Energy policy in Australia has been a casualty of glib three-word slogans. With this context in mind, a Liberal said to me recently he had a new five-word slogan for the prime minister on energy: leave it to the states.
Too late, of course. Malcolm Turnbull, somewhat bravely, in the Humphrey Appleby sense, has taken on political responsibility for energy prices and network reliability – normally issues that state premiers get political heat about.
Having taken on the problem, the government now has to deliver, but whether it can is still moot.
There’s a further complication too, of course. Because he can’t blame the actual culprit for most of the contemporary problems in energy – problems that are now too profound to ignore and that culprit being Tony Abbott – Turnbull is seeking to blame Labor.
Firing up the old Green-left conspiracy on climate change is a morale booster, particularly when that version of events is amplified loyally by news outlets apparently too truthy or too dumb to care about basic facts.
You could see it in the body language of stressed-out government MPs this week. When times are tough, nostalgia is a balm. Everyone can feel good about the days when the Coalition had those conniving socialists on the ropes.
Except these days, confusingly, the Coalition are now the socialists: imposing gas export controls, publicly strong-arming energy companies, pumping up pumped hydro, flirting with the notion of building coal-fired power stations, or putting taxpayers on the hook for refurbishing old ones.
The interventions are coming so thick and fast these days, it really is hard to document the Kremlinology.
Turnbull is attempting to tell voters a story that paints the Coalition as the sober and sensible people, focused on engineering and economics, and Labor as the ideologues and the idiots.
The main problem with this story is it isn’t true. It completely ignores the fact the Coalition, through its decisions since 2009, has created many of the problems we are now experiencing in the energy market.
To understand this, we need to recap recent history. The Labor government introduced a carbon-pricing scheme that was designed to drive an orderly transformation in the electricity sector, while reducing emissions at the least cost.
Sitting behind that system were assumptions that the market would decide coal was on the way out, gas was the transitional fuel and renewables would increase their penetration in the system over time.
You can certainly quibble with these assumptions, particularly in hindsight, given the cost of renewables has tumbled and the price of gas has spiked because of surging export demand. But there was, in fact, a plan that could have been adjusted over time – and the early evidence suggested it was working.
Technological transformation. Emissions reduction. But Tony Abbott saw political opportunity. He saw a politically weak and riven Labor government, and an opening to transform the plan into a “carbon tax”. “Axe the tax” was a convenient political fiction. You don’t have to believe me, just ask Peta Credlin.
The Coalition then came to office, scrapped Labor’s transformation plan and left in place the renewable energy target.
It’s true Abbott wanted to kill the renewable energy target and his desire to do that initially triggered an investment strike. But he didn’t succeed, and the RET stayed, and the investment continued.
So just to recap, and sorry to labour this, but facts are actually important: the Coalition under Abbott removed the overarching signal to the marketplace about investment in base load power (the carbon price), but kept in place the incentives for renewable energy.
I repeat: that was the Coalition, not Labor. Now the government stamps its foot about there being too much investment in renewables and not enough in base load – as if someone else, some other itinerant vagabonds, created this problem.
Well, folks, no one created this particular problem, apart from the Coalition under prime minister Abbott. The current imbalance in the energy system is the sum of Abbott’s decisions.
Looking forward, the government needs solutions. Turnbull didn’t make the mess Abbott made on energy policy. In fact, he argued forcefully against the botch-up, to great personal cost. But now he has to clean it up, and clean up against the persistent forces of external rent-seeking and internal irrationality.
Given the Coalition has walked away from a market mechanism to sort out the problem, Turnbull is approaching the task as part Soviet central planner and part stockbroker/angel investor, assembling a portfolio of assets.
The Snowy Hydro investment. An ageing AGL coal plant in New South Wales. Taxpayers are going to kick in big dollars to deal with the wreckage of climate and energy policy in this country over the past 10 years.
So when you ask yourself this weekend – abstractly, as you go about your daily business – who is going to bear the cost of this cock-up, just know without any shadow of a doubt that the answer to that question is you.
While I can answer the “who pays” question, the question I can’t yet answer is whether the current round of energy policymaking is going to be a breakthrough or another botch-up.
The government has mixed motives. A government on the ropes desperately needs a political fight with Labor that it can win, and the Coalition’s instinct is always to try and strand Labor between its blue-collar base and its progressive inner-city vote.
Climate and energy presents political opportunity in that crude partisan sense. Abbott grabbed the short-term incentive in return for long-term cost to the country, and when you hear a character as urbane and intelligent as Turnbull banging on about “Blackout Bill”, you can’t help but feel you are watching the opening credits of Groundhog Day.
Having watched the climate and energy debate run in diminishing circles for the best part of two decades, a little part of me dies every time stupid makes a reappearance on the national stage.
But this isn’t about me. It’s about the voters and the readers, who are sick of politics failing them; sick of the tired old hyper-partisan blather; sick of the posturing and the blame-shifting and the dumb slogans; sick of the vacancy and the deficiency and the chaos. They want a solution. They don’t give a crap if Malcolm gives Bill a wedgie, or if Bill gives him one back.
Australians want only three things. They want the lights to stay on, they want to be able to afford their power bills, and they want to make sure they have a habitable planet to bring up their kids and watch their grandkids grow.
Not too much to ask, politics. So here’s some free advice: just shut up and get on with it.