Frydenberg escapes with dignity (mostly) intact after Weatherill's Adelaide ambush | Katharine Murphy

When the federal energy minister was joined by the South Australian premier in a garage, he copped a verbal punch in the face

I’ve read somewhere that an unnatural quiet presages an incoming tsunami.

And so it was on Thursday, when the South Australian premier, Jay Weatherill, and the federal energy and environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, sat up in dignitaries’ row, straight-backed, avoiding eye contact, at the unveiling of a virtual power plant in a suburban garage in Adelaide.

Weatherill’s jaw might have been just that little bit fixed, and Frydenberg’s cheeks just that little bit rosy as he found himself squeezed between a premier and his treasurer, Tom Koutsantonis, but the platitudes were dutifully mouthed.

It seemed a bit odd that two politicians who have been going at each other hammer and tongs at a distance of hundreds of kilometres for the best part of six months would be suddenly sitting together in a garage in Adelaide, with their energy plans splayed across their chests like shields.

It seemed a bit off script. The whole purpose of a whipping boy (and that’s the role the Turnbull government has sought to cast South Australia in, Jay Weatherill, chief occupant of the naughty corner) is to remain at a discrete distance.

In the corner. In the corridor outside. Banished.

Rather like that virtual power station in the Adelaide garage, the Turnbull government versus Jay Weatherill is supposed to be a virtual boxing match, entirely bloodless.

It’s just meant to crackle and hiss, the epitome of Australia’s busted, conflict-addled, half-unhinged politics – just some cheap static on the airwaves and the interwebs.

What passes in this country for political discourse mirrors the casual viciousness of contemporary culture, where the hardest smackdowns are reserved for people we don’t need to make eye contact with. We rage most against the people we are highly unlikely to meet.

Canberra v Adelaide is the political equivalent of the vitriolic text, or the social media troll.

Weatherill wasn’t meant be there, in the room, sitting right there, when you are bagging him – he’s meant to be somewhere else. But there he was, like an Easter Island statue.

Present. And not moving.

Weatherill in Labor politics is known for his toughness. Frydenberg sets great store on being genial. Oil was about to meet water.

As the journalists circled the protagonists, aware they were a heartbeat away from full-tilt mayhem, Frydenberg started by keeping it keeping it light and bright.

Stepping deftly around the Great Wind Farm War, the federal energy minister made the short sprint to motherhood. He noted when it came to energy policy, “we all have a vested stake in its success”.

As the questions got curlier, Frydenberg strained at the outer limits of charm and diplomacy.

When Frydenberg was asked whether the announcement he was there to trumpet in the garage “was designed to embarrass the state government”, we’d reached the point when truth would out.

“To be honest, I didn’t even know Jay was going to be here.”

Suddenly the strained suburban tableau made sense. An ambush! In genteel Adelaide of all places.

Except the ambush theory became a bit frayed when it became known later that AGL had known for a week the premier would be present at the festivities on Thursday.

A bit strange that the company would have neglected to tell Frydenberg his chief combatant was also popping by.

And it turns out AGL did tell Frydenberg Weatherill would be present. On Wednesday night. So the minister was warned. Which made the “I’m the victim here guys” protestation from Frydenberg somewhat thin.

In any case, Frydenberg, having made his plaintive dash for the high ground, for the please like me status, whacked up the wattage and ploughed on. “I welcome his presence because we need to work together, federal and state governments, the private sector and elsewhere to ensure the stability of the system.”

Weatherill bided his time while the motherhood rolled. The premier was looking for his cue, which eventually came.

“Do you find this a bit galling, premier?”

Six months of distilled fury in eight sentences.

“Yes, it shows that the commonwealth government are in a white-knuckled panic about national energy policy,” Weatherill said. “[Thursday’s Snowy Hydro commitment] is a $2bn admission that the national energy market has broken and there needs to be public investments to actually fix it up. That is exactly what was at the heart of our plan. We won’t wait four to seven years to invest in some Snowy Hydro scheme. We are investing here so that SA can become self sufficient.

“I have to say it is a little galling to be standing here next to a man who has been standing up with his prime minister bagging SA at every step of the way over the last six months to be standing here on this occasion, him suggesting that we want to work together.

“It is a disgrace the way in which your government has treated our state.

“It is the most anti-SA government we have seen from a commonwealth government in living memory.”

There was no platitudinous way back from that pithy summation, so things escalated, as Koutsantonis smirked and nodded quietly in the background, and some poor corporate bod from AGL smiled and smiled as if his heart might break.

The journalists, naturally, were interested in Frydenberg’s response to the premier’s analysis.

Perhaps he’d like to respond while they were “face to face”, one reporter prompted, possibly a bit pointedly, given nerves were as tight as piano wires.

Frydenberg ground his jaw and rocked on the balls of his feet. Motherhood made way to mauling.

“The premier made a $550m admission of failure a couple of days ago,” Frydenberg said, back on his television and radio talking points. “Clearly, he has a big job to do to explain to the SA people why, on his watch, the lights went out, not once, not twice, not three times but four times.

“Unfortunately for Jay Weatherill, he has to explain to the SA people why they are paying nearly 50% more for their electricity than other people across the national electricity market.”

Then, as hastily convened fight clubs tend to go, the two suits took it outside. They were still firing off the left-right combinations as they made their way to their cars.

Weatherill was muttering about “trash-talking SA’s leadership in renewable technology and they have the gall to stand here next to a renewable energy project and pretend it’s happy families”.

“We won’t cop that,” the premier noted mid-flight.

Frydenberg, a resilient and malleable character, managed to escape the garage still in possession of his suit coat, and a measure of dignity.

The federal minister washed up alone on a footpath. How did it feel to cop a verbal punch to the face?

Dignity, always dignity, at least while the cameras are rolling.

Frydenberg, who had been chuckling quietly to himself, quickly assumed the gravitas face.

“Maybe Tom will be the next premier of South Australia because I think, after Jay Weatherill’s conduct today, the public would think that is pretty unbecoming and childish and pretty unacceptable for a senior political figure of their state to behave,” Frydenberg said, trying not to obviously look for the safety of the car.

Like everything in Australia’s hopelessly fractured climate and energy policy, it was part head-on collision, part high farce.

It was every man for himself. It was pure adrenalin-thumping spectacle, and contention and fracture.

The climate policy fight club rolls on.

Meanwhile, the rest of us, trapped outside, looking on with ever-increasing incomprehension, just go on living with the consequences.


Katharine Murphy

The GuardianTramp

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