Earlier this week, I wondered if the government’s recent strange behaviour presaged that, no matter how much Labor offered to compromise on energy and climate policy, the government will never agree to bipartisanship.
After all, Malcolm Turnbull had decided to use reports from the Australian Energy Market Operator to demand that the Liddell coal-fired power station be kept open, even though those reports explicitly and clearly showed that the risk of unserved power demand in NSW — following this long-forecast closure of Liddell — would be kept to a negligible level if there were greater investment in renewable power. The owner of Liddell, AGL, was repeatedly verballed by the Prime Minister and others and then, when it objected to being lied about, attacked by the government and by News Corp, which in league with the government has now begun one of its periodic culture wars against the company. And it’s a campaign that uses the sort of language that if Labor used it about major corporate players would be condemned with froth-mouthed fury as “class warfare” by the Coalition and the Murdoch press. Now, hilariously, the Coalition and The Australian have combined to demand that Labor “state its position” on Liddell, which will remain operational for another five years.
Since energy policy is one of the few areas where, at least in the government’s own eyes, it has an edge over Labor, Malcolm Turnbull seems to have made a decision that he wants to keep the issue running for as long as possible in order to damage Labor. Concluding a bipartisan agreement on a Clean Energy Target that allows high-efficiency, coal-fired power to be built (which it never will be) would remove, at a stroke, the government’s capacity to paint Labor as the party of higher power prices, because both sides would support the same policy framework.
Most of the media coverage of the debate over a Clean Energy Target has centred on whether Turnbull can get a CET through his party room. But what if he doesn’t want to? What it he wants to keep using the issue to attack Labor instead, even if it means continuing uncertainty for investors and a continuation of the same shambolic energy market situation as now? Political survival is the first order for any government — longer-term issues such as the closure of ageing coal-fired power plants can be dealt with after the next election is won.
It’s thus interesting that, today, Fairfax reported that Coalition backbenchers were now demanding not merely a CET that allowed coal, but some kind of “baseload investment scheme” that would fund coal-fired power as well.
This would be a significant movement of the goalposts by the Coalition: no longer would a “dirty” CET be required, but taxpayers would be required to waste billions on coal-fired power plants as well — the only thing that will ensure a coal-fired power plant is ever built in Australia ever again. Labor is unlikely to come at wasting money like that.
Remember that Labor has moved a long way on this — it rather courageously took a policy for two carbon pricing schemes to the last election (one for electricity, and a wider one). It then considered an emissions intensity scheme, which had strong business support. Then it shifted to endorse a Clean Energy Target following the Finkel Review. More recently, it has left the door open to CET that allowed coal-fired power, acknowledging that it might be necessary in order to accommodate Turnbull’s problems with his party room and a bipartisan policy is crucial to get energy infrastructure investment going again.
Along the way, Labor has copped abuse both from the Greens, who insist it is selling out the planet, and the government, which insists it is being ideological.
But it may well be that any offer of compromise by Labor is met by the Coalition simply moving the goalposts ever closer to coal-fired power, with the goal of portraying Labor as committed to plunging the entire country into darkness. After this week, it may well be the case that that is exactly what Turnbull wants to do. And the consumers and businesses of the 2020s be damned.