MUNGO MacCALLUM. Tony Abbott is winning and Peter Dutton is paying hush-money.

Jun 20, 2017

Chief Scientists Alan Finkel’s report on energy is not yet dead, buried and cremated, but Abbott and his gang of avid colliers have already left it struggling on life support. 

Abbott has never believed in climate change – after all, in an unguarded moment he said the science was crap. There have been times when he has found it expedient to give the manifest evidence of its existence lip service, to dole out token acknowledgements in the form of renewable energy targets and what he laughably called Direct Action to combat global warming, but he was always happier – and far more convincing – when he was blaming Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and the rest of them for seeking to impose a great big tax on everything,

So now, unleashed, he is preparing for a reprise: science is crap, partisan politics rule. Abolish the reduction emission target forget about the Paris Agreement, and above all, no tax on coal. And as a result any prospect of sensible compromise or bipartisanship on the issue is, at best, highly unlikely.

Bill Shorten may or may not have been sincere about his offer of an olive branch to Malcolm Turnbull; his shadow environment minister Mark Butler seemed keen to use Finkel as a base on which Labor could build its own policy in government (which he appears to think will come sooner rather than later). But after the backlash within his own party room (which had not even attempted to read the report) our fearless Prime Minister decided that bluster was the better part of survival and went on to blame Labor for everything, effectively severing any serious negotiation that just might have been possible.

Finkel himself was suggesting a form of compromise: he was prepared to ignore the market solution of some sort of a price on carbon, and he accepted the unambitious 26-28 per cent emissions reduction target for 2030. But even to achieve this, he postulated a level of subsidy for energy providers which would exclude coal – even the very best, the most futuristic, coal fired plants would not make the cut, in the improbable event that any were to be built in Australia – or just about anywhere else, for that matter.

Finkel’s proposition was pretty wishy-washy to begin with; but by the time Abbott and his troops have finished with it will have to be diluted to homeopathic proportions before it can even be considered. For Labor, the Greens (and indeed any other rational participant) – there is just no point. Which leaves us perilously close to the business as usual model which Turnbull and his Energy (and, as an afterthought, Environment) Minister Josh Frydenberg assure us is unacceptable. So the decade of climate wars will continue, with the well-cashed up miners and their supporters in the coalition providing an effective veto to progress.

Their devotion to coal may be perverse, and it often looks more like antipathy to its opponents than an energy policy, but it has become their unswerving ideology and has spilled into other areas – Adani, obviously, but also truly bizarre suggestions like the demand by George Christensen that the government should buy and commission a couple of new coal powered plants itself, at the privileged price of – well, several billion, but who cares, it’s only taxpayers money.

And speaking of taxpayers’ money, the other big news of the week was Peter Dutton and his dysfunctional department paying out $70 million to asylum seekers and another $20 million to their lawyers for – well, for what? Dutton says he was absolutely confident about defending charges of negligence and loss of liberty on Manus island and anywhere else.

Also he is not responsible because it is Papua New Guinea’s jurisdiction and of course it was all Labor’s fault anyway. But he is concerned to save money because if he didn’t pay up it would involve funding a legal case which, if he won, would cost a lot less than the sum he has just paid out. Dutton and his heavily politicised bureaucrats can’t even get their own lies straight anymore.

The point, as just about every commentator made clear, was that Dutton was raiding the Treasury for hush money: what was important was aborting the coming legal hearing, which would have given the asylum seekers a public platform the government has consistently denied them. Silence is golden and gold is silence.

If the victims are allowed to exercise their right to free speech the whole shaky edifice of off-shore detention might collapse, and that would mean the floodgates would open, our borders would collapse, the terrorists, drug dealers and disease carriers politicians have been warning us about for most of a generation would flood our lucky country.

And to an extent it seems to be working: numerous readers of The Australian have laid into not Dutton and his government but the asylum seekers, whom, they aver, are illegals (they are not), living in the lack of luxury on their tropical island paradise. But the $90 million may be only a down payment; if Dutton is prepared to pay protection money, there must be more to come.  As with energy policy, Turnbull and his troops may be hanging on with their well-chewed fingernails, but sooner or later they will have to make a serious decision.

Sooner or later but not yet. There is still time for a little fun and frivolity. Turnbull pulled off a couple of great gags last week: one, of course, was his piss-take of The Donald, for which he has been subjected to a merciless beat up by the demented right.

But the other, which they have generally applauded, was his surely satirical idea that, as part of the never-ending blitz on the suspicion of terrorism, he will legislate to make patriotism mandatory. A few years ago there was outrage that thuggish bigots would demand anyone of non-European origin must kiss a grubby version of the Australian flag or get beaten up. Now it is to become government policy – the latest version of stopping the boats. Such is the nonsense to which Turnbull has been reduced. Tony Abbott is winning.

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