CHRIS KENNY Killing sea­son on the cards

Watch out, Malcolm: many a leader has fallen in the run-up to Christ­mas

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER -

For most of us, the Christ­mas break is so close we can al­most smell the food. For Malcolm Turn­bull, it is a sanc­tu­ary al­most within reach but with mor­tal dan­gers loom­ing in between.

Pic­ture the Prime Min­is­ter as a wilde­beest in a David At­ten­bor­ough doc­u­men­tary, try­ing to cross a croc­o­dile-in­fested river. If he can wade through the muddy wa­ters there will be a mo­ment of re­lief on the far bank be­fore he car­ries on, scouting the sa­vanna for lions and hyena.

Can­berra’s killing sea­son is upon us again. Reg­u­lar as the mon­soon rains, the fi­nal par­lia­men­tary sit­tings of late spring and early sum­mer have a habit of culling wounded lead­ers. Ask Si­mon Crean, Kim Bea­z­ley or Turn­bull him­self, cut down by Tony Ab­bott in De­cem­ber 2009.

There is much about the cur­rent cli­mate that is redo­lent of 2009. They couldn’t do it again, could they?

This is the rhetor­i­cal ques­tion be­ing posed in ex­as­per­a­tion within po­lit­i­cal cir­cles right now — not only by jour­nal­ists and on­look­ers but by the Coali­tion play­ers them­selves as they pon­der what to do about their seem­ingly in­tractable predica­ment of poli­cies, per­son­al­i­ties, polls and paral­y­sis.

Cli­mate and en­ergy pol­icy, once more, is the cat­a­lyst. Like the sum­mer heat, this is a con­stant vex­a­tion since 2007, when cli­mate change in a time of drought helped end John Howard’s ca­reer be­fore it played a role in Bren­dan Nel­son’s demise, saw Turn­bull dragged down, pre­cip­i­tated Kevin Rudd’s down­fall and en­abled Ab­bott to de­stroy Ju­lia Gil­lard be­fore tri­umph­ing over Rudd.

Now Turn­bull tries to match the global diplo­matic con­sen­sus on car­bon emis­sions re­duc­tion tar­gets with a long-term pol­icy that can con­tain elec­tric­ity prices and ap­pease his par­ty­room and the Coali­tion voter base. Just like 2009.

Ab­bott rails against the zeit­geist with a scep­ti­cal and in­tel­li­gent cri­tique of an ap­proach that can do sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic harm with­out pro­vid­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits. Just like 2009.

La­bor dom­i­nates in the polls, smug with cli­mate virtue and preach­ing clean, green poli­cies with less of an eye for eco­nomic con­se­quences than for stir­ring Coali­tion di­vi­sions. Just like 2009.

There are also im­por­tant dif­fer­ences. Some of the in­ten­sity has gone out of cli­mate alarmism; Tim Flan­nery’s pre­dic­tions of dry dams and end­less sum­mer are now a run­ning joke af­ter rivers filled and de­sali­na­tion plants be­came ex­pen­sive white ele­phants.

The decade brought ad­mis­sions of a pause in global tem­per­a­ture rises, con­tro­versy over the tem­per­a­ture records and an eas­ing in some of the lan­guage and fore­casts through the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change even while it firmed the thrust of the sci­ence and trends.

And we have seen the con­se­quences of do­mes­tic cli­mate poli­cies. Not on the planet — most peo­ple now re­alise that with Aus- tralia ac­count­ing for only 1.3 per cent of global emis­sions our ef­forts can pay no en­vi­ron­men­tal div­i­dend — but on the elec­tric­ity sec­tor. We have seen the fu­ture and it is South Aus­tralia.

That state’s 50 per cent re­new­able en­ergy share has re­sulted in an over-re­liance on in­ter­state power lead­ing to a statewide black­out, sup­ply short­ages and the most ex­pen­sive elec­tric­ity in the world.

The ar­gu­ment now made force­fully by Ab­bott — de­spite al­most uni­ver­sally de­cep­tive mock­ery from the ABC, Can­berra press gallery and wider me­dia/po­lit­i­cal class — is stark and in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­con­testable: our cli­mate poli­cies have de­liv­ered eco­nomic harm that will only get worse and they have not (and can­not) de­liver dis­cernible en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fit, there­fore we should pay less at­ten­tion to emis­sions tar­gets and fo­cus on en­ergy costs and se­cu­rity.

The blame for this mess is shared by Ab­bott, Turn­bull and La­bor. For a decade the hotly con­tested ar­gu­ments fo­cused on emis­sions trad­ing, car­bon taxes, di­rect ac­tion and clean en­ergy tar­gets while the real dam­age was be­ing done by the widely sup­ported re­new­able en­ergy tar­get.

