Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Collision course on energy
If goodwill were a fuel, the government would be firing


Held conveniently under blanket coverage of the midterm election results in the US, today’s closed-door meeting between federal energy minister Angus Taylor and the country’s major electricity companies could have grave consequences for Australia. A Coalition government on its last legs, egged on by a narrow section of the media that is in denial about climate change, appears determined to saddle taxpayers with the future carbon liabilities of a new “fair dinkum” coal-fired power station, which could run into the billions of dollars. Taylor wrote to the three big gentailers AGL, Origin and EnergyAustralia last Friday, to add the proposal to today’s agenda. In Fairfax Media this morning, former Clean Energy Finance Corporation chief Oliver Yates described the proposal as “extraordinary” and “irresponsible”.

The main purpose of today’s meeting with Taylor, whom the PM dubbed the “minister for keeping energy prices down”, was meant to be about the government’s big-stick measures to lower prices, including setting a default retail price. The Guardian reported yesterday that network executives were pushing back against the minister, claiming that the distribution costs as a component of bills had already fallen, while an electricity retailer told Fairfax Media that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission had been “pretty clear what you can and can’t do with about 30 retailers in the room”. Another said the cartel concerns meant that “the expectations created about price reductions can’t be delivered or discussed at this meeting”.

After the industry invested so much time in the development of the National Energy Guarantee, which Taylor’s faction of the Liberal Party destroyed in the process of tearing down former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, there is not much love in the room for the new energy minister. As Labor’s former climate change minister Greg Combet argued in comments to The Guardian’s political editor Katharine Murphy last week, following the release of a CFMMEU study on a just transition away from coal, the energy companies are tired of the climate wars. “The energy companies get it,” Combet said. “This is very much front of mind for the asset holders, and they want rational policy. They aren’t fighting it anymore. They don’t want stranded assets.”

The environment movement has been burned by the implosion of the NEG as well. Last week Australian Conservation Foundation chief Kelly O’Shanassy gave a speech titled “Making the Climate Election” to the National Press Club, in which she warned that it would be “gloves off” on climate change, with the ACF targeting two marginal Liberal electorates, Chisholm and Bonner, as well as the new Victorian seat of Macnamara. In a fascinating conversation between Murphy and O’Shanassy, the ACF chief admitted that the environment movement had struggled to back the NEG, which threatened to delay the transition to renewables. But the lesson of the last decade’s climate wars, both agreed, was that if there could be agreement on a mechanism, the ambition could be dialled up later.

The Coalition has burned up a lot of goodwill with those involved in the debate, although the general public remains open to the government’s plans. Yesterday’s Essential poll showed voters split about whether the government should provide support to new coal-fired power stations, including indemnifying them against the risk of a future carbon price, with 39 per cent approving of the idea and 35 per cent disapproving. A majority of Coalition voters approved (58 per cent) while 65 per cent of Greens voters disapproved. Labor voters were split, with 33 per cent approving and 40 per cent disapproving.

It is hard to take such a bitterly divided government seriously: it may one day form part of Turnbull’s legacy that his downfall has shone a spotlight on the Coalition’s inability to deal with the challenge of climate change. Emblematic of the change in mood is the intervention of Atlassian co-founder Mike Canon-Brookes, whose estimated [$] wealth is $9 billion, and who has appropriated the PM’s “fair dinkum power” slogan for his own renewable energy venture, now promoting a 200 per cent renewable energy target. The Fair Dinkum Power manifesto is here, and Cannon-Brookes posted an eight-point thread on his thinking here, which prompted a deluge of responses. The words non-profit appear nowhere I can see, and just-registered Australian Fair Dinkum Power Ltd is a proprietary company wholly owned by Cannon-Brookes’s Grokco. Community NGOs have generated enormous goodwill toward renewables in multiple campaigns over the years, and it would be a pity if that goodwill were privatised. Fair Dinkum Power does little to ease those concerns with statements like “We are a movement. We are a brand …” Which is it to be, for the two are very different things? Still, as long as it doesn’t take over the whole renewable energy push, Cannon-Brookes’s intervention is welcome. Every little bit helps.

since this morning

The Guardian is live-blogging the US midterm election results, with early counts indicating that the Democrats’ effort to take the House of Representatives has encountered some setbacks but remains viable.

The entire population [$] of Don Dale youth detention centre was this morning transferred to Darwin watch house after riot squad officers were forced to use tear gas to quell a major disturbance at the controversial facility overnight.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has announced tougher penalties for misusing patient data under the My Health Record scheme, to address Senate concerns.

Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce is facing an ugly internal battle to recontest his northern NSW seat of New England, with an eight-member selection committee reportedly deadlocked and unable to unanimously support his candidacy.

in case you missed it

Fairfax Media reports that Australia and Indonesia are poised to sign the landmark Australia–Indonesia free trade deal next week at the ASEAN summit in Singapore.

Former Labor leader Mark Latham has joined [$] Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party in New South Wales.

A Grattan Institute study finds that the superannuation lobby is creating the false belief that retirees haven’t saved enough, even though the typical retiree has a higher standard of living than when they were working.

The Australian reports [$] that the ABC has become a “powder keg”, with journalists across the country reporting unprecedented levels of anger over the revelation that the public broadcaster’s 157 executives had rewarded themselves with $2 million in bonuses.

Also in The Australian, a government study shows [$] that some of the highest concentrations of people who negatively geared investment properties are in Labor-held electorates.

by Sean Kelly
Looking for Scott Morrison
The rise, duck and weave of Australia’s no-fault prime minister

by Don Watson
American berserk
Donald Trump’s presidency feels both unprecedented and oddly familiar

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?

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