Can Turnbull finally turn climate policy to his advantage?
“How can the government expect industry to decide on new generators if the government can’t even decide on a Clean Energy Target?”
It was a good question from Bill Shorten yesterday, albeit one cribbed from a journalist who had put a similar query to the prime minister that morning.
Whether it still looks like a good question in a few months’ time will tell us how successful the government has been in shifting the politics of climate and energy.
The politics have already changed dramatically over the course of the past year. Some of this has been the government’s doing. With enormous chutzpah, it has decided to ignore the fact that it has been in power for several years already – a point Labor has spent much of this week emphasising – in order to complain loudly about the twin evils of power prices and the threat of blackouts. In past weeks, we have seen an unprecedented level of discipline in this government to keeping the political focus on energy. (“Unprecedented”, here, is a backhanded compliment.)
That said, politicians can only ever do so much to drag the public’s splintered attention towards an issue. The main factor in keeping power prices in the news is power prices, and how high they are. The major element giving potency to the threat of blackouts is the threat of blackouts, and mostly the attention-focusing effect of last year’s South Australian blackout.
The government has taken these twin evils and run with them, partly because it offers Malcolm Turnbull something he has struggled to find – a way to connect with things voters actually care about – and partly because it offers Turnbull a way to thread the needle of what his conservative wing cares about (coal) and what he has always professed to care about (renewables). And Labor, too, is clearly alive to the dangers here, slowly backing away from an absolutist opposition to the future role of coal.
Until now, Turnbull has never been able to quite skip through the daisies on all this because there’s been one enormous weight chained to his ankles: the Clean Energy Target (CET). That’s the final recommendation of the Finkel report, the one Labor says it is happy to negotiate on, and the one it has never been clear the PM will be able to steer through his party room. Tony Abbott continues to raise the CET at every opportunity, and as Dennis Shanahan points out [$], it remains Turnbull’s weakest point in Question Time.
But when the politics of an issue begin to shift, as they seem to have on energy, sometimes they can shift very far, and very quickly.
Right now it seems possible that Turnbull will manage to negotiate a CET of some sort through the Coalition, though one far weaker than Finkel recommended. There will be oodles of room left for coal. As climate policy, it may be terrible.
But if he does, he will have the chance to put the blowtorch back on Labor. At that point, Shorten’s question can be turned against him. “How can the government expect industry to decide on new generators if the government can’t even decide on a Clean Energy Target?” Shorten asked. “Well,” the PM will say, “we’ve got a Clean Energy Target ready to go. Only Labor is standing in its way.”
That might be a tricky position for Labor. Certainly the Greens have already signalled that they will make it as tough as possible – should the ALP accept a CET with ample allowances for coal, the Greens will jump all over the Opposition. Of course, if the politics really have shifted as far as Turnbull hopes, that might not be a problem – Labor may be able to ignore the Greens. Alternatively, Labor might adopt the government’s version of a CET while promising to look again at its exact design when in government. (Though a promise like that would come with the political risk of a scare campaign.)
A couple of important notes. The first is that even a weak CET is far from guaranteed – on the weekend, Nationals MP George Christensen told Channel Seven’s Tim Lester that he would cross the floor to “vote against a Clean Energy Target from being implemented, regardless of how that Clean Energy Target looks”.
Turnbull might be able to deploy a similar strategy with a non-CET policy, but it will be much harder.
It’s also important not to leave all this here without noting the various absurdities. The most significant is that we are now in the middle of a debate about using coal to keep the lights on during the rising number of exceedingly hot days – when the main reason there are so many hot days is that we’ve spent the past centuries burning incredible amounts of coal.
The second absurdity is that climate policy is immensely complex, and much of the above political debate melts it down into mind-numbing simplicity.
The final craziness is that, when we say the politics have shifted, a huge part of that is the prime minister shifting his own politics. First, he moved from diehard support of hardline emissions trading to full-throated support of coal, albeit with a Clean Energy Target thrown in. Now, he may be moving away from the Clean Energy Target itself.
It’s been an amazing journey to watch. By turning his back on what he used to believe – on climate, on marriage, on the republic – Turnbull dug himself an enormous political hole. In order to get out of that political hole, he now has to find new ways to connect with voters, which he has interpreted to mean retreating even further from what he used to believe. Put like that, it really, really shouldn’t work. But predictions and Australian politics have been poor companions for some time now.
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