Grattan on Friday: King Coal is wearing big boots in the Turnbull government



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Labor mentioned Scott Morrison’s ‘pet rock’ during Question Time on Tuesday.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

It took quite a while, but the Turnbull government this week finally “landed” its package for the biggest shake-up of media rules in decades.

The Senate deal was done thanks to a sprinkling of sugar for crossbenchers. Handouts for Nick Xenophon to help regional and small publishers, so he could say he was promoting “diversity”. Promises to Pauline Hanson to put some burdens on the ABC, so One Nation could brag it was chasing “the elephant in the room”.

The concessions don’t mean as much as the crossbenchers will claim, while the rule changes potentially mean a great deal. It might have seemed a tortuous process, but from the government’s point of view it has been a significant win at little cost.

If only the nation’s long-term energy policy could be “landed” as readily.

With the media changes, the industry stakeholders were united, in contrast to the vastly more complicated area of energy, as it transitions from fossil fuels to renewables, via a mixed system.

In another major difference with media policy, the most difficult negotiations on energy, at least imminently, are not with crossbenchers but within the government’s own ranks.

Just as it did in the dying days of his leadership in 2009, the coal cloud hangs darkly over Malcolm Turnbull. And once again, the Nationals are big players in the debate – and so is Tony Abbott.

But Turnbull’s own positions then and now are poles apart. In 2009, he famously championed the move to renewables, via a carbon price, which triggered his downfall. This time, bowing to the power of coal, he has increasingly become its vociferous public advocate.

When the government released the Finkel report on energy security in June, Turnbull made it clear he saw its centrepiece, a clean energy target (CET), as a torch to light the path to the future.

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s CET, with its particular focus on reducing emissions, was never going to be implemented in a pure form. Coal was always set for a larger role than Finkel would want, as Turnbull quickly made clear.

The CET debate should be seen as choosing a place on a spectrum rather than accepting or rejecting a single point. But at the start, even Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce was (sort of) on board for a CET, provided it allowed coal in.

Progressively, however, the Finkel blueprint has been pushed further and further on to the defensive.

The sharpest setback for it came last week, with the release of the report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) warning of electricity shortages in coming years. The government had commissioned the report when it became panicky about so-called “dispatchable” power – power available whenever needed to meet demand – as the consequences of the closure of Hazelwood in Victoria sank in.

Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said the AEMO report “reset the debate”. Joyce invoked John Maynard Keynes’ observation about changing his mind when he got new information – the report contained “new information”, Joyce said.

In fact the “resetting” had been creeping up well before the AEMO report. Abbott, especially, had been hard at work prosecuting the case against renewables.

Abbott – who was deposed two years ago this week – currently has two campaigns running: against the CET, and in opposition to same-sex marriage. He is highly energised and said to be enjoying himself.

On Thursday he was unequivocal. “We need to get right away from talking about renewable energy targets and clean energy targets and start talking about a 100% reliable energy target, ‘cause nothing else will do,” he said on 2GB.

“I welcome these signs that we are moving away from a clean energy target to a reliable energy target,” he said. Renewables always had to have a back-up “and if there’s got to be back-up you’ve got to ask the question, what useful purpose do they serve?

“Now there may well be some circumstances in which renewables in conjunction with back-up measures are economic, and if they’re economic and dependable, fair enough, but at the moment, they’re neither.”

The Nationals’ Matt Canavan, former resources minister who is on the backbench awaiting the citizenship case, has been a very loud voice for coal. The Nationals had the megaphone out at their weekend federal conference, calling for subsidies for renewables to be phased out.

As coal has muscled its way to the centre of the stage, we’ve seen the showdown between the government and AGL over the future of its Liddell coal-fired power station. This battle has a way to go.

At a trivial but symbolic level, there’s been the suggestion that whatever policy the government finally produces will avoid the sensitive “clean energy target” label. Maybe the focus groups are already at work on that one.

