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Wednesday, 18 October 2017
Page: 7926


Senator McALLISTER (New South WalesDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (17:00): It is sometimes said that amateur psychological diagnoses tell you as much about the person who is making the diagnosis as they do about the subject. I think the same could often be said for the topics the Greens dish up for MPIs. It is telling that a day after a major policy announcement the Greens have given us an MPI not about policy but about the government's polling numbers. It's suggestive of a world view that sees climate change and energy as a campaign issue rather than as a policy issue—a strategy that would prefer to wedge than to achieve outcomes—and I find that disappointing. I've spent perhaps 20 years working, in one way or another, on environmental policy, and that's not how I see climate or energy.

I don't want to talk about the government's polling numbers, as difficult as they are. The government has dished up a vague, light-on-detail plan for energy, and I want to talk about that instead. Here are three big questions that I think the government needs to answer before the rest of the country can take this energy plan seriously. Big question No. 1 is this: where are the emission cuts going to come from if not from the electricity sector? The plan seems to be built on the idea that the electricity sector will do its share of abatement. But the problem with that is that the sector can make reductions far more economically and efficiently than other sectors in the economy. The government would know this, if it had done any modelling—which it acknowledges it hasn't. Every other exercise, every other detailed government study that's been undertaken by the Treasury to model the approach that we'd take to cost-effectively reduce carbon has shown that the electricity sector is one of the most important places where we can make cost-effective emissions reductions and make sure that the transition to a low-carbon economy is as cost effective as it possibly can be.

The question we have to ask is this: if there is only, say, a 26 per cent target applied to the electricity sector, where does the rest of the burden land? In the absence of any government modelling or analysis or public information, we can rely on other people like RepuTex, a very important group of analysts. They say that if a 26 per cent target was applied across all sectors of the economy then the modelling indicates the burden to reduce emissions would fall disproportionately on the direct combustion of oil and gas and transport sectors, Australia's emissions growth areas. These sectors would be liable for 31 and 32 per cent of all emission reductions to meet the 2030 target despite only making up 17 and 18 per cent of all emissions. Comparatively, the electricity sector would contribute only 20 per cent of all abatement. In other words, under the government's plan, according to this analysis—and we're waiting to see any government analysis—we won't reach our Paris targets unless there are deep cuts in emissions in other sectors. What's all this going to mean? What will it mean for workers in the manufacturing sector? What will it mean for workers in the transport sector? What will it mean for workers in mining? Or, is the government going to abandon the commitment to the Paris targets? These are questions the government needs to answer.

The government rhetoric about the price impact of this has all been very certain, and that's the big question No. 2: what impact will this have on prices? The experts, Dr Schott and Mr Pierce, have been relied on by the government for this idea that this is going to save households $115 a year. But when you ask the experts, Dr Schott last night on television said, 'I don't think anyone can guarantee a price reduction,' and Mr Pierce acknowledged that it really just depended on which scenario you were talking about and that in some scenarios you see a much, much smaller price reduction per year for households. The third big question—and perhaps the most important one—is: how long will it be before the government is going to have to capitulate or backflip on elements of this policy to appease the conservative hard Right in its party room?

This plan is clearly half-baked. It needed much more time in development. It needed time for proper modelling. What we've been presented with isn't actually a policy. It's a high-level internal summary that you might write before you go off and do the work to produce a real policy. Year 12 students all across the country are sitting their HSC exams right now. If one of them handed in this plan as part of their assessment, they would be asked, 'Where is the rest?' In truth, this is nothing more than a bunch of ideas that are going to be 'worked up', in the language of the minister, in the lead-up to COAG. The Prime Minister has claimed it was developed by the Energy Security Board, but that entity was only formed in September. Why has the government served up a half-finished plan? I'll tell you what I think: they couldn't afford another week of the member of Warringah talking about energy policy and the government not actually having a response.

Former Prime Minister Abbott has had far more success controlling the political agenda from the backbench than he ever had in office, and that is a consequence of the weakness of this Prime Minister. What we see in response to all of this is a political fix for an internal political problem. It is about isolating and fixing the problem of the former Prime Minister, and it is not about solving the energy crisis that they've allowed to develop on their watch.

The coalition don't have strong views about whether or not this is a good policy solution. They actually don't care. This is a good political solution, and they will presumably be willing to change it, to gut it or to abandon it when the former Prime Minister moves the goal posts on the current Prime Minister once again. It's what we've seen on every other occasion. It's what happened on the ETS. It's what Mr Abbott did to him on the EIS—remember that? Mr Frydenberg came out and said, 'I'd be willing to consider it,' but within 24 hours he was forced to retract that. He said, 'Oh, no, we're not considering it.' It's certainly what happened to the clean energy target, the CET—remember that? It's also what happened on the RET.

We now understand, with quite some precision, how the life cycle of the Prime Minister's policy ideas work. There is a day or two of a media sugar hit. It feels pretty good and people perk up a bit. Then we all start to hear the gentle hissing sound as the air escapes from the balloon and the responsible minister, in this case poor Mr Frydenberg—for whom I do feel some sympathy—is left holding the policy. It's my prediction that this energy policy will go the same way.

Back in 2004, the writer Ron Suskind interviewed an unnamed White House aide. He later identified that aide as Karl Rove. It's one of my favourite quotes, because I think it really defines the mindset of conservatives in politics at the moment. Mr Suskind wrote:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." … "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

It's a very muscular approach to politics, isn't it—a very arrogant belief that you can escape the gravity of facts. But I'll tell you what you can't escape. You can't escape gravity, and you can't escape facts.

This government has decided to avoid the judicious study of discernible reality. In fact, it seems to hold contempt for reality, for the trends that are emerging globally in energy policy. After years of ignoring the problems in Australia's energy sector, the government has just acted—no modelling, no planning, no consultation. I'll tell you what. It didn't go that well for Karl Rove, and I doubt it will for this Prime Minister either.