Vale Malcolm Turnbull: Man who saw the future and feigned to stop it

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Malcolm Turnbull once said Australia had “every resource available … to meet the challenge of climate change except for one: and that is leadership.” We are still waiting.

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(AAP Image/Fairfax Pool, Alex Ellinghausen)
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Well, he sure had me fooled. And many others.

I’m really embarrassed to admit this, but when Christine Milne resigned as leader of The Greens, I (half jokingly) Tweeted that maybe they should pick then Liberal back-bencher Malcolm Turnbull to replace her. Apologies to the excellent Richard di Natale, Milne, the Greens and everyone else.

What inspired me to suggest something like that? Like many others, I had been seduced by the idea that Turnbull offered a path of intelligent, informed debate about the most intractable policy issue gripping the country – emissions and energy. And was capable of Doing Something.

There had even been talk that Turnbull might lead a new party of “centrists” focused around climate and energy. Why not team with the Greens, who had worked with Labor to bring about the best climate policy the country has had – the Clean Energy Plan that included the carbon price, the CEFC, ARENA and the Climate Authority.

After all, we had heard Turnbull speak at the launch of the Beyond Zero Emissions 100 per cent renewable energy plan in 2010.

“This is a fantastic piece of work,” Turnbull said, agreeing that electricity had to be zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. (You can find the speech here or watch the video below.)

“Sometimes the task of responding to the challenge of climate change may seem too great, too daunting. It is a profound moral challenge, because it is a cross generational challenge. We are asking our own generation to make decisions; to make sacrifices, to make expenditures today so as to safeguard our children, their children and the generations that come after them. It truly requires us to think as a species, not just to think as individuals.”

Just months before he regained the leadership of the Liberal Party, and became prime minister, Turnbull visited the Tesla electric car manufacturing plant in California where he raved about his test drive of a Model S and about new technologies and the energy revolution on Facebook.

“Batteries have the potential to revolutionise the energy market, reducing peaking power requirements, optimising grid utilisation of renewables and in some cases enabling consumers to go off the grid altogether. The excitement of technology in the Bay Area is exhilarating…..but not quite as palpable as the jolt you feel when you hit the accelerator!”

Turnbull even had his home in Pt Piper equipped with those very technologies of the future – he became a “load defector” with a big solar array and a fair whack of battery storage, a monitoring device that gave him minute by minute updates on his smart phone, but no EV to our knowledge.

But having enthused about the future, and embracing it in his private life, Turnbull abandoned it from nearly the very moment he got what he really wanted – and unseated his nemesis Tony Abbott in September 2015 and achieved his dream of becoming prime minister.

As we wrote just two days into his tenure:

“It is pretty clear from the first two days of Malcolm Turnbull’s prime-ministership that the new man is full of good ideas and longer sentences, but finds himself completely constrained from putting these into policy changes.

“The man who, for so long, has derided Tony Abbott’s Direct Action and called for substantial efforts in cutting emissions finds himself singing the praises of the current policy. He’s been forced to do the same on same-sex marriage.

“The reason is simple. Turnbull only got voted in because he made certain promises to the right wing of the party who booted him out six years earlier because he supported an emissions trading scheme.”

That deal with the right wing prevented Turnbull from moving when he might have had the numbers. He went to Paris, and signed, along with 195 other nations, but did not venture far. By the time he was re-elected in 2016, it was with the barest one-seat majority.

As he admitted this week, he allowed that wafer thin margin to intimidate him from doing what he had promised – to lead.

But that claim  – “you don’t appreciate the forces i am up against I have heard from various energy ministers” – is a cop out. Turnbull seemed perfectly happy to play along with the dark forces on the right, seizing on the blackout in South Australia to demonise renewables and mock the batteries he had praised so highly just a year earlier.

We did get to see the leather jacket usually associated with his more progressive ideas again, albeit fleetingly, this time with his advocacy of his pet project, the Snowy 2.0 hydro scheme.

We saw a glimmer of hope – he spoke of the need of “dispatchability” rather than “baseload” – but it quickly became clear that this was not about fast-tracking renewables at all, simply reinforcing the primacy of the existing system.

Indeed, Turnbull in his farewell speech on Friday said Snowy 2.0 would be the biggest renewable energy generator in the country. If it goes ahead, and that must now be a big if, it actually won’t be anything of the sort, particularly if Australia’s generation fleet remains dominated by coal.

It is, however, ironic that Turnbull’s three-year reign did at least see the largest investment in renewable energy this country has and will likely ever witness. Had Abbott stayed, he would likely have continued to chip away at the renewable energy target he had tried to destroy and prevent the construction of the turbines he hated.

It is this investment in renewables that has so enraged the right wing politicians and the commentariat, who were doubly annoyed that Turnbull did not go the full Trump and drag Australia out of the Paris climate treaty. He actually ratified it the day after Trump was elected.

Is Turnbull at least proud of this investment boom in wind and solar? Not at all, it seems.

“It was a big mistake”, he said this week. Little surprise then that the policy that finally got him into trouble, the National Energy Guarantee, was promising, as its greatest virtue, to deliver no new investment in wind and solar for nearly a decade.

Even that was not good enough for the “insurgents” that pulled him down. As he noted in that exit speech:  “I think the truth is that the coalition finds it very hard to get agreement on anything to do with emissions.”

So Turnbull departs the scene and Australia is reeling after five years of a Coalition government – with no policy to deal with its rising emissions and conservatives quite likely to seek an exit from the Paris agreement, and bring an immediate end to renewable subsidies.

The Liberal Party chose between hard-line conservative Peter Dutton and Scott “Scoal-Mo” Morrison, the man who waved a lump of coal thoughtfully lacquered by the Minerals Council in parliament, and who decried the Tesla big battery as little more use than the Big Banana. Morrison won.

There is no one on the conservative side of politics who can, or will, say the obvious: that Australia can reduce its emissions and can reduce its prices, all the while maintaining system security. And you do that by embracing the clean energy transition and managing the future.

Let’s not imagine that Turnbull is to blame all by himself. Australia has been poorly served by a succession of fools who have led the Nationals, and had senior positions in the ministry and the back-bench. From Abbott to Hockey, through to Joyce, Abetz, Kelly, and the list goes on.

People who read, believe and repeat the most atrocious nonsense about renewables and coal, and who leave Australia in a catastrophic position of grappling with climate change, locking in coal-fired generation and facing ever rising power bills.

But here is the epitaph, and it’s best written by Turnbull himself – the opening lines of his speech to the Wheeler Centre in 2010.

“We live in a continent that is uniquely challenged by climate change. We live in a dry continent that is becoming drier, and hotter, in the Southern part where most of the population lives – and we have witnessed that. We have seen the last decade, the hottest decade on record; the next hottest was the one before that, the next hottest, the one before that. Climate change is real, it is affecting us now, and it is having a particularly severe impact on Australia.

“And yet, right now, we have every resource available to us to meet the challenge of climate change except for one: and that is leadership.”

And he wasn’t able to provide it. His own popularity rating remained high because there was a lingering hope that the man with the leather jacket would somehow return.

It didn’t. Holding on to power was too important. He finally showed some fight, and some tactical nouse, in his last 24 hours – but only to save his job, and to successfully prevent the right wing forces succeeding him. It was not to prosecute the case for the subjects he had said he had held so dear.

In the end, he stayed in power for 2 years and 365 days. A day longer than Whitlam, but without that man’s leadership, vision or dignity.

What’s the betting he now buys a Tesla?

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