Despite the apparent mess, the government believes it can turn the energy debate to its political advantage. This is certainly the view among Nationals.

The strategy involves being seen to do a lot of things – Turnbull rehearses the check list of interventions on gas, power bills and the like – and demonising Labor’s attachment to renewables, with derision against “Blackout Bill”, “Brownout Butler” and “No Coal Joel [Fitzgibbon]”.

The government accuses Labor of selling out working-class people in favour of leftist, inner-city followers concerned about climate change. Turnbull is now emphasising the cost and reliability of power, with emissions reduction referred to sotto voce.

The Nationals are convinced their priority for coal will work well for them in the regions. They say it fits with the two issues that come at the top in their polling – jobs and cost of living.

When Abbott was fighting the Labor government, the carbon tax’s impact on the cost of living was an obvious plus for him. The question is whether power prices and cost of living can play for the Coalition when it is in office. The government and some observers suggest it will.

It does seem counterintuitive. Unless the voters are very gullible, you’d think they’d judge on results not rhetoric – that is, what their power bills are looking like when they get to the ballot box.

On the other hand, the government argues that if it can assert Labor’s policies would bring even higher bills, it can gain a tactical advantage.

Regardless of what the public are thinking, it’s clear that business – the constituency critical for future investment – remains deeply unimpressed with the politicking.

The ConversationUnless and until the government gets to grips with the substance of what needs to be done, the lack of a coherent energy policy will remain an indictment of the politicians and a burden on Australian families and enterprises.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/fr3g9-72ed6d?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Ipsos 53-47 to Labor, but Shorten’s ratings slump; Qld Newspoll 53-47 to Labor


Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

An Ipsos poll, conducted 6-9 September from a sample of 1400, gave Labor a 53-47 lead, unchanged from the last Ipsos poll, taken after the May budget. Primary votes were 35% Coalition (down 2), 34% Labor (down 1), 14% Greens (up 1) and 17% for all Others (up 2). Ipsos has given the Greens higher votes than any other pollster.

42% approved of Turnbull’s performance (down 3), and 47% disapproved (up 3), for a net rating of -5. Shorten’s net approval slumped 11 points to -16. Usually Ipsos gives both leaders better ratings than Newspoll, but not so much for Shorten this time.

Reflecting other polls, Labor’s lead was reduced to 52-48 when respondents were asked for preferences. In 2016, all Others preferences split roughly 50-50 between the major parties. Currently, it appears that Others will be more favourable to the Coalition, as some Abbott-supporting voters have deserted the Coalition, but will probably return after preferences.

Scott Morrison had a 42-38 approval rating as Treasurer, much better than Joe Hockey’s 58-33 disapproval rating in April 2015. Morrison led Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen 38-29 as better Treasurer, and the Coalition led Labor 38-28 on economic management, with 3% opting for the Greens.

By 56-25, voters thought Turnbull had provided better economic leadership than Abbott, another result showing the electorate overwhelmingly prefers Turnbull to Abbott.

Economic management has always been a strength for the Coalition, so their leads on preferred Treasurer and the economy are expected. However, while voters may prefer the Coalition to manage the overall economy, low wages growth is a key reason to vote Labor for personal economic reasons.

Shorten’s ratings may have been damaged by the Coalition’s attacks on him, and also by his negative parliamentary tactics. However, most people do not focus on the opposition and its policies until the election campaign.

In a March UK poll, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump were almost equally unpopular, with both at less than -40 net approval. Corbyn and UK Labour’s popularity surged in the election campaign, and the Conservatives suffered a shock loss of their majority at the June UK election.

65% of Ipsos’s sample said they were certain to vote in the same sex marriage plebiscite. Of certain voters, there was a 70-26 margin in favour of same sex marriage. Ipsos is a live phone pollster, so it is likely to be biased against politically incorrect views.

