South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill was in a pugnacious mood at the launch of Climate Wars, the new book by Labor’s shadow climate minister Mark Butler, and let fly at the ‘rightwing f***wits’ (his words) that were keen to use any event to attack renewables.
Butler’s book (reviewed here and the subject of our podcast here) starts with an anecdote about a concert in Adelaide earlier this year, when the lights suddenly went out, and that is where Weatherill started as well. The English singer Adele announced a ‘blackout’ had occurred.
Weatherill admitted that his heart was in his mouth, and joked that treasurer and energy minister Tom Koutsantonis had “fainted in the corporate box” until Adele quickly explained that a roadie had unplugged the wrong cord. The lights were soon back on.
That didn’t stop ‘right-wing f***wits” from seeking to take advantage of the situation. He took particular aim at The Austraian commentator Chris Kenny, who had been sending tweets proclaiming another blackout.
September 2016 – five hours that changed Australian Energy Policy
Weatherill also talked in detail about the September 2016 “system black” that has kick-started an extraordinary process in policy-making, including the Finkel Review, the Musk tweets and South Australia’s energy plan.
Weatherill explained that since State Parliament had its own generator, he had only found out about the system black after being alerted by Koutsantonis telling him ‘we’re black’.
Weatherill took particular aim at Senator Nick Xenophon for spreading fear that “people will die” and that the “lights might be out for five days.”
He also was at pains to explain that while he had contacted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull the same evening, Turnbull didn’t reply for two weeks, but instead lectured South Australia on its ‘irresponsible’ renewables policy.
Almost a year later, Weatherill is still clearly angered by this – he pointed to the fact that Turnbull had an Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) report on his desk that clearly explained that the blackout was not due to renewables, but because the transmission towers had been blown over by high winds.
Turnbull not a fit Prime Minister
Weatherill then turned to hatred of renewables, the love of coal and the vested interest that sit behind that.
He lamented what he called Turnbull’s “Pauline conversion”, an ‘extraordinary change’ from a man who had said he would not lead a party that was not as committed to climate action as he was to one ‘completely capitulated to the rightwing of his party’.
Weatherill said that for this reason alone, let alone others, Turnbull had disqualified himself as being a fit prime minister, and had played politics while South Australians were stuck in lifts, and stuck in the dark.
Weatherill, to cheers, said he would remind Turnbull of this ‘the next time I’m stood next to him’ (a reference to the infamous Weatherill/Frydenburg stoush in Adelaide earlier this year).
Weatherill said that after the blackout the government could have capitulated, but instead decided to pursue what he knew to the right policy both environmental and economic reasons, and that he was proud South Australia had.
He then turned to the events of February 8th 2017, arguing that opponents of renewables were poised to strike. Although South Australia had the newest gas-fired power station, its owners had chosen ‘for financial reasons to stay shut’.
On the following day, New South Wales had had a load-shedding event, which thwarted the efforts at ridiculing South Australia.
‘The most extraordinary political period’
What happened next was what Weatherill called the most extraordinary period in his political life. ‘We got up and said’ we’ll take charge, not knowing quite what that meant.
“We went from laughing stock to leader in six weeks, with support in the state, nationally and internationally.’
‘There could not be a more important issue, at the state, national or planetary level,” Weatherill said.
Weatherill is, of, course talking his own book, and faces a stiff election challenge next March. If the letters page of the only daily newspaper, the Murdoch-owned Advertiser, is anything to go by, it will be an uphill battle.
Marc Hudson is a PhD candidate at University of Manchester