It was predictable that Nick Xenophon, that shameless self-promoter and parish-pump populist, should jump all over the power outage in South Australia.
Perhaps more surprising was that the Prime Minister also didn’t hesitate to seize on the shut-down as a way of taking a hefty swipe at the SA Labor government and its renewable energy targets. Within minutes, our pallid Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, dutifully echoed his master’s voice.
But what is truly remarkable about this bizarre passage of political opportunism late last week is that even while all those provocative hints and allegations were being made, it was already known that the state’s wind and solar electricity sources played no role in causing the loss of power.
We can, perhaps, accept that politicians will sometimes be careless with the truth if it suits their ambitions, but what of the media who report and analyse their utterances? Surely they have a duty to seek out the facts, hold our leaders to account and speak from a skeptically independent position.
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[South Australia’s blackout explained]
Not if they are The Australian. The morning after South Australia managed to restore power to most of its grid, the lead editorial in Murdoch’s national daily had found a scapegoat. They turned the Prime Minister’s veiled imputations into an assertion of fact:
“The network has been weakened by the pursuit of recklessly high renewable energy targets. A blackout such as South Australia has suffered is a symbol of abject failure in one of the most fundamental tasks of government.”
Apparently, it is a fundamental task of government to stop cyclones. And as for those who had the temerity to explain that wind and solar made no contribution to the outage, The Australian had nothing but pompous scorn: “Facts don’t get in the way of green power zealotry.”
But it was the Oz itself that seemed embarrassingly short of facts and sources when it unleashed its first wave of commentators and analysts on the story. Instead, they assumed that the Turnbull/Frydenberg line equating renewables with energy insecurity was a statement of undeniable truth. First, we had that dependable twice-weekly doomsayer Judith Sloan:
“Successive Labor administrations have embarked on the folly of thinking that the state’s economic future could be based on willful over-promotion of intermittent, expensive and unreliable renewable energy. South Australia has paid a high price for this deluded approach.”
No substantiation, no proof. Sid Maher, in the same edition, then elevated this nonsense to the level of wishful surmise:
“Wednesday night’s total failure of power in South Australia … is a disaster for renewable energy zealots and should be a wake-up call for political leaders. Energy experts told The Australian yesterday the cascading shutdown … could have been caused by wind farms closing in sequence as the storm hit.”
Note that these “energy experts” are never named or quoted by Maher (and as long as we’re speculating, the shutdown “could” also have been caused by the Jolly Green Giant). Mind you, there are experts and experts. Michael Owen, on the next page, was clearly singing from the wrong sheet music:
“Jay Weatherill … has used every opportunity since the lights went out to stress that the lengthy outage was caused by bad weather, not renewable energy. The experts tell us he is right: no power system could withstand the loss of three transmission lines and 23 towers.”
Patently true, but that divergence from The Australian’s company line was soon corrected by Barry Fitzgerald in the business section.
“Rarely has the PM made more sense. Sure, he has copped a blast from Bill Shorten, the Greens, and the renewables cheer squad. They have falsely accused him of directly linking the blackout to South Australia’s unprecedented — in the Australian context at any rate — 40 per cent power capacity from wind and solar.”
“Falsely accused”? That is exactly what Turnbull did: imply a link between the blackout and South Australia’s renewables program. Otherwise, how were we to interpret the timing and content of his remarks, or why he made them at all?
This torrent of tosh continued the following day — three more commentary pieces in The Weekend Australian, plus another editorial. But, in the face of mounting evidence, the paper was beginning to moderate its claims that the outage had been caused by renewables. The issue now was “energy security” (think “border security” with a three-pin plug). Yet with a few deft double shuffles, this second wave of pundits could still imply that renewable energy was the real villain by accusing its supporters of trying to shift blame for the blackout.
[Chris Uhlmann joins Barnaby in blaming wind energy for SA’s blackout. They are dead wrong.]
Graham Lloyd, the environment editor, told us the power failure had “left green groups scrambling to shift the blame from renewables to climate change”. Dennis Shanahan, the political editor, cleared his throat with “After the South Australian blackouts and blame shifting …”. Chris Kenny, the associate editor (everyone’s an “editor” at the Oz) declared that South Australia was “plunged into chaos because it fails to run a robust electricity generation and distribution system”.
The editorial didn’t waste any time fingering who it wanted us to believe were the guilty parties. Indeed, its lead paragraph seemed to welcome the blackout because it had “flushed out the crazy extremes of green-Left politics”. Sid Maher’s anonymous and unquotable “experts” from the previous day then enjoyed another run:
“Expert analysis suggests fragility in the system created by more than 40 per cent reliance on renewable energy may have played a role.”
Note that weaselly “may have” again, and the unsupported direct assertion that renewables had created fragility in the power generation and transmission system. No “may have” there. And in place of facts, the editorial offered us the media’s dog-eared old “questions remain” cop out:
“Severe storms tearing down transmission lines and lightning strikes taking out a generator triggered the crisis, but questions remain about why this cascaded into a statewide shutdown.”
At this level of journalism, “questions remain” means: “We asked the questions but didn’t like the answers, so we’ll give you loaded insinuations instead.”
There is, of course, no Australian on Sunday but their Sunday Telegraph colleagues at Holt Street were happy to keep pushing the News Corp orthodoxy over the Sabbath. In a weird leap of logic, Miranda Devine wanted us to accept that the blackout was, in reality, a moment of tree-hugger wish fulfillment:
“Greenies got their way this week when the entire state of South Australia was plunged into the Stone Age.”
(Surely the correct cliche here would have been “Dark Ages”?)
Just a few pages later, that well-known professor of electrical engineering Piers Akerman knew precisely what had caused the outage:
“The power went out in South Australia because the state embraced unreliable alternate energy sources.”
Simple, really. By today The Australian’s heavy commentariat artillery had fallen silent on the subject, save for a rather lazy “What I Did During the Blackout” piece Mark Day filed for the media section. But their page 4 news report of Frydenberg’s interview with Sky on Sunday managed to squeeze in this one, grudging concession:
“He did concede South Australia’s high use of renewable energy was not the catalyst for the blackout.”
Sound the retreat! Still, we must be grateful for small mercies. Bill Leak has been on leave. Think what an excruciatingly tasteless cartoon he might have concocted around the word “blackout”.