How apt it was that new Energy Minister Angus Taylor spent half an hour hiding from the media yesterday after his first speech, sequestered from scrutiny and questions. It used to be that ministers gave speeches, then took questions and the media reported what was said. Now the speech is dropped to newspapers ahead of time, it is perfunctorily delivered and the minister hides from journalists afterwards. A truly efficient process would involve the minister not bothering to deliver the speech at all.
More to the point, it was a perfect symbol of a government that has entered its fifth year of having no climate policy beyond a renewable energy target that has less than two years to run. The risible Emissions Reduction Fund continues to dribble money to lucky business participants, but even the government itself no longer pretends that’s a credible policy, and cut off its funding.
As Matthew Stevens — of all people — noted at the Financial Review, Taylor’s speech was literally incoherent in its stated approach to government intervention, but then Taylor was attempting to rationalise his party’s incoherent economic position, so that’s understandable. The Liberal Party is now not merely the party of big taxation and big spending (both substantially higher than under Labor) but the party of big government regulation and the party of defence industry protectionism. If it commits to underwriting new coal-fired power stations, it will be the party that has reversed electricity privatisation as well. No wonder Taylor was reluctant to face questions about what exactly that all means for the purported party of free markets.
Amid the constant talk of government intervention, however, there is one area where there can be no intervention: emissions reduction. Since 2014, when Clive Palmer allowed Tony Abbott to kill a cheap, effective carbon pricing mechanism (remember Al Gore?), Australia has had no long-term climate policy, and will not have one while the Coalition remains in office federally. Moderates within the Liberal Party lack the guts to stand up to the denialists, and the Nationals still prefer to pretend climate change is a Chinese hoax, or the world is getting colder, or whatever this week’s conspiracy theory is.
Bear in mind that the policy used an an excuse to knife Malcolm Turnbull would have done nothing to curb emissions and may well have undermined the level of renewables investment to which investors had been prepared to commit despite the lack of coherent policy since 2014. If the denialists are prepared to kill a leader merely for making a token gesture to emissions reduction, there’ll never be any actual policy.
Where does that leave Australia? Labor now has to explain what its policy will be if it wins next year. Presumably a revamped NEG with meaningful reduction targets, not the pissant business-as-usual Abbott targets, will be the most attractive policy for the opposition. The NEG might be a literally fourth-rate policy behind a carbon price, a emission intensity scheme and a clean energy target but might garner support from Liberal moderates and business — although the record of Australian business is to whine about the lack of bipartisanship on energy policy but say nothing when Coalition denialists tear down working policy.
If the Coalition, by a miracle, remains in power, then responsibility will default to the states and territories to drive down emission, not merely in the energy sector but other areas — especially transport and agriculture. Given the states have direct responsibility for both energy and transport — contrary to the weird argument of denialists that the states should have no role in emissions reductions — the onus will be on state and territory governments to establish both meaningful reduction targets and the mechanisms for achieving them across all significant emissions reduction sectors.
If one level of government simply removes itself from a critical area of policy, then other levels have no choice but to act.