Having been rabbiting on for weeks about energy, Malcolm Turnbull has finally managed to summon up a little for himself.
True, his big announcements about gas and hydro last week were more sound and fury than action: just what and when the benefits may be are, to put it mildly, optimistic. But at least he can say that he is being seen to be doing something. That’s a start.
Gas was the easy bit. Having gathered the moguls to Canberra, he told them, effectively, to pull the fluff out of their burners or he would do – well, it wasn’t quite clear what he would do, but he had enormous powers, you just bet you can, as Tony Abbott might put it in a similar fit of bravado.
So Turnbull gave his orders: ensure that there will be enough gas held locally if there are crises. And the bloated gas bags were only to happy to concur, at least a couple of them were, which was enough to secure Turnbull bragging rights. But what was missing was just how this process would be implemented, and more particularly, what it would cost.
Presumably whatever the market will bear: that has been the invariable approach of the industry and what has produced the world glut which has actually seen Australian gas shipped to Japan and then shipped back to Australia to be sold at an exorbitant price. Australian consumers already pay for Australian gas through the nose, and the Turnbull plan will not, as they gleefully predict, make things any cheaper.
But hey, that’s private enterprise isn’t it? Well, it has been, but our free marketeer prime minister has just stuck a major spanner in the works: demands for local protection and threats of government (socialist!) intervention.
It has been an article of faith among the Liberal Party that the market rules – any attempt by the central government to impose limits to its free-wheeling greed have to be resisted. And for most of the Australian economy this has been the case: a huge range of Australian resources have been exported to the highest bidder, and what has been left for the locals has become prohibitively expensive as a result. Our choicest food items (think particularly seafood, but there are other examples), our art works, our businesses, our land and our homes have all been thrown into the unruly auction.
Occasionally there has been enough public outrage to secure a brief reprieve, but it is always regarded as the exception. The default position is that free trade is always good; protectionism is always bad. Other countries are not so pure: travellers to the United States and the Middle East are constantly astonished at how cheap the price of petrol is there – there is none of this ideology about observing world parity prices. So in a sense Turnbull is only belatedly catching up. But it is a mighty backflip nonetheless.
The projected two billion dollar rejig of the venerable scheme is indeed a game changer – nation building, even visionary. But it is also not much more than a thought bubble at present.
The hydro bit – the new Snowy scheme – is easier to manage. Through the governments in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, the Snowy Mountains Hydro Authority is under 100 per cent public control so if – and it is pretty big if – the three governments can get their acts together it should be relatively straightforward. But the fact that neither of the states were given any warning, let alone consultation, before Turnbull revealed his wizard wheeze does not bode well.
The projected two billion dollar rejig of the venerable scheme is indeed a game changer – nation building, even visionary. But it is also not much more than a thought bubble at present – not even a blueprint for a feasibility study. If it ever comes to fruition, it will take along time – certainly longer than the climate-changed induced weather events that have made it the ultimate solution.
And, once again, it will not be cheap. Quite apart from the capital cost, we are told that there will, effectively, be no extra demands for water, either for power, irrigation or conservation once the new tunnels and generators have been installed. Apparently the idea is that once the water has flowed downhill to the turbines when they are need, it can be pumped back uphill when they are not.
The catch is that pumping it uphill will require more power than that delivered when it runs downhill – unless Malcolm Turnbull has invented perpetual motion, it will involve a nett loss of energy, which, presumably, will have to be made up by finding other sources for the pumps. Presumably we are still talking about coal or gas, and of course this will be not-so-hidden cost if the bean counters have their way.
And Turnbull’s grand project will be a long time coming; apart from the usual problems with the states and the administrative hurdle. Most particularly the environmental ones, which were envisaged in the fist Snowy scheme, it is a safe bet that there will be delays and cost overruns – and that is assuming that climate change has not already dried up the rain and snow that are needed to fill the dams in the first place.
But it is hard not to be at least mildly enthused by Turnbull’s concept. The first Snowy Scheme was derided as folly – wasteful and uneconomic. Turning the rivers west and unleashing hydro power would never yield a profit. And indeed, it was a long time before it did. But the great windfall gain was the huge influx of post war migrants who banded together to forge the great idea, and with it a new kind of nation. It is not overstating it to say that the Snowy was the birthplace of the multicultural society, the boldest and most successful achievement in the history of modern Australia, if not the world – as Turnbull himself has said.
It is too much to expect that Snowy Mark Two would produce a similar dividend – but we can hope. And perhaps the most important message from the prime minister’s belated call to arms last week was just that it is worth a try. And at last Malcolm Turnbull is trying, and for that too there may still be hope.