The government’s energy policy, born in chaos, division and retreat, hasn’t been driven by fear of Tony Abbott so much as the desperation of a government that for the best part of a year has been stuck well adrift of its opponents in every poll. But it’s a win for Tony Abbott’s style of politics and his ideology.
Note how the Coalition, over the last decade, has abandoned policy after policy on energy. As Tony Abbott used to boast, the Renewable Energy Target, a regulatory mechanism mixed with a pricing mechanism, was a creation of the Howard government. John Howard went to the 2007 election promising the world’s most comprehensive emissions trading scheme. That was the first policy thrown overboard, in 2009 when Abbott knocked off Malcolm Turnbull. Abbott then adopted “direct action” for several years, but that was defunded after three years by the Turnbull government in a tacit admission that Greg Hunt’s “soil magic” was a colossal waste of money. Abbott stuck to the RET for several years, as well — that boast about the Howard legacy was in 2013 — before trying to abandon it, then abandoning the attempt to abandon it, and compromising with Labor — for which he thanked them in Parliament — to settle on an amended RET. Turnbull himself has tried out several policies, including lauding a Clean Energy Target, before settling on what appears to be a regulation-only approach to emissions and reliability. Along the way, his government has gone from castigating Labor for suggesting a national interest test on LNG exports to establishing its own far more draconian domestic reservation policy. The Coalition has had about as many position on energy policy as Tony Abbott has had on climate change.
The abandonment of any market mechanism on energy by the party of markets is complete. And that’s exactly the direction Tony Abbott — regardless of his eternally shifting views on climate — has always pushed it in. Like his approach to fiscal policy, Abbott’s instincts are always about more and bigger government.
More importantly, the policy will also provide the government with what it believes is a policy weapon with which to defeat Labor — portraying the opposition as the reckless party of renewables who will plunge Australia into darkness and inflate everyone’s energy bill. The government is desperate for anything that will allow it — once the citizenship crisis and marriage equality issue are put to bed — to assail Labor. This is the crucial point that explains the government’s energy policy. Bipartisan certainty that will drive investment, and meeting the emissions abatement targets we signed up to at Paris, are second-order issues — and a distant second at best. This is about political survival.
Problem is, the government’s survival doesn’t have very much to do with energy policy. But it has an awful lot to do with Tony Abbott. Don’t expect the ex-PM to stop talking any time soon.