Malcolm Turnbull and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg had clear Coalition party room support on Tuesday to decisively stare down a fresh sortie by Tony Abbott on the National Energy Guarantee.
The frustration many government MPs feel about the ongoing argument was epitomised by the comment of marginal seat holder Ann Sudmalis who told colleagues, “The more that people stuff around with this issue, the greater the risk I won’t be here”.
Before the meeting Abbott had again publicly left the way open to cross the floor when legislation comes to parliament, assuming Frydenberg gets a deal at the COAG Energy Council in August.
Asked whether, if the premiers sent back a plan he didn’t like, he was committed enough to cross the floor, Abbott said: “The short answer is yes. I think that I have an obligation to keep faith with the position that the government took to the people in 2013.”
“My anxiety about the national energy guarantee is that it’s more about reducing emissions than it is about reducing price,” he said.
But Frydenberg has been actively mobilising pro-NEG forces in the Coalition to counter Abbott - last week, several MPs spoke out publicly - as well as to lock in backbench support before the final push with the energy ministers.
Ahead of the party room, industry representatives briefed a backbench committee meeting attended by more than 30 government MPs. Their message was that the NEG was the only realistic option available to restore investment confidence.
Those present were Jennifer Westacott, CEO, Business Council of Australia; Innes Willox, CEO, Australian Industry Group; Mark Vasella, CEO, BlueScope; Arnoud Balhuizen, Chief Commercial Officer, BHP; Vanessa Guthrie, chair, Minerals Council of Australia, and Fiona Simson, president, National Farmers Federation.
Government sources said the briefing, which saw many questions, went well for the NEG supporters.
At the later party meeting, 16 backbenchers spoke.
Two, including Abbott, wanted Frydenberg to bring the detail that he planned to take to the August meeting to the party room first. Two urged greater focus on pricing in the NEG. The four dissidents were Abbott, Eric Abetz, Craig Kelly and former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce.
Among the rest, according to the government briefer, there was strong support for both the policy and the process.
Turnbull stressed the importance of getting on with the policy and said that anything from the meeting with the states and territories would come back to the party room.
Frydenberg said the corner had been turned on prices. There was no silver bullet but the NEG was an important part of dealing with prices.
Turnbull declared Frydenberg had the confidence of the party room.
Abetz, speaking on Sky later, said his main concern was to keep prices down. He said the business leaders had told the backbenchers they were still sorting out details of the NEG with the government. Abetz said he didn’t like “signing blank cheques”.
He said that if there was to be a NEG there needed to be a reasonable place for coal, and urged that there should be “a commitment to retrofit some of our existing coal operations or build a new one”.
Asked on Tuesday night whether he would cross the floor on legislation Joyce dodged the questioning, saying it was a hypothetical.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra