MIL-Evening Report: Grattan on Friday: the spectre of Abbott looms behind Dutton’s energy strategy

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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

In his assault this week on the Albanese government’s climate policy, Peter Dutton is taking the Liberals right back to Tony Abbott’s days.

It’s a bold, risky big-target strategy, characterised by a truck load of negativity, as well as laced with a dash of policy adventurism.

Former chief scientist Ian Lowe, in an article in the Guardian, declared, “Given community attitudes, it looks like the silliest political death wish in recent history”.

But some in Labor quickly identified it as a Dutton “two-stage” strategy. Run hard at the suburban seats, where people are heavily under the financial pump. Abandon the teal seats for the moment. Try to force Anthony Albanese into minority government. Then hope in the next term to exploit whatever instability might arise.

That was the path that took Abbott – like Dutton, an unlikely Liberal leader – to government. Of course Dutton would have to hang onto the leadership through a second term in opposition (made a bit easier by not having Josh Frydenberg around).

Dutton’s climate strategy relies on tapping into two major current grievances: the cost-of-living pain and the resistance in many communities to the rollout of renewable energy infrastructure.

As opposition leader, Abbott labelled Labor’s carbon pollution reduction scheme as a “great big new tax on everything”.

Dutton has an update on an old theme, attacking the Albanese government’s 43% 2030 emissions reduction target – Australia’s pledge under the Paris climate agreement – as set to “destroy the economy”.

Abbott’s campaign yielded a political return for him, at a substantial cost for energy policy in Australia. But times have moved on in this never-ending climate debate, and Dutton’s climate policy-walk is through quicksand.

A pointed question was asked this week, at an Albanese news conference. Given cost of living was the top issue for people, did Australians want another election fought on climate change?

Probably not. To bring off his gamble, Dutton will need to convince voters Australia’s climate targets are harming them via their energy bills. Moreover, he’ll need to persuade them the energy transition can be safely slowed, and that nuclear power is credible and desirable.

That’s a big selling task. And so far, the opposition has embarked on it with extraordinary sloppiness.

Months ago, it flagged it would release its nuclear power policy before the budget. Then that was put off.

Initially, its nuclear option focused on small modular reactors. Then it switched to larger reactors, to be located on or near coal-fired power stations as they retire.

In an interview with last weekend’s Australian newspaper Dutton declared the 2030 target was unachievable. But he did not indicate whether a Coalition government would stay in the Paris agreement. Shadow Energy Minister Ted O’Brien had to clean up, saying a Dutton government would not seek to exit Paris.

Such untidiness is a feature of the Dutton opposition, typically opening it to attack by its opponents and leaving the public confused.

Political research will sit behind Dutton’s lines. When we look at the public research, the recently-released Lowy Institute 2024 poll shows a complex picture.

In that poll, 57% said global warming was a serious and pressing problem about which “we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”. Only 30% said the problem should be addressed “but its effects will be gradual so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost”.

There were age and political differences. The young are more galvanised than the old by the warming
threat, as are Labor supporters compared to Coalition supporters.

Beyond the generalised attitudes, the trends on the related issue of energy are very relevant. Some 48% say reducing household energy bills should be the main priority for the government’s energy policy. This is a 16 point increase from 2021. Those who say reducing carbon emissions should be the main priority have fallen 18 points to 37%.

The results show how altered circumstances over time do change people’s priorities (and of course these can change back).

The Dutton strategy is a back-end loaded policy, with less effort now (kicking much of the problem into the long grass) and relying on nuclear power after 2040 for a sprint to net zero 2050, a target Dutton says the Coalition still supports. Progress to 2050 doesn’t have to be linear, he says.

The government’s argument is that the energy transition, albeit difficult, is urgent and progress must be cumulative; trashing our 2030 target will undermine both investor confidence and Australia’s international reputation.

Dutton says he won’t announce what targets a Coalition government would have until after the election. Clearly such targets, if they ever materialised, would be less than Labor’s.

This position would lose the Coalition some votes. Dutton would be relying on other voters not being too fussed about his lack of targets. That would allow him to concentrate on attacking not just the government’s current 2030 target but the 2035 target it has to lodge under the Paris agreement early next year.

The government is potentially more vulnerable in the debate over the 2035 target than in the current row over the 2030 one.

The Climate Change Authority makes a recommendation by October to Energy Minister Chris Bowen on what the 2035 target should be. In its discussion paper, the authority has floated a range of 65–75% emissions reduction on 2005 levels. The authority believes this “could be achievable and sustainable if additional action is taken by governments, business, investors and households to achieve it”.

That would be a substantial lift in ambition from the 2030 target of 43% reduction, especially given there is dispute about whether that can be reached.

The government doesn’t have to accept the authority’s recommendation if it decided it was too high. But if it rejected it, it would open itself to an onslaught from the Greens.

As for the Greens, they are saying if a Dutton government tried to backtrack on the current 2030 target, it would breach the legislation the Albanese government passed to enshrine the target. (That could open a Coalition government to legal action, assuming it could not repeal the legislation.)

In practice, despite what Dutton says about returning to government in one term, under a two-term strategy he would not anticipate having to face that problem any time soon. The early herculean challenge Dutton does face is selling nuclear power to voters.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Grattan on Friday: the spectre of Abbott looms behind Dutton’s energy strategy – https://theconversation.com/grattan-on-friday-the-spectre-of-abbott-looms-behind-duttons-energy-strategy-232380

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