I feel like politics is becoming increasingly bizarre, where nothing is ever as it seems and I am unsure which if any of the presented “sides” I am on. This is true for the latest leadership challenge spectacle now occuring in Australian politics. By the time you read this, we will know whether Peter Dutton has been successful in challenging Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership of the conservative Liberal/National government.
My inbox is flooded with hysterical campaign emails (from the Labor and Greens parties, GetUp!, and various environmental NGOs) begging for donations and suchlike, by trying to scare me about how Dutton will take Australia “to the hard right”. They tend to compare Dutton challenge to Brexit and Trump. I doubt Dutton is as important as Brexit or Trump, but either way I’m nowhere near as afraid of Dutton as I’m being told to be (nor am I as frightened of Brexit and Trump as most left-wingers are, but that’s another blog post).
Sure, Dutton is scary. He apparently wants to obliterate what little is left of Australian climate policy after the damage done by his precedessors. He was once caught joking to Tony Abbott that “Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door”, which to me suggests he understands full well that climate change is real and doesn’t care. But it’s not like Dutton could make things much worse than they already are.
It has also not escaped my attention that, in contrast to past leadership spills in which the business lobby has usually supported the challenger and their proposed policies, this time the business lobby has come out swinging against the investment-damaging “instability”. But there can be no political stability until the big problems like climate change are solved, which can only occur against the will of the business lobby. What scares me most is the status quo.
Turnbull vs Dutton
By coincidence, the previous run of my blog petered out around the time that Turnbull successfully challenged his predecessor Tony Abbott. It’s worth remembering that at the time many environmentalists, left-wingers, and casual observers supported Turnbull, believing he would stand by his previously stated conviction to climate action. I argued against that consensus, often finding myself the only Turnbull critic in a room full of Turnbull fans. I pointed out Turnbull had never supported any climate policy that wasn’t friendly to the fossil fuel industry, and even if he had the best intentions he would have to pander to his less green colleagues and to the big corporations who appear to pretty much run the world.
Three years later, I think it’s fair to say my prediction has been vindicated. The Turnbull government’s climate and energy policy has gone through a confusing series of incarnations – from an “Emissions Reduction Fund”, to an “Emissions Intensity Scheme”, to a “Clean Energy Target”, to the current “National Energy Guarantee” (NEG). Each has been a different variant of slush fund for big polluters (funny how the Liberals’ “free market” principle doesn’t apply to big business).
The “National Energy Guarantee” is supposedly designed to address an alleged crisis of power price rises and blackouts. In reality, it is fossil fuels that will get ever more expensive as the fuels become more difficult to cheaply extract from the Earth; renewable energy prices are actually coming down. Electricity price rises are occuring mainly because of price gouging by the energy companies, who are gaming Australia’s complex partially-privatized oligopolistic electricity grid. As for blackouts, they are rare and generally caused by inflexible fossil fuel generators being unable to cope with sudden demand spikes in heatwaves which, ironically, are increasing due to climate change. In any case, the government and mainstream media have sold the NEG as a compromise balancing the important priority of addressing the fake energy crisis against the preservation of the planet we all depend on.
The NEG requires a certain amount of “dispatchable” energy to be ready to go at any time, and before this week it included an emissions criterion ostensibly consistent with Australia’s useless target under the Paris Agreement, 26% below 2005 by 2030. In reality, the government’s own modeling shows the NEG is intended to lock in no change from 2021-2030:
The NEG is not only worse than nothing as a climate policy, but one might wonder how this lack of change is even supposed to reduce electricity prices. Indeed, leaked modeling showed that most of the projected electricity price reductions would come from the renewable energy installed before 2021 to meet the Renewable Energy Target, in spite of the NEG!
For a moment it looked like this fraud of a policy might pass with the support of Labor, finally delivering the wonderful “stable bipartisan moderate compromise” we’ve had dangled in front of our noses for the past decade, to be opposed only by the Greens and the far-right faction of the government. Fortunately, there has been a revolt from both extremes of politics. The Greens, the renewable energy lobby, and various petitions from the public have successfully persuaded the Labor states to oppose the NEG, while the conservatives within Turnbull’s party have continued to insist it doesn’t go far enough.
