Alan Moran dumped by IPA – a lesson for Abbott?

The IPA's leading anti-renewables campaigner has pushed too far, a reminder for Tony Abbott who must balance his partyroom's sometimes extreme positions with a more moderate populace.

Alan Moran, who has been one of the most vociferous and long-standing opponents of renewable energy and controls on greenhouse gas emissions in this country, has apparently been sacked from the Institute of Public Affairs – a right-wing think tank.

The chief of the IPA, John Roskam told The Australian newspaper that Moran had left the IPA due to concerns about his “social media activity”.

The Australian noted that in recent weeks Alan Moran’s tweet, “Is there ever anything but evil coming from Islam?’’, had incited considerable outrage in the community. In addition, Moran controversially suggested that deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek was using rape allegations to destabilise Bill Shorten’s leadership.

In December last year rumours surfaced that Tony Abbott’s office was pushing for Alan Moran to lead a government review of the Renewable Energy Target. Moran was then apparently dropped in favour of businessman Dick Warburton, when it was realised Moran’s appointment would be viewed as extremely biased.

The dumping of Moran for going even too far for the Institute of Public Affairs is symptomatic of a wider challenge facing Abbott. 

Moran’s views on Islam, climate change and renewable energy are closely aligned with a number of people within the federal Coalition. This is probably best symbolised by Senator Cory Bernardi, who is prepared to say publicly what many others within the Coalition think. Bernardi led the public charge, in conjunction with Nick Minchin, to have Turnbull deposed as leader because of his conviction to the cause of reducing carbon emissions; but Turnbull's more liberal views on social issues such as marriage and racial discrimination laws also played a part. 

The Bernardi camp represents Abbott’s core supporter base, the people who put him in charge. And they desperately want to see the issue of climate change obliterated from the policy landscape. 

The Australian’s political columnist Paul Kelly, in his latest book, reveals that Turnbull’s support for a price on carbon became a pitched battle for the heart and soul of the Coalition. The federal director of the Liberal Party, Brian Loughnane, goes as far as to suggest that Turnbull’s pro emissions trading stance was creating a level of division within the party that would “spiral out of control into one of the worst crises in the history of the Liberal Party”. Nick Minchin claims that if Turnbull’s position had prevailed, a large proportion of Coalition senators would have ended up crossing the floor in the subsequent parliamentary vote, and led to “thousands upon thousands of resignations from the Liberal Party”.

It seems hard to believe that such passionate distaste for emissions trading would not also feed into opposition to the Renewable Energy Target.

However, while Bernardi and Alan Moran’s views may be widely held within the Coalition, for the wider community they are seen as extreme, alarming and deeply unpopular. The government’s botched attempt to repeal section 18C of the racial discrimination on the basis that people have the “right to be bigots”, illustrates how the deep-conservative camp of the party is out of touch with mainstream Australia.

A few days ago I was chatting with a prominent member of the renewable energy industry about the assorted scenarios for how the government might try to alter the Renewable Energy Target, and what they might mean for different industry players. After walking through a wide array of possibilities he said:

“The best thing that could happen for the renewable energy industry would be for Abbott to move to scrap the Renewable Energy Target altogether.”

According to this industry insider a move to scrap the target altogether would be an easier proposition for the renewables industry and supporter groups to campaign against than, say, reducing the target to stop renewables exceeding 20 per cent market share of electricity demand.

The 20 per cent market share cut to the target would be devastating for the renewable energy sector, effectively halving project development. But given the scheme has always been colloquially described as the 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target, it complicates efforts by renewable energy supporters to generate public concern.

Abolishing the scheme on the other hand poses no such difficulties.

It could far more easily be described as a breach of an election promise and more easily understood by the general public as a drastic backward step. On top of a range of other decisions linked to the budget, the government could be painted as driven by ideological extremists intent on executing their agenda irrespective of election promises.

One suspects that a pragmatic politician like Abbott is alert to this risk, especially in light of difficulties over the budget and racial discrimination laws. But at the same time his core supporter base is passionately opposed to the RET.

Reports in the media that he is pushing for complete abolition may be more for internal party-room consumption, rather than a genuine argument between him and ministers Hunt and Macfarlane.

The renewable energy industry is gearing up for major campaign modelled on what the mining industry did in response to the resource rent tax. Today they are running the ads below in selected local newspapers to shore-up the Palmer United Party’s opposition to RET changes.

At the same time they are mobilising local community meetings in places as diverse as Portland to Petrie to drum-up public concern.

Abbott needs to be careful he doesn’t meet the same fate as Alan Moran in going too far beyond public opinion.

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