The Macfarlane-Ferguson-Gray 'bromance'

Ian Macfarlane sings the praises of his Labor counterparts. It illustrates that the LNG and coal industries are viewed as so important they're above politics – something the renewables sector can only dream about.

You know you’ve made it as an industry sector when you are deemed so important you become above politics.

Imagine a situation where the minister responsible for your industry sings the praises of his predecessors, who were direct political opponents, for their wonderful stewardship. And then talks of them almost as pals, working together on a wonderful joint project. 

So it is with the energy resources industry in Australia.

Yesterday, at the Australian National Conference on Resources and Energy, the newly elected Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane did exactly that. Macfarlane sang the praises not only of Martin Ferguson but also Gary Gray, who only served as resources minister for a few months. According to Macfarlane both Labor men were “great ministers”. Macfarlane even went so far as to fondly reminisce about the first LNG facility he visited around a decade ago, where he was hosted by no less than …Gary Gray. Gray was an employee of Woodside at the time. 

Gary Gray happened to be at the conference so I took the opportunity to ask him whether he was surprised at such effusive praise from his political opponent. Gray then harked back to his own father-in-law, Peter Walsh – a former energy and resources minister under the Hawke government – explaining that there has been a lineage of energy and resource ministers who have been focused on economic outcomes rather than political advantage.

Puzzled as to what on earth it was that Gray managed to do in just a few months as minister that Macfarlane would consider him "great", I asked Gray to explain. According to Gray one of his standout contributions was simply removing some barriers to the development of the Browse LNG project.

The interesting thing is that a few months ago I heard Labor's Ferguson praise Macfarlane and even Warwick Parer (a Liberal predecessor of Macfarlane) as well as several state Coalition energy and resource ministers.

Such bipartisanship and strength of support and consistency is something those concerned for climate change and clean energy could only dream about.

But it’s pretty easy to understand:

– $177 billion is one reason. That’s the investment committed to LNG plant construction over the period Ferguson was minister;

– $142 billion, in annual energy export revenue by 2017-18, is the other.

And Macfarlane appears absolutely determined to see CSG development occur in NSW. According to Macfarlane, while many farmers in NSW are hostile to development of coal seam gas, he claims there are 4000 farmers in Queensland that, thanks to CSG wells on their land, have “won the casket”, meaning the Queensland Lottery – the Golden Casket. These farmers now have “more money than they ever imagined”, he says.

So what did Macfarlane say about renewable energy? He said we’ve got to get the Renewable Energy Target on “sustainable basis long term”. He didn’t elaborate on what that meant and his office was prepared to detail how it isn’t sustainable in its present form.

Presumably it means he doesn’t think the industry can grow, or should grow, at the level set out in the current legislation. There are others within the industry who think it would be nice if they were given a chance to see just how fast they can grow once government stopped second guessing them. Ever since 2001 we’ve been consistently oversupplied with renewable energy certificates and surprised on the upside as to what’s possible. 

But, unfortunately, the renewable energy sector can’t promise they’ll deliver $142 billion in Australian exports within five years. So it’s likely to be some time before the sector can count on the same level of consistent and enthusiastic bipartisan support that the energy resource extraction sector enjoys.