Abbott's real agenda in reigniting favourite fire

Tony Abbott is at it again, seeking to undermine Malcolm Turnbull, this week on energy policy but he will now seize any opportunity and manufacture any argument to undermine Turnbull’s leadership. So much for his integrity. So much for his commitment that he wouldn’t.

In the broad, Abbott has simply failed to accept his loss of the prime ministership to Turnbull. As time goes on, he and his cohorts in the party and the media increasingly seek to accentuate the believed “positives” (as few as there were) and ignore the “negatives” of his reign.

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Underlying Abbott’s attack on the government’s energy policy is the mistaken belief that he has credibility on climate and energy. Not only has he held more positions on climate than the Karma Sutra, but he chooses to believe his own version of history.

Accordingly, he believes that he won the leadership from Turnbull in the first place by attacking his attempts to negotiate with Rudd on the emissions trading scheme. He then won the 2013 election by opposing the “carbon tax”.

In all this he ignores the impact of issues such as “Utegate” and Godwin Grech in undermining confidence in Turnbull’s initial leadership. He also ignores the clear message of the exit polls at his election that identified the shambles of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd era as the principal reason for their loss of government. Further, he never really faces the realities of his loss to Turnbull in 2015. He says he was “robbed”, increasingly believing the dream and ignoring the reality.

Although coveting the mantle of leading conservative, he adopts a clearly socialist position on energy. Rather than rely on markets and a carbon price as the most cost effective, least regulatory policy to achieve the essential transition to a low carbon economy and society, with affordable and reliable power, Abbott opts for the government to fund and even operate new coal-fired power stations that the private sector won’t build and for government regulation of wholesale power prices.

Not only are major global banks now hesitant to fund new coal-fired power plants but AXA, a major insurer, has announced that it won’t insure any new such plants and major global asset owners (pension and super funds, sovereign wealth funds et cetera) are phasing down their coal and fossil fuel exposures.

Then, with his back to the wall, defending the “insanity” (to use his word) of this position, he relies on an aggressive assertion that Turnbull has an “ideological fixation with reducing carbon emissions”.

Emissions reductions are not about “ideology” but science. Here Abbott follows in the footsteps of his mentor, John Howard, who, a few years ago in a speech to Nigel Lawson’s climate denier group in London, resorted to “religion” in his attempt to defend his position. He claimed he "remained an agnostic” when it came to climate, preferring to rely on his “instincts”. Again, it’s not a matter of religion, but science – and not instinct, but widely agreed scientific facts.

While it should be clear that the National Energy Guarantee is the fourth best response to climate change – after an emissions trading scheme, an emissions intensity scheme and Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target – it is now the only game in town and can be made to work if, independent of the “climate wars”, the Energy Security Board is able to get on with the challenge of affordable and reliable power while achieving our Paris commitments on emissions reductions.

Much of Abbott’s case for new coal-fired power evaporates when the fallacy of his argument is exposed – namely, that unsubsidised  base-load solar thermal (or even solar PV and wind with effective storage), is cheaper than coal per kilowatt hour, with near zero emissions. He uses some emotion around renewables, Renewable Energy Target subsidies and the South Australian cyclonic experience as a distractive screen that simply doesn’t stand up against the facts.

Major global banks are now hesitant to fund new coal-fired power plants.

Photo: Brendan Esposito

At his most extreme,Abbott suggests, as he did in a speech to the same climate forum in London, that climate policies are destroying industries. “ Environmentalism has managed to combine a post-socialist instinct for big government with a post-Christian nostalgia for making sacrifices in a good cause. Primitive people once killed goats to appease the volcano gods. We’re more sophisticated now but are still sacrificing our industries and our living standards to the climate gods to little more effect”.

If industries have been “destroyed” by rapidly rising power costs, the blame should be sheeted home clearly to the Abbott-type attitudes and the irresponsible political climate wars that have only served to disrupt and delay the essential and most cost effective transition in our industrial structures. It pains me to think of how we have squandered our world-class natural endowments of sunshine and wind and the technologies for their effective development, to think of the many billions of dollars of investment and tens of thousands of jobs that have been lost over the last two to three decades.

But then, Abbott and his mates find eating crow indigestible, so they persist in an attempt to create fear and uncertainty by defending the indefensible. They are also desperate to present it as essential to delineate from Labor. In Abbott’s words: “It’s not a circle you can square with the Labor Party ... it is a fight that has to be won. There can be no consensus on climate change ... you either win or lose ... and at the moment we are losing.

This is not only complete rubbish, even excusing the mixed metaphors, but totally at odds with the expectations of the majority of voters, as consistently revealed in a variety of polls/surveys, that believe there should be bipartisanship on such an important, intergenerational issue.

One important conclusion of the most recent Lowy Survey was that “concern about climate change seems to be accelerating, and the public preference for renewables over coal has hardened, despite concerns about energy insecurity which might result from coal power station closures”.

To be specific, 59 per cent of Australians (up five points from the last poll) say “global warming is a serious problem” about which “we should begin in taking steps now, even if this involves significant costs”. Almost all Australians (84 per cent, up three points) say “the government should focus on renewables, even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable”. Only 14 per cent said “the government should focus on traditional energy sources such as coal and gas, even if the environment may suffer to some extent”.

Basically, Abbott is so completely out of touch with the electorate on climate and reliant on such “fake” news and evidence that his agenda can’t really be climate, but rather to destroy Turnbull. Enough is enough.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader with a business interest in solar thermal power.

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