Monday, August 13, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Turnbull caves on coal?
A deal that keeps Tony Abbott happy is not worth doing

For almost three years, Labor has signalled the possibility of bipartisan support for pretty much any climate and energy policy the Turnbull government might come up with, to replace the bizarre pay-the-polluters Emissions Reduction Fund dreamed up by former environment minister Greg Hunt. In all that time, as Labor waited, the prime minister has been unable to rally the Coalition around anything of substance.

First the government proposed an Emissions Intensity Scheme. Labor said sure. Turnbull got cold feet, so chief scientist Alan Finkel came up with a Clean Energy Target instead. Okay, said Labor. It was still not pro-coal enough for the Coalition back bench, so the government created a brand-new quango called the Energy Security Board, which plucked the National Energy Guarantee out of thin air. Fine, says Labor. But once again, it appears, Malcolm Turnbull will go to water and – notwithstanding weasel words about a “technology-neutral” policy – propose to fund a new coal-fired power station to placate his diehard colleagues at a Coalition partyroom meeting to discuss the NEG tomorrow.

“Turnbull fast tracks coal plan to clinch NEG,” was the AFR’s headline [$] this morning. Given that the meeting comes on top of today’s unnerving [$] Newspoll, the diminishing Turnbull probably feels he has no choice. Labor has only to sit back and watch as the Coalition either falls apart again before reaching first base or lands on a NEG-plus policy so crazy that it is unsupportable.

Shadow energy minister Mark Butler has said repeatedly that Labor’s bottom line was to support the NEG policy as long as it did no harm to Australia’s ability to meet its Paris commitments. Arguably, the NEG has already failed the “do no harm” test, because very credible voices say it will act to restrict investment in renewables within a few years, although the Energy Security Board disputes that. Underwriting a new coal-fired power station would surely tip the policy right over the edge. At a press conference this morning Butler got stuck into Turnbull’s “new coal fantasy”, calling on the PM to stop taking dictation from Abbott, and reiterated that “Labor does not support taxpayer funds going to an investment that the industry itself has said is ‘uninvestable’.”

For a while it seemed that Turnbull was playing a double game, a kind of “watch what I do, not what I say”. So, while the PM made all the right noises beating up on South Australia’s Weatherill government, and made a show of arm-twisting energy honchos on electricity prices and domestic gas supply, what has actually happened on the ground in the last three years is … something like progress. The risible emissions reduction fund is no more; there is a belated rush to meet the country’s “20 per cent by 2020” renewable energy target; coal-fired power stations continue to close; and the federal government is investing in Snowy 2.0, which may prove transformative, in terms of strengthening a grid with a much higher penetration of renewables. And, with the tacit encouragement of Labor and even the Greens, the Turnbull government has been given all the space and time in the world to come up with anything that might resemble an energy policy consistent with Australia’s Paris obligations. As Lenore Taylor put it on Insiders yesterday, the NEG is complicated by the government’s need to “bury the carbon price so far within the centre of it that not even Tony Abbott can find it with a microscope”.

Abbott is onto it, of course, and is threatening to cross the floor to oppose what he calls [$] a “dreadful mistake”. Barnaby Joyce has reserved his position, but Fairfax this morning reported that he might support it if it included a “plan B” to cut prices if the NEG didn’t work. Killing off the NEG entirely would not take much, after Friday’s “no deal” between the federal, state and territory energy ministers. Although Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg did his best to make an agreement to keep talking sound like progress, the NEG is on life support.

The ACCC has given the sceptic diehards a fig leaf, by recommending the government intervene to underwrite new “dispatchable” generation. It all turns on the interpretation of that word: for Abbott, and an unknown number of his backbench colleagues, “dispatchable” means new coal-fired power; for Turnbull it means the most competitive technology, whether it’s new coal, gas, pumped hydro or renewable with battery storage. The government, supported by the ACCC and industry, wants to stay technology neutral. ACCC chair Rod Sims reportedly briefed the Nationals’ party room today, and presumably reinforced the same technology-neutral message he gave The Guardian and Fairfax. But the “technology-neutral” fig leaf won’t cut it with Abbott and Joyce: they want a pro-coal policy, and don’t care how much subsidy has to be thrown in to make a new coal-fired power station competitive with cheaper renewables. If a NEG-plus deal comes out of tomorrow’s meeting, it will suggest pretty strongly that Turnbull has caved in. Labor, unless it also wants to take dictation from Abbott, will surely have to walk.

since this morning

The Guardian reports that the managing director of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which was given a $443.8 million grant from the federal government, says she was not aware the government was conducting due diligence on the charity before it awarded them the grant.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane writes [$] that changes at Newspoll hide a Coalition recovery, and that the government is much better placed than it was earlier this year.


The Senate will debate a private member’s bill this week to repeal the 1997 ban on Australia’s territories having the authority to legalise voluntary euthanasia.

The AFR reports [$] that the federal government is vowing to put its company tax cuts to a Senate vote next week, and to then make a quick decision over whether to scrap whatever elements of the policy it cannot get through or take them to the next election.

SMH economics editor Ross Gittins writes that banking directly with the Reserve Bank, or putting your savings in a public sector super scheme, is “neither as impossible nor as crazy as it may sound”.

Fairfax Media reports that a bipartisan group of MPs will form a new group aimed at reviving cross-party support to make the adoption process faster and simpler for parents.

Lawyers for decorated war veteran Ben Roberts-Smith have asked federal attorney-general Christian Porter to refer leaks of details of an inquiry into the former soldier to the federal police for criminal investigation.

Based on an exclusive YouGov Galaxy poll, the Herald Sun reports [$] that 57 per cent of voters have less trust in Victoria’s Andrews government following the rorts-for-votes scandal, but that Labor leads 51–49 on a two-party preferred basis.

by James Bradley
The end of the oceans
The world’s oceans and all marine life are on the brink of total collapse

by Mungo MacCallum
Peter Dutton’s leadership ambitions
A reminder of why the minister’s recent dog-whistling should be of concern

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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