MUNGO MacCALLUM. An energy emergency after ten years!

Sep 13, 2017

Malcolm Turnbull assures us that he is concentrating on energy and its three pillars – cost, security and environment. Well, at least the first two; it must be said that the environment has not had much of a look in during the last frenzied week.  

The Prime Minister has now discovered an energy emergency – a crisis; after ten years of buggering about, from the time he was rolled as leader after proclaiming that he did not want to be the leader that was not serious about climate change, over the foundering careers of three prime ministers and his own politically crippled resurrection, something absolutely has to be done.

But precisely what? It appears that apart from abusing Bill Shorten for everything, the answer is as elusive ever. Everyone except Tony Abbott and his recalcitrant rump agrees that the cornerstone has to be certainty, and that means settling on a renewable energy target – or, if the flat earthers prevail, rejecting it entirely.

Obviously this would be crazy on every level, most importantly that of economics, but at least we would know where we stand. Turnbull is not about to surrender his dwindling principles completely – at least not yet. But apart from lashing the big energy producers with a fly whisk and musing about the joys of Hydro 2.0, in the unlikely event that he lives to see it constructed, he is not offering much else.

The absurd row over the timeline of closing the clapped-out Liddell power station in the Hunter is typical of the distractions and red herrings he is waving to avoid the melancholy fact that quick fixes will not work and it is too late for long-term ones to kick in in time for the next election.

The idea that somehow keeping Liddell chugging along for another five years past its use-by date will somehow avert blackouts after 2022, when it is due to close, is too silly for anyone except the coal fetishists in his party room and the Murdoch press to contemplate seriously.

For starts, the energy regulator says that immediate problems are in Victoria and South Australia; Liddell is irrelevant now and when it ceases operation there will be plenty of time for New South Wales for top up with, you guessed it, renewables. But this is a purely practical, engineering, consideration, the outcomes Turnbull says he favours.

The real argument is pure ideology, and all the sign are that Turnbull is preparing, yet again, to succumb to the rent seekers and fanatics determined to frustrate science, economics and common sense to buy more time for something to turn up.

He has rejected Bill Shorten’s overtures for an end to the climate wars, for a compromise over the renewable target which would still allow the construction of new coal fired power stations, in the extremely unlikely possibility that anyone would be silly enough to want to invest in one.

This is partly because it has become reflex to attack everything and anything Shorten says in the mistaken belief that it shows Turnbull to be strong Prime Minister, but it is also because he simply does not know what to do with his restive troops.

The far right, of course, is utterly intransigent: if the hypocritical proprietors of the AGL, the firm that runs Liddell, refuse to keep it running, someone else – anyone else – must do so in the sacred name of coal. It would be nice if another sucker could be found to take it over, and perhaps our sturdy free enterprise government might like to throw in a large pot of taxpayers money to big it up a bit for a quick sale, but if not, then why not go the whole socialist hog – make the government buy the whole bloody thing and keep it going forever.

Even the normally insouciant treasurer, Scott Morrison, a noted coal aficionado himself, has made demurring noises at that one, but, as The Australian insists, the time for political purity is over: this is about the survival of the government, so there can be no limit to the contradictions, absurdities, and rank opportunism need to keep Shorten away from the Lodge.

Reports suggest that Turnbull’s strategists, for want of a better name for them, believe it is working; there is confusion and bluster, but the voters still cling to the belief that Turnbull has a plan – or at least, he has a better hint of one than Shorten.

And they may even be right: like Turnbull, Shorten has produced a lot of waffle on the subject, but not much on the way of genuine direction beyond the constant reiteration of the need for an RET or the equivalent and a demand that the government act to secure domestic gas supplies from the rapacious exporters.

This proposal for government intervention is at least consistent with a centre-left agenda, but it is also one Turnbull has threatened (but not implemented) for some time. It might help, but it is essentially a band aid rather than a solution. However, the way the government is bleeding to death, even a band aid would be a help.

This is a case where Turnbull may be well advised to act rather than simply jaw bone his way out of trouble. So far, jaw boning has not helped but there is no sign that it is going to cease.

Insofar as he has an idea , our agile, nimble innovator is proposing (in five years time) to take over an old coal fired power plant which the owners are planning to discard as obsolete, or perhaps start building a new one which no private entrepreneur is prepared to fund. And this, he claims, is based on economics and engineering, not ideology. Seldom has there been a more blatant scam.

Well over a century ago Albert Einstein astonished the world by revealing that energy could be the product of mass and the speed of light squared: E=mc2. Now our Prime Minister has reworked the equation: Energy equals Malcolm and coal, squared away.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist from the Canberra Press Gallery.

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