Bedding down an energy security policy based broadly on the Finkel model is now crucial for Malcolm Turnbull. But the issue will also test Tony Abbott’s judgement and influence, in what has long been a marquee area of difference between the two men.
Abbott is poking and prodding at the Finkel plan, raising questions and doubts about it.
He told 2GB’s Ray Hadley on Monday that two criteria were essential when judging the chief scientist’s proposal for a clean energy target (CET) that, his report says, “will encourage new low emissions generation [below a threshold level of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour] into the market in a technology neutral fashion”.
Abbott’s criteria were:
Did Finkel’s scheme take the pressure off power prices?
Did it allow coal to continue?
“My anxiety, listening to reports of the report and this statement that they’re going to reward clean or low emissions fuels while not punishing high emissions fuels, is that it’s going to be a magic pudding,” Abbott said.
“Now we all know that there is no such thing as a magic pudding. And if you are rewarding one type of energy, inevitably that money has got to come from somewhere – either from consumers or taxpayers”.
“And if it’s from consumers, well it’s effectively a tax on coal and that’s the last thing we want”.
For Abbott, the magic word “tax” conjures up his glory days of fighting the Labor government’s “carbon tax”.
Labels can make a lot of difference. As Abbott’s former chief-of-staff Peta Credlin said earlier this year of the carbon tax: “It wasn’t a carbon tax, as you know – it was many other things in nomenclature terms. We made it a carbon tax. We made it a fight about the hip pocket and not about the environment. That was brutal retail politics.”
The CET is not a “tax”, and Finkel argues that consumers will be better off than if the status quo continues – a status quo that businesses and most other stakeholders consider not to be an option.
But the scheme would disadvantage coal relative to renewables – and the extent of the disadvantage will be crucial in the debate within Coalition ranks.
In a softening up exercise, Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg lobbied backbenchers individually about the Finkel plan before Friday’s release. Government sources say the feedback is good and believe there is a strong majority that believes Finkel offers a potential way forward.
But the chairman of the government’s backbench environment and energy committee, Craig Kelly, a hardliner, wants more work done “by a couple of other independent organisations”.
In the end, the argument may come down to how “Finkel” is interpreted and the precise form in which it would be translated into practice.
Tuesday’s Coalition meeting is set to provide the first indication of whether the government’s optimism about the positive reception of the plan is solidly based.
The Nationals are vital, given their passion for coal and their original role in mobilising Coalition feeling against an emissions trading scheme. Their general position is they can live with the Finkel framework but it will be a matter of the detail, notably the threshold, with its implications for coal.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is on board, based on his pragmatic assessment that this is better than possible future alternatives. He said on Friday: “I think that if we don’t bed this down, you can see what’s happening in England or anywhere else. If you lose the election, you’re going to get a worse outcome.
"So I’d rather bed down an outcome that secures coal miners, that secures coal-fired power, because I strongly believe in its capacity to provide baseload power that fulfils our obligations in international treaties.
"If we can do that and make sure Mr and Mrs Smith get cheaper power, then of course I’m going to consider that.”
Outspoken Nationals George Christensen is waiting on more information. “I’ve got some mixed thoughts,” he says of Finkel’s plan, and wants to talk further to Frydenberg.
“I’m comfortable with measures to bring down electricity prices. But I’m not comfortable with anything like an emissions trading scheme, or a derivative thereof” – and he is not sure whether this proposal is a “derivative”.
The position of the Liberal critics will be much weakened if the Nationals get behind the Finkel plan.
Abbott will have to make a call about the mood of his colleagues and decide how hard to go on this issue in coming weeks. This area has been a signature one for him and his weakness would be highlighted if he could only attract a handful of naysayers.
Obviously, the stakes are a great deal higher for Turnbull. If things went badly for Turnbull in his pursuit of the Finkel option, it would be a major disaster for him and his government. When it comes to emissions policy, Turnbull is always walking on the edge of a sinkhole.