Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Ripping up Tony Abbott’s legacy

Tony Abbott has a lot to answer for. The former prime minister’s judgement on the national broadband network, climate and energy have led to costly and embarrassing failures.

Now Scott Morrison is left to pick up the pieces – trying to reposition his government to be more in tune with the situation contemporary Australia is facing. But ending the culture wars so expertly leveraged by Abbott is proving a daunting, if not impossible, task. This is particularly the case with climate and energy. Repairing the damage to the nation’s information technology doesn’t excite the same ideological divides, but it has still left plenty of egg on the government’s face.

Ten years ago, when he was opposition leader, Tony Abbott dismissed Kevin Rudd’s creation, proclaiming that Australia didn’t “need” the national broadband network. For Abbott, an upgraded internet with “fibre to the premises” was just so people could watch movies and play games. As one wit at the time remarked, “Tony Abbott would have told Henry Ford that there was no need for cars, just faster horses.”

Abbott assigned his then shadow Communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to “demolish” the Labor government’s expensive indulgence. Turnbull was able to persuade his leader that wasn’t such a good idea. Unfortunately, the alternative Turnbull came up with has left the nation with a woefully inadequate service and millions of frustrated and angry consumers.

Turnbull’s fibre to the node plan, which used fibre-optic cable to junction boxes in suburbs and then reverted to century-old copper-wire technology to deliver signal to premises, has proved unfit for purpose. Its limitations, always known, have been exposed as millions work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Incumbent Communications minister Paul Fletcher hid behind the virus this week when announcing a $4.5 billion spend over the next couple of years to give about 10 million households and businesses the option of ultra-high-speed fibre connections. The government is reverting to the Rudd government plan of running high-speed fibre cables down streets to connect free of charge to homes that want it. Fletcher blamed the significant “demand for high-speed broadband” amid the pandemic for the urgency, and the price tag.

The vice-president of the Telecommunications Association (TelSoc), Laurie Patton, a long-time critic of the Abbott–Turnbull hybrid, says Australia has “wasted billions of dollars on a dud technology that has left a third of the country behind in a digitally enabled world”. Patton says this is not just an upgrade. “Most of the fibre to the node technology out in the field will be redundant and have to be junked,” he says. He’s talking about 50,000 kilometres of new copper purchased to deliver the NBN “faster and cheaper”, as Turnbull promised.

Patton praises Minister Fletcher for having the courage to admit the mistakes of his predecessors. The shadow minister, Michelle Rowland, is not so forgiving. She says Fletcher has lost “all credibility” with this belated total surrender and that Kevin Rudd and his Communications minister, Stephen Conroy, have been vindicated. “After $51 billion and seven years of lies we now know fibre was better and cheaper all along,” Rowland says.

Just as spectacular as the NBN volte-face was Malcolm Turnbull’s verdict on Scott Morrison’s “gas-led recovery” and technology road map. Sitting in the study of his Point Piper home, the former PM told Patricia Karvelas on Afternoon Briefing that the government’s energy plans were “crazy” and a “fantasy”.

According to Turnbull, Morrison and his Energy minister, Angus Taylor, have not come up with a coherent national energy policy that “integrates climate and energy”. Turnbull said that’s what his national energy guarantee did, “which Angus Taylor helped to wreck”.

Taylor has now come up with a hotchpotch, a road map that is very hard to follow. “It’s gas one minute, carbon capture and storage the next,” Turnbull says. “What you need is to set out some basic parameters, which deal with reliability, affordability and emissions reduction, and then just let the market get to work.” And not to put too fine a point on it, Turnbull said, “That’s what Liberal governments do.”

Maybe it’s what Liberal government would’ve done before Tony Abbott defined a price on carbon as a “tax”, back when they actually believed in the market’s judgement about long-term investments. Instead what we have is narrow ideology that’s sceptical of the science and beholden to blatant sectional interest from the fossil fuel industries.

