No Truth In Claim Dutton Needs Net Zero To Win Teal Seats

Written by:
13 June 2024
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In this article, John Roskam contextualises and disseminates the IPA’s research into net zero and energy.

When the reality of the energy transition dawns on the Australian public, the Coalition will be able to get away with leaving the Paris Agreement.

“You can’t be too right too soon and win elections.” That quip from George Romney, governor of Michigan in the 1960s, is how many federal Coalition MPs feel about net zero.

At a time in Australia before wars in Europe and the Middle East and the cost-of-living crisis, when the public believed that anything was affordable, and when politicians (both Labor and Liberal) responded by creating or supporting Utopian schemes like “Gonski”, the NDIS and net zero, few Coalition MPs were prepared to swim against the tide of popular opinion and voice their concerns about the cost or practicality of what their colleagues were promising.

The glee with which the government greeted Peter Dutton’s remark that the Coalition wouldn’t commit to emissions reduction targets by 2030 was a little forced. Immediately sending out Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen to attack Dutton no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time.

But Coalition strategists were not at all displeased. The more time Bowen and Immigration Minister Andrew Giles spend on voters’ television screens, the happier Liberal and National MPs are.

As shadow treasurer, Bowen and his franking credits policy helped Bill Shorten lose the 2019 federal election. When Bowen said “if you don’t like our policies, don’t vote for us”, Australians took him at his word. The Coalition needs Bowen to say the same thing about Labor’s climate change policies.

In this context, ‘getting away with it’ doesn’t mean the Coalition withstanding any attempted political pressure from big business.

If ever laws requiring “truth” in news reporting and political advertising are introduced, one of the first statements to be investigated by the government-appointed regulator should be a claim repeated by the Canberra press gallery. The statement, repeated constantly as a fact, is “the Coalition needs to win teal seats to form government”. From this follows the conclusion that the Coalition can’t have a climate change policy too different from Labor’s.

At the very least, the idea the Coalition requires teal-friendly policies “lacks context”, as the fact-checkers like to say. The Coalition has 55 seats, and (leaving aside electorate boundary changes) it needs to win another 20 seats for Dutton to become prime minister. Winning back the six teal seats it lost in 2022 still leaves the Coalition a long way short of government.

When journalists write about how Dutton “must” placate teal voters, they imply that’s all he needs to do to get to the Lodge. If only it were that simple. In any case, it’s not clear that teal voters can be appeased. Scott Morrison tried when he pledged the Coalition to “net zero by 2050”. He failed dismally.

Most of the Coalition party room would vote for Australia to leave the Paris Agreement tomorrow if they thought the Coalition could get away with it. In this context, “getting away with it” doesn’t mean the Coalition withstanding any attempted political pressure from big business.

To many Coalition voters, big business is the mob that supported the Voice, tried to abolish Australia Day, and pushes for higher immigration. To those voters, whatever big business is for, they’re against. They’re voters who are also coming to understand calls from big business for “investor certainty” are just demands for taxpayer subsidies.

To Coalition MPs, “getting away with it” means having the Australian public ready to accept the reality of the “energy transition”. That reality will dawn on the public when, as is now happening, the transition moves from the hypothetical to the actual. The NSW government agreeing to pay Origin Energy up to $450 million over the next two years to keep open the country’s biggest coal-fired power station might reveal the “transition” from fossil fuels might not be going as smoothly as promised.

A new poll commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs asked 1000 respondents, “What should be the main focus of the federal government’s energy policy?” – 57 per cent replied “affordability” and 19 per cent said “meeting zero emissions targets by 2050”. The same question asked in 2022 had responses of 41 per cent and 28 per cent respectively.

In February, after half a million Victorian homes were left without electricity, the chief executive of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said, “support for net zero will start to weaken if we get events like this regularly”. It certainly will.

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