Clean Energy Sacrificed To Keep Abbott's Hardline Backers Happy

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“It's hard to imagine a fledgling industry being attacked and undermined by a national government the way the renewables sector is by the Abbott Government,” writes the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Victoria McKenzie-McHarg.

I get the sentiment, but I’m not sure I agree. It’s all too easy to imagine a fledgling industry being attacked and undermined by the Abbott government. Since taking office, the Abbott government has done little else.

Even before winning the election in September 2013, anti-climate and pro-fossil fuels policy has been one of the most consistent qualities of the Abbott Liberal Party.

When it comes to renewable energy, outright hostility is the loudly proclaimed policy of the federal government. Tony Abbott and his cabinet have remained ruthlessly focused on destroying the renewable energy industry, by any means necessary.

The polestar of the conservative quest to dismantle Australia’s climate response was the repeal of the carbon tax itself. The removal of a price on carbon was a conservative triumph. It had the paradoxical impact of removing the free market from Australian climate policy. The government replaced it with Direct Action, a laughably ineffective attempt at emissions reduction through industry subsidy.

But the anti-climate push has gone much further than the carbon tax. The Abbott government took the entire renewables industry hostage for nearly two years, by repeatedly reviewing and then slashing the Renewable Energy Target.

The ongoing RET saga finally concluded in June, when Australia become the first developed economy in the entire world to reduce its renewable energy target.

The RET was originally a Howard government policy. But there are few supporters of climate action in the Liberal Party of Tony Abbott.

Now the Coalition’s removal vans are coming to pack up the last bits of the Gillard-era furniture.

On Sunday, Fairfax Media’s Adam Gartrell reported that Environment Minister Greg Hunt had issued a directive to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, effectively banning the corporation from investing in wind and rooftop solar.

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation was a $10 billion “green bank”. It was one of the big wins of the multi-party climate change talks held in the Gillard years with the Greens’ Christine Milne and the independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. It was set up to provide concessional finance, but still at a rate of return as a public investment.

The CEFC has proven to be one of the successes of the Gillard climate initiatives. It has been lending money to finance major wind and solar projects, offering concessional finance, and has been generating returns at 7 per cent. Perhaps because of this, the Abbott government has twice failed to convince the Senate crossbench to vote to abolish it.

The CEFC therefore represents a double-dissolution trigger, an intriguing possibility in the mind of many an armchair strategist.

More to the point, the CEFC represents a tempting target.

 Jillian Broadbent, Chair of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation

The Abbott government has always wanted to abolish the CEFC. Soon after coming to office, Greg Hunt described it as a “green hedge fund,” irresponsibly using taxpayers’ money on “speculative ventures.” In the twisted coil of Coalition logic, public investment in renewable energy was framed as a wasteful indulgence.

To give him his due, Greg Hunt has been open about his policy of CEFC abolition ever since. On Sunday he took to Twitter to confirm.

 

 

 

There’s just one little thing: the CEFC was never originally intended to focus on solar and emerging technologies. That is the role of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, ARENA, or at least was until Joe Hockey slashed $800 million from its funding. It is almost as though the Coalition is deliberately confusing the roles of the two agencies in order to throw up a smokescreen.

The aims of the CEFC are clearly set out in its legislation, and they are not to invest in early-stage technology commercialisation. The CEFC has an investment mandate and expects to make money. Deals it has brokered include major wind farms in Portland and Bald Hills and a $75 million NAB climate bond issue. There are 89 investments and co-investments on the books, worth $1.4 billion.

Now the CEFC is taking legal advice on whether it has to comply with the new investment mandate. The Corporation has a little bit of room to manoeuvre, as its Act makes it quite independent.

I suspect the government will find other ways to mess with the CEFC’s operations. Even if this gambit fails, new means will be devised to hobble or sabotage the renewable energy industries.

Why does the Coalition hate renewable energy so much? After all, most available opinion polls surveying attitudes to renewable energy show overwhelming support. The 2011 multi-party climate architecture is now nearly all destroyed, and yet still the government grinds on, seeking to eliminate every last climate mechanism.

Some have argued that the reason is simple: the large donations that flow to the Liberal Party, in particular from fossil fuel companies. It is true that these donations are both lucrative and significant. The close relationship between the current government and vested interests in the mining and energy industries is hardly a secret.

On this analysis, as the Greens’ Scott Ludlam tweeted yesterday:

 

 

The coal-powered electricity sector is certainly worried about the rise of cheap modern wind.

But ideology does play a part in Coalition climate policy – a dominant part.

It is ideology that drives the visceral hatred for many on the right of climate change. Climate change is still widely denied in the Coalition backbench, just as it is denied in reasonably large segments of the Liberal Party membership.

It is ideology that underlies the tribal worldview of the conservative base, in which climate policies are a leftist conspiracy, or an atheistic “crusade” – thus justifying the counter-reformation of the Abbott rollbacks.

There is profit for Tony Abbott to appeal to such beliefs. The Liberal hard right is the reason Tony Abbott is prime minister in the first place: it was their support, on the issue of climate, that swept Abbott to the Liberal leadership in 2009.

But the man himself surely shares these views. Everything we know about Tony Abbott tells us he likes coal, coal and more coal. Christian ideals of resource extraction from the Book of Genesis may ultimately be Abbott’s guiding inclination.

Attacking the CEFC is an attractive sop to shore up Abbott’s factional support, even if it alienates swinging voters. Paradoxically, Abbott’s unpopularity as prime minister is forcing him to pander to the handline supporters in his own party room.

Journalists like to talk about narratives, a vastly overrated method of analysis. But there is a sense that the government is currently without one. It is careening around the policy landscape, with almost no coherent logic or even a forward policy direction.

With no real platform beyond tearing down Labor institutions and reputations, Prime Minister Abbott appears lost in a fog of increasingly opaque anger and paranoia.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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