Monday, February 13, 2017

Today by Jamie Hall

A lack of energy
Malcolm Turnbull continues to put his own survival ahead of the national interest


“Embarrassingly stupid” is not a phrase one might have expected to use in connection with Malcolm Turnbull. Whatever else you might say about the man, he is clearly very clever. But there is no other way to describe his government’s approach to energy policy, which has dominated the news today. Climate change is on everyone’s mind as we recover from the recent run of heatwaves, but the government has nothing to offer except wishful thinking and manifestly stupid policies.

The main story was the release of public service briefings to the prime minister’s office in the wake of last year’s blackouts in South Australia, which the Australia Institute obtained through a Freedom of Information request. They confirmed what many people would have suspected: the advice was that “the generation mix (ie renewable or fossil fuel) was not to blame”. As that news broke this morning, a group of 18 business and community organisations issued a joint statement calling on MPs from all sides of politics to put aside the “toxic partisanship” and “finger pointing” in the debate about energy.

The joint statement is wrong. The crisis in our energy policy is not due to partisan politics in itself. At the risk of pointing fingers, it is clear the Coalition is to blame. Ever since Tony Abbott won the leadership of the Liberals in 2009, it has taken every opportunity to undermine Australia’s response to climate change. This afternoon, a few hours after the joint statement was issued, the government used most of Question Time to accuse Labor of endangering our “energy security”, claiming that increases in renewable energy would lead to blackouts. In any case, it is pointless to call for a consensus-based policy, developed with the help of experts, when the current government is determined to ignore the expert advice it already receives.

Last September, shortly after the public servants provided their analysis of the South Australian blackouts, the prime minister discarded their briefing and attacked the state government’s renewable energy target, insinuating that it was responsible for the disaster. A month later, he slapped down his energy minister for raising the idea of a carbon price. And last week we were treated to the ludicrous spectacle of the treasurer brandishing a lump of coal in parliament, which was apparently intended to show that the Opposition is “afraid” of coal.

One fact to bear in mind: somewhere between 90% and 95% of surveyed professional economists support a carbon tax. This morning Alan Kohler explained the key idea with beautiful clarity [possible paywall]: “the only reason coal is ‘cheap’ is that the cost of dealing with the carbon dioxide that comes from burning it is not included in the price”. Kohler added, “The rest of Australia’s leaders, in particular the CEOs of our largest companies, should declare now that enough is enough, and pull these idiots into line.” The expert consensus is already there, and the need for urgent action barely needs reiterating. The problem is that the prime minister is choosing to ignore professional advice in his continual attempts to curry favour with the hard right of his party.

When Turnbull was the minister for the environment under John Howard, he successfully resolved a crisis in the Murray Darling Basin’s water supply. It was a complex situation with a tangled mess of competing interests, but the minister threw himself into the topic, working with experts to develop a plan that emphasised environmental sustainability in the face of trenchant opposition from conservative groups. Less than a decade later, Turnbull is wilting in the heat.

Today’s links

  • In the Western Australian state election, the Liberals will preference One Nation over the Nationals in the upper house in some areas. In return, One Nation will preference the Liberals in lower house seats. Or will they?
  • If the Senate doesn’t pass the government’s welfare cuts, the treasurer has threatened to cut funding from the National Disability Insurance Scheme instead.
  • The New York Times reports that life at the National Security Council has become rather strange under President Trump: “council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them”.
  • The Republican Party’s official Twitter account marked the birthday of Abraham Lincoln with a fake quote.
  • Renewable energy, especially solar, has become affordable much faster than anyone was expecting. Back in 2015, NPR’s Planet Money had a great episode explaining why.

Jamie Hall
Jamie Hall is a data scientist and former Reserve Bank modeller. @jamie_hall

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