Australia faces a stark choice in the September 14 federal election. But even from this distance, it seems the best hope for the Australian clean energy industry – and for efforts to tackle climate change and effecting the inevitable transition to a low carbon economy – lies in yet another hung parliament.
Such a prospect would be anathema to the politicians, the pundits and the media, who have struggled to cope with the dynamics of a minority government these past two and a half years; and to those in the ruling Labor Party who have found power sharing difficult to stomach; and to those in the Coalition who came so agonizingly close, yet so far.
The final policy packages have yet to be presented to the electorate, and the poll would likely be mostly fought on other issues, but what we know so far is pretty clear: the Coalition is not going to deliver on climate or clean energy. It has been content to wrap itself in the Tea Party-dominated Republican politics on both issues.
Tony Abbott made that much clear earlier this week: he seeks to mock the science rather than to respond to it, his policies are geared to favour the incumbents and ignore the opportunities of new technologies. A large part of his policy package is focused around his fantasy “green army” – possibly redolent of the peasant-led anti-Bolshevik movement in Russia nearly a century ago – but in this case consigned to collecting litter from median strips and planting trees.
The Labor Party is much more engaged. But however the likes of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and particularly the Climate Change Minister Greg Combet and his offsider Mark Dreyfus, have prosecuted the case for climate action, the carbon price and energy efficiency, does anyone believe this would have been allowed to happen to the same extent if Labor held a majority in its own right in 2010?
The reforms they have ushered in are profound, but it was the condition and product of a deal with the Greens and the independents. The ability of Labor to hold and expand that course of action is uncertain if it governs in its own right, because the internal politics are muddied. Joel Fitzgibbon betrayed the simmering tensions with this outburst late last year.
Fitzgibbon is one very frustrated chief government whip and one very frustrated faction leader. The biggest impact of minority government and the deal cut with the independents and the greens has been the effective neutering of factional politics, at least in regard to climate and clean energy. To the political apparatchiks, it has been akin to castration. And they are still screaming.
But let’s go into further detail. Abbott’s mini campaign launch in a western Sydney marginal electorate last weekend, and his efforts to put on a “positive” image proved to be an appalling spectacle for anyone engaged in climate change and clean energy issues.
Take this one quote.”Just think of how much hotter it might have been the other day but for the carbon tax!” In the context of the heat-waves, the bushfires and the floods, and the extreme weather events around the world, it is an extraordinary remark. And it was not off the cuff, it was written into Abbott’s prepared speech and displayed proudly on the party website. It reveals he has barely moved beyond the “science is crap” remark of a few years ago – hardly surprising given that he owes his role to a cabal of climate sceptics that still surround him, and is advised by business people from the same school.
The Coalition’s policy position – scrap the carbon tax, scrap the Climate Change Authority, scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corp, scrap even the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency – is simply untenable. It is wrecking ball politics. Even if the Coalition could meet a 5 per cent emission reduction target without a blowout in costs, it does not have a plan to respond to the science.
It’s not even clear where the Coalition stands on the renewable energy target, but past form suggests it would be willing to bow to pressure from the utilities, and generators, and the conservative state governments of Queensland and NSW, who are going to try to sell network and generation assets, and who all have so much to lose from the growing penetration of wind and solar.
So, is the answer Labor governing in its own right? To this, proponents of clean energy need to ask the same series of questions: Would the policy measures and institutions deemed so crucial – the carbon price, the RET, the CEFC, the CCA – have been created or resisted the intense lobbying? There is no doubt that Gillard senses that the mood of the electorate is changing on climate, and she recognises its importance, but that does not necessarily extend beyond survival politics.
That leaves the Greens, and the independents. The position of the Greens is clear. It is to respond to the science, to push for the most ambitious emission reductions possible, a highest penetration of renewables. It is a position that is constantly branded as extreme, but it is entirely consistent with the conclusions of the International Energy Agency, the United Nations, the World Bank, any number of reputable international economists (including our own Ross Garnaut), the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, and dozens of industrial leaders and analysts – even the clubby World Economic Forum in Davos.
In just the last week, we have seen these concerns and policy positions expressed among a broader range of professionals: The Institute of Actuaries has warned that pension funds may be worthless within 20 years, HSBC has warned of the serious market risk of a carbon bubble, UBS has chronicled how solar PV and battery storage will deliver an inevitable revolution in the world’s energy market, at the expense of the incumbents.
Unlocking the investment required for the transition requires the participation of the private sector – which is why you encourage market-based schemes. A policy cocktail of direct government handouts and working bees – as the Coalition proposes – simply doesn’t do it. Labor kind of gets this, but requires the influence of the Greens and like-minded independents such as Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to make sure they stay on track.
It should be remembered that this hung parliament has been able to deliver an extraordinary amount of legislation. It does work, even if it does not conform to stereotype. Sadly, with 226 days to go till the election, the polls tells us that there is little chance of a repeat – even if a Yale study concluded, hopefully, that progressive climate change politicies can win votes. One can only hope.