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Liberals get a gift opportunity and wreck it

By Joanne Nova - posted Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The main conservative party in Australia is fracturing because intimidation and bullying has suppressed real opinions. Nearly 80 per cent of Liberal backbenchers are opposed to negotiating amendments to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) ahead of Copenhagen, yet Turnbull is trying to force them to do it. No wonder revolt is in the air and his leadership is under crisis.

This is what you get when no one is allowed to speak freely without being called names: “Denier!”

Major economic changes are proposed, supposedly based on “science”, yet no one is debating the science. Instead, Rudd bullies the opposition with the threat of an election, and Turnbull responds by … bullying the opposition with the threat of two elections. This is not what democracy was supposed to be.


The fake veneer that Liberal Party sceptics are a "rare minority" has been exposed for all to see thanks to Peter van Onselen’s work where he contacted backbenchers and asked them their opinion, as reported by The Australian.

The crack in the façade matters. Suddenly it's out in the open that most conservative politicians don't think we should launch ourselves onto the path that the UN dictates. Suddenly, sceptical conservative MPs have been shifted from the leper colony to the commons. The critical mass has moved - at least on the opposition side. It would be interesting to see the same survey done for the ruling party.

Faced with such a divide in his party, Turnbull did what any reasonable democratic consensus-loving leader would do: he told his party room what to think. (Thus showing that the consensus of a UN committee matters, but not the consensus of our elected representatives. Why do we bother voting?)

Malcolm Turnbull put it all on the line on Friday, October 2, stating that his leadership depends on the party agreeing with him - and ordering them to be "disciplined".

If only he had asked for disciplined thinking, instead of disciplined obedience.

Rather than taking the longer, harder route, he’s gambling that he can bully them into agreeing.


A true leader would win over his members with reason, not with threats. He would dig into the evidence and convince them, persuade them, and possibly inspire them. Turnbull may be a passionate man standing behind his convictions, but this is an arrogant move that ignores the opinions, experience, and intellect of his team. That said the bullying tactic may work: the front bench have mouthed “support”; and the tactic has a track record of success (witness the UN and the Labor Party).

The follow-on from the news that most Liberals don't want to ratify an early ETS is that the West Australian branch is now demanding Turnbull drop his plan to negotiate. The sceptical Nationals are emboldened. Revolt is in the air. The critical mass is shifting and a tipping point must be close.

Liberals saw the high road and missed it

Malcolm Turnbull has missed an opportunity to trounce the ALP and take the high ground - scientifically, morally, and in popularity. He's missed the chance to learn from the collective smarts of his own party. Had he sat down with his team and asked them without prejudice what they thought, he would have discovered long ago that they had deep reservations. Then, in an ideal democracy, our opposition party would have sought reasons to reconcile their position through open debate. It would have made them so much stronger. Suppression of opinion has weakened and divided the Liberals.

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If anyone from either side of politics would like a copy of The Skeptics Handbook to help facilitate discussions, email me joanne AT joannenova dot com dot au!

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About the Author

Joanne Nova wrote The Skeptics Handbook, 160,000 copies of which have been distributed in four nations and translated by volunteers into six languages. She's a freelance writer, blogger and also an analyst for The Science and Public Policy Institute in the USA. She was a prize winning graduate of molecular biology, and a former associate lecturer in Science Communication at the ANU. Her new blog, JoNova, has reached 140,000 people already this year with over 400,000 page views and 6000 comments. She has spoken about climate science communication in New York and to Senate Staffers in Washington, and attended the UNFCCC in Bali, 2007. Joanne has done over 200 radio interviews, and hosted a science series for children on Channel Nine.

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