The disappointment of the Prime Minister’s Press Club speech yesterday was, in retrospect, inevitable; Malcolm Turnbull has made disappointment the key theme of his leadership — but given the tumultuous, not to say frequently toxic, political environment in which Australia finds itself domestically and internationally, surely he would seek to start the year with a recognition of the necessity of a new approach and, perhaps, some new policy ideas, especially in areas like housing affordability and infrastructure? Given Bill Shorten had, the previous day, recognised the challenge facing the political class (and then offered some rather half-arsed solutions), surely Turnbull could use the power of incumbency to actually respond to that challenge, rather than merely talk about it? Here was a perfect opportunity to counter perceptions of drift, indecisiveness and lack of vision.

Instead, we had the same deeply flawed economic agenda, the three-headed dog of a policy of corporate tax cuts, preferential trade agreements and manufacturing protectionism. The new argument from Turnbull for tax cuts for multinationals — taken straight from the Business Council, which has about as much political good sense as Turnbull himself — is that Australia will be left stranded when Donald Trump cuts America’s company tax rate. But there’s still no evidence from anywhere among the many countries that have cut company tax rates that the many alleged benefits have ever materialised. And still no acknowledgement that handing tax cuts to multinationals that already fail to pay the tax they owe us will further weaken a budget that is already on the cusp of a downgrade from ratings agencies.

The economic policy was the same, and we got the same attack on Labor as in 2016, that its commitment to renewable energy is going to plunge us all into darkness.

At least, here, was something new: Turnbull professed himself to be a pragmatist, “technology agnostic” and declared an interest in clean coal (like Donald Trump, who similarly enthuses about clean coal). Sadly, “clean coal” is a fiction, one that’s been around a long time. Kevin Rudd was an enthusiast for, and waster of taxpayer dollars on, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and even set up an “institute” for it. But CCS has failed miserably — because it is so expensive — even former boosters have admitted they were wrong and momentum toward commercial CCS has stalled in the face of massive costs and delays. So, with CCS increasingly discredited, the new fashion is higher efficiency coal-fired power — where the use of impressive terms like “ultra supercritical generators” is intended to impress the layperson.

Problem is, laypeople would be the ones paying through the nose for what is an inordinately expensive technology that even performing at the most optimistic of levels would still make little difference to Australia’s emissions profile. More problematically, the energy industry is completely uninterested in building new coal-fired power plants, however ultra super hyper megacritical they may be. And, increasingly, banks are uninterested in funding them. So that leaves the government to fund and build new plants itself.

And if the Coalition has an appetite for re-entering the business of running power generators or providing massive subsidies to industry to build them, it would make more sense to subsidise nuclear reactors, despite the inordinate cost and massive delays that accompany them: nuclear reactors aren’t a whole lot more expensive than advanced ultra-supercritical coal-fired generators will be, are a proven technology, and have zero carbon emissions. But with Australia finally getting rid of the last vestiges of government ownership of electricity generation and distribution, Turnbull’s sudden interest in government re-entry into electricity is worrying, to say the least.

Of course, if Turnbull were genuinely “technology agnostic” he’d simply establish a pricing mechanism for carbon emissions and let the market and innovative businesses, rather than the dead hand of government, solve the problem. We know that. He knows that.

Then there was the bizarre refusal to discuss his own donations to the Liberal Party, after speaking mere minutes before about the need for greater transparency. Having decided to give a speech on the very day that political donations data would be released, data he knew would not include his massive donations and therefore prompt questions, you might have expected Turnbull to have something better prepared than a glib one liner about encouraging everyone to donate to his party. Again, you would be — that word again — disappointed. But then, even weirder, he went on 7.30 a few hours later to reveal all. What transpired between those two events? If the only thing that transpired was that the penny dropped about just how bad Turnbull looked at the Press Club for refusing to answer, then this government is in a lot of trouble. Plainly, no one in the PMO, including the Prime Minister, has a skerrick of political judgement.


Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey