By David Speers

Nearly eight years ago, Malcolm Turnbull bashed out a blistering take-down of Tony Abbott on his blog. It was just days after Turnbull had been knocked off as leader. The emotion was raw, the famous temper flared.

With steam coming from his ears, the freshly deposed leader tore strips off the man who replaced him. “The fact is that Tony … does not want to do anything about climate change … does not believe in human caused global warming. As Tony observed on one occasion ‘climate change is crap’.”  

“Mr Abbott apparently knows what he is against, but not what he is for.”

It’s doubtful Turnbull has changed his view eight years on.

Late on Tuesday, Coalition MPs held a three-hour party room meeting where Climate and Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg, took questions from the floor. Frydenberg has mastered this complex policy area and impressed his colleagues this week. While not adopting a firm position yet, he is trying to steer his colleagues towards a workable landing point.

According to those present at the meeting, Tony Abbott was constantly chipping away from the back of the room, muttering complaints about the Clean Energy Target (CET) being discussed. Publicly, he’s warned the CET could be seen as a “tax on coal”. It’s clear to all that Abbott intends to lead the fight against this idea.

At this point, it’s worth remembering why the CET is being considered at all. It’s to ensure Australia meets the commitment it made under the Paris Agreement. The commitment is to reduce emissions by between 26-28% by 2030.

And who made that commitment? It wasn’t Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard or Malcolm Turnbull. It was Tony Abbott. In fact, the then Prime Minister was adamant in 2015 that this target was “a strong and credible target … a definite commitment.”

There was no suggestion in Abbott’s many comments in Parliament or in the press at the time that this was somehow an “aspirational” target. He was clear: “we will reduce our emissions by between 26% and 28%.” 

Now, Abbott argues it was only ever an aspirational target. The clear inference being that we should water down or walk away from the commitment, as Donald Trump has done in the United States. To Trump’s credit, he’s at least been consistent in this position. 

The reality is very few in the Coalition seriously argue Australia should break the commitments made in Paris. There are two main reasons why. The first is politics. Australian voters support action on climate change. Following Trump out the door would earn international condemnation and hand Bill Shorten an almighty advantage.

The second reason is power prices. Dropping our emissions targets would do nothing to encourage badly needed investment in power generation. It would therefore do nothing to stop prices continuing to climb.  

It’s true Australia has an abundance of cheap coal. But those who constantly point this out need to also acknowledge the reality. Not one coal-fired power plant has been built in Australia for 10 years. In that same time, we’ve seen the Munmorah, Collinsville, Playford B, Swanbank B, Redbank, Wallerawang, Anglesea, Northern and Hazelwood coal-fired power plants shut down.

Why is there no investment in coal, even after Abbott scrapped the Carbon Tax? It’s because of the uncertainty. No one is going to make a 30-year investment decision knowing the rules could change at each election. Like it or not, the two major parties have to reach a settlement to deliver that certainty.

Those on the far Left and far Right of this debate might feel wonderful about themselves adopting an ideologically pro-Green or pro-coal position. They can preach to the base about how pure they are and how insane the other side is. But they’re doing absolutely nothing to help the poor sods trying to pay the power bills.

This is an issue where bipartisanship is desperately needed. And that means finally shifting to the centre. And here’s the thing: the two sides are actually moving closer together.

Turnbull and Frydenberg are moving towards a Clean Energy Target, with a benchmark that offers a big incentive to investment in renewables and a small incentive to investment in cleaner coal technology. Labor is also willing to support a Clean Energy Target, but no incentive for coal at all.

Let’s hope for all our sakes they can meet in the middle. It really shouldn't be that hard.