News National The coal Coalition’s energy fight is making Turnbull’s job harder

The coal Coalition’s energy fight is making Turnbull’s job harder

Australia may be moving away from coal, but the government needs a fix on energy prices.
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By many accounts Malcolm Turnbull last week had one of his best weeks in Parliament.

The reason? He got the focus off the legitimacy of his government and on to energy, its cost and reliability. Something that hits the bullseye of voters’ concerns.

But if the Fairfax-Ipsos poll is any guide, he has a lot more work – a hell of a lot more – to make it a winner for him and the government.

Although something funny is going on: while his approval is still negative, Mr Turnbull is far and away the preferred prime minister, improving his lead over Labor’s Bill Shorten.

An indication that the Prime Minister takes little comfort from that result is his resorting to schoolyard name-calling: “Blackout Bill” for Mr Shorten, “Brownout Butler” for the shadow energy minister Mark Butler and “No coal Joel” for Joel Fitzgibbon, whose seat takes in the Liddell power station.

The Coalition Nationals at their federal conference at the weekend reminded everyone that just keeping the government together is a Herculean task.

joyce turnbull
The coal coalition. Barnaby Joyce (L) and Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: AAP

The country cousins called for a scrapping of the clean-energy target and ending subsidies for renewable energy.

It was almost too much for their party leader Barnaby Joyce. He was quick to remind us this is “only guidance” from the grassroots and “not an instruction” he will attempt to bulldoze through cabinet.

Nationals mavericks could vote against Finkel report

Before Mr Turnbull and his energy minister breathe a sigh of relief, two Nationals in the House of Representatives say they will vote against any attempt to adopt the Finkel Review’s clean-energy target.

George Christensen and Keith Pitt, if they act on this threat, would scuttle not only the target, but the government, on the floor of the house.

So, if we are talking about the Nationals, it’s good to remember what one of their more notorious figures from the past often said. The late Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen used to warn how dangerous it was to walk both sides of a barbed-wire fence.

On energy, that is exactly where Mr Turnbull finds himself.

The PM accuses Labor for attacking coal while at the same time has owned up in Parliament to the reality that Australia is moving away from coal.

Mr Turnbull showed he had a much better appreciation of economic reality than his Coalition partners. With hoots from the Labor benches, he said: “There is a transition in the energy market from thermal power to cleaner energy sources of generation.”

This honesty was tempered by his blaming Labor for the fact that electricity prices are 20 per cent higher now than when it was in government four years ago – even with a carbon tax.

Oh, and any blackouts next summer are, of course, Mr Shorten’s fault.

Keeping coal plants helps Malcolm Turnbull politically

With a keen eye to the fossil fuel champions in the Nationals and their fellow travellers in his own party, Mr Turnbull has declared keeping ageing coal-fired plants going at huge expense and beyond their life span is the only solution to medium-term energy shortfalls.

The Prime Minister’s strong-arming of AGL boss Andy Vesey at a 90-minute meeting in Canberra seems to have forced a company rethink on the future of Liddell after 2022.

In effect, Mr Turnbull is attempting to make these emission-belching behemoths the political transition he needs to show he is no enemy of coal, at the same time as he puts in place a realistic clean-energy target.

His real problem is that none of this comes cheaply for consumers.

Whether they make Mr Turnbull or Mr Shorten pay for that at the next election is what all the name-calling and finger-pointing now is all about.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

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