Essential 54-46 to Labor

This week’s Essential, conducted over the last two weeks from a sample of 1830, gave Labor a 54-46 lead, a one point gain for Labor since last fortnight. Primary votes were 37% Labor, 36% Coalition, 10% Greens, 9% One Nation and 2% Nick Xenophon Team. These primary votes are virtually the same as last week, but rounding helped Labor this time. Additional questions are based on one week’s sample.

Turnbull’s net approval was -5, up 3 points since August. Shorten’s net approval was -11, down four points.

Nine measures were proposed to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy. 86% supported regulating electricity and gas prices, and 81% supported increasing investment in renewables. At the bottom were stopping coal-fired power stations from closing (51-30 support), more onshore gas exploration (48-26 support) and building new coal-fired power stations (48-34 support).

By 73-8, voters thought renewables were better than fossil fuels for the environment. Renewables were also thought better for electricity costs (41-27), the economy (40-28) and jobs (34-26). There has been movement towards fossil fuels in the last three categories since May 2015.

Labor was thought more likely to deliver lower energy prices by a 28-19 margin over the Coalition, with 35% opting for no difference.

Queensland Newspoll: 53-47 to Labor

A Queensland Newspoll, conducted from July to September from a sample of 1335, and released 6 September, gave Labor a 53-47 lead, a 2 point gain since the May-June 2016 Queensland Newspoll. Primary votes were 37% Labor (down 1), 34% LNP (down 6), 15% One Nation (not asked in 2016) and 8% Greens (steady). The next Queensland election must be held by early 2018.

41% (down 3) were satisfied with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, and 46% (up 4) were dissatisfied, for a net approval of -5. Opposition leader Tim Nicholls’ net approval fell 11 points to -16.

Labor changed the electoral system from optional preferential to compulsory preferential voting, and this could disadvantage Labor if One Nation’s vote is high. For its two party calculations, Newspoll is assuming that 80% of Greens preferences flow to Labor, 55% of One Nation preferences go to the LNP, and that Others split 50-50.

The ConversationThis good Newspoll for Labor contrasts with a Galaxy poll in early August that had Labor just ahead 51-49, with the LNP leading 36-35 on primary votes.

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The true cost of keeping the Liddell power plant open


Frank Jotzo, Australian National University and Zeba Anjum, Australian National University

For a long time, Australian governments have believed that the private sector should run the electricity sector. And successive governments have used market instruments to incentivise reducing emissions, by supporting renewables, discouraging coal use, or both.

Now things seem inside out: uncertainty about energy policy mechanisms is pervasive, and the federal government is attempting to broker a deal for the ageing Liddell coal plant to stay open past its planned decommissioning date. It’s possible the plan will require government payments – amounting to a carbon subsidy.


Read more: AGL rejects Turnbull call to keep operating Liddell coal-fired power station


Fear of supply shortages and an appetite for coal have combined with an inability to resolve the political side of energy and climate policy.

Power companies see coal as a technology of the past, but the government seems unready to accept that wind and solar technologies (already the cheapest option for new capacity in Australia) are the future of Australia’s power.


Read more: The day Australia was put on blackout alert


The latest suggestion amounts to deferring serious investment in renewables for a while, fixing up some of the old coal plants up so they can run a few more years, and buying time in the hope of keeping power prices down. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has backed the idea, at least in principle.

The cost of delaying the inevitable

Commissioned in 1972, the Liddell power plant is the oldest of Australia’s large coal-fired stations (after the closure of the Hazelwood station). The New South Wales government sold it to AGL in 2014, at an effective price of zero dollars.

AGL announced some time ago that it will close the plant in 2022 and has considerable financial incentive to do so. This week AGL reiterated this. The latest suggestion is that Delta Electricity might buy and continue to operate Liddell.

What might be the benefits and costs of keeping Liddell running for, say, another decade? We do not know the plant-level technical and economic parameters, but let’s look at the principles and rough magnitudes.