During the leadership turmoil this week, Turnbull removed the emissions criterion from the NEG legislation. Now the NEG is aimed entirely at energy reliability and will underwrite new “dispatchable” power plants without regard for their emissions – and “dispatchable” appears to be a codeword for coal. Although Treasurer Scott Morrison claims the tender process will be “technology neutral”, National Party deputy leader Bridget McKenzie said at a recent press conference: “I am not afraid to say the c-word, coal, coal, coal. It’s going to be one of those areas that we are going to invest in.”
But no matter how much Turnbull concedes to even the dirtiest of fossil fuel industries, the right-wing of his party have continued to demand still more concessions. It’s almost comical to watch them become so needlessly extreme they undermine the prospect of investment certainty for the fossil fuel industry they are tripping over each other to defend. It was in large part climate policy which brought down every Prime Minister who has fallen in the last 11 years, and climate is again a major reason why Dutton has emerged as a contender – though there is not much of a climate policy left for him to destroy.
The political pantomime vs the climate emergency
The emissions reduction policies of governments across the supposed political spectrum are falling far short of the actions scientists are calling for with increasing boldness. More and more scientists are coming out and saying we are in a climate emergency. German climatologist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber recently released a paper outlining how a series of amplifying feedbacks could lead to a “hothouse Earth” and calling for governments to halve global emissions each decade. Schellnhuber says in the foreword to a new report by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration:
“Climate change is now reaching the endgame, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences. Therefore, it is all the more important to listen to non-mainstream voices who do understand the issues and are less hesitant to cry wolf. Unfortunately for us, the wolf may already be in the house.”
Shellnhuber’s Australian coauthor Will Steffen said in an interview:
“The obvious thing we have to do is to get greenhouse gas emissions down as fast as we can. That means that has to be the primary target of policy and economics. You have got to get away from the so-called neoliberal economics…
We need to immediately stop deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and other tropical forests, and start reforesting them. That means a U-turn in terms of how we operate the world’s economic systems. The only way you’re going to change that is if you actually change value systems, perhaps even changing the way political systems operate and so on. The social scientists in our group have said this really is a fundamental change in human societies we need to have if we’re going to solve this problem…
Absolutely no new fossil fuel developments. None. That means no new coal mines, no new oil wells, no new gas fields, no new unconventional gas fracking. Nothing new. Second, you need to have a rapid phase-out plan for existing fossil fuels…
[We need] a completely different view of economics, going away from viewing the natural world as resources to viewing it as an essential piece of our life support system that needs to be maintained and enhanced. I think you simply have to go right back to the fundamental science of who we are, the planet we evolved into, how that planet operates and what’s happening to it, and that will tell you immediately that so-called neoliberal economics is radically wrong in terms of how it views the rest of the world.”
The current climate policy spectrum is in my opinion best understood as having little to do with actually saving the planet, and a lot more to do with the varying interests of different businesses. At the brown end of the spectrum, the coal industry is losing profitability and increasingly isolated politically, so its cause is increasingly taken up by right-wing populists who claim they can bring back the coal jobs, and climate change denial is taking on a life of its own beyond the corporate propaganda purpose that it once served. It is now in the interests of most businesses, even many fossil fuel businesses, to rhetorically acknowledge climate change, claim to be taking steps to reduce their impact, and support policies which open up new investment opportunities in renewable energy, carbon trading, and the supposedly “low-carbon” natural gas. At the green end of the spectrum, the increasing wealth and power of renewable energy corporations has helped to push reluctant politicians toward moderately better energy policies (though this has largely failed in Australia).
