Paul Bongiorno
Abbott’s all-out assault over energy

American baseball legend Yogi Berra was famous for malapropisms that somehow found their way into common usage. With Tony Abbott’s latest interventions, one of his most famous phrases comes instantly to mind: “It’s deja vu all over again.”

We’ve seen this movie before, as Labor’s Anthony Albanese is fond of saying, referring to Kevin Rudd’s stalking of Julia Gillard and eventually winning back the top job she had snatched from him. Unlike Rudd, though, who was subtle and sneaky in his sabotaging, Abbott smashes in and makes no attempts to disguise what he’s doing.

The context is eerily familiar. Rudd often grabbed the media’s attention the week Newspoll was in the field, knowing that a poor result would sap the confidence of his colleagues in caucus. What gives more cachet to the tactic this time is Malcolm Turnbull’s own use of the poll to explain his move on Abbott. On Tuesday, the Essential poll showed a movement back towards the government, still trailing but with a suggestion Turnbull’s switch to energy costs and “Blackout Bill” attacks could be biting.

Radio 5AA’s David Penberthy, a seasoned political watcher, wasn’t alone in tying Newspoll to Abbott’s warning he would vote against the government if Turnbull dared put up a clean energy target. Leader of the House Christopher Pyne did his level best to avoid commenting on Abbott. Though an old campaigner, Pyne couldn’t be blamed if he got heart palpitations at the suggestion the same leadership tactics Abbott and his conservative allies used back in 2009 were being employed again.

Despite the prime minister’s press office saying Abbott’s views were of little consequence – only of interest to the press gallery – they dominated Turnbull’s midweek news conference. He heroically claimed everyone in his parliamentary party was united on ensuring that Australians have affordable and reliable energy. He could have gone further and claimed the entire parliament was of that mind. It is how this is achieved, while at the same time meeting our weak emission reduction targets signed off at Paris, that is the issue. Never mind that these commitments were made while Abbott was prime minister. He now says – disingenuously – that they were only aspirations and besides, they were forced on him by cabinet (see also: Turnbull) and the senate.

As Newspoll’s researchers fired up their computers, Abbott wrote an opinion piece in The Australian with the stunning conclusion: “As for the Finkel-recommended clean energy target, it simply must be dropped. It would be unconscionable for a government that was elected promising to scrap the carbon tax and to end Labor’s climate change obsessions to go down this path.” The paper led with a report that Abbott had already formally told the Prime Minister’s Office he was prepared to cross the floor unless his objections were met.

Stripped bare in this play is the depth of Abbott’s distrust of Turnbull over climate change. He doesn’t seem to care that the prime minister is already appeasing him and his fellow climate sceptics, talking up the possibility of “clean coal” in a revised target. Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, reminded him on Sky about how, back in 2009, Turnbull tried to hoodwink the party room over accepting the Labor government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. The sceptics rebelled and Abbott seized the leadership by one vote. He clearly believes Turnbull is at it again by promising to revise the Finkel clean energy target to theoretically make room for coal.

Abbott’s ruling out of a clean energy mechanism is a sign he knows “clean coal” is a lie. The term was coined by the Queensland mining company Macarthur Coal as it lobbied against John Howard’s proposal for a 2 per cent renewable energy target in the run-up to the 2007 election. The company’s late chief executive, Ken Talbot, believed the term was “too brazen”. It was and it still is.

Abbott has now completely abandoned any priority for emissions reduction and is calling for an end to renewable subsidies. In another big lie, he claimed the $3 billion-a-year subsidies for renewables gives them an unfair advantage. He ignores the billions of dollars in subsidies state and federal governments give to coal. For one thing, generous fuel excise tax credits cost the budget $7 billion a year. No serious energy economist, certainly not the utility companies or the banks, accept that coal is, as Abbott claims, the cheapest electricity source for the future.

The politics of the debate is as messy and as intractable as ever. It’s 2009 all over again, down to the endplay that has Turnbull’s demise as its purpose. Dragged into the political cage fight are the Nationals. Abbott claims they share his stance. Their leader, Barnaby Joyce, doesn’t deny it. He certainly peddles the same rubbish, that coal is the only future for reliable, cheaper electricity. The economics and the technology do not stack up that way. The punters are onto it.

A ReachTEL poll for The Australia Institute in two electorates at the heart of the Hunter Valley coal country, Hunter and Shortland, found strong majorities preferred government investment in renewables than in coal – 61 per cent and 57 per cent respectively. This squares with a recent national Essential poll showing strong support for renewables and continued government investment in them.

The tragedy for the nation is that Abbott is not framing his arguments in terms of ending the energy wars. Rather, he wants to inflame them. His only focus: the next election and drawing a sharp distinction between an affordable and reliable energy target against Labor’s dearer clean energy target. Forget warnings from Finkel, the Australian Energy Market Operator and others that without a long-term policy on emissions, electricity will cost more rather than less.

Bill Shorten, surely a beneficiary of renewed hostilities between Abbott and Turnbull, sums it up succinctly: “Mr Turnbull cannot fix the energy crisis in Australia until he fixes the crisis and division in the Liberal Party.” It is hard to argue with his proposition that while this internecine struggle goes on we are not getting good government. We are not getting a government capable of giving investors a clear energy policy that will guide commitments going out three to five decades. As economist Richard Denniss says, that is the time scale involved.

Playing to a much tighter timetable is the same-sex marriage survey. Its results will be announced on Wednesday, November 15. Make no mistake, if the “No” vote wins, it will be seen as a repudiation of Turnbull and spell big trouble for him. Organisers of the “Yes” campaign fear his half-baked campaigning is not helping the cause. That may have more to do with their anxiety than the prime minister’s performance. Whenever he is asked about the issue, he is cogent in his arguments for marriage equality. He has been doing more FM radio, where he knows the issue will always be raised.

But Turnbull does have to bear much of the responsibility for foisting on the Australian public a ballot that lacks statistical credibility, that is unweighted and non-compulsory. Worse, there is no guarantee widespread fraud is not being committed. Ballots are being delivered insecurely and there’s no real way of knowing if multiple voting isn’t occurring. Pauline Hanson calls it a farce, with some justification. Sources within the Australian Bureau of Statistics are aghast at the task they have been given.

But those in favour of marriage equality know this is their last best chance to get it done this term, short of a significant rebellion on the government benches. That will not happen if the “No” vote wins. No matter how dubious the result is perceived to be, even poorly conducted opinion polls shape perceptions.

In an effort to mobilise supporters of same-sex marriage, Turnbull joined postal survey architect and “No” campaigner Peter Dutton in warning that if the proposal goes down, that’s it for a long time. Obviously a “Yes” win will be quickly banked, although opponents are sure to try frustrating the legislative process over religious freedom concerns.

Encouragingly for the prime minister, the two senior conservatives watching his back, Dutton and Mathias Cormann, have not supported Abbott or former prime minister John Howard in demanding that religious freedom measures be spelt out now. Like the rest of the “No” campaign, unable to argue against giving same-sex attracted Australians the same civil rights as everyone else, they are poring over the fine detail of process and running every red herring and grotesque fear imaginable.

There are some indications it is working. A poll in the Fairfax papers a couple of weeks ago suggested support for “Yes” is falling. An analysis in BuzzFeed showed that in the first week of the survey mailout the “No” campaign was mentioned in the media almost four times as often as the “Yes” campaign, and the sentiment was overwhelmingly neutral. And if commercial television is any guide, the “No” campaign is massively outspending the “Yes” campaign.

Standby for more deja vu all over again, no matter what Monday’s Newspoll finds.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2017 as "Abbott channels Yogi energy".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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