Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Craving silence
How much do Turnbull and Shorten really want to talk about climate?

Supplied by ABC News

“I can’t say how disappointed I am that rather than talking about the substance of the policy, I'm sitting here with you on AM and you are attacking the credibility of the people …”

The people whose honour the prime minister was defending this morning make up the Energy Security Board. The board recommended Turnbull’s new climate policy, and told him that voters would save up to $115 on electricity bills from 2020. And he was sounding crabby as all get-out because the certainty of that $115 figure was fading with every passing minute.

When Turnbull referred questions about it at yesterday’s press conference to Australian Energy Market Commission chair John Pierce, Pierce said there was “detailed analysis and modelling of this specific proposal” still to be done, which would yield “firmer estimates of those price effects”. In other words, let’s talk about this again down the track. Later, Samantha Maiden at Sky News reported that she had talked to Pierce, and he said there were several scenarios that had been modelled, one of which began with savings of $25 a year, ramping up to the magic $115 figure over the next three or so years. Anyone surprised the government didn’t mention the 50-cents-a-week saving?

Politicians get awfully frustrated by journalists who ask them to “guarantee” figures like the $115 one, because they know that things go wrong, that modelling comes with caveats, and that circumstances change. But it was the government who chose to put that figure at the heart of its sales pitch. The flat figure of $115 was spoken of as fact to Turnbull on both Sunrise and Today. On neither occasion did he choose to point out the caveats around it.

If Turnbull is hoping voters will hear that figure and remember it, and breakfast TV hosts will talk about it as fact, then it’s only fair that the credibility of that figure is tested.

This may make for a poor Day Two of the nation’s new energy policy. I thought yesterday was fairly well done, politically, rolling out the regulators, and that Turnbull was across his brief. But then this government is often good at Day Ones, and not so good at Day Twos. Think back to last year’s early budget, and the mess over the tobacco tax hike.

That said, how much does today matter? I reckon not much. The public is angered by rising power bills, absolutely. We’d all prefer that our politicians do something about them, and so demonstrating that will is essential. But as Malcolm Farr puts it today, “So does anybody really think they will be sitting around between 2020 and 2030 counting out the $115-a-year they have saved from their electricity bills?”

The public doesn’t buy the idea the government is going to magically bring down the cost of living. The government looks a bit silly today, and that’s not great, but a one-day skirmish over the precise amount of a saving the public isn’t really expecting isn’t going to alter the political landscape.

So what does matter, politically?

First, and most important, the fact that Turnbull’s party room didn’t implode.

Second, and still debatable, whether or not this will actually end the climate wars. My suspicion, at this point, is that the prime minister actually does want the climate wars to end. He’s set himself up to fight a war against Labor, should he have to, on reliability and affordability. And it’s a fight he has a chance of winning (at least in an abstract universe – Turnbull himself is not great at winning political battles).

But putting himself in a strong position to win that fight doesn’t have to be a sign of a desire to fight: it can be a negotiating tactic, too. If Turnbull had no chance of winning a debate over energy policy, why would Labor compromise? Why give up an advantage?

In fact, Labor will be well aware there are possible advantages for it in giving up the climate battle, not least its vulnerability to attack should there be blackouts over summer. There is still a lingering terror from the carbon tax years. And there are potential personal gains for Bill Shorten in beginning to agree with Turnbull, rather than reflexively disagreeing. We’ve seen the results of these factors already: on Sunday Labor’s energy spokesman Mark Butler said that dumping the clean energy target was a deal-breaker for Labor. But Turnbull has now dumped the clean energy target, and Labor is still considering whether or not to make a deal.

The states have come out swinging, which has cast doubt on Turnbull’s ability to implement his policy (he needs the states to agree), but an important addendum is necessary: we are really only talking about the Labor states, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. The premiers there are in power – unlike Shorten – and South Australian premier Jay Weatherill has been there for a long time now. They are their own people. Nevertheless, if Shorten makes clear that his desire is to end this once and for all, there is a good chance they will listen.

We have been talking about climate for a long, long time. There are important elements of this policy yet to be unveiled, or clarified, not least the modelling around money. But ultimately its fate will be determined by whether Turnbull and Shorten want to keep talking about energy policy, or fight the next election on other grounds entirely. 

In other news


Another summer’s night

The intangible beauty of The Clientele’s ‘Music for the Age of Miracles’

Anwen Crawford

“Lots of Clientele songs take place in the summer, though it’s as tempting to describe them as “autumnal’ as it is to compare them to The Beatles. Their season is summer when the scent of autumn’s decay is on the breeze. A summer at the end of the Empire, like the summer of Jonathan Miller’s languid film of Alice in Wonderland (1966) with a soundtrack by Ravi Shankar.”read on


‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

The winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize reads like none that has come before

Kevin Rabalais

“Any radical attempt to usher the art of the novel into new territory will divide readers, but Saunders’ experiment feels necessary. He leads us into a new and unexpected version of the bardo, and for more than 300 pages he forces us to rethink a world (Washington, DC, 1862) we thought we knew. Our only certainty throughout is that our destination remains wholly unknown.” (March, 2017)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 the title below and enter your details in the form provided. More details on the conversations and terms and conditions can be found here.

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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