MUNGO MACCALLUM. With Turnbull, hope is all we’ve got.

Sep 19, 2017

Malcolm Turnbull is doing something about the energy crisis he has manufactured.

Or at least he is trying to do something about it. Or perhaps he is actually just talking – well, screaming and ranting — about trying to do something about it.

But the details don’t really matter. The point is that there is lots of sound and movement, suggesting action even if there isn’t any yet. And it has to be said that much of the noise is incoherent to the point of absurdity, especially when it is aimed (as almost all of it is) as the endless iniquity of Bill Shorten – “Blackout Bill,” as Turnbull still contrives to name him in contravention of parliamentary standing orders.

Shorten, we are told, is the most left wing leader the Labor Party has had in decades – a destroyer of free enterprise, a revolutionary socialist. But he is also a sycophant who sucks up to billionaires like Turnbull’s friend Richard Pratt and the confidant and protector of AGL boss Andy Vesey, whom, Turnbull assures us, is not only a rapacious capitalist but an American (although AGL is undeniably an Australian company).

This is bizarre enough, but when it compares to Turnbull’s own muddled stance – the free enterprise champion who embraces government intervention to the point of considering nationalising a vital part of the economy and resists any move to implement the certainty that private industry craves – the argument becomes pure gobbledegook.

And this is ignoring the two years of constant tergiversations, backflips and capitulations that have characterised our glorious leader’s regime. There is not much credibility for an exhausted electorate to cling to.

But under the constant uproar, here are a couple of hints that perhaps, just perhaps, there is the possibility that something might actually happen – not immediately, but in time for the next election.

Turnbull boasts that the wholesale price of gas has gone down a bit, which is true. Whether this translates into the bills sent out by retail customers in another matter; even if the providers of electricity do not simply trouser the bonus profit, they may choose to absorb it in the next round of increases which have already been foreshadowed.

But there is, perhaps, a glimmer of sunlight. Customers may or may not be waiting at the mailbox for the promised letter from the power companies telling them – some of them, anyway – that they may be entitled a somewhat better deal than they have received in the past.

But again, the gains may well disappear as costs remorselessly rise. And in any case, the letter is not due until Christmas. And a week after that, there could be legislation to restrict gas exports to secure domestic supply. At least there could be if the responsible minister, Matt Canavan, does not get rubbed out by the High Court before he can make a declaration to that effect. But there will always be another minister, and, presumably, another promise.

And that was the substance, flimsy as it is, which comprises the last week of parliament before a recess, hugely welcome to the participants who will now have time to draw breath before the next Newspoll – number 20 since the government, or more vitally Turnbull, fell behind Labor and stuck there.

As previously noted, a couple of weeks without the Prime Minister abusing the opposition may actually improve the figures a point or two, if Turnbull can be persuaded to immure himself in a darkened room with a wet towel over his head, and just shut up and think of the nation for a few minutes rather than immediate political advantage – which has demonstrably not working.

But if there is a long term strategy to abandon all logic or consistency in the hope of crushing Shorten it must resume, redoubled, in the months ahead: negativity, slogans and above all uproar must prevail.

And somehow in the mix there will have to be a response to the key finding of the chief scientist, Alan Finkel, on the status of the renewable energy target – or not, if the denialists of the reactionary wing of the coalition and their media propagandists have their way.

But even if they accept a token figure which will permit taxpayers’ money to be wasted on new coal fired plants, that will not solve anything in the time frame Turnbull so desperately needs. To repeat, the vital ingredient is certainty, a policy that investors can be reasonably assured will stick for a decade or so, and that means, first and foremost, bipartisanship – a compromise program on which the coalition (including the nationals) and Labor can agree.

But it is clear that Turnbull and his advisors have decided that such commonsense is out of the question; Abbott-like aggression, no-holds-barred, bare knuckle fighting, all attack and no defence is the go. It might work – in a sense, it worked for Abbott. But that was a long time ago and in a very different context. Coming from Turnbull, it is not just unnatural, but utterly unconvincing.

There is still time to draw back, to reconnect with reality. There was a moment of rationality last week from the Health Minister, Greg Hunt – the previous Minister for the Environment who sold out Turnbull’s original climate change agenda when he embraced Abbott’s nonsensical direct action plan, which both he and Turnbull have slavishly followed ever since.

But maybe he is not beyond redemption. In a swingeing defence of vaccination in the dying moments of question time, he laid into the anti-vaxxers, reviling them as anti-science. So it could be that science has not been totally banished from the coalition party room. And in that case, who knows – Turnbull could yet manufacture some kind of sensible energy policy.

It seemed pretty unlikely last week – charity has obviously gone, and there is little or no faith remaining in our prime minister. So all that is left is hope. There isn’t much of that either, but let’s face it, it’s all we’ve got.


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