Thursday, August 30, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning


Taylor-made for the job
The new energy minister has an anti-renewables pedigree

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As the Morrison government tries to heal the internal wounds of the past fortnight, the energy debate is at a delicate moment. The National Energy Guarantee, having triggered the downfall of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, is on ice. The new energy minister, Angus Taylor, who gave his first major speech in the portfolio today, is a Tony Abbott loyalist whose one KPI is to get electricity prices down. For most Australians, Taylor is a relatively unknown quantity, given this is his first cabinet post. Taylor has made clear, not for the first time, that he is no climate sceptic, and has pointed out that his grandfather William Hudson was chief engineer on the Snowy Hydro scheme. Many in the renewable energy sector are extremely disappointed at Taylor’s appointment, however. Why? “He’s dangerous because he sounds like an authority on energy, even when he’s flat out wrong,” says Simon Holmes à Court, a senior adviser at the University of Melbourne’s Climate and Energy College.

“He looks like a leader, he speaks like a leader, he’s got the credibility of being a farm boy. He’s got the perfect pedigree – Rhodes Scholar, McKinsey, his grandfather built the Snowy – and he’s had the hard-right rump of the Coalition wrapped around his finger since six months before the 2013 election.”

That’s when Taylor, working as a consultant on energy at Port Jackson Partners, produced a paper arguing that wind power was an extremely expensive way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that Australia should switch from coal to baseload gas. (A footnote: Taylor’s strategy would have been an absolute disaster, because in the meantime the cost of wind energy has plummeted and the cost of gas has skyrocketed to hit export parity.) Taylor’s intervention was not welcomed by then energy spokesperson Ian Macfarlane, who said at the time: “We [the Coalition] support the RET. I’m not sure Angus does.” But Taylor’s anti-renewables pitch was music to the ears of the Coalition’s climate sceptics, led by Tony Abbott. One Liberal MP told Holmes à Court that Taylor was “Abbott’s brain on energy … when Abbott is speaking on energy in the party room, we look at Taylor to see if he’s nodding.”

Renewables are contentious in Taylor’s New South Wales electorate of Hume, which takes in the well-heeled Southern Highlands, where one resident climate denier, Maurice Newman, is especially wound up about the wind turbines that can be seen lopping the horizon from the front gate of his country estate. So although he describes himself as a “conviction politician”, Taylor has walked both sides of the street: when he’s talking to the likes of 2GB’s Ray Hadley, he’s a “long-term cynic of a lot of renewables schemes”, and points out that he “argued strongly to reduce the renewable energy target, and we did, under Tony Abbott as prime minister”. When he’s doing “left” media that accepts climate science, he’ll talk about how his family’s sheep and cattle business has relied on CSIRO research for rainfall and temperature predictions. “I’ve taken a view that climate change is real,” he told me in this interview for Foreground in 2016. “I’ve had that view for many years, and I’ve held that strongly. That there is a very strong case for action. The real debate is what is the right action? I have taken a view at odds with some of the consensus on what the right action is … I firmly believe that we should be always looking for the lowest-cost way of doing anything.”

The Smart Energy Council’s John Grimes, a veteran solar advocate who has fought off any number of conservative government attacks on renewable energy, told RenewEconomy’s Energy Insiders podcast that Taylor’s appointment was “really disheartening … probably the worst possible move that could have been made on behalf of the renewable industry. I think it doesn’t bode well.”

The question is: how much damage can Taylor do before the next election? If he can get electricity prices down before then, by taking up the energy recommendations of ACCC boss Rod Sims (also a Port Jackson alumni) then good luck to him. But nobody’s going to build a new coal-fired power station, or a new rail line to the Galilee Basin, in the next nine months. Meanwhile, the awesome march of renewables continues apace, lowering wholesale electricity prices along the way, as fresh research today confirms.

The only real damage would be for the Coalition to decide unilaterally to pull Australia out of the Paris agreement, as the ideologues hope to do, but that is beyond Taylor’s remit [$]. What’s more, given where opinion polls sit on this issue, and with moderate Marise Payne in the foreign affairs ministry, to do so would hardly be an act of healing.


since this morning


The AFR’s Chanticleer columnist writes [$] that telco entrepreneur David Teoh has “responded brilliantly to the NBN Co’s creeping destruction of his cut-price broadband business [TPG] with a Vodafone merger deal that has already added $700 million to his personal wealth”.

Leaked emails show that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton overruled advice from a senior Australian Border Force official when he allowed a French nanny to escape deportation after being lobbied by AFL chief Gillon McLachlan.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten says [$] that there is too much bullying in federal politics, and has called on all MPs to behave better after Liberal MP Julia Banks accused politicians in both major parties of bullying her.


IN CASE YOU MISSED IT


The federal government is preparing to ban American whistleblower Chelsea Manning from coming to Australia for a speaking tour, the ABC reports. Crikey’s Bernard Keane contrasts her case with that of David Petraeus, the convicted former CIA chief who toured Australia [$] last year to raise funds for the Liberal Party.

Outgoing Productivity Commission chairperson Peter Harris spoke with RN Breakfast’s Fran Kelly about a report finding that the number of Australians living below the poverty line has not declined since the late 1980s – despite 27 years of uninterrupted economic growth.

On his first trip overseas as prime minister, Scott Morrison will conclude free trade talks with Indonesian president Joko Widodo at the presidential palace.


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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.

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