Painting a Political Picture of the Government’s Stance on Renewables

Does a new leader mean a new environmental policy?

When Malcolm Turnbull succeeded Tony Abbott as Australian Prime Minister last month, there was great optimism from investors to climate groups about the future of the country’s various environmental policies. Previously, Mr Turnbull had been very vocal about environmental policies, including critiques of Coalition positions. Back in 2009, Mr Turnbull called for an emissions trading scheme, which was considered one of the reasons he lost the Liberal leadership then. He has also downplayed the effectiveness of his own party’s Direct Action emissions reduction policy. But questions popped up after Mr Turnbull was installed as PM, when he immediately defended the government’s policy as a “very good piece of work” and declared the 2030 emissions reduction target of 26-28% from 2005 levels would not be changing.

Professor David Schlosberg has recently published a piece in the annual Environment Issue of Australian Book Review, where he analysed the Federal government’s policies on renewable energy. Written just before the leadership change, and so focused on former PM Abbott’s tenure, he describes the government’s approach as “nothing less than a form of economic sabotage of the renewable energy industry. It is also an abdication of the basic roles and tasks of government”. The question, obviously, is whether a new leader will make the policy changes away from the destructive tendencies of the past two years?

“It’s an odd political world,” Professor Schlosberg said. “At first I was concerned [my article] would seem dated very quickly, focused as it was on Abbott and his war on renewables. But the reality is that nothing has changed in terms of policy, and there continues to be powerful forces working against good and more constructive energy policies in particular. The hopeful bit is that reasonable arguments might actually help. My goal was to be constructive, and to point out how this is not just about a single policy, but rather what good government should be about in the modern state.”

Mr Turnbull has promised to focus on the economy – and to stick to current climate policy. But Professor Schlosberg argues, both in his article and since, that a constructive renewables policy can actually help provide a wide range of outputs necessary for good governance. “Certainly, a clear path toward economic development and a range of new jobs is one of those tasks. But a change in policy could also bring the government more legitimacy in the eyes of the public by illustrating some independence from the mining and utility sectors.”

Professor Schlosberg points out that Mr Turnbull has begun his tenure with more public legitimacy, post-spill, than Julia Gillard. There have been calls for the new PM to stick by his previous climate change concerns, and, as a whole, groups remain hopeful of a “refresh” of climate policies. “There is certainly optimism in the air. But as Tony Abbott keeps telling us, the policies remain the same,” Professor Schlosberg said. “And again, as I argue in the ABR piece, it’s not just legitimacy and credibility that are at stake for the government, but also other key tasks of a modern state: economic development and jobs, the related revenue and taxes, various aspects of our security, and the functioning of our environment. While it’s rare to come across a policy area, like renewables, that can tick every box like this, the fact is that a policy change can both improve governance and impact the very nature of both electrical and political power in Australia.”

With the current Australian climate targets deemed “inadequate” and no signs of movement from the government just yet, Professor Schlosberg fears “Australia will fall further and further behind other countries without a direct and active policy change on renewables, and a specific goal for expansion. I do agree with both other analysts and the market though – the end of fossil fuels, and especially the coal on which Australia is far too reliant, is coming. The only question is whether Australia will turn around and lead, or face the wide range of costs – to both citizens and good government – as we continue with obsolete energy policies that benefit very few.”

Top Image: Pierre Pouliquin ‘Malcolm and Kevin on the lawns of parly…GetUp!…50/50 for 2020!!’ – FlickrCommons