Today is the anniversary of Malcolm Turnbull’s overthrow of Tony Abbott as leader of the Liberal Party, and his ascension as prime minister of Australia. To punctuate 12 months of false expectations, the occasion has been marked with another act of vandalism against Australia’s climate and clean energy policies.
It had been hoped that Turnbull would represent a turnaround in the debate about Australia’s role in the global efforts to control global warming, and whether Australia would be moved to seize its huge opportunity to become a renewable energy powerhouse and a leader in the inevitable clean energy transition.
But rather than taking us to the promised land – “I will not lead a party that does not take climate change as seriously as I do” – things have only got worse. Turnbull has persisted with Abbott’s deluded and deceitful Direct Action policy, and has sought to neuter two important institutions – the Climate Change Authority and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency – that had managed to escape the wrath of Abbott’s “climate change is crap” demagoguery.
The CCA – which survived Abbott courtesy of a bizarre deal with Clive Palmer and Al Gore that led to the death of the carbon price – has, since Turnbull’s coronation, been stacked with ex-Coalition MPs and sympathisers and the original architects of Direct Action, who now praise a policy that was ridiculed by the once fiercely independent authority, and described as a “con” and a “fig leaf” by Turnbull himself.
ARENA, which also managed to dodge Abbott’s toe-cutters, has instead been knee-capped by the Turnbull administration, stripped of $500 million of funding to slow down its ability to provide new competitors to the incumbent fossil fuel industry.
Turnbull’s facade was removed from the day he admitted he had agreed, at the behest of the party’s Far Right, to extend Abbott’s climate policies, and then told the world in Paris that coal is good for humanity. Labor’s veneer as self-appointed climate champions has also been severely dented by the cynicism of its factional leaders.
The story around ARENA – and Labor’s attempts to blame the content of a few NGO press releases – highlights that point and the toxic nature of climate change and clean policies in this country.
Let’s go back to March 23 and Turnbull’s announcement of his “innovation agenda” and his announcement of a Clean Energy Innovation Fund, which would appropriate $1 billion of funding already allocated to the Clean Energy Finance Corp, and drip it out over 10 years.
As RenewEconomy pointed out at the time, this was nothing more than a sleight of hand, rebadging funding to conform with Turnbull’s new innovation sloganeering, while proposing to strip ARENA of all its remaining $1.3 billion in funds, a result that would have sent hundreds of research projects, thousands of jobs and billion dollars of projects overseas, and slowed down Australia’s uptake of critical new technologies and energy business models. It would have effectively stopped innovation in it tracks.
Most NGOs didn’t seem to notice and were effusive in their support of Turnbull’s rhetoric. “Finally,” they swooned. RenewEconomy asked if they had actually read the whole press release. Some clearly hadn’t, or had not absorbed its implications, and hurried out amendments. But the damage was done.
The way Labor climate change spokesman Mark Butler puts it, the NGOs’ embrace of the Turnbull package put him in a difficult decision just as Labor was setting out is budget numbers to take to the election. How, he told RenewEconomy, could he defend the ARENA budget when all the environmental NGOs supported the move.
By urging Labor to stand up for its principals and defend the remnants of its fine Clean Energy Future package would be one suggestion.
But whether it was the cause or a pretext, Labor’s numbers people wouldn’t have a bar of it, and the party committed to stripping ARENA of $1 billion, an election policy the Coalition was only too happy to seize upon when it was returned to power.
As the Greens and everyone else point out, Labor could have saved ARENA’s entire budget. But it chose not to.
Meanwhile, Australia faces another two years of a Turnbull government dominated by its hard-right faction. How deeply the conservatives anti-renewables, do-little-or-nothing-on-climate change philosophy seeps through the Coalition ranks is made clear by Coalition positions in state elections, and the enthusiasm of Cormann and Hunt to flag cuts to the CEIF to make up for the compromise it made with Labor on ARENA. They had to row back on those comments, but the threat is clear.
And that is the problem with the toxic nature of Australia’s climate and clean energy policies. Many talk of a spirit of bi-partisanship, but so far all this has achieved is a weakening of an already inadequate policy suite – the renewable energy target has been slashed, the ARENA budget has been sliced, and the same compromise is likely to happen with emission reduction targets and mechanisms.
Bipartisanship needs to be more than reaching for the lowest common dominator, with Labor filling in cracks as the Coalition takes a wrecking ball to climate policies.
Turnbull is not the messiah. He’s just a naughty boy beholden to a conservative rump he dare not cross. And as long as that is the case, the best Australia can hope for is compromise and complacency, when leadership and vision is what is so desperately needed.