Thursday, March 16, 2017

Today by Jim Middleton

Blame game
The awkward showdown between Jay Weatherill and Josh Frydenberg was a long time coming

“Look at what they do, not at what they say” is always useful advice when observing politicians at work. If anything epitomises the awkward corner in which Malcolm Turnbull finds himself over energy policy, it is today’s showdown between South Australian premier Jay Weatherill and federal energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg.

If Frydenberg thinks he can gain the upper hand by accusing Weatherill of “poor form” and pointing out that it was $20 million of federal rather than state money being invested in a battery storage project in South Australia, he has another thing coming.

Few states are as parochial as South Australia, and, in any event, voters across the country could not care less where the money to patch up electricity problems comes from. It is not Commonwealth cash, it is taxpayers’ money, and South Australians are taxpayers.

For months, the prime minister has been striving to characterise the debate over energy security and carbon emissions as simply a problem of the states’ making, a consequence of their unilateral renewable energy targets and uncoordinated approach to wind and solar power. Any increase in electricity prices would be the states’ fault, Turnbull and Frydenberg repeated ad nauseam.

The limitations of that argument were revealed by Turnbull’s sudden decision to call a summit of LNG producers last week, following a report from the Australian Energy Market Operator that warned of gas shortages as early as the next summit. Suddenly it was a problem of supply, not just of stability. Another headache for the prime minister was the fact that Labor had been ahead of the game, going to the last election proposing a national interest test for future gas exports, which was then criticised by the government.

The prime minister promised leadership, but with leadership comes ownership. What he liked to portray as the states’ problem is now his as well. The implication is that he, and not just the states, will pay part of the electoral price if a gas shortage leads to load shedding in summer.

South Australia, in the wake of last year’s blackout, has been a particular whipping boy of the prime minister. By this week, Weatherill was mad as hell and not prepared to take it anymore. In the absence of a national plan to fix the operation of the National Electricity Market, he decided to go it alone, earning him more slings and arrows.

No wonder he turned up today ready to rumble, accusing the Turnbull government of “bagging South Australia at every step of the way … the most anti-South Australia Commonwealth government in living history”.

Turnbull and Frydenberg’s assault on Weatherill has been relentless, but there are signs it has had limited impact in South Australia. As late as last month, polling suggested a majority of croweaters still think renewable energy is the solution to their future energy needs.

Not only that, South Australia’s Labor government is now 16 years old, well past the traditional use-by date, but Weatherill is proving surprisingly resilient for all his state’s problems, not just with energy but with the collapse of its manufacturing base. A poll of three key state seats in today’s Adelaide Advertiser suggests Labor remains within striking distance of yet another election victory, despite its age and the rise of Nick Xenophon.

If for no other reason, Turnbull has reason to be unhappy with Frydenberg for taking some of the gloss off his “nation-building” announcement today of Snowy 2.0, his proposal to add more pump storage capacity to the Chifley–Menzies era Snowy Hydro scheme.

Questions are already being raised about whether it really is the game changer the prime minister proclaims it to be and whether it will ever see the light of day.

Certainly, it shows the signs of haste. There is no feasibility study, no environmental impact statement for a project to be constructed within the confines of a national park, and no consultation with the New South Wales and Victorian governments that own the majority of the Snowy Hydro scheme.

Converting the challenge of carbon emissions into a question of electricity prices worked for Tony Abbott against a divided and shambolic Labor government in 2013. Clearly, Turnbull and his intimates are worried it won’t be enough to carry the day at the next election.

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Jim Middleton

Jim Middleton is a Sky News correspondent and a vice chancellor’s fellow at the University of Melbourne.


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