Monday, October 9, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Climate hopes fade
The government today seemed to back further away from a clean energy target

 AGL chief Andy Vesey addressing today's AFR conference.  Supplied by ABC News

Back in June, just after Alan Finkel had delivered his famous recommendation of a clean energy target (CET), Victorian MP Russell Broadbent asked – at a party room meeting – the type of question you’d normally expect from a sharp radio interviewer. Katharine Murphy paraphrased it at the time: “How is it that we have spent the last six months railing against the evils of renewable energy targets and are now proposing one as the answer to the energy policy problem?”

By now, the answer to that seems simple: the government is doing no such thing. Today it became another degree clearer that the Coalition is not at all interested [$] in a clean energy target of any kind. It hasn’t said so yet, not precisely, and so this speculation might be premature. But it’s certainly dipping its toes in the water. Dangling its legs all the way up to the thighs more like.

This state of near-rejection wasn’t always the case. Asked about it in early June, Malcolm Turnbull said a target “has a number of virtues, very strong virtues”. Explaining those virtues, the prime minister concluded, “I think it has a lot of merit and as I say we will look at it very favourably”. He added an important “but” – “we will be considering it carefully, considering the Finkel Review with the care and respect which the hard work of the panel warrants”. Still, it was clear he kind of liked the idea.

Presumably he has since been persuaded otherwise, by facts or other matters.

If the government does back away from a CET entirely, it will offer reasons like those the energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, offered today: that the cost of renewables is falling dramatically, and therefore there is no need for subsidies. (A CET effectively subsidises renewable energy by offering financial incentives for the use of low-emissions power sources.)

The argument might sound plausible, but it is worth looking at what was said by experts at the Australian Financial Review conference today [$] at which Frydenberg made his remarks. Australian Energy Market Operator head Audrey Zibelman said a CET was needed. AGL chief Andy Vesey said something like the CET was needed. Former Coalition resources minister Ian Macfarlane said, “You're going to need a transition plan. You'll need something, whether it's a CET or whatever.”

This “something” is what Frydenberg and Turnbull are now likely to pin their hopes on. This was David Crowe’s prediction [$]: “Expect something with the bland title of an ‘energy investment framework’ instead. Loaded words like ‘clean’ and ‘target’ will be missing.”

What we are witnessing is a dramatic shift in the politics of the word “renewables”.

Renewable energy has long been an ideological villain for the hard right of the Coalition. It holds the same sort of power as phrases such as “political correctness” and “identity politics”. Forget about whatever words surround it; its mere mention is enough to trigger blood-curdling screams.

Recognising that fact, what we have witnessed over the past year is a concerted effort by senior members of the government to make “renewables” a byword for blackouts. This type of connection was already being made in various quarters, but the South Australian blackout was the point at which Turnbull really threw his shoulder into convincing the public.

It’s an interesting gambit, because “renewable energy” has long been the most popular element of climate policy. Voters especially like the idea of solar energy, and the idea that Australia has lots of it. The words themselves have always gone down well with focus groups. But by now the government has expended an enormous amount of sweat at changing that perception. Yes, it’s a nice idea, the line goes, but reliability and affordability are the most important things.

Tony Abbott makes this argument the most, but Turnbull is not far behind these days. Here he is, talking to the South Australian Liberal Party two months ago: “If you want it to replace coal-fired power with lots of renewables, it would dawn on you, you would think, with a moment’s thought, that the sun doesn’t shine all the time. And the wind doesn’t blow all the time.”

The argument Tony Abbott keeps telling Turnbull to pick – painting Labor as the party of unreliable renewables – seems to be precisely the argument Turnbull has picked. Jettisoning the CET will be the final logical step in setting up the contrast.

Assuming this happens, it will be interesting to see how Labor responds. Bill Shorten has offered to work with the government on a CET. This offer seemed genuine, though naturally was partly driven by Labor’s political desire to avoid the dangers of an ongoing climate change debate. If Turnbull backs away, that allows Shorten to take the moral high ground: We offered to end the climate wars, he will say – is already saying – but Tony Abbott wouldn’t let Malcolm Turnbull do a thing. Turnbull’s retreat will have the added bonus of protecting Labor on the left. Labor won’t have signed up to a CET with allowances for clean coal, which will deprive the Greens of an attack.

But with the prospect of Coalition agreement off the table, what does Labor actually do on policy? It has always said a CET is only the fallback option after an emissions intensity scheme – does it go back to that policy? Or does it offer a CET as the only plausible way forward regardless, saying it hopes the government will change its mind once it’s in Opposition (this seems unlikely)? Or does Shorten continue to work for a deal, even without a CET, to avoid the risk of being blamed for any future blackouts? This would be hard to get the entire party to agree to, but then forging agreements is what Shorten has always been good at.

Just another day on which the country’s hopes of ever having a settled climate policy faded a little further.

In other news


The eyes have it

How is it possible for an emotion to be expressed in an eyeball?

Karen Hitchcock

Of all the world’s animals, humans have by far the largest visible sclera (white of the eye) surrounding the dark iris. This enables us to accurately judge the direction of someone’s gaze, even at a distance, and to know what captures their attention. Lots of white indicates fear or surprise. There are the variations in blink rate and gaze duration to decode. Pupils widen in states of fear or sexual arousal, and current research seems to confirm the ancient belief that we unconsciously find large pupils attractive. How did the ancients know this and believe it so faithfully that women risked blindness by bucketing belladonna into their eyeballs?”read on


Bob Hawke, we miss you

In retrospect, the Hawke years seem something of a golden age

Mungo MacCallum

“These days, much of the blame for the current dysfunction is laid on the civil wars between prime ministers – Rudd and Julia Gillard, Turnbull and Tony Abbott. But the Hawke cabinet had its share – given its unusual quality, more than its share – of prima donnas.” READ ON

‘Artists in Conversation’

Readers in Victoria can register for free tickets to artist conversations as part of Melbourne Festival, led by the editorial team of The Saturday Paper and the Monthly.

The conversations will feature Melbourne Festival’s artistic director, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from the festival program, to discuss their work and its place in the world. The conversations will take place at the Forum Theatre on Saturdays from 12.30 pm.

To register, simply click any of the two names below and enter your details in the form provided. More details on the conversations and terms and conditions can be found here.

Saturday, 14 October – Across Platforms

Hosted by Martin McKenzie-Murray, chief correspondent of The Saturday Paper, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Tree of Codes and A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol.

Saturday, 21 October – A Chronicle of Life

Hosted by Nick Feik, editor of the Monthly, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Germinal and EVER.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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