It took quite a while, but the Turnbull government this week finally “landed” its package for the biggest shake up of media rules in decades.
The Senate deal was done thanks to a sprinkling of sugar for crossbenchers. Handouts for Nick Xenophon to help regional and small publishers, so he could say he was promoting “diversity”. Promises to Pauline Hanson to put some burdens on the ABC, so One Nation could brag it was chasing “the elephant in the room”.
The concessions don’t mean as much as the crossbenchers will claim, while the rule changes potentially mean a great deal. It might have seemed a tortuous process, but from the government’s point of view it has been a significant win at little cost.
If only the nation’s long-term energy policy could be “landed” as readily.
With the media changes, the industry stakeholders were united, in contrast to the vastly more complicated area of energy, as it transitions from fossil fuels to renewables, via a mixed system.
In another major difference with media policy, the most difficult negotiations on energy, at least imminently, are not with crossbenchers but within the government’s own ranks.
Just as it did in the dying days of his leadership in 2009, the coal cloud hangs darkly over Malcolm Turnbull. And once again, the Nationals are big players in the debate – and so is Tony Abbott.
But Turnbull’s own positions then and now are poles apart. In 2009, he famously championed the move to renewables, via a carbon price, which triggered his downfall. This time, bowing to the power of coal, he has increasingly become its vociferous public advocate.
When the government released the Finkel report on energy security in June, Turnbull made it clear he saw its centrepiece, a Clean Energy Target (CET), as a torch to light the path to the future.
Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s CET, with its particular focus on reducing emissions, was never going to be implemented in a pure form. Coal was always set for a larger role than Finkel would want, as Turnbull quickly made clear.
The CET debate should be seen as choosing a place on a spectrum rather than accepting or rejecting a single point. But at the start, even Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce was (sort of) on board for a CET, provided it allowed coal in.
Progressively, however, the Finkel blueprint has been pushed further and further on to the defensive.
The sharpest setback for it came last week, with the release of the report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) warning of electricity shortages in coming years. The government had commissioned the report when it became panicky about so-called “dispatchable” power – power available whenever needed to meet demand – as the consequences of the closure of Hazelwood in Victoria sank in.
Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said the AEMO report “reset the debate”. Joyce invoked John Maynard Keynes’s observation about changing his mind when he got new information – the report contained “new information”, Joyce said.
In fact the “resetting” had been creeping up well before the AEMO report. Tony Abbott, especially, had been hard at work prosecuting the case against renewables.
Abbott – who was deposed two years ago this week – currently has two campaigns running: against the CET, and in opposition to same-sex marriage. He is highly energised and said to be enjoying himself.
On Thursday he was unequivocal. “We need to get right away from talking about renewable energy targets and clean energy targets and start talking about a 100% reliable energy target, ‘cause nothing else will do”, he said on 2GB.
“I welcome these signs that we are moving away from a clean energy target to a reliable energy target,” he said. Renewables always had to have a back-up “and if there’s got be back-up you’ve got to ask the question, what useful purpose do they serve?
“Now there may well be some circumstances in which renewables in conjunction with back-up measures are economic, and if they’re economic and dependable, fair enough, but at the moment, they’re neither.”
The Nationals Matt Canavan, former resources minister who is on the backbench awaiting the citizenship case, has been a very loud voice for coal. The Nationals had the megaphone out at their weekend federal conference, calling for subsidies for renewables to be phased out.
As coal has muscled its way to the centre of the stage, we’ve seen the showdown between the government and AGL over the future of its Liddell coal-fired power station. This battle has a way to go.
At a trivial but symbolic level, there’s been the suggestion that whatever policy the government finally produces will avoid the sensitive “clean energy target” label. Maybe the focus groups are already at work on that one.
Despite the apparent mess, the government believes it can turn the energy debate to its political advantage. This is certainly the view among Nationals.
The strategy involves being seen to do a lot of things – Turnbull rehearses the check list of interventions on gas, power bills and the like – and demonising Labor’s attachment to renewables, with derision against “Blackout Bill”, “Brownout Butler” and “No Coal Joel [Fitzgibbon]”.
The government accuses Labor of selling out working class people in favour of leftist, inner city followers concerned about climate change. Turnbull is now emphasising the cost and reliability of power, with emissions reduction referred to sotto voce.
The Nationals are convinced their priority for coal will play well for them in the regions. They say it fits with the two issues that come at the top in their polling – jobs and cost of living.
When Abbott was fighting the Labor government, the carbon tax’s impact on the cost of living worked to his advantage. The question is whether power prices and cost of living can play for the Coalition when it is in office. The government and some observers argue it will.
It does seem counterintuitive. Unless the voters are very gullible, you’d think they’d judge on results not rhetoric – that is, what their power bills are looking like when they get to the ballot box.
On the other hand, the government argues that if it can assert Labor’s policies would bring even higher bills, it can gain a tactical advantage.
Regardless of what the public are thinking, it’s clear that business – the constituency critical for future investment – remains deeply unimpressed with the politicking.
Unless and until the government gets to grips with the substance of what needs to be done, the lack of a coherent energy policy will remain an indictment of the politicians and a burden on Australian families and enterprises.
This article was written by:
Michelle Grattan – [Professorial fellow, University of Canberra]
This article is part of a syndicated news program via