvious to the electorate that he’s been lying. However 40 per cent of the population still think they are worse off as a consequence of the carbon tax according to the latest Nielsen Poll. That may subside further by the time of the election, but a significant proportion of the population will still feel hard done by.

Also, even though the population will increasingly wonder what all the fuss was about, many still believe they were lied to by Gillard.

So while making the slogan, ‘axe the carbon tax’ the centrepiece of your election strategy is not terribly clever, it’s still likely to be a useful adjunct.

4. A notable proportion of Coalition members simply cannot stomach a carbon price

Within the Liberal and National parties I’d suspect around a quarter of members consider human-induced global warming to be untrue. For these people their dislike of a carbon tax or carbon trading scheme is a matter of deep principle, not a matter for negotiation and compromise. A reasonable number within the federal Liberal caucus felt so strongly about this that they precipitated a leadership spill on this very issue.

A University of Queensland 2010 survey of 311 politicians from a mixture of local, state and federal levels of government supports this conclusion. In response to the question - The Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change (or IPCC) provides reliable and comprehensive assessments of climate change, 17.8 per cent of Coalition politicians disagreed and a further 11 per cent strongly disagreed, while 43.8 per cent were unsure. By comparison amongst Labor politicians just 2.1 per cent disagreed and 2.1 per cent strongly disagreed with 19.6 per cent being uncertain.  

While these haters of a carbon price fall short of a majority in the Coalition party room, their feelings about the issue are so strong, that in the interests of unity, replacing Abbott with Turnbull is unacceptable.