Whenever I think my job is too hard and I need to retrain as a florist, I think of the poor officials who have served during the climate and energy policy wars – smart people held hostage by a public policy atrocity.
In July 2018 – when Malcolm Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg were attempting to land the national energy guarantee (Neg), wedged uncomfortably between post-truth rightwingers and state governments increasingly annoyed about being conscripted to an omnishambles – the Energy Security Board (ESB) ran out of patience.
Perhaps you haven’t heard of the ESB. This particular expert group was formed in August 2017 to implement the recommendations of a review of the national electricity market undertaken by the chief scientist, Alan Finkel.
The Finkel review hit political turbulence about a nanosecond after it hit the public domain because the chief scientist recommended a clean energy target as one of the policy mechanisms to drive the necessary transition to low emissions in Australia’s power grid.
Faced with a brewing leadership proxy war, Turnbull and Frydenberg regrouped quickly with the ESB and proposed the Neg instead. Because renewables were involved, this was a thought crime. Tony Abbott and fellow mumbo-jumbo enthusiasts declared they would cross the floor and sink it.
If you’ve forgotten the Neg, that policy would have imposed two obligations on energy retailers: an obligation to supply sufficient quantities of “reliable” power to the market and reduce emissions over the decade between 2020 and 2030.
This was Turnbull and Frydenberg’s effort to create some policy certainty to facilitate investment in new power generation. Assurance was becoming an absolute imperative, given aging coal generation was on the way out, but there weren’t clear rules of the road governing what should replace it.
Several stakeholders moaned about the Neg because it was a distance short of perfect. What Australia actually needed to manage an orderly transition in the economy generally and the power grid specifically was the carbon price Abbott pretended was an economy-destroying tax to win the 2013 election. But the Liberals lost the opportunity of implementing optimal policy options when they joined Abbott’s “axe the tax” cult. A party of government in Australia chose to staple itself to stupid.
By July 2018, the real-world debacle created by Abbott’s weaponized lying was hiding in plain sight, and ESB officials were not mincing words. The board egged state and territory energy ministers to accept the Neg, even though the emissions reduction target (a 26% cut in electricity emissions by 2030) was obviously too low. The ESB pointed out it could be ratcheted up or down the track.
Then the officials appealed to Turnbull and Frydenberg. They didn’t because those two were already on board. Their overture was actually to the right faction of the Liberal party.
In a report written to be released publicly, the ESB said: “Fifteen years of climate policy instability has impeded long-term investments in the national electricity market, and this has compromised system security and reliability”.
This policy instability had “impacted electricity prices and added to affordability problems for consumers”. The ESB said Australia’s energy system was now “vulnerable to escalating prices while being less reliable and secure”.
Because the Liberal and National parties had failed to be rational actors focused on the public interest, “increased market intervention has been necessary to maintain the security and reliability of the system, and this has further distorted price signals to producers and consumers”.
“In short, the uncertainty about climate change policy has severely damaged the electricity industry and its household and business consumers,” the ESB officials said.
“This cannot continue”.
But of course, it did continue.
The shenanigans escalated.
Turnbull was dumped, along with the Neg. Frydenberg survived the car crash and was promoted to Treasury. The right faction of the Liberal party was handed the climate and energy portfolio, so Scott Morrison didn’t need to look over his shoulder.
Angus Taylor became the new minister and promptly created a new cult of “technology, not taxes”. The Coalition continued to talk a big game while meddling relentlessly and ineptly at the margins. Over the past few weeks, Australians have been reminded that the national electricity grid is chalked up with discarded wads of talking points and held together with rubber bands and gaffer tape.
Given all this – the prospect of blackouts, heaters off, lights out in the middle of winter – you’d think the Liberal party might finally recover from its self-administered lobotomy. A reasonable person might also speculate that the loss of Wentworth, North Sydney, Mackellar, Kooyong, Goldstein, Curtin, Bennelong, Higgins, and Ryan in the electoral rout on 21 May might trigger some internal reckoning.
Peter Dutton is doubling down.
Without pausing to have a conversation with his still shell-shocked party room colleagues about whether the decade of wrecking might now come to an end, Dutton has made a captain’s call to oppose Labor’s emission target of 43% by 2030 and keep raving about how renewables are destroying the national electricity market while preaching the 2GB gospel that solar power is useless at midnight.
On the plus side, at least Dutton isn’t sneaky. The new Liberal party leader is generally very transparent, and his political calculations right at the moment are as obvious as the nose on his face.
Dutton thinks events will help bring the new Albanese government undone. Dutton says he can summon a cost-of-living shitstorm from rising prices and any blackouts on Labor’s watch. He thinks he can associate the current turbulence and the spasm in the hip pocket nerve with Labor’s 43% emissions reduction target.
In the event he’s not able to land his preferred strategy – either because circumstances don’t facilitate it or because the new Liberal leader lacks the requisite suppleness and sparkle to be able to sell Australian voters yet another truckload of bollocks – he and the team might look at pursuing something approximately sensible-adjacent on climate and energy policy closer to the next election.
I suspect we are supposed to be grateful for this: this hint of sunny uplands, the suggestion wrecking, will ebb the moment it ceases to be politically useful.
Now I suspect several readers will message me over the weekend, declaring they don’t care what Dutton says or does and scold me for watching. I know I’ll be told Labor has a majority in the House and can start to repair some of the Coalition’s climate and energy destruction with a progressive Senate.
This is true enough. But with respect, canceling Dutton is not only impossible, but it also misses a central point. Dutton is the alternative prime minister of Australia.
Labor wants to fix the mess; Anthony Albanese intends to end the destructive decade. When the prime minister says he wants to end the climate wars, that’s what he means. He wants to reset the whole apparatus, reaching back to pre-Abbott politics. The success of that project is something we all have a stake in. If Albanese succeeds, he will strengthen Australia’s democracy.
Ending the destructive decade ia far more ambitious than fixing many practical problems. However wicked those problems might be b, itequires the other government party to aspire for something nobler than lying, scheming, and brawling their way to the Lodge.
Australian voters have sent the Liberal party a very clear message, and by drifting away from the major parties, voters are also choosing new political representation that is more local, community-based, and consensual.
Dutton is very silly if he misses the cue.