When Tony Abbott won the Liberal Party leadership in 2009, he said the politics of climate had changed. He was referring to soaring electricity prices and his belief that blaming these price hikes on the Rudd government’s proposed climate change commitments would bring him electoral success.
It led to the demise of the carbon pollution reduction scheme (with the support of the Greens), a change of Prime Minister, and eventually inaction on climate change for well over a decade.
But this time around, the progressive politicians are getting smarter at combating arguments around electricity and petrol prices.
Last weekend, Premier Daniel Andrews took the Victorian election in a landslide with a key commitment to reinstate the State Electricity Commission (SEC). The revived state-owned energy commission will pump out 100 per cent renewable energy into the grid, which can only be achieved through significant investment into clean, green energy supply.
The SEC in Victoria was originally privatised under the Kennett government, which led to higher-than-needed prices for consumers, a reliance on coal and the offshoring of profits.
Of course, international events such as the war in Ukraine are beyond anyone’s control and foresight. Yet, our current energy crisis has shone a light on the weakness of neo-liberal ideology about what should be state-owned regulated monopolies.
Over the last two quarters, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and TotalEnergy earned over $100B more than they earned all of last year, and more than two-and-a-half times what they earned in the same quarters of 2021.
In Australia, there have been significant profits in the last two years for key firms in the ASX Energy Index, which itself is up around 48 per cent in an environment where the broader market is down five per cent over the same period (a windfall profits tax anyone?).
Both the federal election earlier this year and the Victorian result over the weekend, however, suggest an awakening on climate policy in our nation state.
A similar energy debate is brewing here in NSW. The government in Macquarie Street may take pride in its decision to privatise our state’s distributors and generators – but we’re all paying the price. Why? Simple; privatising a monopoly means monopoly profits without genuine competition.
The lack of investment and commitment in renewable energy means we haven’t built the infrastructure to ensure we can move away from coal as our primary source of energy in times of need (i.e. right now!). Opposition leader, Chris Minns, has already committed to no further privatisation in NSW – setting the scene for another energy focused campaign in this state come March 2023.
WA winners in energy costs
Western Australia, which has kept its electricity network in public hands, has seen energy prices increase less than one tenth compared to NSW.
The Victorian election shows there is a way to reverse the privatisation trend and ensure a state can control its own energy security through clean means, creating jobs (around 60,000) and reducing the whole state’s footprint on the environment.
The federal government recently announced details of its offshore wind energy program in six regions across the country, including the coal communities of the Hunter and Illawarra. This is another significant policy shift in energy supply for our grids.
In addition, and separately, the government has recently joined the Global Methane Pledge – becoming one of the last major developed economies to sign on to the effort to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent from 2020 levels by the end of this decade. Methane, which is predominantly produced by livestock, is the next big climate challenge, after fossil fuels, as it contributes around a quarter of Australia’s total emissions.
To reduce these methane emissions the government will need to support methods that curtail the impact of cattle that fart and burp!
One of the innovative ways of tackling this particular problem is through an Australian owned innovation, with companies like Seaforest leading the charge.
They produce a seaweed-based supplement that mitigates methane in livestock i.e. once they are fed the seaweed supplement, their burps and farts become 98 per cent less potent in the atmosphere! The product is already creating tangible emissions reductions and commercial benefits to farmers and feedlots.
At the last budget, the government made some modest commitments around further research into methane reduction. However, there is a long process to go in getting farmers onside to use a new feed additive. Having said that, the government controls significant levers that could one day see farmers gain carbon credits for producing cattle that are environmentally friendly. Beef eaters might also become interested in choosing food that has a lower impact on the environment.
Australia may be lagging behind after so many years of inaction, distraction and denial on climate. Only recently federal politicians (ahem, Morrison) were seen standing in the parliament with chunks of coal in their hands praising the producers of fossil fuels.
Even with all the hysteria coming from far right wing media, the good news is these recent shifts in Australian politics are indicators of real change. There is clearly a long way to go, but bold progress is being made – and as we’ve just seen again in Victoria, the people are demanding a better climate.
♦ Damian Kassabgi is a former senior policy adviser to prime ministers Gillard and Rudd.