Australians have grown accustomed to seeing politicians flick the switch to vaudeville when it comes to climate change policy.
With the carbon price debate we had the threat of $100 lamb roasts, warnings that the industrial city of Whyalla would be “wiped off the map” and Labor Minister Craig Emerson’s unforgettable Skyhooks rendition in rebuttal. This year we’ve been treated to a new farce – lumps of coal being fondled in the national Parliament.
In Victoria, arguably Australia’s most progressive state, the tone of the political debate has usually been a bit more measured. After all, Victorians consistently tell pollster after pollster that they are ready and waiting for leadership on climate change and renewable energy from our politicians.
The Victorian Liberals have some strong accomplishments on the environment. They gave Victoria an Environment Protection Authority, declared Melbourne’s green wedges to give the city ‘green lungs’ and introduced our first wave of environmental protection legislation in the early 1970s.
But in recent months Matthew Guy’s Victorian Liberal Party has drifted far from its ‘conservation’ roots and gone the full Trump on climate and energy policy.
These moves threaten Victoria’s shift to a pollution-free economy, could destroy thousands of jobs in renewable energy and actually undermine the Coalition’s chance of election in a progressive state. So how extreme are Matthew Guy’s policies on climate change and energy?
On first blush, Victorian Liberal anti clean energy policies are just your garden-variety climate inaction and incoherence that we’ve unfortunately grown accustomed to from the Coalition. Over the past two years the Victorian Liberals have:
- Voted against Victoria’s Climate Change Act which sets a target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The Liberals somehow simultaneously argued that the legislation was only symbolic and without teeth, but also that it would cripple the Victorian economy.
- Voted against the first increases to brown coal mining royalties in a decade, and promised to reverse this increase if elected, making it cheaper to mine and burn coal.
- Voted against increases to Victoria’s solar feed-in tariff that ensured that households and businesses are paid a fair price for the solar power they generate.
Opposed the creation of any new National Parks, such as the proposed Great Forest National Park that would protect major carbon sinks.
But then early this year, when the federal Coalition launched their war on renewable energy, wrongly blaming wind farms for South Australia’s storm-induced blackouts, the Victorian Coalition went even further, adopting some of the most extreme anti-renewable energy policies we’ve ever seen in this country.
Firstly, they campaigned against the closure of Hazelwood and called for the state government to intervene and pay to keep the power station open, or to close it in stages.
Let’s unpack that a little. Remember it was the Victorian Liberal Party under Jeff Kennett’s leadership that privatised the State Electricity Commission. Now the party of ‘small government’ wants to deny the right of power station owners to decide that their asset is obsolete, uneconomic, or inconsistent with their business strategy to shift to clean energy? That’s a pretty forceful intrusion into the affairs of a privately owned business.
Secondly, Matthew Guy announced that not only would the Liberals oppose Victoria’s renewable energy target, they would scrap the target altogether if elected in 2018.
Victoria’s renewable energy target, requiring 1500 MW of new renewable energy projects by 2020 and 5400 MW by 2025, is set to spur $9 billion investment in regional Victoria and 4000 construction jobs at its peak. The Coalition currently hold nearly all the regional electorates where these projects will be built.
So the Liberals are planning to deny the electorates that they represent new jobs and investment?
That’s a courageous political strategy, as Yes Minister’s Humphrey Appleby would say. By scrapping the only likely investment in new power generation on the horizon the Coalition is also guaranteeing that Victorian power prices stay higher for longer following Hazelwood’s closure.
As former head of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation Oliver Yates wrote recently “all industry and electricity consumers in Victoria will benefit” from VRET. But if you want higher electricity prices, less jobs and less energy security, Matthew Guy’s your man.
Thirdly, and perhaps most bizarre of all, Matthew Guy recently promised that no coal-fired power stations would be allowed to close should he be elected Premier.
As The Australian newspaper reported in April 2017, Mr Guy said he would:
“ensure the Loy Yang and Yallourn power stations would continue burning brown coal if he became premier.”
“I will not allow our coal resources to be wasted, I will not allow such economic advantages to Victoria to be kept in the ground for the sake of ideology. We should be powering our state through the 21st century,” Mr Guy said at the Liberal Party’s state council.
Mr Guy later told reporters the party would “have a conversation” with the owners of the brown-coal plants about what kind of support they needed to stay open.
This promise, perhaps the most extreme example of climate denialism by a leader of a mainstream Australian political party, begs some fascinating questions.
How will Mr Guy prevent power stations from closing? Will he reverse previous privatisations and compulsorily acquire power stations that are considering closing? Or pass laws forbidding closure? Or pay generators billions of dollars to stay open? (Again increasing energy prices and making Victoria’s energy supply less secure through greater reliance on out-of-date, clapped out power stations.)
None of the above is clear, because the Coalition has not released an energy policy, rather they have just made a series of media statements. And they haven’t released a formal environment policy since 2006. By contrast, in that 2006 pre-election policy (prior to climate policy becoming a plaything of the far-Right) they promised to increase coal royalties and use that revenue to support renewable energy projects!
Meanwhile, the federal Coalition has started to retreat from their assault on clean energy, perhaps recognising that they had over-reached, and were out of step with the community, business and analysts who know that renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives and the fastest way to cut pollution.
The strangest thing about the Victorian Liberal Party’s new position is that clean energy enjoys enormous, broad and persistent public support. For the past two years, published polls – even in conservative electorates – have shown levels of support for wind and solar power above 70 percent.
Recent research commissioned by Sustainability Victoria found 84 percent of Victorians support the state renewable energy target. Against this backdrop, Matthew Guy’s call to repeal it and prop up ageing coal power stations looks not so much populist as unpopulist – a message targeted at an ever-shrinking clutch of rusted-on ideologues. It’s poor public policy and a very odd election strategy.
Victoria can be the world leader that we so desperately need on climate change. The shift to clean energy is inevitable and underway. But at the moment, Opposition Leader Matthew Guy’s climate policy amounts to little more than a thought bubble about keeping coal power stations polluting forever.
The Liberal Party that gifted Victoria the EPA, our beloved ‘green wedges’ and the first wave of environmental protections can and should do much better.
Mark Wakeham is CEO of Environment Victoria, one of Australia’s leading environment organisations.