The cow and milk for free

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Angus Taylor knew what he was doing

Angus Taylor knew what he was doing. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he is a bright man. He understands accounting tricks. He knew there was a crisis and he preferred to wait for it.

When Taylor delayed release of the country’s electricity pricing update, pushing it out past the election, he was only putting off the inevitable. The issues he was concealing were not short term. They had been cultivated over a decade in which the formulation of energy policy had essentially been handed over to fossil fuel companies.

This capture affects both sides of politics. The last government made no attempt to properly tax gas exporters and the new government is not proposing any different. In most of the country, there is no requirement to service the domestic market. The system allows for maximum profits with no thought to consequences. It is the cow and the milk for free.

Under Taylor, the carbon market was massively distorted. Until it is reformed, it is largely useless in cutting emissions. The energy market was similarly neglected. Companies were forced to keep open power plants that should have been closed.

A third of coal supply is currently offline because the power stations responsible for it are so decrepit.

This is the fantasy of an unreformed energy sector, to which is added the war in Ukraine, floods that affected coal supply, and
a cold snap that caused demand to surge.

Price caps have now been instituted. The spot market has been suspended. This is the first time the Australian Energy Market Operator has intervened in the national market, rather than in the markets of individual states. It is a clear illustration of how incompetently the system has been run.

Increasingly, no matter the question, the answer is renewables. Labor needs to do more to cultivate this reality. The country is a decade behind on projects that would have alleviated the energy crisis it now faces.

Labor has announced a $20 billion project to upgrade the energy grid. It has an electric vehicles policy that will subsidise cars and create incentives for infrastructure. Yet is has ruled out some of the key interventions needed by the country. It will not introduce a carbon price, despite this being the most efficient way to deal with emissions. It continues to pretend that business should decide whether new coalmines are opened up around the country.

Peter Dutton claims the energy market is “precarious” and that the transition to renewables is happening “too quickly”. He says Labor is “spooking” it. He sees the world through a lens of fear, so why not the industry in front of which his party has been prostrated for a decade?

It is a mark of the paucity of debate in this country that someone could argue action has been too quick when in fact it has been too slow. In the end, Taylor bought an extra month before it all came undone. In energy policy, this passes for forward planning.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as “The cow and milk for free”.

Will the Australian public accept the obvious fallacy that all current crises are of Labor’s making?
Rachel Withers  argues in The Monthly

It has not been an easy opening few weeks for the Labor government, with compounding crises leaving some to speculate that the Coalition was perhaps rather happy to lose the election last month. As Rick Morton reports in The Saturday Paper, the outgoing government had left many departments in a state of extreme neglect, with no doubt more surprises to come as Labor surveys the wreckage. It’s interesting to consider, as Sean Kelly did in the Nine papers yesterday, how much the growing sense of “crisis” has been heightened by the fact that we now have a government that’s actually willing to talk about problems rather than simply ignore them. The most curious aspect of all this, however, is that the Opposition seems to think it can immediately begin hammering Labor over it all, and get away with suggesting that to point out the Coalition’s own role in these crises is nothing but whinging. From energy issues to asylum-seeker boat arrivals to a lack of submarines, everything going wrong is Labor’s fault, apparently, while News Corp wants to make sure that the Liberals still get credit for the few things that are going right, seeking to apply its ridiculous economic fallacy forevermore. But does the Coalition really expect the public to immediately blame Labor, four weeks in, after nine years of conservative rule? Why, of course it does.

Nowhere is this ridiculousness more apparent than in the energy crisis in which we find ourselves – one that, as Labor keeps rightly pointing out, stems from “a decade of neglect”. Labor’s response to the crisis, which has today seen further warnings of blackouts, is far from perfect, with the Albanese government doubling down on opening up gas supply in a way that misses the point. But at least Labor can be said to be doing something, with Energy Minister Chris Bowen having convened state ministers to sign off on a national transition plan that it’s hard to fathom didn’t already exist. The Coalition has nevertheless spent the past week claiming that the new government is fumbling the energy crisis, and saying that it needs to stop “banging on about the former government”. This morning brought even weirder assertions: former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce chimed in to blame the net-zero emissions-reduction target and “the mad cult of closing down coal fired power stations” (never mind that the states with a heavy reliance on renewables are doing just fine), while the new shadow immigration minister, Dan Tehan, complained that the government should bring forward its sitting dates to deal with the issue, despite the fact that the former Coalition government had itself scheduled a ridiculously sparse parliamentary calendar and barely paid the issue any mind.

But that’s not the only area in which the old government is seeking to pin culpability on the new. Operation Blame Labor for Boat Arrivals is in full swing, with The Australian overnight reporting that Border Force had intercepted a “third asylum boat since election day”, noting that the return of boats “coincid[ed] with the change of government” – never mind that the first of the three was intercepted under the Coalition’s watch. As with last week’s boat, further reading reveals that this has more to do with a Sri Lankan crisis than a Labor one, with military officials warning that the Australian government’s messages about the risk were no longer working.

The same goes for our submarine defence-capability gap, which Opposition Leader Peter Dutton last week claimed to have a magic solution for – a ludicrous claim showing he was yet again willing to risk national security for political gain, as Nick Feik wrote. Outgoing senator and former submariner Rex Patrick has today ripped apart Dutton’s claims in a scathing op-ed, adding that there is no way we will get the nuclear subs this decade and we will need instead to go the conventional route. But all that matters to Dutton is that it’s Labor, and not him, who takes the fall for the concerning capability gap that Australia is now faced with.

Nothing, it seems, is the Coalition’s responsibility – unless it’s the things that are going right. Labor’s success in reopening a dialogue with China “owes a lot to the Morrison government’s resolve in not bending to years of Beijing’s intimidation”, according to The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan (“Team Albo builds on Morrison’s work”). The column did, to be fair, give Dutton some blame for the submarines issue, with Sheridan a long-time critic of the former defence minister in this area. But Labor won’t be allowed to get full credit for its diplomacy on China, with the hawks still adamant that the Coalition had it right.

It’s hardly surprising that the Coalition has stepped into the Opposition role with relish (though as NDIS Minister Bill Shorten said this morning, can’t they just be a little bit constructive when it comes to this genuinely shitty energy crisis?). This, of course, is where Australia’s conservative parties feel most comfortable: whinging and blaming and tearing down Labor. But perhaps the former government might like to wait just a little while before it starts screaming bloody murder about the problems it has left us with. The Coalition is no doubt hoping that the people of Australia weren’t paying attention to the crises building up under its watch. Because, God knows, it wasn’t.

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