The view from Billinudgel

A simple case of arithmetic
Turnbull isn’t the only Liberal avoiding mathematical reality

The most remarkable thing our prime minister said last week was not his claim that the party founded by Sir Robert Menzies was not Conservative but Liberal – even liberal, a touch progressive.

This has furrowed brows and raised gorges, and not only among the right-wing rump and its media claque. But it was at least a matter of debate, and so was duly debated.

However, what are we to make of his bald declaration that “the laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia”? This is both irrational and totalitarian, straight out of the Donald Trump school of alternative facts.

It has been all too common to hear the extremists (or, as they like to call themselves, the mainstream, the core) deny and attack science in any or all of its manifestations, but we had thought Malcolm Turnbull was rather less of a knuckle-dragger; for a moment he sounded very like that other Malcolm, One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts.

Turnbull’s context was his current war against encryption; he wants to devise a method by which his spooks can get into communications that might aid terrorists, and incidentally child molesters, drug smugglers, organised crime figures – quite a lot of people, actually.

The boffins say it can’t be done without compromising the entire system but Turnbull insists that it has to be: they set up the apps so they can fix them – whatever the maths says, the omelette can and must be unscrambled. So much for reality.

It was probably unfortunate that this outburst coincided with the Sisyphean efforts of the minister for energy and the environment (that bit is an afterthought), Josh Frydenberg, to bang premiers’ heads together in pursuit of a coherent and acceptable response to the report of Chief Scientist Alan Finkel designed to make energy a bit more affordable, reliable and sustainable.

If mathematical reality is to be determined by statute, Finkel’s work is surely superfluous and all that is needed is to pass an Act declaring the problem over. As far as is known, Frydenberg was a little more subtle than that, but he wasn’t all that successful either.

There were a few tweaks – battery storage for renewables, longer notice for power plant closures, and the like – but they were just tweaks. The issue is certainty for energy investors, and that means targets: either set a serious renewable energy target or, if you are determined to ignore climate change and all its consequences, ditch the whole bloody thing, but stop dithering around.

Caught in the endless travails of his ungovernable party room, Frydenberg has procrastinated yet again: the old target can continue until 2020, he assures us, so there is plenty of time. And no doubt from his perspective there is: 2020 is well past the next election. But in fact we are talking about a mere three years, a blink in the eye for those who have to fund, engineer and set up whatever plants are to be commissioned in the fairly near future.

Still, that’s only arithmetic – Turnbull can take care of such incidentals. And while he’s at it, he might do something about the figures emanating from Newspoll – but perhaps those are genuinely sacred texts. You have to believe in something.

Disclosure: Mungo MacCallum holds an honours degree in pure mathematics from the University of Sydney.

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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