The political establishment really, really hates the Greens
The two mainstream political groupings – the Coalition and Labor – agreed on one thing in the first week of the campaign: both claim to hate the Greens, and deep down both are terrified, and in the case of Labor envious of the Greens ability to match science with policy, particularly when it comes to climate change.
Neither Labor nor the Coalition said they would “deal” with the Greens in the event of a hung parliament. Of course, such promises mean nothing in the event that either party had the opportunity to form a minority government, and it may be that the number of independents might make any grand coalition quite complicated.
Federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg, trying heroically to stop the shift from a fossil fuel economy to what Malcolm Turnbull calls the “new economy”, said the Greens were “anathema to everything we stand for.” Labor got in on the action by saying that under no circumstances would they do a deal, while Anthony Albanese pilloried his Greens rival as “old fashioned and extreme”.
The Murdoch media obviously can’t stomach the Greens, either. Andrew Bolt declared them to be “horrible,” while the The Daily Tele launched a campaign to “Save Our Albo,” who is one of several Labor MPs facing big challenges from Greens in inner-city electorates.
The media find minority government difficult to deal with, because it means they have to focus on policy rather than politics, but they might have to get used to it. They find the Greens difficult to deal with too, even though their climate and energy policies are part of the mainstream political discourse overseas, despite being labelled “extreme” in Australia.
The polls predict a dead heat, which means two things: Either Labor get in and need the help of the Greens to pass legislation, or Turnbull gets in and needs the approval of the far right and the Coalition’s own leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, to pass new laws. And he will still have to deal with the Greens and the Xenophons in the Senate.
If Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Hunt were gymnasts they would have to invent new moves to fully describe the calisthenics they employ when defending the undefendable – their climate and clean energy policy. Turnbull, the man who enthusiastically endorsed a 100 per cent renewable energy target by 2030 just six years ago did a conventional double twist with pike when describing Labor’s 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030 as “extraordinarily high”, and then pretended that Australia would be wrong to “lead the world” further than it is already doing on emission reductions. On current policy settings, only Saudi Arabia will have worse per capita emissions by 2030.
Hunt, though, was in fine form, earning a perfect 10 by rejecting Labor’s newly adopted emissions reduction strategy – based around the Coalition’s plan of attack – as another great big electricity tax. Hunt even dared brandish an independent report as “proof” that Direct Action was working. But as we pointed out on Monday, and as other media followed on Thursday, that report pre-supposes climate policies that are not yet enacted, such as a baseline and credit emissions scheme, built around energy intensity. That just happens to be Labor’s new policy, and the basis of a new recommendation from the Climate Change Authority, including Hunt’s hand-picked advisors, that was conveniently shelved until after the campaign is finished. So Hunt is demonising the very policy he is likely to adopt. But as a former debating champion, he is used to that.
One down, four to go
The last coal-fired generator in South Australia, the Northern power station, closed on Monday, leaving just four large brown coal generators in the Latrobe Valley to close down. Hunt may vaunt Direct Action and the success of the Emissions Reduction Fund, but Australia’s emissions in the electricity sector are growing fast, up 5.7 per cent since the carbon price was trashed.
The future of brown coal promises to be a tricky one for both major parties. AGL, which wants to keep its brown coal generator running until 2048, now agrees that its competitors need to be “helped” out of the market with payments to assist with closure costs. Origin Energy, which owns no brown coal generators, thinks that is rubbish, and the market should be left to its own devices.
One interesting aspect of the Northern closure is that some of the gas generators that will fill in the gaps are nearly as emissions intensive as some black coal generators. Hallett and Mintaro, for instance, have emission intensities as high as 1 tonne of CO2 equivalent per megawatt hour. So much for gas being the “clean transition fuel”.
Lack of energy vision
The departure of the last coal generator coincided with the release of the final version of the Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle. It recommends establishing a major dump for spent fuels in Australia, and also wants Australia to roll back laws against nuclear generation, despite concluding that in South Australia there is no place for nuclear at the moment, due to its size and cost.
One of the absent themes of the election campaign is that Australia currently has no long-term energy policy. Its renewables policy ends in 3.5 years, its energy white paper does not even consider climate targets agreed in Paris, and the Coalition is still spruiking coal. If either party did have any energy vision, they would be committing to solar thermal in South Australia, not just talking vague plans for funding support down the track.
The nuclear and coal lobbies – whose interests are usually intertwined due to their shared reliance on centralised generation models and their hatred of renewables – will be watching with interest what happens in South Australia, but in its first four days of coal-free local generation, the lights didn’t go out, the price of electricity did not soar, and the state exported more power than it imported.
Interestingly, business groups expressed their support for nuclear, but its most prominent advocate, the Liberal Senator Sean Edwards, got bumped down the South Australian candidate list and may struggle to hold his Senate spot.
Highs and lows of energy generation
These graphs from the Melbourne Energy Institute illustrate some interesting points. The first shows the share of local generation, with a windy week seeing more than half of local generation coming from its 1,500MW of wind turbines.
Pricing was also cheap, with South Australian prices constantly below those of Queensland, for instance, which has to rely more heavily on gas generation now that it needs more capacity to meet demand from its LNG export terminals, and because it has so little large-scale renewable energy.
Tasmania discovered the benefits of being fossil-free this month. Welcome rainfalls saw it first turning off diesel generators, allowing the price of wholesale electricity to slump from nearly $300/MWh to just over $100/MWh, and when it switched off the gas generator – returning to 100 per cent renewable electricity – the price of electricity slumped further to around $40/MWh. For periods on Friday morning, it fell to zero.
South Australia will continue to witness such fluctuations, falling to negative prices when wind is plentiful and jumping higher when more gas is required. We’ll have more analysis on these points on Monday.
Giles Parkinson is a journalist of 30 years experience, a former Business Editor and Deputy Editor of the Financial Review, a columnist for The Bulletin magazine and The Australian, and the former editor of Climate Spectator.