Abbott's crisis of legitimacy

Recent comments by the Prime Minister suggest the government has already decided to cut the Renewable Energy Target, even though the Warburton Review is yet to deliver its findings. Commissioning 'independent reviews' which deliver pre-determined outcomes doesn't fool anyone - and ultimately hurts the government's credibility.

As reported by Climate Spectator’s John Conroy on Friday, Tony Abbott made some remarks at an Australian Industry Group luncheon which suggest the government already intends to cut the Renewable Energy Target. This is even though it is yet to receive the recommendations of its hand-picked review panel, headed by Dick Warburton.

At the luncheon Abbott’s speech was preceded by a Graham Kraehe, chairman of BlueScope Steel, urging Abbott to cut green tape, specifically mentioning the Renewable Energy Target.

Abbott then opened his speech by responding to Kraehe, "While energy reform begins with the carbon tax repeal and some work with the Renewable Energy Target, it doesn't stop there".

This of course leaves one wondering what does “some work” mean?

Could it mean he will increase the target?

I can already hear the laughter at such a proposition.

In the end it seems everyone, no matter their political stripes, is of the view that this government had made its mind up some time ago to cut the target, and cut it very substantially. This is in spite of the Coalition never making such a promise in the lead up to the federal election, and, at least in public, suggesting they strongly supported the scheme.

You can see this most obviously in the appointments the government made to its four-member panel to review the target. The chair of the review, Dick Warburton, isn’t willing to accept the conclusions of the Academies of Science of Australia, the US, UK and other nations as well as their meteorological bureaus, that burning fossil fuels creates a major problem with global warming. And another review panel member has declared the RET as a dead-weight loss to society, and assisted the gas industry in their lobbying for it to abolished. 

One lobbyist representing energy-intensive industry colourfully labelled the review panel as the four horsemen of the renewable energy apocalypse.

Yet while the government might get the answer it wants to hear out of this review process, it won’t really help the government in executing its agenda, and indeed is likely to hinder it.

A supposedly independent external review that is perceived by the public to be stacked by panel members to deliver a predetermined conclusion is likely to only feed scepticism and mistrust of the government, rather than build public support. It looks like a deliberate smokescreen to justify a backflip on an election promise that they never intended to honour. It means the government comes out looking cowardly and tricky. They would be better off not having an external review in the first place, and just owning up to the public about their plans.

We see this occurring right now with the political difficulties the government finds itself over the budget. The Commission of Audit headed up by former Business Council president Tony Shepherd appears to have done nothing to build the general public’s support for the funding cuts in the government’s budget. Yet there is a genuine need to address the gap between government spending and revenue. The problem is that addressing this gap requires a more thorough and open conversation about how it should be addressed that brings more stakeholders into the fold. It can’t be structured in a way that looks like a hammer deliberately designed to hit political opponents while rewarding the government’s supporters.

Abbott’s highly partisan approach to developing policy where it so clearly goes against the spirit of his election commitments has created a crisis of legitimacy.

Given the Senate will not simply roll-over to his will, Abbott needs to find a way to build-up a broader coalition of support for his policy initiatives than simply his ideological supporter base. This will require a willingness to listen to those you don’t generally agree with, it will involve complex trade-offs, it will require nuance, and it will most definitely not be conducive to three-word slogans.

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