While there’s a compelling political logic to the government abandoning bipartisanship on energy for the chance to continue attacking Labor — it badly needs something to shake up politics, given what seems to be a very sticky Labor polling lead — the risks manifested themselves immediately yesterday: the energy industry and business immediately criticised the dumping of a Clean Energy Target, and the government had to deny that it was a cave-in driven by Tony Abbott.
Both are dangerous, but the latter rather more than the former.
So far, only Grant King, the head of the beleaguered Business Council of Australia, has rushed to back the government. Otherwise, there’s been fairly universal condemnation from business, state governments of both stripes and major lobbyists. While energy companies aren’t exactly flavour of the month — either politically or in the community — when Australian Industry Group’s Innex Willox belts a Coalition government, it’s a bad look. Business leaders are exasperated and, for once, they have a point.
And by flagging what the government won’t do, but not what it will do, Josh Frydenberg and Malcolm Turnbull aren’t merely perpetuating uncertainty for business, they’re providing daily evidence that the government is putting settling its own internal differences ahead of delivering on a key policy challenge facing the east coast. Apparently the policy will come “by Christmas”. Too bad if it arrives when voters have already switched to summer holiday mode.
And then there’s the presentational issue that Turnbull has simply caved in to Abbott’s climate denialism. Bill Shorten has already levelled that charge at the government, and the government has already rushed to deny it.
The problem is, Turnbull has caved to Abbott on so many other things — it’s hard to believe that he hasn’t done it on this as well. And the impression is hardly helped by Abbott travelling abroad to offer what is his 20th different position on climate change. Now he’s back to admitting it might be real, but insists it’s a good thing because fewer people die in heat waves than in cold snaps. Something to bear in mind in coming summers as the death toll for heat stress-related illnesses rises: it could be worse if we weren’t cooking the planet.
Oddly enough, it’s probably true that this isn’t a cave-in to Abbott, but a decision that energy represents the government’s best chance to run down Labor’s stubborn lead, even though months of attacks — e.g. “Blackout Bill” and claiming Labor is responsible for the economic outrage of allowing LNG exports — have so far failed to dent it. And they’re probably right; if the government wins the next election, energy will have played a key role in restoring its political fortunes. But if the electorate thinks it’s just another example of Turnbull being controlled by the right-wing rump, it will fail.
As for business and would-be energy investors, well, sorry, but you’ll just have to wait.