NSW merges energy and environment portfolios, puts Matt Kean in charge

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Former innovation minister Matt Kean appointed minister for the newly combined energy and environment portfolio in the re-elected Berejiklian government.

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The re-elected New South Wales Coalition government unveiled a fresh cabinet line-up over the weekend, including the appointment of former innovation minister Matt Kean as minister for the newly combined energy and environment portfolio.

Kean, who was re-elected in the seat of Hornsby, in Sydney’s Upper North Shore and Northern Suburbs, is described as leader of the moderate faction of the NSW Liberals. He replaces Don Harwin as minister for energy, and Gabrielle Upton on environment.

And while Kean is yet to comment on his new role, his appointment – and the merging of energy and environment – appear to have been well received in both party circles and by green groups in the state.

The changes come just one week after the Berejiklian was returned to government in its own right, in a state election that revolved heavily around issues of climate change and renewable energy.

As Giles Parkinson noted here, Berejiklian’s Coalition government ran a cautious campaign on these issues, refusing to be drawn in to any commitment for a build-out of large-scale wind or solar, but also careful not to say too much about coal.

Interestingly, where the LNP did lose ground in the state appeared to be in electorates previously held by the National Party, which is increasingly becoming defined by its close ties to the mining industry and its attachment to coal.

NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian, when asked about the rationale behind combining the portfolios of energy and environment, said the move made “perfect sense,” before returning to Coalition’s favourite “reliable and affordable power” mantra.

“We have two priorities when it comes to energy and the environment,” Berejiklian told reporters, at a press conference on the cabinet reshuffle.

“Firstly, it’s obviously to secure our energy moving forward – the lights stay on. But secondly, is to keep pressure downwards on household budgets.”

But according to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hannam, the changing of the guard in energy, and the combination of the two portfolios, were signs of a more focused and ambitious Berejiklian government, on climate and renewables.

“The environment was a huge issue, climate change was a huge issue” in the recent election, Hannam quoted a government source as saying. “We cannot keep our heads in the sand on these issues.”

Outgoing energy minister Don Harwin will be remembered, meanwhile, for making fine speeches on the need and scale of the energy transition, and for standing up to his federal counterparts on key policy issues, but not for fast-tracking the uptake of renewables – to the frustration of many in the industry.

NSW remains the only state without a renewables target. However, it also faces the most dramatic transition because most of its coal generators are due to retire in the next 10-15 years. Harwin was mostly focused on looking at transmission issues, without actually announcing a concrete plan.

In an op-ed in the Australian Financial Review in December last year, Harwin called the Morrison government “out of touch on energy and climate policy,” and said this was preventing new investment and the reduction of electricity prices.

“We need to end the ‘climate wars’ and put science, economics and engineering ahead of ideology,” Harwin wrote.

“That’s why NSW wants a sensible emissions policy to be embedded in the National Electricity Law, outside the high drama of the ‘Canberra bubble’.”

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