Peter Dutton’s naked politicking over power prices is as cynical as it is calculating | Katharine Murphy

The opposition leader is determined to reheat the climate wars, via whatever means and whatever the costs to Australia

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, had a very fine moment in the House of Representatives on Thursday, mourning two police officers slain in the line of duty. He struggled to contain his emotions as he visualised their final, terrible, minutes on a property in rural Queensland. His tribute was sincere, and moving.

Less fine, sadly, was the naked politicking on show over energy price relief, which was the primary reason MPs returned to Canberra out of session. Dutton elected to vote in favour of higher power prices on Thursday because that aligns with a strategic choice he made to resist Labor’s policy prescriptions.

Dutton’s political calculation is simple. Looking ahead to 2023, the Liberal leader thinks power bills will go on rising. He’s right about this. The price intervention the Albanese government legislated on Thursday is designed to take the edge off the increases, not prevent them altogether. Dutton intuits a voter backlash once people realise there are no magic wands to fully ameliorate a global energy shock.

Any discussion of energy prices also happens in the shadow of the inexorable transition to low-emission power generation. In addition to sustained high prices, Dutton thinks the energy transition Labor has telegraphed is going to be a debacle, because it will be difficult, practically, to roll out the required high voltage transmission infrastructure in an environment of labour shortages and capacity constraints. We know Dutton thinks this, because he’s been saying it for months.

I suspect Dutton also thinks Australia’s big emitters will start shouting from the rooftops shortly in the event the government requires them to substantially reduce emissions, as part of the looming overhaul of the safeguard mechanism. In Dutton’s mind, these are elements of a perfect storm.

Right now, things are placid. The bedrock of Anthony Albanese’s political success over the past six months has been toning down the polarisation, the aggro, the rolling contention. Dutton’s objective is to make sure things get hectic. A sustained cost of living crisis, and the lack of simple solutions to it, is an accelerant to stoke voter disaffection about the incumbent government.

In saying no to Labor’s legislation on Thursday, Dutton isn’t prosecuting the politics of 15 December 2022. He’s making a calculation about how things will look and sound a year from now.

If this sounds cynical, it is.

Dutton hid behind process as an excuse for not supporting Labor’s legislation. The opposition couldn’t reward terrible law-making.

In fairness to Dutton, the process of drafting the energy price relief legislation certainly would not win any public service prizes. But hectic drafting in a crucible of strenuous third-party lobbying is hardly a unique event in Canberra.

As well as his high-minded process objection, Dutton determined there was an important principle at stake. The vibe of the thing was governments shouldn’t stomp around directing play in the gas market, because, hashtag, capitalism.

Bear in mind this is the same Coalition that scrapped a market mechanism to govern the energy transition and replaced that framework with its own Soviet-style government interventions, including, but not limited to the “big stick” aimed directly at price gouging energy companies.

Just for the record, the “big stick” (whittled down after intercessions from horrified Liberal backbenchers) originally included a divestiture power to break up private companies. There was also that taxpayer-funded underwriting program (now retired by the new government), where the Coalition (as opposed to hashtag capitalism) would determine types of new investment in power generation.

If Dutton is now suddenly remembering that market intervention is a terrible thing he’d best wind back the clock 10 years and persuade Tony Abbott not to lead us to the place we’ve landed; the place where sensible national interest policy is constantly hobbled by intra-day politics.

That bit of time travel would be a public service. But far from unravelling the harm, Dutton wants to freshen up the climate wars via whatever means.

By opposing Labor’s legislation, Dutton made it very clear on Thursday he doesn’t want energy prices that inconvenience the gas industry. He won’t countenance the necessity of fossil fuels having a finite life. The answer to every question, according to Dutton, is more gas supply, even though climate science demands something else.

Thursday’s parliamentary debate felt like a hinge point, because it was.

MPs were debating a temporary price cap and additional support for low and middle-income households through consumer rebates. This was a consumer Band-Aid in extraordinary times, not a revolution.

But everyone in the chamber caught a glimpse of the future. A government with the temerity to inconvenience the gas industry with a modest intervention is a government prepared to walk a path towards the end of fossil fuels.

The gas industry can see that too, hence the agitation. At one point on Thursday, Adam Bandt pointed to the elephant in the room. “Today is the beginning of the end for gas,” the Greens leader declared.

Bandt is sprinting well ahead of present reality. The “end” of gas has a very long tail. But the point the Greens leader was making is that the zeitgeist has changed.

Ten years ago, a Labor government with the temerity to attempt to impose a super profits tax on Australia’s miners was near run out of town by the fossil fuel industry. Ten years ago, Abbott amplified the self-serving bollocks of the fossil fuels industry about carbon pricing to win an election. Voters believed that mendacity, and cast their ballots accordingly.

Roll forward through the lost decade, to the present reality of living with a climate crisis, the gas industry finds itself near friendless – apart from the Coalition parties lining up loyally on the wrong side of history.

The moral of Thursday is simple. Labor felt on safe political ground inconveniencing the gas industry. Dutton is fully intent on making that ground feel less safe.


Katharine Murphy

The GuardianTramp

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