POLITICS

Australia Does Not Need Another 'Carbon Tax' Bogeyman

But "Blackout Bill" aint no carbon tax.

12/09/2017 3:00 PM AEST | Updated 12/09/2017 3:14 PM AEST
Jesse Marlow/Fairfax
Liddell is putting the white flag on Liddell. It is old. The plant's time has almost come.

CANBERRA -- Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull managed a mini-surprise statement on Tuesday, declaring on energy policy: "I am very disappointed the Labor Party has decided to oppose us on this."

Yet make no mistake, this is a fight the Government dearly wants to have.

And Labor wants it too, with Shadow Trade Minister Jason Clare on Tuesday goading the PM to "pull your finger out and pull the trigger" to intervene to control the domestic gas supply in an effort to lower consumer power bills.

But for all the hot air (and yes the ALP could have done something about gas in office), the path to cheaper, reliable power in Australia is far from evident and there is no clearing of Australia's long-term mess of energy and, inextricably linked, climate policies.

Just the latest is the Government's inability to get through the party room a clean energy target (CET), the new climate policy mechanism suggested by the Finkel Review to stimulate new investment in power generation and take Australia's renewable energy use to 42 percent by 2030.

But this fight goes way back to the 2010 "carbon tax" bogeyman; an exercise in brutal retail politics from the Coalition that emerged to be -- well after the fact -- as a piece of fiction that played a massive part in catapulting Tony Abbott into the prime ministership.

Ditching that carbon pricing scheme and keeping the Renewable Energy Target, to invest in renewable energy, has led to the situation Australia is in now. There was a chance to continue give business certainty about base load power. The Coalition chose not to.

This again, in 2017, is all about having a point of difference in taking on a hip pocket issue. And a power price boost is exactly what a struggling Turnbull needs right now.

In comes the "Blackout Bill" and "No Coal Joel" attacks over Labor's renewable edge in energy policy. School-yard name-calling from the PM, according to Labor Leader Bill Shorten.

As well there has been a demonisation of renewable energy, a ridiculing of battery storage technology -- except when it suits -- and a sudden Government rush to save the aging Liddell coal-fired power plant from a scheduled shutdown in 2022 for at least for another five years.

The Government wants the plant to remain operating to meet a looming shortfall in base load power, but it is nearing the end of its life.

The fight over Liddell, its coal and its workers became verbal jostling in the corridors on Tuesday between Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg and Shadow Resources Minister Joel Fitzgibbon.

But this war over energy policy and renewables is no new Turnbull Government "carbon tax" attack.

Far from swinging cleanly on Labor, the Government has opened up a fresh tussle with energy companies that "see no interest" in the fuel source the Government is not letting go of. Coal.

Turnbull has pointed the public to the callousness of power companies.

"Scarcity of energy is good, because it enables them to raise prices," the Prime Minister said on Tuesday.

"Energy companies want to look after their shareholders. My job is to look after the people with more affordable and reliable power."

It may be a hard ask, but two meetings between Turnbull and the top energy retailers have not clinched cheaper power; rather they have led to the promise of sending more than a million letters about possibly changing contracts.

The potential for cheaper power bills is there, but it has to be sought by the consumer and the cost of the letter is ultimately borne by the customer.

Different accounts have emerged between the Turnbull Government and AGL, the energy giant and owner of the Liddell plant, over what's been agreed over the future of the coal-fired power station.

This leaves the Government accusing a senior business leader, AGL chief Andy Vesey, of saying one thing privately and another thing publicly.

The Government insists it has a win, with Vesey taking to his board in 90 days a plan to either keep the plant open, sell it, or guarantee equivalent power.

But AGL's post-Monday meeting statement knocks out two options of opening and selling it, stating it had committed to the Government to deliver a plan to avoid an energy shortfall, "once the Liddell coal-fired power station retires in 2022".

Oops.

It is appears AGL is really forging ahead with the closure of a power station which has been described as "about stuffed".

And then suddenly it is all Labor's fault and Labor's folly.

A thorough mess in Australian climate policy goes back to chanting "no carbon tax" and later cheering from the floor of Parliament as Labor's carbon price was repealed.

The continuing politicisation of climate change is to everyone's detriment. Carbon emissions have jumped since the price signal was repealed.

Treasurer Scott Morrison insists the Government is "not putting up the white flag on Liddell but certainly the Labor party has and I am quite surprised about that".

Liddell is putting the white flag on Liddell. It is old. The plant's time has almost come.

And it is not just that one thing. Gaps, over years and terms of parliament, in energy policy are revealing themselves.

Australians need help with ridiculous power bills, the power needs to stay on and the nation requires leadership over energy security, but Australia also needs to do its part to address damaging climate change.

We do not need another "carbon tax" bogeyman.

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