Why is energy policy dividing the Coalition?

Mr Turnbull’s plans could be derailed – not by Labor or the Greens, but from his own backbench and in particular by former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

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Energy policy remains a thorny issue for the Coalition, and for this PM as he navigates the politics of his own party.

Sitting with like-minded panellists on Sky News, Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott sent a warning signal.

“It would be unconscionable – I underline that word, unconscionable – for a government that was originally elected promising to abolish the carbon tax and to end Labor’s climate obsessions to go further down this renewable path. I think the important thing is that the partyroom, if necessary, saves the government from itself.”

To the nods and agreements of his former Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, and conservative commentator Alan Jones, Mr Abbott outlined his opposition to subsidising new wind and solar products, and insisted that the Clean Energy Target – a key recommendation of Chief Scientist Alan Finkel – should be dropped.

Mr Abbott went further, suggesting he would vote against Coalition government legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if incentives are given to renewable or clean energy sources, threatening the Coalition’s slim one-seat majority in the Lower House.

It piles pressure on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as he and Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg, work on developing their policy, and deciding whether the Clean Energy Target would be set below the Finkel review’s recommendation, or dropped entirely.

“It’s not an ideological issue. It’s not coal versus renewables or gas versus coal or wind versus solar. It’s all of the above. What we need is leadership on energy, which I am providing and my government is providing, which is based on engineering and economics. The days of ideology and idiocy, which is what we had from Labor, have left Australians paying far too much for their power and power system that is not as reliable as it ought to be.”

But such leadership as Malcolm Turnbull is hoping to provide on energy, has long been fraught with division within his own party room, despite his adamant denials.

“Everyone in the coalition, of which Mr Abbott is a member, are united on ensuring that Australians have affordable and reliable energy. We are all absolutely of one mind.”

Coalition frontbenchers, including Alan Tudge, appeared to back the Prime Minister but his remarks to the ABc revealed it may be semantics under debate.

“I’m very confident Minister Frydenberg will be able to negotiate sensible policy where all of us can agree upon it. But again, I re-emphasise, all of us are at one in ensuring energy must be affordable, and having some extraordinarily high and arbitrary rate in relation to clean energy will not achieve that outcome.”

But the difficulty for Mr Turnbull is that his fondness for renewable energy is well known.

Back in 2009, as Opposition leader, his support for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s proposed Emissions Trading Scheme contributed to his downfall.

The beneficiary at the time was none other than Mr Abbott, who in a party room leadership ballot toppled Mr Turnbull by one vote.

Coal-generated electricity then became a victorious battleground for Mr Abbott who centred his attacks on Labor’s carbon pricing mechanism, legislated by subsequent PM Julia Gillard.

Now Mr Abbott’s hoping this will again work in his favour.

Energy policy researcher, Dr Hugh Saddler from the Australian National University, outlines why this might be problematic for the energy sector.

“Some members of the governing parties are obsessively attached to hanging on to old superseded technologies, that is mainly technologies that make electricity by burning coal to make steam to drive steam turbines. That has two major defects: firstly it is much more emission-intensive than any other way of making electricity, and secondly it’s higher-cost than modern, lower-emission technology that is being taken up all around the world.”

But statewide power blackouts in South Australia last year, and the overall cost on households, have created great scepticism about shifting to a more prominent mix of solar and wind in Australia’s electricity generation.

Dr Saddler again:

“In many parts of Australia, they are somewhat complementary. Because of course solar has the best output towards the middle of the day, but there are many parts of Australia where it’s much windier at night than in the day, so to a significant degree they can be complementary. And there are some numerous new renewable electricity generation projects now being constructed, such as locations in North Queensland – none at present, but there’s an enormous quantity now being built and there are sites up there where the two are very complementary.”

While Mr Abbott has also found friends in the National party willing to follow his lead, Labor leader Bill Shorten is happy to highlight the division.

“He’s got to toughen up to Tony Abbott, stop standing in the way of good investment policy which will deliver reliable energy. And we need to start getting agreement on a clean energy target, and that is what the chief scientist has said. You know, if I have to pick in a beauty parade between Tony Abbott and the right wing of the Liberal party, or the chief scientist, my vote goes to the chief scientist and his fact-based efforts to ensure that we’ve got proper pricing for energy and sustainable energy into the future.”