Australia’s governing party cannot agree a climate policy because of anti-science forces within, the outgoing prime minister said just moments after being deposed in a party room coup on Friday.
Malcolm Turnbull will be replaced by Scott Morrison, his treasurer, who defeated challenger Peter Dutton 45 votes to 40 for the leadership of the governing right-wing Liberal party.
One of the most dramatic weeks in Australia’s political history began with Turnbull’s admission that he could not pass his signature energy reform – the National Energy Guarantee (Neg). Rebels in his party, led by former prime minister and arch conservative Tony Abbott, had refused to back a policy that would have set – relatively weak – emissions targets for the power sector.
That led to a leadership challenge from Dutton on Tuesday, which narrowly failed. But Turnbull bled support throughout the week as ministers resigned across the government. He did not contest the vote on Friday.
In a valedictory press conference, Turnbull said his party, which governs in coalition with the Nationals, was unable to implement a climate change policy.
“I think the truth is that the coalition finds it very hard to get agreement on anything to do with emissions. The National Energy Guarantee is a vitally important piece of reform,” said Turnbull.
Turnbull said the opposition to action on climate change within his own party was an article of faith.
“Emissions issues and climate policy issues have the same problem within the coalition of bitterly entrenched views that are more ideological views than views based, as I say, on engineering and economics. It’s a bit like same-sex marriage used to be, almost an insoluble problem,” said Turnbull, who oversaw marriage reform this year despite strong internal opposition from the right.
“As for what the future holds in terms of energy policy, again you’ll have to talk to Scott about that,” said Turnbull.
Speaking to the media on Friday, Morrison would not be drawn on the future of the Neg. His new deputy Josh Frydenberg was Turnbull’s environment and energy minster and was responsible for developing the climate policy.
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The election of Morrison diminishes the immediate likelihood of Australia exiting the Paris climate agreement, which observers said was possible under a Dutton prime ministership. Dutton is aligned with Abbott, who has repeatedly called for Australia to follow Donald Trump’s US out of the deal.
But the narrowness of the leadership contest shows conservative, Abbott-aligned forces are powerful within the party. Environmental advocates called on Morrison to immediately clarify his position on the Paris deal.
Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Kelly O’Shanassy said: “Australia signed up to Paris in good faith. As one of the highest polluters per person in the world, if we were to capitulate on our responsibilities there would be rightful international condemnation and more unnecessary climate damage at home.”
Greens leader Richard di Natale said the only option for Australia to develop a response to climate change was to vote the government out of office.
“They have no climate policy, no energy policy and no economic policy and the paralysis is likely to continue. They are unfit to govern,” he said.
Di Natale called the Liberals “a bunch of spiteful, backwards-looking, anti-immigration, climate deniers with no economic plan. It’s time to turf them out and make a fresh start”.
Turnbull said he would leave the parliament, triggering a by-election and leaving Morrison with no majority in the lower house. Ties will be resolved by the speaker, Liberal party member Tony Smith, whose vote means Turnbull’s resignation will not immediately bring down the government.
Australia is due to hold elections within the next nine months. The Labor opposition is leading in the polls.