By Colin Chapman
Malcolm Turnbull has put Australia’s weak energy security at the heart of his government’s attempts to win back public support, as well as a new drive to try and get the Coalition’s company tax cuts through the Australian Senate.
A somewhat languid Canberra press corps received his 2017 keynote message to the National Press Club with only modest enthusiasm. The lack of rigour in the monitored questions that followed the autocue-delivered speech may be an indication of the uphill battle the prime minister faces to restore confidence in his leadership.
As Peta Credlin, former chief-of-staff to Turnbull’s predecessor Tony Abbott and now co-presenter of a new political show on Sky News, put it: “I’m not sure the prime minister’s message will resonate much in Western Sydney, where the Liberal Party lost seats in the last election”.
Still, Turnbull has seized on an area of weakness in Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s armoury. Twenty-four hours earlier Shorten had reaffirmed Labor’s commitment to 50 per cent of Australia’s energy supply coming from renewable sources. But, under questioning, he was unable to spell out how much this policy would add to business’ and families’ costs.
Turnbull, who reminded his audience that he had come to politics from business – where such practical issues were at the core of decision-making – insisted that energy security would be the defining political debate of 2017, and said building new low-emission coal-fired power stations had to be part of the energy mix.
“We have an abundance of coal, gas, sun and wind resources, not to mention uranium”, Turnbull said, yet our energy is among the most expensive in the OECD. The (Australian) states are setting huge renewable targets, far beyond that of the national target, with no attention given to the baseload power and storage needed for stability. South Australia, now with the most expensive and least secure energy, has had its wake-up call. One storm blacked out an entire State.
“But Labor snores on, heedless of what awaits the rest of the country if Labor governments, and would-be governments, continue their mindless rush into renewables. This is not good enough. Australia should be able to achieve the policy trifecta of energy that is affordable, reliable and secure, and that meets our substantial global emissions reduction commitments as agreed in the Paris climate change treaty.” Saying that national energy policy should be “technologically agnostic”, Turnbull added: “Families and businesses need reliable and affordable power. Nothing will more rapidly de-industrialise Australia and deter investment more than more, and more expensive, let alone less reliable, energy.”
The prime minister also strongly reinforced commitment to free trade saying “we cannot retreat into the bleak dead-end of protectionism”.
Turnbull argued passionately that education is a government priority, but insisted it was not just about money. “My commitment to great teachers in great schools for all Australian kids is not a political soundbite,” he said. “The truth is we invest record amounts in Australian schools and will continue to do so each and every year into the future. But not enough attention is paid to the question of outcomes. Over the last decade Commonwealth school funding increased by nearly 50% in real terms, but student outcomes actually declined. How can it be that funding is increasing but results are going backwards? “Our focus must be, at all times, on improving outcomes. This includes implementing our measures to improve teacher quality.”