We are not going to linger excessively with politics, for reasons I’ll make clear in a minute, but we do need to step through Scott Morrison’s political calculations now he is gradually unspooling the government’s much telegraphed “gas-led” recovery.
I mentioned earlier in the week that Morrison needs to pilot the Coalition away from coal to a safe transit point that won’t generate a fresh war in the party room. That transit point is gas, a polluting fossil fuel that Liberals in the city can deal with so long as Morrison markets this exercise as “gas is the pathway to renewables”. That message doesn’t work in the regions, so it will be a different story there. In the regions, the Coalition will be the guardians of traditional industries, the builders of pipes and hubs, because that positioning peels blue collar votes away from Labor.
What Australia desperately needs is not more of this but a peace treaty to end the climate and energy wars. Morrison could deliver that if he chose to. He could use his internal authority to craft some sensible policy.
Because political journalism is sometimes a triumph of hope over experience, I remain hopeful that this prime minister, the self-declared miracle worker, can get there. But the problem is the Coalition has won elections by prolonging this poisonous fight, not by looking to settle.
Let me repeat my hope that Morrison is capable of doing something constructive. But what we saw this week was a Liberal leader limbering up for the next phase of the fight that he hopes will help keep Labor out of office for another election cycle.
His political calculation is gas will cause Labor as much trouble as coal caused Labor in 2019. Based on his positioning this week, Morrison wants a binary conversation, not because the binary conversation is in the national interest, but because the binary conversation is the bedrock of the Coalition’s formula for holding power.
Again, based on the positioning this week, Morrison intends to set up a message frame where his combatants in politics will either be for gas or against it, and anybody who is deemed arbitrarily to be in the “against” column will be badged an ideologue, or a fanatic.
“There are no good and bad emissions reductions,” the prime minister said this week in the lulling tone of a travelling hypnotist. “There are only emissions reductions. Emissions reductions by different means have no greater or lesser moral qualities.”
To be clear: the only person talking about the moral dimensions of emissions was the prime minister, because that language suits his framing. Granted, some environmentalists (and Kevin Rudd) have made it easier for the Coalition since the Abbott era to polarise the country on this issue by characterising climate change action in the language of religion rather than science – “great moral challenges” and all that. People need to understand if they keep doing that they are eroding their own fact-case and setting back the cause of climate action – but let’s not digress.
To summarise, the politics are simple: the “gas-led recovery” is shaping up as the latest “carbon tax”. Labor was punished for imposing a carbon tax (that wasn’t a tax) and Labor will be punished if it deviates from Morrison’s proselytising for the gas-led recovery (that may or may not be a tangible thing, because right now all the prime minister has bowled up is a plan for a plan).
They’re the rules the prime minister wants to set, and he’d be very pleased if the media following the circus would comply with these terms of engagement.
The problem with that is the rules are stupid. Here’s why they are stupid. This isn’t a football match, where you barrack for a team. This issue isn’t about tribal allegiance. Most sentient people are not for or against gas, they don’t think emissions have moral qualities. If they can find the facts, they look at them, and make rational decisions based on the evidence.
Here are the facts. This Coalition government signed Australia up to the Paris agreement. Australia has voluntarily agreed to reduce emissions. That’s Australia’s policy. Shifting from coal to gas will reduce emissions in relative terms, but shifting from coal to renewables will reduce emissions significantly faster.
The climate science tells us we need to move quickly, reduce emissions, and begin the process of adaptation. If we take the advice of experts, something we’ve become good at during the coronavirus, we need to decarbonise as quickly as possible. So rather than the binary proposition where you are either for gas or you are a sloganeering climate cultist or religious fanatic, the current weight of evidence actually points to a more complex set of propositions.
Let’s lay those out. It is possible that some gas will be required as we move from carbon intensive energy sources to renewables. Gas might be required for what’s called “firming”. If the balance of evidence points to some gas as the best approach, that’s what should happen. But as my colleague Adam Morton has pointed out, the competent crew who run Australia’s energy market point out there are less polluting firming alternatives to new gas power and they are likely to be cheaper: batteries, pumped hydro, virtual power plants and demand response programs.
Gas should not be presented by Morrison or anyone else in this debate as if there are no viable alternatives – there are alternatives.
If we cut through the politicking, and ignore the assembly line of straw men the government appears to be setting up, we can distill Morrison’s “gas-led recovery” down to two possibilities. There is a version of this plan that sees no profound harm done, and perhaps some incremental progress made, and there’s another version that sees gas baked into the domestic economy for three or four decades, with Australian taxpayers expected to subsidise the last hurrah of the fossil fuel industry.
I don’t know yet whether it will be the former or the latter, because there’s not enough evidence in the public domain to reach a considered conclusion.
It really is kind of incredible that Morrison could bowl up a set of sweeping propositions, as he did this week, ranging from taxpayers being involved in a new gas-fired power plant in New South Wales, to a Henry Hub-style LNG behemoth in Queensland, possibly with new infrastructure that the commonwealth might be involved with somehow – a “vision thing” with no modelling, no costings, no measure of the climate change impacts – and be feted in many quarters for doing it.
Now, I raised the “carbon tax” history a moment ago because that history is salient. It is branded on my consciousness forever, not only because short-term corporate self-interest and hyper-partisan politics triumphed over the interests of the Australian people, but because large sections of the Australian media allowed that to happen.
“Allowed” is probably too passive, actually. During the carbon wars, large sections of the Australian media were enablers and disseminators of outright nonsense; content to be players, or to get played. The media becomes enablers of nonsense when it passively accepts the terms of engagement set by the government of the day; when a policy issue as important as climate change and energy policy is not substance but fuel for the daily theatre criticism.
Because of the excruciating history of the last decade or so, reporters have been wired to hear the words climate, energy, or emissions reduction and then leap straight to political intrigue, or default instantly to moustache twirling punditry about who is the genius, who is about to be flattened by the genius.
I mean seriously. What a debacle. Perhaps we could twirl our collective moustaches while also getting to the substance? Perhaps we could atone for past failure by asking a bunch of questions, like what exactly is this gas plan? Who influenced it, and do they have any conflicts? How much will this cost taxpayers? How is this plan consistent with the government’s climate commitments?
What is the case for constant government intervention in energy rather than creating a coherent policy framework and letting the market decide which approach is best for the transition? One bright spark from my Canberra team mused at one point during the week that maybe governments had now moved from picking winners to picking losers. Is picking losers, and foisting the costs of stranded assets onto taxpayers, the undeclared footnotes of this gas-led recovery manifesto?
Perhaps if we do that, dive deep as well as pontificate mightily across the rip, we will be worthy of the trust of our readers.