Un­til now the RET has been a po­lit­i­cally easy method to meet re­duc­tions tar­gets in a pop­u­lar fash­ion — the abate­ment of least re­sis­tance. Both sides of pol­i­tics were blind to the dis­tor­tions of this mar­ket in­ter­ven­tion un­til it was too late.

In­ter­mit­tent gen­er­a­tors were never obliged to pro­vide back-up for when the wind didn’t blow or the sun didn’t shine. Yet they were en­cour­aged to sup­ply the grid with power at low or even zero cost, pric­ing coal-fired and gas­fired gen­er­a­tors out of the mar­ket.

The rise of re­new­ables meant we needed more rapid-re­sponse gas-fired back-up gen­er­a­tion but those sup­pli­ers couldn’t lock in gas con­tracts when on any given day their out­put might be un­der­cut by wind gen­er­a­tion. The re­new­ables are given guar­an­teed re­turns but carry none of the risk.

Now, most of the gas has been con­tracted off­shore, coal-fired baseload power is shut­ting down and no one in their right mind would in­vest in new ther­mal plants or up­grades.

It is a dis­as­ter. An en­ergy-rich na­tion — a lead­ing en­ergy ex­porter — now has ex­pen­sive elec­tric­ity and is in short sup­ply.

If ever there were time for Ab­bott’s pol­icy mes­sage, it is now. Turn­bull is crab-walk­ing to­wards some kind of com­pro­mise po­si­tion that recog­nises the higher pri­or­ity of price and se­cu­rity but still de­liv­ers the Paris emis­sions re­duc­tions com­mit­ments.

Even Chief Sci­en­tist Alan Finkel has made clear that emis­sions tar­gets nec­es­sar­ily will cut across price and sup­ply goals. You can’t have it all.

If the Prime Min­is­ter and his En­ergy Min­is­ter, Josh Fry­den­berg, de­liver a pol­icy that some­how picks a sweet spot and re­tains a strong point of dif­fer­ence with La­bor’s omi­nously am­bi­tious plan to take the whole coun­try down the road to SA, then Turn­bull will see Christ­mas and beyond. But the po­ten­tial for fail­ure or dis­mal dis­ap­point­ment is im­mense.

All the while other is­sues bub­ble along: the GST carve-up de­bate, gay mar­riage im­ple­men­ta­tion and the fall­out from the dual cit­i­zen­ship sham­bles. Croc­o­diles are ev­ery­where and there is a lot of river to cross.

The hys­ter­i­cal re­sponse to Ab­bott’s Lon­don speech this week shows how ir­ra­tional the cli­mate de­bate has be­come. Jour­nal­ists and politi­cians pre­tend there has been a fun­da­men­tal shift from the for­mer prime min­is­ter on the is­sue whereas, for all the pol­icy mis­steps and repo­si­tion­ing by all play­ers, Ab­bott’s ac­cep­tance that cli­mate change is “real” and that hu­mans have an im­pact, but that pol­icy re­sponses have of­ten been overegged, is one of the few con­sis­tent strands across the decade.

At his urg­ing, Coali­tion pol­icy is re­vert­ing strongly to­wards this po­si­tion af­ter a flir­ta­tion with a clean en­ergy tar­get. The ques­tion is whether Turn­bull can con­vinc­ingly pros­e­cute the ar­gu­ment and, if there were to be an­other lead­er­ship con­fla­gra­tion, whether Ab­bott could be a con­tender in a re­play of the Rudd-Gil­lard-Rudd re­gur­gi­ta­tion.

Any­thing can hap­pen and it would be fool­ish to rule out Ab­bott. The govern­ment is drift­ing down­stream. It saw how Turn­bull cam­paigned last time. If events con­spire to cause an­other spill, the par­ty­room will want some­one who can ex­pose La­bor and save seats.

La­bor is most vul­ner­a­ble on the same is­sues that hurt it in 2013: fis­cal plans, border weak­ness and cli­mate evan­ge­lism. Can you think of any­one in Coali­tion ranks who can take up the fight to Bill Shorten on those is­sues?

Much is made of Turn­bull’s self-im­posed met­ric of 30 Newspolls — the num­ber Ab­bott trailed in be­fore Turn­bull top­pled him. The Prime Min­is­ter has now lost 20 on the trot.

Tal­ly­ing the pe­riod be­hind in the polls, rather than count­ing the in­di­vid­ual polls, brings the records closer to­gether. Ab­bott trailed for 16 months be­fore be­ing brought down; Turn­bull has been be­hind for 13 months.

An ugly sea­son ap­proaches. It is less than three months un­til Christ­mas.

Tony Ab­bott rails against the zeit­geist with a scep­ti­cal and in­tel­li­gent cri­tique of an ap­proach that can do sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic harm with­out pro­vid­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits. Just like 2009

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