The need for the media to simplify issues and keep things brief so they are understandable and digestible for the broader populace provides a wonderful refuge for the rogue and the dishonest.
This government is betting that they can use this trick of simplified language to make a 40% reduction in the level of the 2020 target for large-scale renewable energy (which equates to a 60% cut to the amount of new large-scale renewable energy capacity required to 2020) without much of the electorate realising.
Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and Environment Minister Greg Hunt are saying this is not a cut at all. Rather it is a mere “recalibration” to ensure the renewable energy target remains at the level everyone intended -- 20% market share of electricity in Australia. When asked on ABC’s Insiders program yesterday why the government was cutting the target by 40% from 41,000 gigawatt-hours of energy to something closer to 26,000 gigawatt-hours Macfarlane replied:
"Well it's not [a 40% cut] and we need to stick to the facts in this debate … nothing has changed. The 20 per cent is still 20 per cent. But it is a 20 per cent target, Barrie; it's not a 25, 27 per cent target, it is a 20 per cent target. We haven't cut anything by 40 per cent."
According to Macfarlane:
“...in terms of the overall target, it remains where everyone agreed to: 20 per cent. This is not news to the [renewable energy] industry.”
Macfarlane knows this is exceptional trickery if not complete rubbish, but he and his colleagues know that language is on their side.
To appreciate what I’m talking about I need to take you back to the weeks leading into the 2007 federal election. At that time I was working for the Clean Energy Council – the representative body for the renewable energy industry.
With concern about climate change running high, the Coalition Government at that time had just announced it was going to expand the Renewable Energy Target from 9500 gigawatt-hours of electricity for 2010, up to 30,000 gigawatt-hours by 2020. They didn’t describe this as a percentage market share for renewable energy because that’s not how the scheme worked.
Policymakers knew forecasting energy demand was invented to make astrologers look good. So when Prime Minister Howard said back in 1997 that he wanted to increase the market share of renewable energy by 2% it was decided that this should be put in terms of hard units of energy in order to instil some policy clarity that would support investment. They then stuck with this approach after a 2004 review, even though it looked like the target would fall short of delivering a 2% market share increase.
But if you asked a member of the electorate what a gigawatt-hour was, besides shrugging their shoulders they’d probably think it must be one of those new-fangled super fast computer chips from Intel.
In those weeks leading into the 2007 election, I distinctly recall being immersed in spreadsheets in regular contact with shadow environment minister Peter Garrett’s advisers as we talked over how you’d translate a target for 20% renewable energy into a concrete number of units of energy known as gigawatt-hours.
We understood that having Kevin Rudd get up to announce a policy for 45,000 gigawatt-hours of renewable energy instead of 30,000 was going to be met with blank, uncomprehending faces. Twenty per cent renewable energy by 2020 had a far nicer and impressive ring to it. Now if they’d stuck with John Howard’s original convention, it really should have been a 10% target, because renewables already had about 10% market share and this target would increase it by a further 10%. But that doesn’t sound nearly as good as 20% by 2020, so that’s how it was spun.
Yet it was agreed that the gigawatt-hours were what would be enshrined in legislation and what investors would rely on in laying down their cold hard cash. This had to be clearly detailed in the policy documents, otherwise we could see fossil fuel lobbyists and bureaucrats playing assorted games with interpreting ‘20% of what’. Consequently Labor’s election promise stated:
Federal Labor will increase the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target from 30,000 to 45,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) per year [Labor’s bolding not mine].
Nonetheless, from the day of the announcement forward, the target became known by its colloquial shorthand as the 20% Renewable Energy Target.
This remained the case even though in 2010 the Coalition and Labor voted for legislative changes to the scheme which Minister Greg Combet explained in the second reading speech would most likely mean it would deliver 22% market share for renewables.
And it still persisted after an exhaustive review of the scheme in 2012 made it very clear that a decline in electricity demand meant the legislation would now deliver 25% market share for renewables.
The power of this colloquialism in the media’s language was superbly illustrated by Fran Kelly, host of ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program.
She absolutely grilled Dick Warburton about how his recommendation to reduce the target in line with declining electricity demand to cap renewables at 20% market share would devastate the renewables industry.
Then just a few days later she pressed Labor’s Mark Butler on whether he’d be fighting against any change to the existing legislated “20% target”. It was almost comedic listening to Butler trying to explain that he would indeed resist changes to reduce the target, but that this would not mean he supported a 20% target.
This kind of confused language is exactly what the Coalition are banking on.
Macfarlane didn’t need to spend half a million dollars paying a climate sceptic and others known to dislike the Renewable Energy Target to inform him the scheme would exceed 20% market share. He knew this three years before his government was elected. But his government wasn’t willing to be honest with the electorate that they intended to slash support for renewables, because they knew this would be unpopular.
Of course, there’s a way to cut through this clever word smithing. Just ask the 100 people who just lost their jobs on Thursday from one of Australia’s main suppliers to the wind power industry – Keppel Prince – what they understood the Renewable Energy Target was meant to deliver.