“It all starts as a bit of a fairytale,” the chief scientist, Alan Finkel told a room full of renewable energy types in Canberra this week. “Once upon a time there was an independent review into the national energy market.”
Finkel did conduct that review at the behest of Malcolm Turnbull and the states when the objective was to fix the problems that have cascaded through the energy market since Tony Abbott opposed Labor’s carbon price to win an election.
The chief scientist proposed a clean energy target as the fix. Abbott and the deep feelings brigade inside the Coalition didn’t like it. It wouldn’t fly, so Turnbull and the energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, retreated and regrouped. They then got officials to produce the national energy guarantee, hoping that would work, given the Neg mechanism dealt with both reliability and emissions reduction, and that might subdue some of the conservative opposition.
But the deep feelings brigade didn’t like that either, and we all saw what happened next. Now let’s make our way back to Finkel, talking to mildly punch-drunk renewable energy types, in a small function room in the parliament this week.
Once Finkel moves on from being chief scientist, someone should give him a diplomatic posting, because he has been stoic in the face of a rolling cluster cuss, fronting up with a placid expression and some polite words of encouragement at every stage of the derangement in an effort to endorse the government’s underlying objective, which is to fix a serious problem.
Finkel was polite again this week, given the absurdity of being in a room with a new federal energy minister lacking any riding instructions to say anything apart from exchanging pleasantries; still no solution to an important problem; and the prime minister who asked him to help fix the mess now in exile in New York, out of office, and messing with the minds of the people who deposed him.
The chief scientist was talking about hydrogen at an annual showcase organised by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. He’s put together a strategy for energy ministers on hydrogen in the event that our elected representatives are still capable of serving the national interest. Dare to dream, Alan. Go, you good thing.
Finkel spoke about the excitement that was building in energy circles about the potential for hydrogen to be “the last piece of the jigsaw” in the inexorable energy transition. He spoke about Japan, a country that was “determined to decarbonise, unlike some other countries …” – a droll little aside that returned a sardonic laugh in the room – “and meet its 2030 commitments”.
Japan, like Australia, was a fossil-fuel heavy economy, but lacked some of the natural advantages of a country like Australia, with its abundant sunshine, and thin population. Japan, Finkel said, “was crying out for a zero-emissions alternative” and Australia had an opportunity to “capture the export market” and develop domestic opportunities as well.
A moment had arrived, in other words, in Australia’s national story. But to make this all happen, government would need to step up to the plate. Finkel told the room he’d given a presentation to energy ministers at the last Coag energy council meeting – the one that kept the Neg alive but put it on life support.
They were enthusiastic, he said. “Ministers, asking for a strategy,” Finkel said, deadpan, again, to a ripple of sardonic laughter in the room. “Think about this, a great thing.”
Finkel’s gentle homily gives you some insight into the resting disposition around Australia’s energy sector, which you might describe as gallows humour. The Coalition has plunged the country into an almighty mess, and there is no obvious way the mess can be fixed.
It really is dire.
Because of the civil war inside the Coalition that has delivered three party leaders in two terms, the Morrison government has parked the medium-term approach to solving the problems, which a sector such as energy, with generation assets with 30-year operating lives, requires.
Morrison and the new energy minister, Angus Taylor, are currently fixated on conjuring up a short-term fix they can offer voters before the election – a noticeable reduction in power prices – never mind the obvious point that having a medium term roadmap would help deliver your short-term objective.
Then there’s the climate imperative. The government can’t talk about emissions reduction except to offer a talking point that Australia will meet its Paris climate commitments “in a canter”.
This is nonsense, because there are no policies to deliver the commitment. As the conservative MP Craig Kelly asked in a meeting of the backbench energy committee this week – what am I supposed to say when people ask me how we’ll meet the Paris target? Good question Craig. Very acute.
The government is being hit with precisely that question, because it’s the obvious question to ask, and the answer appears to be “technology” (not clear what technology or why anyone would invest in it, given the cluster cuss); “the emissions reduction fund” (which is a creaking vestige of Abbott-era pretend climate action policies that the government chose not to top up in last year’s budget, and Josh Frydenberg, the new treasurer, is giving no commitment to funding in the future); and the vibe.
Right at the moment, the Morrison government has nothing to say to voters on emissions reduction. Unless this changes, this will be the first time in my reporting lifetime where a party of government goes to an election minus a concrete emissions reduction policy. Even Abbott, who campaigned on revoking Labor’s policy, coughed up a fig leaf called Direct Action.
Perhaps the new environment minister, Melissa Price, will have the wit to conjure up an emissions reduction policy that doesn’t actually reduce emissions, to give Morrison something to say when he has to face the voters, but I’m not hopeful, because the Neg was a policy that in practice would have reduced emissions in the electricity sector by 2% between 2012 and 2030, and the feelings brigade couldn’t even stomach that.
So where does this leave us? Of course voters care about lower prices, and many would rank lowering their power bills well ahead of emissions reduction. But the omission on cutting pollution, if it persists, won’t be cost-free for the Coalition.
The country is in the grip of a crippling drought. When the country was last in the grip of a crippling drought, and the Coalition was in a weak political position, on the brink of losing an election, John Howard (that would be the same prime minister who refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol) supported an emissions trading scheme because it became politically impossible to do anything else.
The data tells us emissions are rising, and basic logic tells you they will go on rising as long as there’s no plan to curb them. Some long-term survey research released this week also suggests two things: Australians are more worried about climate change than they were 12 months ago, and regional voters – the ones the Morrison government is currently most worried about leaking to populist political disrupters or community-minded independents – are less inclined than they once were to consider climate science a hoax.
Call me crazy, but I think the government might need a plan.