Pro-coal ‘Monash Forum’ may do little but blacken name of revered Australian

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Aim of Monash Forum may be to ensure renewable energy wins slowly enough that coal can earn one last payday.

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The Conversation

The coal industry has a new voice in parliament, in the form of the so-called Monash Forum – an informal government faction featuring former prime minister Tony Abbott and backbench energy committee chair Craig Kelly.

The group, which also reportedly contains former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce alongside as many as 11 of his Nationals colleagues, is agitating for the government to go beyond its current energy policy and build a taxpayer-funded coal power station.

As several commentators have pointed out, the move is a calculated push by the usual backbench suspects to put pressure on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, two weeks ahead of crucial talks with state and territory leaders over the design of the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).

Perversely, the Monash Forum’s members want the NEG to prove its “technology neutral” credentials by including coal as well as renewables.

And let’s not forget that the NEG policy was cooked up when it became clear that Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target was unpalatable to Coalition MPs (but not economists).

What’s in a name?

In choosing to form a group like this, opponents of action on climate change are trying to give themselves gravitas, in three possible ways.

First and foremost, they are aiming for the “halo effect” of taking a known public figure and claiming some of his (and it’s usually a he) intellectual cachet. First and foremost here are groups named after scientific figures.

In 2000, a group of climate deniers, including the late Ray Evans and former Labor finance minister Peter Walsh, set up the grandly named Lavoisier Group to undermine progress towards Australian ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and a domestic emissions trading scheme.

Economist John Quiggin probably said it best when he wrote that the group was “devoted to the proposition that basic principles of physics discovered by, among others, the famous French scientist Antoine Lavoisier, cease to apply when they come into conflict with the interests of the Australian coal industry”.

Then in 2011, opponents of Julia Gillard’s carbon pricing scheme created the Galileo Movement – casting themselves, like their Renaissance namesake, as heroic dissidents to an unthinking orthodoxy.

The second aim is to create a name that implies a stolid, no-nonsense approach to policy. One example is the now defunct Tasman Institute, which was an influential voice against climate action and in favour of electricity privatisation in the 1990s.

The third tactic takes this approach a step further, by creating a name that sounds impartial or even pro-environmental, thus obfuscating the group’s true intent, which is to stymie climate policy.

Previous examples include the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, the Global Climate Coalition, the Australian Climate Science Coalition, and the Australian Environment Foundation, launched in 2005 to the chagrin of the existing Australian Conservation Foundation.

The Monash Forum – with its implied connotations of nation-building and high-minded political debate – is perhaps trying to achieve all three of these goals, this time from within parliament itself rather than the surrounding policy development bubble.

Monash on the march

For the younger readers among us, John Monash was arguably Australia’s most revered soldier, described by British war historian AJP Taylor as “the only general of creative originality produced by the First World War”.

The Monash Forum’s founders also hark back to his role in helping kick-start the exploitation of Victoria’s enormous brown coal reserves in the 1920s.

But the Returned and Services League is not impressed that this former serviceman has been pressed into political service, declaring that “Monash’s name is sacrosanct and should be above this form of political posturing”.

What’s more, the name is bound to create confusion over whether it is affiliated in some way with Monash University (it isn’t), and there will doubtless be some unhappy faces at the Economic Society of Australia’s ESA Monash Forum (which is).

Will coal really make a comeback?

In seeking to deliver new coal-fired power stations, the new Monash Forum is attempting to mine a seam that has already been extensively excavated.

The Minerals Council of Australia, which [merged with the Australian Coal Association in 2013], has been trying for years to kickstart public support for coal.

Who could forget the “Australians for Coal” and “Little Black Rock” campaigns, or last year’s “Coal: Making the future possible”?

But the council’s latest energy and climate policy statement refers to coal only once, prompting headlines that it has gone cold on coal. BHP has considered quitting the council over its pugnacious stance, while Rio Tinto is selling off Australian coal assets.

The mining lobby may soon have to recalibrate its priorities – lithium, anyone?

The problem for coal’s proponents is that most Australians are keen to see the back of it. The promised global wave of “High Efficiency, Low Emission” coal plants has failed to materialise.

And stunts such as Treasurer Scott Morrison waving a lump of coal in parliament are derided by a public who are far more energised by the prospect of renewables.

When he was prime minister, Abbott tried to sabotage investment in large-scale renewables so as to keep the way clear for fossil fuels.

But tellingly, he left subsidies for rooftop solar panels largely untouched, presumably realising that voters saw renewable energy as sensible and viable, on a small scale at least.

The problem for advocates of renewables, and climate action more broadly, is that winning slowly on climate change is the same as losing, as Bill McKibben noted last year.

Perhaps that is the ultimate aim of the Monash Forum and those who share its goals. Renewable energy may win in the end, but it will win slowly enough that coal can earn one last payday.

Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

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9 Comments
  1. Chris Fraser 2 years ago

    Abbott could put a generator on his stationary bike and get a FiT. Such a waste …

    • Joe 2 years ago

      …is that FiT or Fitbit ?

    • David Osmond 2 years ago

      At a steady 100W, it would take him about 10 hrs to generate a kWh, and then he could collect the 10-15c most solar exports get.

  2. Joe 2 years ago

    The Monash Forum dudes can go and burn in hell….the burning powered by their ‘Little Black Wonder Rock’ of course.

  3. Ken Dyer 2 years ago

    Definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Unfortunately this applies to the Monash Forum members.

  4. Ren Stimpy 2 years ago

    The worst thing about this is the involvement of Abetz. As a Senator his duty is to the people of Tasmania. No new coal power station (so-called “HELE”) could possibly use brown coal, so any federal subsidy for a new coal power plant would be of absolutely no benefit or use to Tasmanians. He should be talking up new Tasmanian wind farms which would reduce power prices for Tasmanians, allow their dams to restock, and create some great power export opportunities to the mainland over the Basslink.

    • RobertO 2 years ago

      Hi Ren Stimpy, they want to use a brown coal HELE setup at Hazelwood Power Station site. Supercritical brown coal is 960 Kg/MWhr (from the DR Finkel Report page 203 lists all power station types of CO2 production. Wind Solar and Hydro all get a Zero amount).
      Some people have zero understanding that Wind and Hydro are really good at complementing each other, and if they decide to build a second Basslink (Battery of the Nation idea) they will need to add some 2.5 GW wind to work in with the existing hydro, and maybe a third Basslink if they add more (note that some people think small and local is the only way to go) but an 800 Kv system has a lot less resistance to transmission losses and if through the offshore Islands we could also lose some Diesel fuel electrical gereration.

      • Ren Stimpy 2 years ago

        960 Kg/MWhr can’t be classed as low emissions. The efficiency factor would also be questionable in trying to burn that moisture filled lignite gunk. LEHE is a more appropriate acronym.

  5. Robert Comerford 2 years ago

    Talk about a bunch of people with no moral character…. using an honoured Australian name to shore up their troglodyte offerings.

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