A colleague commented to me recently: “Where would we be without the states leading and driving the response to Covid-19?”
It made me think. To cut through all the spin, point-scoring and blame-shifting. Sure, there was the national cabinet and Scott Morrison’s attempt to forge a national, collaborative response, but so much of the heavy lifting was actually done by the states.
Even in areas where our national government has traditionally had clear, overarching responsibility, such as quarantine and aged care, Morrison stepped back, finding it easier to concede, criticise and blame, rather than act.
Of course mistakes are made, and finger-pointing is easy, but none of this “argie- bargie” is in the national interest.
So it is too with the response to a far more significant challenge: climate. Again it has fallen to the states to lead with more realistic targets, strategies and attempted policy responses.
Of course, it would be preferable to have a coordinated national response, but the Morrison government has ignored the significance and urgency of the challenge and abrogated this responsibility. It has again created a leadership vacuum, which the states, rightly or wrongly, are attempting to fill.
Energy is the current political focus, with states such as New South Wales and Victoria forging ahead with net zero emissions targets and various strategies to accelerate the transition to renewables, but causing disquiet with the regulators, major industry players, as well as the Morrison government.
In recent days we have seen the national energy minister Angus Taylor pushing for the states to be “transparent” with their energy plans, industry players crying about “market distortions” (which of course they have been more than happy to exploit), and regulators seeking clear “market principles” and more detail as to transition strategies.
The outcome? A hotchpotch of market forces, regulation, vested interests and confusion, pretty much as was generated against the former South Australian government led by Jay Weatherill, or in the tortuous process around the national energy guarantee, with the result being unreliability of supply and households and businesses overcharged.
Clearly, if the Morrison government were true to its ideological roots, claiming to be “conservative” (believing in small government, limited regulation and market forces), they would step back, develop an appropriate framework for the market to set a “price on carbon”, with a commitment to address the “transition frictions” in certain communities, and let the industry players get on to deliver the transition to cheaper, low emissions, dispatchable renewables with cost-effective storage.
Yet the government prefers to play politics, threatens “big sticks”, falsely claims easy achievement of its modest Paris commitments, and resists longer-term targets and commitments, all while promising cheap and reliable power. Such behaviour guarantees the continuation of our global status as a “laggard”. They hide behind their slogan “Technology Not Taxes” when, ironically, their technology roadmap would be more believable, accelerated and more effective with a carbon price.
The NSW proposals for power infrastructure – renewable energy zones to house a range of renewable energy generation and storage projects, with consumer protections, “reverse auctions” to provide off-take certainty to power generators, and supportive grants – are understandable and have some merit, but raise serious questions as to the “fit” with the grid, the inflexibility and cost of pumped hydro storage, general uncertainty as to how the system will actually work, and whether it will be cost-effective and reliable for consumers.
Meanwhile, the Morrison government and its fossil fuel mates are off on a completely different track, pretending that there is a viable case for more new coal-fired power, and still a case for new gas generation as a “transition”, even though renewables are much cheaper, major banks are reluctant to finance, major insurers are reluctant to insure such projects and investors suspect they will be stranded assets within a decade.
The Morrison government is also committed to storage via Snowy Hydro 2.0 even though it just doesn’t stack up commercially, according to Aemo wouldn’t be needed until about 2042, and is geographically inflexible relative to a sensible and cost-effective development of storage along the grid.
Clearly, there is an urgent imperative for national leadership on not only the transition to renewables in the power sector, but also the essential transitions across all the emitting sectors, especially transport, agriculture, buildings and industrial processes.
This leadership must start with an honest assessment of the climate challenge for a country such as Australia ranking as the 5th or 6th largest global emitter when our fossil fuel exports are taken into account. Our Paris commitments are about half what was recommended by the Climate Change Authority – we need to roughly halve emissions by 2030, and again by 2040, to get near net zero emissions by 2050.
The essential transitions can be effectively and fairly planned and managed over the next three decades. With Joe Biden as the new US president the global pace will quicken markedly. It is grossly irresponsible for Morrison to duck this responsibility, wasting even more time trying to wedge the opposition and the states.