A good chance to push renewables

September 17, 2010
Perth Walk against Warming rally, August. Action on renewable energy during the electoral term can be much more ambitious than a

Now that we finally know who is going to govern our country; now that we know who is backing who and why; now that we’ve breathed a collective sigh of relief; now — right now — it’s time to mobilise!

It’s time to mobilise around what I’ve been muttering to anyone who’ll listen over the past few weeks: renewables, renewables, renewables.

If there is one thing we can be pretty damn confident about in this brave new political paradigm of ours, it is that this parliament can and should deliver the most exciting, ambitious renewable energy policies Australia has ever seen. The next two years may be the best opportunity for renewables we ever get, so let’s start working to grab it.

It’s an extraordinary irony that this should be the case after an election campaign that saw funds being ripped out of renewables programs at a record rate by both Labor and the Coalition, but it is far from the only irony of this election result and I am certain that it is the case.

Here, in a nutshell, is why.

Labor, relegated to minority status but returned to government nevertheless, ran solidly through the campaign with a positive message about “record investments in renewable energy”. I and many others stronglynattacked this line quite vociferously in the context of the campaign, given the fact that each new climate promise seemed to be accompanied by a new reduction of funding to renewables.

This exemplifies the spin-over-substance nature of this campaign — the big old parties clearly believing that government and campaigning is about what you say, not what you do. That said, now Labor is returned to government, it can be held to account for its rhetoric.

The Greens received by far the biggest swing of any party at this election and, at almost 4%, a very sizable swing by any definition. That swing was achieved on the back of having put to the electorate by far the most ambitious plans for renewable energy of any political party in Australian history.

Our policies included an explicit commitment to 100% renewable energy; a comprehensive feed-in tariff for all forms of renewable energy at all scales; loan guarantees for industrial-scale baseload renewable energy power plants; an increased renewable energy target; pre-planning processes to create renewable energy parks; a national roll-out of the smart grid, and much more.

That platform now has a key bargaining position in the new parliament, with a Greens member of the House of Representatives supporting the minority Labor government and nine senators holding the balance of power as of July next year.

Andrew Wilkie, the ex-Green independent member for Denison in central Hobart, has a platform that, on policy, is largely in line with the Greens. He will also need to demonstrate to his electorate that he is very green to have the slightest chance of holding his seat next election.

So far so obvious, but what many people haven’t clicked onto yet is that the three country independents — including Bob Katter, who chose not to support Labor for his own personal reasons but whose vote will still often be crucial for passing legislation — have all publicly recognised the tremendous economic and social benefits of moving to renewable energy.

Rob Oakeshott first approached the Greens in 2008 to discuss renewable energy policy and very soon introduced mirror legislation to Greens Senator Christine Milne’s feed-in tariff bill into the house. This existing relationship and demonstrated strong commitment to ambitious renewable energy policy bodes very well indeed.

In addition, Oakeshott has made numerous comments since the election to the effect that renewable energy is central to what he wants for his electorate.

Tony Windsor made it abundantly clear when announcing his support for Labor that climate change and renewable energy policy were his second top priority after the (integrally related) national broadband network.

Most importantly, Windsor made a strong point that, done appropriately, climate and renewables policies are beneficial to the economy.

This would come as no surprise to those who have been watching closely as Windsor welcomed Bob Brown to his electorate to campaign together to stop coal mines destroying prime agricultural land, and launched clean energy initiatives around New England with gusto.

Windsor also introduced as a private member's bill the Climate Action Bill developed by a number of climate action groups and which, among other things, called for 30% cuts below 1990 levels by 2020.

Katter will remain a critical player this term, despite deciding to support the Coalition over Labor. While he is a climate sceptic, Katter has nevertheless pushed hard for a major investment in renewable energy in his electorate. And not just ethanol, either — solar, wind and geothermal are on his radar as creating jobs and investment in his electorate.

All this adds up to a very interesting situation when you recognise that the real strength of minority is in being more ambitious, not less, than a majority. The big old parties clearly feel constrained in majority government and reform agendas too often go out the window.

In minority, with somebody else to blame, far more can be achieved. This is certainly the experience in Tasmania. There, Labor and Liberal minority governments, with Greens in balance of power, delivered the final decriminalisation of homosexuality, the strongest freedom of information laws in the country at the time, gun law reform, a doubling of the Wilderness World Heritage Area, an apology to the Stolen Generations and much more.

As Milne has noted, when an issue clearly needs to be dealt with, majority government too often tries to deal with it through spin over substance, whereas minority government provides the opportunity to thrash out the issues and create real, effective steps forward.

Majority is about winner-takes-all, with parties locking in to positions. Minority is inherently about seeking progress through open consultation. This is the philosophy behind Milne’s proposal for a Climate Change Committee, which has been adopted as part of the Greens-Labor agreement — bringing together all those who want action on an issue to seek a consensus that can then be legislated.

With all these stars aligned there is, however, one key obstacle remaining: the energy minister. Martin Ferguson is not only ideologically opposed to climate action, to most kinds of renewable energy and to talking to the Greens, but he is also not a negotiator. He should be replaced in the portfolio with a more effective player who both supports action but will also be a good negotiator.

This is not to say that it won’t be possible to get ambitious renewables policies in place with Ferguson remaining minister — I am sure everyone will work together professionally if that is the case. But it would certainly be a far smoother process if someone like Anthony Albanese were in his place.

All this is possible now; we have the perfect opportunity for bold, ambitious renewable energy action, an opportunity that may not come again.

This is not to say we should give up on a carbon price — that is still a priority for many of us. But I believe it will take longer and is still most likely be more compromised. Renewables action this term can be much more ambitious than a carbon price is likely to be and can drive faster climate action.

So, now we have to mobilise to make sure it happens! We have to set the agenda and work towards it. This will require the environment movement, the industry, unions and anyone else who wants to see Australia move to renewables to get up and start working for it now.

We do not all need to agree on all the asks — we don’t even have to all agree on the desired outcome, how far and how fast we want to change. But we need a concerted push. We need to leave behind the bickering. We need a united front.

Let’s go!

[Tim Hollo is adviser to Australian Greens deputy leader Senator Christine Milne. This article is slightly abridged from the Crikey blog, Rooted, where it first appeared on September 8. See http://blogs.crikey.com.au .]

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