But it is still not in the interests of any business invested in fossil fuels to support a real effort to drastically reduce emissions, which requires phasing out fossil fuel burning. Nor, to a lesser extent, is it truly in the interests of any business – not even the renewable energy ones – because all businesses seek to grow, a goal fundamentally at odds with reducing their environmental footprint. So don’t believe those in the mainstream media who claim that if only the good “left-wing” politicians prevail in Parliament, or if only the “moderates” of “both parties” come together to craft a bipartisan policy, we’ll get an effective climate policy or even a stable “compromise”. In reality, none of the currently powerful political factions will save us, because they represent the institutions that have created and perpetuated the climate crisis (among other crises).
Dutton: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Which brings me to the latest character in the parliamentary pantomime, Peter Dutton. Just as I was relatively unmoved by the left’s hope for Turnbull, I likewise find myself relatively unmoved by their fear of Dutton. I do share their fear that the government’s policies will continue to get worse, but I think that will happen regardless of whether the conservatives succeed in installing Dutton or continue to drag Turnbull their way. I’m losing count of how many Prime Ministers I’ve seen come and go, but no matter how many times the face changes, I’m yet to see much real political change in Australia or indeed the world.
If (and “if” is an important word here because Dutton is largely an unknown quantity) the battlelines are between the populist right-wing and the neoliberal capitalist establishment, I’m not particularly on either side and I’m certainly not on the side of the establishment. If anything, the populists might do some good by shaking up the system – there is a reason why the business lobby fears any destabilization of the precarious current order. Although the populist right is radically opposed to climate action, they are introducing an element of chaos into today’s political landscape, and that instability might eventually create the space for the radical climate action we need. At the very least, as those who openly oppose any climate action get into power, they undermine any false sense of security that governments have the climate crisis under control.
Already, Dutton’s few proposed policy changes are a mix of the bad, the maybe-not-so-bad, and the actually-rather-good.
Let’s start with the actually-rather-good. Dutton wants an inquiry into the energy companies. I would welcome such an inquiry, as I believe it would reveal the energy companies are price-gouging and this is the real primary cause of the price rises that are being blamed on renewable energy and climate policy. Dutton also proposes tax cuts for households and small businesses to replace the government’s corporate tax cuts (another policy on which Turnbull has already capitulated this week), another reason why the big business groups are against Dutton.
Also energy-related is a maybe-not-so-bad Dutton proposal is to remove the Goods and Services Tax from energy bills. On one hand, to remove the GST on only energy would effectively be like a reverse carbon tax, incentivizing people to spend more money on energy relative to other products that are still taxed. On the other hand, reducing the GST might be another good idea on the economic justice front – the GST is not a progressive tax, which is probably why the business lobby has come out against Dutton’s GST proposal too.
In any case, Dutton’s proposals suggest he might genuinely want to reduce energy prices in addition to trashing climate policy, rather than just using energy prices as an excuse to trash climate policy like Abbott and Turnbull have done. If Dutton succeeds in reducing the prices, it might have the side-effect of making voters more in favour of climate policy although Dutton personally isn’t.
Definitely terrible policy ideas Dutton is flirting with include withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and allocating more water from the Murray-Darling Basin to agriculture. In fact these policies are contradictory in the long term, since if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions we can expect the Murray-Darling Basin to pretty much dry up over the coming decades. Still, the Paris Agreement was a sham anyway, an unforceable piece of paper advertising targets that governments claim they will meet, and the Australian government already has no climate policy sufficient to reach the target it signed up to in Paris. Dutton could also take an axe to the 2020 Renewable Energy Target, but Abbott has already reduced the target, and Turnbull’s NEG is already designed to stop renewable energy deployment just after 2020.
In short, Dutton’s proposals are not much different to the direction in which the government was already going. For other issues beyond climate change, it’s a similar story – the policies are already pretty bad, and a leadership change isn’t likely to make it much worse. For example, to those who fear Dutton will be like Trump on immigration, I would point out that Trump’s policy of imprisoning refugees in camps is something Australia has already been doing for 25 years.
All in all, my opinion is pretty much summed up by the following cartoon from First Dog on the Moon, to which I will give the final word: