Energy confusion is no circuit breaker for Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull appeared to champion renewables when he announced the Snowy Mountains 2.0 scheme. Photo: AAP

Malcolm Turnbull appeared to champion renewables when he announced the Snowy Mountains 2.0 scheme. Photo: AAP Photo: AAP

Malcolm Turnbull’s six months of dithering over energy policy is expected to end this week, possibly as soon as Tuesday.

Anything less will only reinforce the perception of a government unable to turn on the lights, let alone keep them on.

What we have seen since the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel handed down his energy policy blueprint in June is a Prime Minister in full retreat.

His embrace of Dr Finkel’s Clean Energy Target (CET) as doable, with the benefit of renewables driving down energy prices as modelled in the report, is gone.

Now, somehow, the CET is a three-word slogan invented by the Labor Party. That was the put-down proclaimed indignantly by a Prime Minister under the pump in Question Time.

Apparently the opposition, business and even his own scientific advisers don’t know how the energy market works.

Oh really? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the National Energy Market, always poorly designed, is not up to the task anyway? The consumer watchdog ACCC has spelt that out in a damning report.

Mr Turnbull is in a weakened position thanks to the scrape across the line in the election and by now suffering 21 losing Newspolls in a row.

He is unwilling to attempt a crash-through on his principles and is losing voter support as a result.

The promise is the government will produce a policy delivering affordable, reliable energy that will also meet even our feeble emission- reduction targets. At least on that, Mr Turnbull appears willing to ignore Tony Abbott’s call to renege on our international commitments.

The Prime Minister is caught in a pincer movement of climate change denialists in the Liberal and National parties.

Australian electricity

The energy crisis is reaching a critical point.

Their prescriptions are completely out of synch with the scientific and economic consensus; and with public opinion on renewables. The highest profile are the aforementioned Mr Abbott and the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

Red-faced and shouting in Parliament, Mr Joyce, a senior member of the government that stood by and allowed thousands of manufacturing jobs in the automotive industry disappear, accuses Labor of giving up on blue-collar workers.

Mr Joyce trumpets his belief in coal and says without it there will be no jobs. As if gas, renewables and storage – battery or hydro, can’t provide for our future power needs. It also ignores the greater, massive expense of replacing the ageing coal plants.

The Nationals leader doesn’t see the irony of a government now in its fifth year presiding over stagnating wages and an energy crisis talking as if he was in opposition a decade ago. Mr Joyce says the choice is between “cheap power or you can have cheap wages or no jobs”.

Just how this gives the Prime Minister any room for credible energy policy with a three-decade horizon is anyone’s guess. Though the focus is just two years away on the next election.

Then there is Mr Abbott urging the government to get into the business of itself building coal-fired power stations. Out the window is any belief in the wisdom of the market. Investors are shunning generation that promises diminishing returns if not huge losses.

What business is looking for is a solution that will survive a change of government. But Mr Turnbull’s survival in his job is edging out those concerns.

Bill Shorten says whatever the PM comes up with is a test: “Can he back what he believes in, a Clean Energy Target, or is Tony Abbott running the Liberal Party?”

Mr Abbott, meantime, says he’s ready to be drafted in the “almost impossible” situation that the Liberals would turn to him again to lead them.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

For more columns from Paul Bongiorno, click here

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