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Australian Prime Minister Abandons Climate Targets, Bowing to Party Pressure

SYDNEY — Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia abandoned plans for emission targets Monday, bowing to pressure from conservatives who considered toppling Turnbull’s government over an energy policy that aimed to reduce prices and bring the country into line with international climate change commitments.

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Damien Cave
Isabella Kwai, New York Times

SYDNEY — Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia abandoned plans for emission targets Monday, bowing to pressure from conservatives who considered toppling Turnbull’s government over an energy policy that aimed to reduce prices and bring the country into line with international climate change commitments.

Turnbull, who looked tired after a weekend of negotiating with colleagues, told reporters Monday morning that the energy policy bill, known as the National Energy Guarantee, would not be introduced in the House of Representatives because there was not enough support.

“We are not going to propose legislation purely for the purpose of it being defeated,” he said.

Critics immediately called that claim inaccurate, noting that the proposal had support from other parties. But whatever its chances, the defeat spurred intense speculation about Turnbull’s future and frustration among those increasingly worried about Australia’s vulnerability to climate change and its effects, from extreme drought to bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.

“All it does is reconfirm that they have no interest in doing anything about climate change or the Great Barrier Reef really,” said Jon Brodie, a well-known coral reef scientist at James Cook University.

The energy plan’s climate change element — a commitment to reduce energy emission levels in 2030 to 26 percent below the levels recorded in 2005 — was not wildly ambitious. It matched the target Australia set for the entire country in the Paris climate agreement, meaning that agriculture and other industries would still have to do more to meet the nation’s commitments under the deal.

The energy guarantee was at least the third attempt by Turnbull to devise an energy policy that included a path toward reducing emissions. Its failure showed that at least for now, the science of global climate change has again been pushed aside by the relentless scrum for power in Canberra.

Turnbull has been battling accusations of weak leadership ever since he toppled Tony Abbott in a 2015 leadership challenge. But with recent polls suggesting the opposition Labor party would win an election if it were held today, he has become increasingly vulnerable.

On Tuesday, Turnbull survived a challenge to his leadership, narrowly fending off a more conservative rival. After the energy bill failure, he called for a vote among Liberal Party colleagues, and defeated Peter Dutton, the Home Affairs minister, 48-35. Zareh Ghazarian, a lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, said that many lawmakers in Turnbull’s party — which holds only a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives — fear defeat in the election expected to be called between now and next year.

The lawmakers see electricity prices as an important campaign issue and they are eager, he said, for something that will address voter discontent and indifference.

“There is a concern that the overall message of the government is not being listened to,” Ghazarian said. “There is a sense that no one is really listening to Malcolm Turnbull.”

Whether Turnbull is eventually toppled or not, the internal frustration plays into well-established feuds and volatility.

Neither Abbott nor other conservatives in the party have ever fully accepted Turnbull, a cosmopolitan former investment banker whose policy achievements include legislation legalizing same-sex marriage. Energy and climate policy has also been particularly explosive: It played a large role in Julia Gillard’s toppling of her Labor Party colleague Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2010. She took over by promising an emissions trading scheme — but Labor was ousted from power in 2013 by Abbott, who campaigned against the plan.

But many experts said the blame belongs with Australia’s party politics. Sometimes called the “coup capital of the democratic world,” Australia has seen five different governments formed since John Howard lost his last election in 2007. All but one came through a challenge within the party in power.

And that volatility is taking a toll.

“After considerable leadership turmoil in politics over the last 10 years, Australian voters have historically low rates of satisfaction and trust,” Jill Sheppard, a lecturer at the Australian National University, said. “To most of us this will come as no surprise.”

In this case, experts say, Turnbull’s main challengers are his previous rival, Abbott, and Dutton, the home affairs minister.

Dutton’s ambitions are well known. He initially held off on replying to growing speculation about his plans, only later to declare on Twitter: “the Prime Minister has my support and I support the policies of the Government.”

Turnbull confirmed a truce of sorts Monday, before the vote Tuesday.

By that point, though, he had already announced his abandonment of the emissions targets — leading some analysts to argue that failing to address climate change was the price of his keeping his job.

By Monday afternoon, Turnbull was speaking in the House of Representatives, arguing for the latest version of the National Energy Guarantee, which he said would prioritize power grid stability and reduce energy prices.

He said little about climate change, having given up on a modest attempt to address it. Instead he focused on “hardworking middle-income Australians,” arguing, “This is an opportunity to make a really material difference to people’s electricity bills.”

Bill Shorten, leader of the opposition Labor Party, turned in a performance of his own. Appearing in a field of solar panels Monday while arguing that his party would do more to keep energy prices in check and the supply sustainable, he called the prime minister a “hostage to the right wing of his party.”

He accused Turnbull of giving up his principles to keep his job — having changed his public position about the emissions targets at least three times in the last few days.

“We’ve got our best hieroglyphics interpreters out trying to understand the merchant bankers’ gobbledygook policy this morning,” Shorten said, noting that his party had been interested in a bipartisan compromise. “When they’ve got a position, come and talk to us.”

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