Keeping the plant running longer will require refurbishments, defer the investment costs in renewables, and result in additional emissions, both in carbon dioxide and local air pollutants.

Refurbishment is costly. Finkel put refurbishment costs at A$500-600 million for a 10-year extension. Such refurbishment might achieve an increase in efficiency – as GE, a maker of power station equipment, recently argued – but perhaps not by much for a very old plant like Liddell.


Read more: Coal and the Coalition: the policy knot that still won’t untie


And refurbishment might not work so well, as the experience with the Muja plant in Western Australia shows: A$300 million was spent on refurbishment that ultimately failed. Spending big money on outdated equipment is not a particularly attractive option for energy companies, as AGL’s CEO recently pointed out.

Liddell’s power output during 2015-16 was around 8 terawatt hours – about 10% of present NSW power supply (it was more in 2016-17, and less in previous years). It might well be lower as the plant ages.

Ironically, the reduction in the Renewable Energy Target, from 41 to 33 terawatt hours per year, almost exactly matches Liddell’s present power output. With the original RET target, new renewables would have covered Liddell’s output by 2020.

Liddell emitted around 7.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year in 2015-2016. With the assumed reduction in output and some improvement in CO₂ emissions intensity, the carbon dioxide output might be in the order of 5-6 million tonnes per year, or 50-60 million tonnes over ten years.

If the government were to pay for the refurbishment, as has been suggested, this would equate to subsidising CO₂ emissions at a rate of perhaps $10 per tonne, compared to the alternative of replacing Liddell with renewable power.


Read more: FactCheck Q&A: is coal still cheaper than renewables as an energy source?


At the same time, the government is paying for projects to reduce emissions, at average prices of around $12 per tonne of carbon dioxide, under the Emissions Reduction Fund. The contradiction is self-evident. Furthermore, keeping more coal plants operational deters commercial investment in any kind of new plants.

Of course this needs to be seen in the context of supply security, any subsidies that might be paid in future to renewable energy generators, and the possibility that a Clean Energy Target will determine overall emissions from electricity production irrespective of whether Liddell operates or not. It’s complicated. But the fundamental point is clear: paying for an old coal plant to operate for longer means spending money to lock things in, and delay the needed transition to clean power.

A possible compromise might be to mothball the Liddell plant, to use if supply shortages loom, for example, on hot summer days. But such a “reserve” model could mean very high costs per unit of electricity produced.

It is not clear that it would be cheaper than a combination of energy storage and flexible demand-side responses. And it may be unreliable, especially as the plant ages further. During the NSW heatwave last summer Liddell was not able to run full tilt because of technical problems.

A market model to pay for reserve capacity would surely do better than government direction.

Australia’s energy companies have been calling for a mechanism to support new clean investment, such as the Clean Energy Target. And many would no doubt be content to simply see a broad-based, long-term carbon price, which remains the best economic option. If the policy framework was stable, private companies would go ahead with required investment in new capacity.


Read more: Finkel’s Clean Energy Target plan ‘better than nothing’: economists poll


The ConversationMeanwhile, federal and state governments are intervening ad-hoc in the market – making a deal to keep an old plant open here, building and owning new equipment there. It is the worst of all worlds: a market-based system but with extensive and unpredictable intervention by governments that tend to undermine investor confidence.

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University and Zeba Anjum, PhD student, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Turnbull’s rush for an energy ‘announceable’ sows confusion


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Malcolm Turnbull has tried to focus on energy policy while the opposition has been preoccupied with the eligibility of Barnaby Joyce.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Barnaby Joyce looks like he’s doing it tough. Day after day, he sits behind Malcolm Turnbull in Question Time, facing Labor’s unrelenting attack on his right to be on the frontbench.

There’s the occasional laugh, to keep up appearances, but mostly he has the face of a man who’s whipping himself.

What’s most personally painful for Joyce, who as leader has been very focused on maintaining the Nationals’ sense of loyalty to the team, is that he has let the team down.

