As the Turnbull government ties itself in yet more knots over the future of coal-fired power, it’s worth reflecting that climate and energy policy have been a bloody business for almost a decade now.
There was a brief period of consensus ushered in by John Howard’s belated realisation in 2006 that a price had to be put on carbon dioxide emissions. But by December 2009 the Nationals, and enough Liberals, had decided that this was a mistake, and have opposed explicit carbon pricing ever since.
The resulting policy uncertainty has caused an investment drought which has contributed to higher energy prices. Now, with prices a hot potato, there are thought bubbles about extending the life of coal-fired power stations and a new effort to set up a Conservatives for Conservation group.
But the Liberal Party’s tussles over climate and energy policy (as distinct from denying the science itself) go back even further – some 30 years.
Early days and ‘early’ action
It’s hard to believe it now, but the Liberal Party took a stronger emissions target than Labor to the 1990 Federal election. Yet green-minded voters were not persuaded, and Labor squeaked home with their support. After that episode the Liberals largely gave on courting green voters, and under new leader John Hewson the party tacked right. Ironically, considering Hewson’s climate advocacy today, back then his Fightback! policy was as silent on climate change as it was on the price of birthday cakes.
In his excellent 2007 book High and Dry, former Liberal speech writer Guy Pearse recounts how in the mid-1990s he contacted the Australian Conservation Foundation, offering to to canvass Coalition MPs to “find the most promising areas of common ground” on which to work when the party returned to government. The ACF was “enthusiastic, if a little bemused at the novelty of a Liberal wanting to work with them”. Most Liberal MPs – including future environment minister Robert Hill and future prime minister Tony Abbott – were “strongly supportive” of the idea. But others (Pearse names Eric Abetz and Peter McGauran) were “paranoid that some kind of trap was being laid”. Nothing came of it.
Elected in 1996, Howard continued the staunch hostility to the United Nations climate negotiations that his Labor predecessor Paul Keating had begun. Not all businessmen were happy. Leading up to the crucial Kyoto summit in 1997, the Sydney Morning Herald reported how a “delegation of scientists and financiers” led by Howard’s local party branch manager Robert Vincin and Liberal Party grandee Sir John Carrick lobbied the prime minister to take a more progressive approach. Howard did not bend.
Howard stayed unmoved until 2006 when, facing a perfect storm of rising public climate awareness and spiralling poll numbers, he finally relented. Earlier that year a group of businesses convened by the Australian Conservation Foundation produced a report titled The Early Case for Business Action. “Early” is debatable, given that climate change had already been a political issue since 1988, but more saliently the report tentatively suggested introducing a carbon price. And Howard finally relented.
The carbon wars
The ensuing ten years after Kevin Rudd’s defeat of Howard don’t need much recapping here (go here for all the details). But one interesting phenomenon that has emerged from the policy wreckage is the emergence of some very unusual coalitions to beg for certainty.
In 2015, in the leadup to the crucial Paris climate talks, an “unprecedented alliance” of business, union, environmental, investor and welfare groups called the Australian Climate Roundtable sprang briefly into life to make the case for action.
Then, after the seminal South Australia blackout last September, a surprisingly diverse group of industry and consumer bodies – the Australian Energy Council, Australian Industry Group, Business Council of Australia, Clean Energy Council, Energy Users Association, Energy Consumers Australia, Energy Networks Association and Energy Efficiency Council – called on federal and state energy ministers to “work together to craft a cooperative and strategic response to the transformation underway in Australia’s energy system”.
It’s in this light that the new Conservatives for Conservation lobbying effort should be seen. Its spearhead Kristina Photios surely knows she has no chance of converting the committed denialists, but she can chip away at the waverers currently giving them comfort and power.
Questions on notice
Of course, there are always cultural (or even psychological) issues, but you’d think that conservation would be a no-brainer for conservatives (the clue should be in the name).
There are a few questions, of course (with my answers in brackets).
- Where were all the people who are now calling for policy certainty back in 2011 when Tony Abbott was declaring his oath to kill off the carbon tax? (They were AWOL.)
- Will any business show any interest in building a new coal-fired power station? (No.)
- Is renewable energy technology now advanced enough for them to make serious money? (We shall see.)
- Can we make up for lost time in our emissions reductions? (No, and we have already ensured more climate misery than there would have been with genuinely early climate action.)
- Will the Liberals further water down the Clean Energy Target proposal? (Probably.)
- What will Tony Abbott say to UK climate sceptic think tank the Global Warming Policy Foundation when he gives a speech on October 6? (Who knows –
grab your popcorn!).
- What will happen to the Liberals in the medium term? (Who knows, but Michelle Grattan of this parish has some intriguing ideas.)
- Are there reasons to be cheerful? (Renewable energy journalist Ketan Joshi thinks so.)
Perhaps the last word on this issue should go to John Hewson, who noted last year:
The “right” love to speak of the debt and deficit problem as a form of “intergenerational theft”, yet they fail to see the climate challenge in the same terms, even though the consequences of failing to address it substantively, and as a matter of urgency, would dwarf that of the debt problem. The “right” is simply “wrong”. It’s political opportunism of the worst sort, and their children and grandchildren will pay the price.