Nats off the planet

Bridget McKenzie says the Nationals are “very, very keen to make a positive, progressive contribution to the energy and emissions debate”.

All the evidence to hand suggests this is not true.

Instead, when it comes to Australia’s energy policy, the minor Coalition partner wants only to make noise and win concessions for its last remaining constituency – the resources sector.

When Barnaby Joyce stands up in parliament and calls for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to be allowed to invest in coal, he isn’t speaking to regional Australia. As much as he wants to pretend this is about regional Australia.

“The biggest issue for our nation, I hate to say, is not climate change,” he said on Tuesday night, flagging his pro-coal amendment in the senate. “The biggest issue is the pre-eminence of China as a growing superpower, and our need to make this nation as strong as it possibly can be.”

And this apparently means holding on to an already outdated fuel that has no future.

Similarly, neither Bridget McKenzie nor Matt Canavan are speaking to regional Australia when they try to shoehorn nuclear power into the remit of the CEFC.

It’s been a long time since the Nationals abandoned the bush. While the National Farmers’ Federation calls for net zero by 2050, the Nats rail about “high efficiency, low emissions coal” and “carbon capture and storage”.

It’s as though the former allies are now in different realities. Or perhaps more accurately, that the latter is entirely unconcerned with reality.

The CEFC began in the Gillard years as an ambitious plan to funnel $10 billion into clean energy technologies. At no point has that meant coal.

For a long time, because of the puerility of our politics, it didn’t mean wind technology either.

Successive governments have tried to reshape and twist the CEFC to their will. The Morrison government has seen in it a chance to prop up its fuel of choice – gas. It has offered up $1 billion in additional funding for the bank in the form of a grid reliability fund.

But this is merely an attempt to underwrite new gas projects, redefining gas as a “low emissions technology”.

There is nothing here for the future of the country. No care for the country, or the regions. No acknowledgement of climate change, or the need to decarbonise our economy in the next decade.

While it may look as if the Nationals are revolting against the Liberals on energy, the Coalition is still very much in step.

Coal will be propped up for as long as it’s politically feasible; “high efficiency, low emissions”, whatever that means. Gas is being positioned as the successor for when it finally falls.

Even nuclear power is more palatable to the Coalition than renewables – which speaks to pure ideological drive at play.

Energy policy has consumed Australian politics for too long. The potential for a renewable economy is almost unlimited.

It’s time the Liberals, and their minority Coalition partner, stopped playing games and started readying for 2030.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 20, 2021 as "Nats off the planet".

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