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Frydenberg gets agreement on energy policy, but a bigger hurdle awaits

national energy guarantee goes to next stage
Josh Frydenberg got states' approval to advance the NEG to the next stage. Photo: AAP
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It would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic. This week’s scramble by the major parties to claim credit for the banking royal commission is the latest example of politicians treating voters like goldfish in the hope we won’t notice just how craven their politics have become.

If it weren’t for the Coalition and Labor being more concerned with political point-scoring than giving the financial sector the additional scrutiny it now clearly needs, at least some of the cases of unscrupulous banking behaviour might not have occurred.

It’s ridiculous that Coalition ministers and Labor shadow ministers are squabbling over who has the greater right to wear the bank-busting superhero’s cape. In reality, neither has much of a claim.

The government was forced into establishing the banking royal commission by rogue Nationals MPs who were facing pressure from their constituents and threatened to help Labor set up a similar inquiry that would be answerable to the Parliament and not the government.

Labor was also opposed to a banking royal commission until former Labor senator Sam Dastyari shamelessly stole the idea from the Greens once he saw how popular it was with voters.

That is, neither of the major parties was remotely interested in placing scrutiny on bank behaviour until they realised there were votes to be gained from doing so.

The same thing is also happening with energy policy, although it isn’t the major parties that are prioritising politics over voters’ interests in this case.

Energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg managed this week to move the nation one step closer to a policy that will deliver what many energy analysts say is an impossible trifecta – electricity that is affordable, reliable and has decreasing greenhouse emissions.

At Friday’s meeting with the nation’s state and territory energy ministers, Mr Frydenberg received their approval to move to the next stage in the development of the national energy guarantee (NEG).

The NEG is an ambitious, some might say ‘brave’ attempt by Mr Frydenberg, to integrate energy and climate policy by phasing out the requirement for a proportion of electricity to come from renewable sources, and replace it with two new requirements.

Instead, a share of electricity will have to come from ‘lower-emission’ sources (which might include gas and the latest in coal-based generation technology as well as renewables) and a share from ‘dispatchable’ sources.

Dispatchable energy helps to keep the electricity grid stable, and will be needed increasingly as more variable renewable energy enters the grid from rooftop solar as well as wind farms and solar farms.

It traditionally comes from gas and hydro, but can also be provided by battery storage, such as the Tesla big battery in South Australia, which is already providing the service.

The NEG is by no means a perfect policy – it’s more like a camel created by a committee that was trying to build a racehorse. But it’s better than nothing, because doing nothing will continue the uncertainty in the energy market that has prevented investors from building the energy projects needed to bring electricity prices down.

But we could end up with nothing, if the various political players get their way. At one end of the spectrum, the Greens have called the NEG a ‘dog’ because it doesn’t cut greenhouse emissions deeply or quickly enough.

The Greens’ position echoes its opposition to Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme. If the minor party had worked with PM Rudd to implement the scheme instead of taking the moral high ground on climate action, there would have been less reason for Mr Rudd to be dumped, and perhaps even less for Tony Abbott to replace Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader at the time.

It’s tempting to ponder whether Australia would be a very different place today if not for that decision by the Greens.

Not only did it set off the chain of events that led to two party leaders being rolled, it created the opportunity for Mr Abbott (assisted by strategist Peta Credlin) to transform climate policy from a mostly bipartisan affair into a partisan political weapon.

Neither Mr Abbott nor Ms Credlin wants to see Liberal and Labor energy ministers come to an agreement on the NEG. They’re both on the record claiming that energy (along with immigration) should be the policy on which the government picks a fight with the opposition, in order to win the next federal election.

The boosters and acolytes of Mr Abbott in the media and the Parliament may criticise the NEG on the basis that it doesn’t favour coal, but that is little more than a ploy – their real objective is to scuttle the NEG in the interests of political product differentiation. And of course to undermine Mr Turnbull.

Having managed to keep the state and territory energy ministers in the tent over the NEG this week, which is no mean feat, Mr Frydenberg will have to redouble his salesmanship efforts in the coming weeks to ensure the bulk of his Coalition colleagues continue to resist the Monash Forum’s sword-rattling over coal.

It may be overly nostalgic to pine for the days when politicians believed they only had to get the policy right, and the politics would follow. But in the case of the NEG, this old adage is more than likely to hold true.

Only by working together to establish the imperfect NEG, and then cooperating to improve it, will our governments signal that our interests are more important than our votes.

And only then, if they must, the politicians can squabble over who has the greater right to wear the electricity-superhero’s cape.

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