A check would have revealed he needed to address his dual New Zealand citizenship. He regularly warns the Coalition partyroom against distractions and he is embarrassed that he’s caused a big one.

But what’s done – or wasn’t done – is now in the past. Turnbull might be confident the High Court will uphold his position but Joyce is already preparing for a byelection if things go badly.

The government can accuse the opposition of neglecting mainstream issues in its preoccupation with Joyce.

Its tactic, however, does serve to further unsettle him. Also, if the court were to find against him Labor, with its argument that he should have stood aside from the front bench at the start, would have laid the groundwork for some of its byelection campaigning. But if Joyce is vindicated Labor will have misplayed.

The court outcome on Joyce – to be considered among the swathe of MPs’ citizenship cases – is harder to predict than was the result in the challenges to the same-sex marriage postal ballot. On Thursday the court declared that ballot constitutional, as always seemed more likely than not.

There are still hurdles ahead for Turnbull on same-sex marriage – notably, he needs the “Yes” case to win. But at least he’s over a major one. Having the ballot struck down would have brought a crisis for him.

If the court does uphold the eligibility of Joyce and those with similar circumstances, it will surely mean it is effectively rewriting the constitutional provision that makes dual citizens ineligible for parliament. It would be saying that many dual citizens, born in Australia of foreign-born parentage, can be properly elected.

Amid the various distractions and the continuing bad polls, Turnbull’s strategy has become to focus, laser-like, on what is currently the biggest bread-and-butter issue in the community – the state of energy prices and the future of energy policy.

Turnbull faces multiple separate but related pressures: to get people some early relief with their bills; to deal with the circumstances of coming summers; and to craft a long-term clean energy policy that can survive a partyroom where the forces of the right have loud voices and a deep commitment to coal.

This week, against the background of a report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) highlighting the risks to the reliability of the electricity supply in the next few years, Turnbull was looking in particular to the medium term.

While at times he has encouraged the idea of supporting the building of new clean coal power stations, the AEMO report pointed to keeping some existing generators operating longer as a more practical course.

Thus on Tuesday Turnbull told parliament he and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg were in discussions to extend the life of AGL’s Liddell coal-fired power station, in the Hunter region of New South Wales, for at least five years beyond its scheduled 2022 closure.

But then Andy Vesey, chief executive of AGL, which has made much of its long-term intention to move out of coal, reaffirmed via Twitter the Liddell closure schedule.

Later Turnbull told reporters AGL was willing to sell Liddell to “a responsible party”. In a statement to the ASX the following morning, however, AGL seemed less than keen on a sale, although it was unclear whether this was a substantive or holding position.

The government has since said Vesey made the comment that he would consider selling to a responsible party a month back, when Turnbull and several ministers met electricity retailers.

It has all looked pretty messy. Turnbull should have been more precise in his remarks to parliament, or waited to make them until the position was clearer.

AGL copped a vitriolic spray from Matt Canavan, the former resources minister who will be back in the job if the High Court clears his citizenship issue. Canavan called AGL “the biggest hypocrite walking around Australia at the moment” for making money from producing coal-fired power while advertising its exit from coal – but not until 2050.

It makes a somewhat fractious backdrop to the meeting Turnbull and Frydenberg will have with Vesey on Monday to discuss a possible sale.

After all that’s been said, the stakes seem high for both the government and Vesey. On the other hand, the government believes that in the public mind the power companies are about as unpopular as the banks, so going after them wins rather than loses points.

The government is confident a buyer will be available for Liddell, although it doesn’t want to be the purchaser. Any buyer almost certainly would demand some sort of government financial support.

The AGL affair is another example of the extraordinary amount of intervention in the market and the manhandling of business that the Coalition is willing to resort to as it grapples with the energy conundrum.

Retailers have been summoned twice to be told to ensure customers can get the best deals available. The government not only plans to expand the Snowy but wants to buy out the whole enterprise. Then there is its willingness to use export controls to get more gas available for the local market.

