If the PM spurns Albanese’s climate peace offer, Labor will be left with a painful problem | Katharine Murphy

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We are going to track back to the week’s developments on energy policy, but I want to open this weekend in Eden-Monaro, with voters in the seat heading to the polls next Saturday.

The truisms of federal byelections are well known. Governments don’t normally win. Usually, voters use these contests as an opportunity to “send a message to Canberra” – often the message is “up yours”.

Conventional wisdom suggests Labor will more than likely hold the seat vacated by the popular Mike Kelly, particularly given the backlash in parts of the electorate about Scott Morrison’s handling of the bushfires. But here are a few counterfactuals to consider. This contest is happening in a seat that Labor has held by a wafer thin margin. It is happening at a time when Morrison is enjoying an approval rating north of 60%, and the country is battling a pandemic.

Because community anxiety is high, incumbency is a bankable commodity, and incumbency is the central pitch of the Liberal campaign to take the seat. Voters in the electorate are being invited in the Liberal party’s television advertising to decide whether they want their local member to be a member of a government who can deliver things – the clear inference being the local champion standing for Labor might look friendly and relatable, but she will lack influence and friends in the nation’s capital.

Labor isn’t behaving like it thinks it has this byelection in the bag. The intelligence from the Liberals is they are behind, but still in the contest.

I don’t know who is going to win next Saturday, and nobody I trust in politics does either. But I do know this: the result is important for the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese.

If you reside happily outside the #auspol matrix, but you follow events reasonably closely, I suspect you can see Morrison is carrying all the major risks over the next six months. The prime minister is trying to work though how to gradually unwind the fiscal support unleashed during the pandemic, while working with the states to try to head off a second wave of Covid-19 infections.

But if you position yourself at the vantage point of Labor MPs, they see a prime minister confident enough to be crowding them out, a prime minister certain enough of his own trajectory to be measuring up soft furnishings for another term in office.

So even though the prime minister is juggling a bunch of wicked problems which he may or may not be able to solve, and masking the complexity and delicacy of his position with characteristic relentlessness and bluster, it is Labor doing the fretting. If Labor loses Eden-Monaro next Saturday, it will be a significant blow to already battered internal morale, and it will be a green light for internal mischief.

The Labor party has watched the Coalition win three elections while churning through three prime ministers. The unity mantra Bill Shorten invoked during the past two terms didn’t ultimately translate to electoral victory, and there is already pre-positioning in the event that things change. If you look closely, you’ll see a modest beauty parade is under way among rightwingers. Nothing too showy, or provocative. Just ticking over. People are putting themselves on the grid because the right will be divided about any post-Albanese strategy in the event the party reverts to old, destructive habits.

With that in the back of your mind, let’s make our way back to energy.

Albanese this week made an overture to the prime minister about energy policy. He mapped out some positions that could form the basis of a bipartisan conversation about a mechanism if anyone was interested in having that conversation. The pitch was conceived by Albanese and Mark Butler, Labor’s climate and energy spokesman. Joel Fitzgibbon, the loudest voice in the opposition in favour of winding back climate ambition, supported the terms.

The proposal Albanese outlined was largely status quo in terms of Labor policy: let’s agree on a policy mechanism (so long as it’s not your risible one, the emissions reduction fund) and as long at the mechanism contains an emissions reduction target that can be scaled.

Then there was some signalling on carbon capture and storage. Labor would cop taxpayer support for CCS as long as projects weren’t funded through the renewable energy agencies, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

This wasn’t a shift of position. It was a shift of emphasis. In government, Labor threw many millions at CCS development. In more recent years, Labor certainly hasn’t been out extolling the virtues of CCS, but it hasn’t disavowed the technology either. Albanese just turned the volume back up on terms that wouldn’t cause a boil over in his own left faction, or among members of the inner-city Labor right who view the climate debate differently to Fitzgibbon.

The government grumbled that Albanese’s alleged energy policy armistice was pure politics, and there’s some truth to that. Certainly the main purpose of the overture was didactic. Think of it as a small morality play about reasonableness.

Morrison has spent the Covid crisis styling himself as Mr Reasonable, a leader of practical solutions, not ideology. By asking Morrison a direct question: do you want to be reasonable about climate and energy, do you want to fix something that pretty much everyone except the hard-boiled reactionaries agree needs fixing, you invite voters to gather around for the answer, or non-answer.

You invite voters to reflect on whether Mr Reasonable is truth, or spin.

As morality plays go, this one was relatively cost-free for Labor. There was some blowback about Labor rebirthing CCS in progressive circles, and on social media – but a range of stakeholders not unimportant to the Coalition backed Albanese in, because on the substance of the central question, he is right.

Australia desperately needs a durable solution to this problem, and the main reason we have a hot mess instead of a practical outcome is because the Coalition has weaponised this issue for short-term partisan advantage.

The Liberal and National parties have engaged in diabolical behaviour. There is no other word for it. Morrison has a choice in this term: he can either continue the diabolical behaviour, or he can do something different.

That was, in essence, the framing question Albanese put to Morrison – are you going to continue to hold the country hostage because you’ve forged the goat track through central and north Queensland to win elections, or are you interested in doing what’s right for the country?

While it’s absolutely correct for Albanese to ask this question, and kindly request that someone bother to hold Morrison and the Coalition accountable for their obduracy and wrecking if the answer to the question is no, asking the “deal or no deal” question also hangs a lantern over Labor’s difficulties in landing a climate and energy policy during this term of opposition.

If Morrison isn’t interested in an armistice on any terms, and most likely he isn’t, then Labor is back to working through a policy repositioning on energy and climate that will be really painful, both externally and internally.

While Labor is united behind a net zero emissions target for 2050, it is divided about where to set a medium-term target for the 2030s. Hard heads inside Labor insist there is no way back to government unless the ALP can connect with people in central and north Queensland and in the outer suburbs of cities like Perth. Another critical mass inside Labor – the larger group in my observation – says backing off climate action is absolutely impossible, both morally, and electorally.

This conversation will be fraught, and the sorry, shameful, soul-destroying history on both sides of Australian politics tells us when it comes to this most lethal of issues, leaders best embark on difficult conversations from a position of strength.

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