This week the Coalition should not be the political news. Yet it is, due to the insistence of the Coalition and, in particular the Liberal Party, to conduct internal arguments and disagreements in the media.

Some Liberals seem to forget that a substantial majority of journalists vote for the Labor Party or the Greens and there are few soft interviews available to them on the electronic media or in newspapers.

Yet last month the Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, chose the Radio National Breakfast program to send a message to his parliamentary colleagues that he was not prepared to lead a party which has nothing to say on climate change.

There would have been no problem if Turnbull had delivered such a message in the Liberal party room in Canberra. However, by issuing this missive on radio, in the presence of a television camera, he made public what should have been private.

If the Opposition Leader receives a reasonable compromise from Labor on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme this week, and cannot get this deal through his party room, the Breakfast clip will be used widely to demonstrate he was rolled.

Earlier this month, a number of Liberals decided to go on Four Corners to express their doubts about the Coalition allowing Kevin Rudd’s scheme to pass through the Senate. The group included two frontbenchers – Opposition Senate leader Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott – and backbenchers Cory Bernardi, Julian McGauran, Dennis Jensen and Mathias Cormann.

Barnaby Joyce, who leads the National Party in the Senate, indicated his opposition to the scheme. However, the Liberal frontbenchers Ian Macfarlane and Christopher Pyne defended Turnbull’s position. It was as if the Coalition had decided to film their internal arguments and place the product on the Liberal Party’s website.

Among the developed nations, the Australian economy most resembles that of Canada and the United States. The politically conservative government in Canada has indicated it will not take a firm proposal on the reduction of carbon emissions to the conference in Copenhagen in two weeks’ time. The left-liberal administration in the US, likewise, has not reached a position. President Barack Obama has indicated he may formalise a policy before Copenhagen, but there is no possibility of this being sanctioned by Congress any time soon. It is possible there will be no final vote on the Waxman-Markey legislation for a year.

In such a situation, it would have made sense for the Coalition to leave the running on an emissions trading scheme to Kevin Rudd, Penny Wong and their colleagues. However, Turnbull has always been committed to an emissions trading scheme along the lines he developed when environment minister in the final year of John Howard’s government.

Life in opposition was always going to be difficult for the Coalition. The problem has been exacerbated by Turnbull’s insistence that the Liberals have a firm stance on carbon reduction. The division in the Liberal Party on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme – and the strident opposition to the concept from many Nationals – has opened up a discussion on the heart and soul of the Liberal Party. Abbott’s book Battlelines was released in July, Turnbull delivered the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture in October and George Brandis gave the Alfred Deakin Lecture the same month.

All three identified themselves with the Menzies tradition. But the sharpest contrast was between Abbott and Minchin. Abbott supports the stand adopted by Howard. He sees the Liberal Party as embodying both liberal and conservative traditions. Not so Brandis, who maintains that “one of the keys to grasping the Menzian conception of liberalism is that he did not view the Liberal Party as a conservative party”. According to Brandis, Menzies “stood for freedom”. It’s as simple as that.

But is it? Those contemporary Liberals who see Menzies as embodying the principles of liberalism and freedom – and nothing else – overlook the fact this is not how he was viewed when prime minister. The Menzies government sought to ban the Communist Party, committed Australian forces to Korea and Vietnam, introduced conscription for military service overseas and upgraded the national security provisions in the Crimes Act. None of this is mentioned in Brandis’s speech, largely devoid of empirical data. A similar absence of evidence can be found in current assessments of the Liberal Party. On the ABC’s News Breakfast program yesterday, the Monash University academic Waleed Aly depicted Minchin as “very close to John Howard” and maintained “he was one of the few people in the Liberal Party who actually was prepared to approach John Howard and suggest that he step aside for the good of the party”. In fact, the relationship between Howard and Minchin in the years leading to the 2007 election was less than cordial and Minchin never spoke directly to Howard about the leadership issue.

The problem for the Liberals is not that Turnbull and Minchin disagree on carbon reduction but that their debate is being conducted in public as part of a discussion about what the Liberal Party really stands for. It’s possible this debate will continue into next year. But it’s also possible the absence of a consensus at Copenhagen will put the focus back on the Rudd Government. The challenge for the Liberals is to remember they are in opposition and to understand downloading to the media is usually ill-advised.