During the 1980s, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew famously predicted that without economic reform, Australia was at risk of becoming the “white trash of Asia.”
Australia stood on the precipice of an economic abyss, with the world moving to liberalise their economies; all eyes were on us. Despite the vocal debates and the heresy entailed in making large scale reforms, our political leaders of all persuasions got on with the job.
I’m reminded of these words once again as Australia approaches the 26th United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow. Australia, once again, stands at a crossroads.
Do we have the courage of our predecessors to find a solution, or will we continue our needless paddle against the economic and environmental stream?
The lucky country, whilst so often agreeable and casual in our “she’ll be right” politics, doesn’t just seem to disagree on climate issues – we disagree on the scope of the issue, the stakeholders affected by the issue. There are some who disagree on whether it’s even an issue at all.
A Crisis of Finger-pointing
In the past few months, Coalition MPs have engaged in a very public endorsement of their prescribed political hues. Taking out opinion pieces, appearances on television, and campaigning endlessly as the drums beat on toward Glasgow.
Supported by the global shift toward more ambitious climate policy, some federal Liberal MPs have presented the case for Australia’s adoption of a net-zero carbon emissions target by 2050. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg spoke to the economic rationale; “Australia has a lot at stake,” he said during a virtual speech to business leaders in September.
“We cannot run the risk that markets falsely assume we are not transitioning in line with the rest of the world.”
“I certainly see it in our interest being part of these global agreements, and many countries, over 100, have agreed to net zero.”
Member for Wentworth Dave Sharma also chimed in, “This is a practical and technological challenge which we have a collective interest, as Australians, in solving.”
One such source of the climate disillusion from our politicians is the overstated framing of the ‘inner-city vs regional’ divide, which fails to account for the windfall economic benefits achieved for the regions in a phased shift toward renewable energy.
As the internal rumblings ensue, Nationals frontbencher Bridget McKenzie recently took aim at her parliamentary liberal colleagues’ advocacy for a net-zero target in an AFR opinion piece titled ‘It’s easy being green in Kooyong or Wentworth.’
“Jobs will be eviscerated if we don’t continue to support our bedrock industries over the coming decades,” McKenzie claims. But does this check out?
In the past decade, renewable energy has become cheaper, more reliable, and far more efficient. Simultaneously, global markets have shifted their investments from fossil fuels toward renewables. In other words, Australia has not caught up with the times, and our energy industry is suffering.
This isn’t to say that energy reforms are to be binary, leaving tens of thousands of resource workers hung out to dry, or largely forgotten about. Reforms should be targeted and ambitious, but they should also consider the livelihoods of generations of workers in such industries. There is an increased onus on our governments to phase the transition, to protect our regional workers, and to reskill them for a prosperous future.
Liberal governed states such as New South Wales and South Australia present the blueprint for cheaper electricity and greater sustainability, through hard-fought and sensible reform.
As recently as two decades ago, South Australia sourced all its electricity from fossil fuels. Last year, on the other hand, renewables supplied 60% of the state’s power, and the prices have correspondingly fallen.
In a report released by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), for the first quarter of 2021, the average cost of power per megawatt-hour during the off-peak period in South Australia was consistently negative, at $12. In layman’s terms, the grid was remarkably paying consumers to consume power – not the other way round.
As recently as Wednesday of last week, NSW Treasurer and Energy Minister Matt Kean revealed the Government’s plan to further their investment in renewables and diversify the state’s energy mix.
The hydrogen strategy will provide up to $3 billion in incentives, is forecast to increase the size of the NSW economy by more than $600 million by 2030, and will support regional workers in areas such as the Upper Hunter, Illawarra and Parkes, gearing the state as a global hydrogen leader.
“This strategy is forecast to more than half the cost of green hydrogen production in NSW and will make NSW the best place to invest in hydrogen in the world.” Mr Kean said.
“Hydrogen will not only help the State halve our emissions by 2030 and get to net-zero by 2050, it will create new opportunities for our heavy industry, and an economic bonanza of investment and jobs.”
It appears as though supporting the regions and regional workers is a multi-party, bi-partisan and universal goal within federal politics – so let’s stop pretending it’s not.
Despite the hoopla surrounding the inner-city, latte-sipping, Volvo-driving Liberals – the case for regional communities could not be clearer. Renewables are coming, and they present a massive opportunity for regional prosperity.
The Road to Glasgow
With COP26 and a federal election looming, the Morrison-Joyce government has an opportunity to re-write our scattered climate history. They may be the unlikeliest partnership to bring an end to the climate wars, but the global community may have just forced their hand.
Alok Sharma, President of COP26 stresses the point that the summit in Glasgow presents our final opportunity to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, and to limit the increase in global temperatures to 1.5˚ centigrade.
Sharma has stated that the success of the summit is contingent upon fostering global cooperation: “[The] responsibility rests with each and every country. And we must all play our part. Because on climate, the world will succeed, or fail as one.”
“We are also urging countries to take the action needed to move to a cleaner world. To consign coal power to history. To accelerate the drive to clean electric vehicles. To end deforestation. And to reduce methane emissions. All of which present historic opportunities to create jobs, create growth, and move to a healthier more secure world,” he said.
Australia sits exceedingly well-positioned to capture the global drive toward green technology. Placed in the middle of the ocean, gifted with vast swathes of sunlight, wind, and minerals – we just need our leadership to seize it. We ought to look no further than the states which have provided the roadmap for renewables, leading Australia into the 21st century.
I recall Prime Minister Lee’s assertive critique of Australia’s leadership all those years ago, as the world, once again, waits on us – lest we face the risk of becoming the “poor white trash” of the world.
Nicholas Dower is the Vice President of the Conservative Club.