Nuclear Should Fire Coalition’s Fightback!

Written by:
27 June 2024
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In this article, John Roskam contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into nuclear energy.

While there might be good reasons for Australia to join the rest of the developed world and have nuclear power, it’s not immediately obvious that Peter Dutton’s plan for this to happen is a vote winner.

The results from the Resolve Political Monitor have 41 per cent of voters supporting the Coalition’s policy, 37 per cent opposed and 22 per cent “undecided”. That’s a lot of Australians who remain to be convinced one way or the other.

The Coalition’s campaign for nuclear power has started reasonably well, especially in the context of its primary vote being at 36 per cent. There’s no indication (yet) that advocating for nuclear power is an election-winning (or losing) strategy.

What we do know is that if Dutton had been in the market for unambiguously popular policies he would have picked a different topic.

According to polling from Resolve, 66 per cent of Australians think the level of immigration is too high. It’s true the Coalition has said it would reduce net migration, something the government has also committed to. But the Coalition is spending a lot more time talking about how electricity is generated than immigration and house prices.

Perhaps that’s because the Coalition’s immigration plans are so complicated not even its shadow ministers can understand them.

The motivation of the Coalition’s support for nuclear power is two-fold – it’s based on politics and principle. The politics of nuclear power is that it’s regarded as part of the answer to the No. 1 issue to voters, which is, of course, cost of living.

The electorate (not incorrectly) suspects atomic energy plants don’t come cheap, but Labor’s attacks on the unspecified costs of nuclear power are unlikely to gain traction given the government refuses to declare the price of its own commitment to renewables. As the Australian public is now coming to understand, that “price” isn’t only financial.

The last leader to give Liberal MPs anything to fight for was Tony Abbott.

Estimates vary of how many kilometres of high-voltage transmission lines must be built to facilitate the country’s “clean energy transition”. According to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), it’s at least an additional 10,000 kilometres of power lines through regional Australia.

When Nationals leader David Littleproud said Australians living in the regions were bearing the costs of policies imposed upon them by inner-city voters, teal MP Allegra Spender said: “Pitting people in the country against those in the cities only serves to sow division.”

Spender is right – but the rural revolt against renewables isn’t the result of anything Littleproud has said. It’s a consequence of deliberate government policy. Voters in Wentworth might have a different view of renewables if high-voltage transmission lines were to be strung along the electorate’s Bondi Beach.

For the Coalition the principle of nuclear power is easy to support. Many other countries use it, and use it safely, and it provides reliable and secure baseload power. Coalition MPs are happy to have a fight on nuclear power because they believe in it, and even if they don’t completely, at least it gives them something to fight for.

The last leader to give Liberal MPs anything to fight for was Tony Abbott. Dutton’s opposition to the Voice to parliament gave Liberals a taste of what it’s like not just to fight, but to win an argument. When Dutton announced the Liberals’ opposition to the Voice, support for No was as low as 34 per cent. By the day of the referendum, six months later, that figure had become 60 per cent.

A number of commentators have drawn parallels between Dutton’s’ nuclear policy and John Hewson’s Fightback! manifesto of 1991. They have correctly pointed out that Hewson went on not just to lose the 1993 federal election, he also succeeded to lose seats. What those commentators forget is that three years later John Howard won 94 seats to Paul Keating’s 49 seats.

Fightback! changed the entire terrain of policy debate in the 1990s, and undoubtedly contributed to Howard’s victory. At this stage, the Coalition’s ambitions are less grand than Fightback! but it might be that nuclear energy gives Dutton the beginning of a Fightback!-like strategy to win, not necessarily the next election – but the one after that.

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