Tony Abbott's climate of confusion

Australia faces the real prospect of the national government’s energy policy being determined not by the prime minister and the cabinet but by a backbencher and his small band of disaffected supporters. As bizarre as that seems, it might be understandable if the party dissidents espoused better policies than the elected government. But they are motivated by vengeance and ambition, not by ideology or policy, and certainly not by the national interest. Contradictions and contortions are their stock in trade, designed purely to gain a political advantage over opponents within their own party and sitting across the aisle in the parliament.

As prime minister, Tony Abbott committed Australia to the Paris agreement on reducing carbon emissions, together with a continuation of the renewable energy target that favours renewable energy over fossil fuels. Now Abbott is calling on Prime Minister Turnbull to abandon the renewable energy target while claiming his commitment to Paris was aspirational only. Never mind that, at the time of signing up, Abbott insisted that his Paris commitment was hard and he would never enter into an agreement he didn’t fully intend to honour.

That was then. This is now. It was all politics then and it’s all politics now. Just as it was all politics when Abbott campaigned against Labor for putting a price on carbon. How do we know he was as disingenuous then as he is now? His former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, recently told us so: “Along comes a carbon tax. It wasn’t a carbon tax, as you know … but we made it a carbon tax. That was brutal retail politics and it took Abbott about six months to cut through and when he cut through, Gillard was gone.”

When campaigning against a market-based mechanism for reducing carbon emissions, Abbott went so far as to claim carbon dioxide was harmless – a “colourless, odourless, weightless gas”. Our Rhodes Scholar prime minister denied not only human-induced climate change but repudiated science’s periodic table that assuredly lists carbon and oxygen as weighty elements.

Having repealed Labor’s market-based emissions trading scheme and spooked Turnbull into rejecting an emissions-intensity scheme for the energy sector, Abbott is now demanding that the chief scientist’s recommended clean energy target must result in the construction of new coal-fired power stations. He wants just about any type of generator to qualify as clean energy, making the target a sham.

As long as there is a Paris agreement and Australia remains a signatory, private financiers are indicating that they will not fund the construction of new conventional coal-fired generating capacity in Australia. The Finkel report affirms this reality, contemplating only coal-fired generators accompanied by carbon capture and storage. Indeed, the corporate regulator has warned that directors of any company building new coal-fired plant could be personally liable for giving the go-ahead to what could easily become an expensively stranded asset.

In effect, therefore, Abbott is arguing for the subsidisation by taxpayers of new coal-fired generators.

Abbott brought down Turnbull in 2009 over his support for a market-based mechanism for emissions reductions and defeated the Gillard government in 2013 for introducing an emissions-trading scheme. He sees personal political advantage again in campaigning against emissions reductions by Turnbull and by Labor.

At different times, Abbott has held every conceivable position on emissions reductions – advocating an emissions-trading scheme, a carbon tax, a centrally planned direct action program, a renewable energy target and now, the subsidisation of new coal-fired power stations. At a time when the electricity-generating industry is begging for policy certainty to enable it to invest in desperately needed new capacity, Abbott offers instability and uncertainty.

On this page, I have criticised Bill Shorten for not offering bipartisan support for particular aspects of the May 2017 budget. Yet when Shorten offered bipartisan support for the adoption of the chief scientist’s recommended clean energy target, Abbott’s hard right of the Liberal Party and its media backers shrieked: “watch out, it’s a trap!” Why, then, would you blame Shorten for sitting back and watching the government destroy itself?

If Turnbull can see off the Abbott dissidents, Australia might be able to look forward to a level of bipartisanship on energy policy, to achieve moderation in electricity prices, enhanced reliability and reductions in carbon emissions consistent with our international obligations to which Abbott committed our country.