The view from Billinudgel

Old King Coal
The Turnbull government keeps looking to coal to solve the country’s energy issues


After a couple of days of Malcolm Turnbull berating Bill Shorten as a hypocrite, parasite, fake, suck-up and general scumbag, the prime minister and his government finally got to the substance of the argument.

The Opposition leader’s ultimate, irredeemable sin is that he does not love coal. To prove the point, ministers handed a chunk of the stuff around parliament last Thursday. Shorten, Scott Morrison declared, suffers from coalaphopia, while the aptly named Coalition really adores the stuff, wallows in it.

Coal is the modern philosopher’s stone, the cure for all ills; coal will provide cheap, reliable energy for the whole country, the entire world – it would probably power the known universe if we could only export enough of it. And what’s more, coal can be made clean. Well, actually it can’t; it can be made marginally less dirty through the very expensive technology in which Australian industry has not the slightest interest in investing, but to get rid of the emissions altogether involves tapping and burying them at prohibitive cost – even if, as the government has hinted, taxpayer money is offered for the process.

But forget about the details: coal rules, OK?

The welcome catalyst for Turnbull’s latest harangue was the problems of South Australia, where blackouts have become more frequent recently. There are various reasons for this, mainly the extreme weather events triggered by ongoing climate change, which is in turn caused partly (dare one say it?) by the burning of coal and other fossil fuels.

But for Turnbull it is much more simple: it is all about the state’s embrace of solar and wind power, the dreaded renewables. (The fact that the almost entirely coal-fired state of New South Wales had to close down its biggest aluminium smelter to prevent widespread blackouts at the weekend is, of course, irrelevant.)

Actually, it is a trifle more complicated than Turnbull pretends. The real problem is that what is laughingly called the national energy policy is a complete shemozzle: a tangle of competing states, public and private suppliers, commercial and environmental interests, and no clear direction from the top. It is hardly surprising that Jay Weatherill, the embattled South Australian premier, is talking about drastic action – maybe even going it alone.

Turnbull talks continually about the need for reliable and economical energy supply (the third horse in the race, the environment, is a very distant third) but has done very little, if anything, to ensure either reliability or affordability. The blackouts keep happening and the charges keep going up.

If he were serious, he might convene an emergency conference of premiers and suppliers and bang their heads together until they sorted something out, in the manner of Bob Hawke’s famous economic summit. But obviously it is easier and, in the short term at least, more advantageous to just play the politics. Bill Shorten hates coal, the Labor Party hates coal, and they are selling out the workers and the families – sorry, the hard-working families – of Australia.

Unfortunately the storms and the heatwaves are making it clear to reluctant voters that climate change is not going to disappear. Sooner or later the message will filter through even to the recalcitrants of the Coalition. But by then it may be too late for Turnbull – and, for that matter, the rest of us. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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