Turnbull says there is a place for gas as a “peaking fuel” – something you turn on to meet peak demand – but it is simply too expensive to run 24 hours a day. He says there is “no cheap gas on the east coast”. Extracting it, delivering it and containing its emissions all add to the expense. Analysis from the Grattan Institute and others bears out Turnbull’s point, making it all the more obvious that the only way Morrison can realise his gas-fuelled vision will be by ploughing billions of taxpayers’ dollars into it. Something he is apparently willing to do.

Imagine if a Labor prime minister made the same threats and promised to spend billions in defiance of market and scientific reality? Anthony Albanese sounded every bit like the sort of Liberal that Turnbull is pining for when he was asked on Sunday how he would make up the shortfall in electricity Morrison has controversially identified. Albanese said his preference was “that markets should be allowed to operate”. He said “Labor’s preference [was] not some Brezhnev-era, state socialist model that Scott Morrison seems to have adopted”.

Turnbull, speaking from bitter experience, says, “There’s a body of opinion in the right of Australian politics in the Liberal Party and the National Party, the Murdoch press, which still clings to this fantasy that coal is best and if we can’t have coal, we will burn gas. I mean it’s bonkers. The way to cheaper electricity is renewables plus storage.”

Yet on Tuesday Taylor gave priority to five technologies he claimed would lower emissions. And he put $18 billion on the table to encourage investment in them, without ever spelling out strict goals other than they must “move the dial” down. All of these technologies extend the use of fossil fuels by preferencing gas over coal. Taylor had journalists at the National Press Club bemused by his commitment to achieve emission reductions “alongside prosperity” without any benchmark beyond the 26 per cent emissions reduction target on 2005 levels by 2030. There was no commitment from Taylor to net zero emissions by 2050.

Morrison on Sunday, in a pre-recorded interview on Insiders, three times refused to commit to the 2050 target. He, like Taylor, is now defining the Paris climate agreement in vague terms of net zero by the “second half of the century”. He is very confident that Australia will get there, but undermines his seriousness by his target coyness. Turnbull says this “second half of the century” take is not an accurate understanding of the Paris agreement at all. It expects countries to increase their stated target ambitions in the years ahead to keep warming below two degrees Celsius by mid-century. “Nobody imagines the cuts and emissions we have to date are going to be adequate,” he says.

Analysis by Guardian Australia environment editor Adam Morton in January debunked Morrison and Taylor’s claims that Australia will reach its targets “in a canter”. Spurious word games are being played, not the least of which is the boast about our Kyoto targets. In reality, Kyoto allowed Australia to increase its emissions by 8 per cent, not decrease them. And our performance has seen pitifully low levels of emissions reduction, all disguised in fudging base years and data framing.

Some believe Morrison, by announcing his “gas recovery” in the Hunter Valley, was deliberately highlighting local Labor member Joel Fitzgibbon’s crusade to blunt whatever enthusiasm remains in his party for real climate change action. To the chagrin of many in the caucus, Fitzgibbon needs no help from Morrison to wedge the party on the issue. But the prime minister is himself caught between competing constituencies.

The coal seats in central Queensland, which played a significant role in the Coalition holding power, can’t have missed the prime minister’s gas conversion, which has come at their expense. Rockhampton-based former Resources minister and Nationals heavyweight Matt Canavan certainly hasn’t.

Canavan in The Australian bluntly told the PM that gas is not the answer to our power costs. He wrote that “if we were serious about getting prices down to fuel industry, we’d focus on coal”. But as Phillip Coorey reported three years ago in The Australian Financial Review, Morrison has long understood that cheap new coal-fired power is a “myth”. Based on a leaked recording of an address Morrison gave to the Wombat Hollow Forum in the New South Wales southern highlands, Morrison debunked Abbott’s “clean coal” and said that so-called “high-efficiency low-emission” power stations are much more expensive than existing ones nearing the end of their lives.

The legacy of the Abbott years is only half buried. Morrison’s road map has a vague destination. Albanese says, “Without a destination [it] is a road to nowhere.” Mind you, while the Labor leader might know where he wants to end up by 2050, so far he hasn’t settled on his own road map. Abbott, it seems, has spooked more than just his own side.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2020 as "A high-voltage farce".

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