Abbott's a few sparks short of a global power agenda

Tony Abbott has 10 months to create a domestic energy agenda that will work on a global stage. The RET, domestic gas price and energy white paper could help or hinder.

Someone should stick a Post-it note in Tony Abbott’s diary for the New Year. It needs to read: “Don’t forget September in New York.”

Despite all the yahooing in the media over the past fortnight about the latest UN climate change talkfest in Warsaw and the confected local fuss about Australian representation at the event, it’s September 23 next year that will represent a really significant governmental and personal challenge for Abbott.

And not him alone: there are elections in Brazil, India and for the European Parliament next year – as well as the US mid-term congressional elections next November.

September 23 is the day that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has chosen for a summit of global government leaders at the General Assembly “to enable them to state their (carbon abatement) commitments at an ambitious level and to give political leadership” ahead of the negotiations in Paris at the end of 2015.

Despite the local noise, leaving the weary Warsaw wanderings to be handled by public servants rather than Greg Hunt wasn’t really a big deal. There were bigger fish to fry at home.

But not fronting the New York meeting next year will not be an option for the Prime Minister.

It wouldn’t play well politically at home and it wouldn’t be a good look for a country that has been chairing the Security Council.

The question is whether the government can use the intervening 10 months to pursue a domestic agenda that will work for it on the global stage.

Abbott has the carbon price legislation to wrangle through federal parliament, the renewable energy target to review, an impending domestic gas price crisis to mitigate and a new energy white paper to produce.

Are these building blocks for a performance at the UN next September that will be respected, or are they stumbling blocks?

One of my friends reminded me of Billy Hughes, who refused to sign up to a Japanese proposal for a racial equality clause at the Treaty of Versailles meeting in 1919.

Asked by Woodrow Wilson whether he was prepared to defy the whole of the civilised world, Hughes reportedly fiddled with his hearing trumpet and replied: “That’s about the size of it, Mr President.”

I can’t see that one working next time round.

Like many others, I am yet to be convinced that the Abbott government’s Direct Action is a fully-formed, financially viable way to go in achieving a 5 per cent abatement target for 2020, let alone a 15 per cent target, which may be where politics dictates Australia has to head.

My same friend, an economist who favours nuclear power, suggests a Direct Action approach focused on 2030 – with electricity from reactors rather than wind and solar farms or ageing coal plant – might be doable.

“Especially,” he adds, “when you consider this approach wouldn’t cost the federal budget anything much at all because the cost would fall on electricity consumers – but not for about 10 years.”

The truth of the matter is that Australian politicians have been dodging, weaving, kneejerking and spinning in the energy space for 10-12 years. Instead, they should be grasping the nettles that are a necessity in developing a power system fit for the 21st Century: one that is reliable, competitively priced and contributing to reducing our carbon emissions, bearing in mind that two-thirds of our emissions are outside power generation.

The new University of Queensland commentary on developing resilience in electricity supply looking out to 2035 – which includes a call for the use of nuclear energy to be considered as part of the drive to diversify the generation mix – would be a good starting point for a discussion within the Abbott cabinet.

Having a serious, long-term domestic game plan nutted out, along with the major contribution our LNG can offer to global decarbonisation, would equip Abbott quite well for the trip to New York.

From what I hear, the terms of reference for the energy white paper are likely to emerge from the federal government within the next fortnight.

I don’t imagine that “What message should Tony Abbott take to New York in September?” has been a factor in the drafting. But as the jawboning hordes stream back from Warsaw, this is a good time to suggest that, for the government, the point jolly well ought to be high in its thinking – even if only behind closed doors.

Keith Orchison, director of consultancy Coolibah Pty Ltd, publisher of the This is Power blog and editor of OnPower newsletter, was chief executive of two national energy associations from 1980 to 2003. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 2004 for services to the energy industry.

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