As one government man puts it, “extraordinary problems create extraordinary interventions”. And ironies too, now that ministers have taken to labelling Bill Shorten a socialist leading New “Red” Labor. It would make as much sense – which is not much – for Labor to throw similar rhetoric back at the Coalition.

Whether from all this, and the still-to-be-joined battle over a clean energy target, will emerge a policy framework sufficient to convince voters that the government is getting on top of the challenges remains to be seen.

The ConversationIn trying to grapple with energy Turnbull is playing on the right field, but being able to kick the goals is another matter.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tony Abbott: consider burqa ban in places ‘dedicated to Australian values’



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Tony Abbott said he was a reluctant banner but says the burqa is an affront to the Australian way of life.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The issue of the burqa has erupted in the Coalition, with Tony Abbott suggesting a ban should be considered in places “dedicated to Australian values”, and the Nationals set to debate a prohibition on “full-facial coverings”.

Abbott said he was “a reluctant banner”, but “on the other hand, this thing frankly is an affront to our way of life”, a “confronting” and “imprisoning” garment.

“I think it is worth considering whether there are some places that are dedicated to Australian values such as our courts, our parliaments, our schools – maybe we do need to think about whether this garment is appropriate to be worn in places that are dedicated to upholding Australian values,” he told 2GB.

Abbott was commenting on a motion for a ban that Nationals MP George Christensen will move when the party’s federal conference meets this weekend.

The Christensen motion, supported by his Dawson federal divisional council, calls on the government “to implement a ban on full-facial coverings in all government buildings and public spaces, excluding places of worship, where it assists with security and public safety”.

Christensen said the qualification about security was to make exceptions for face coverings that for example were part of an entertainment.

The motion puts Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce on the spot.

“One of the great things about our party is that any person and any branch can bring forward any motion,” Joyce said.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean it becomes policy. That’s a matter for the federal conference, and I’ll be watching and listening to the debate like any other delegate.” Pressed on his own opinion he told reporters: “You can turn up the conference and find out exactly what I believe”.

In the Senate on Wednesday Pauline Hanson launched a vitriolic attack on Attorney-General George Brandis over his criticism of her stunt last month when she wore a burqa into the chamber. In his emotional speech that drew a standing ovation from Labor and the Greens, Brandis said it was appalling for her to mock the religious garments of Muslims and told her “we will not be banning the burqa”.

Brandis’ speech has since had a mixed reception in Coalition circles. On the day, there was limited and hesitant applause from his own ranks.

In her attack on Brandis, Hanson invoked the Anzacs when she accused him of defending “the most recognised symbol of radical Islam”.

“Whether or not you agree with my decision to wear a burqa in parliament is not the real issue,” she said. “The real issue is that Australians want a debate on full-face coverings and they want a debate on the issues that the burqa raises.

“It is, after all, a sign of radical Islam, which threatens the true Australian way of life. What would our Anzacs say? They fought for our freedom and way of life. There is room for only one flag, one language, one loyalty and one law.

“Recently, the lives of precious Australians have been lost in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to stop radical Islam. But, senator Brandis, you forgot those lives when you defended the most recognised symbol of radical Islam, the burqa,” she said.

“You have a right to a view on my decision to wear the burqa into the Senate, but it is arrogant, incorrect and ill-informed when you presume to speak for most Australians,” Hanson said.

She said that all Brandis’ colleagues had “remained seated and stunned while you strutted the Senate stage with your quivering lip”.

Christensen said he thought Brandis had “over-egged” his reaction to Hanson. He said there had been criticism of Brandis’s speech among Coalition MPs, and the standing ovation had been “from people with values that are antipathetic to ours”.

He said the burqa was not a religious requirement but a “a cultural practice that is based in the oppression of women”.

Christensen said his motion talked “not about the burqa and the niqab specifically but full-facial coverings, so this would even apply to violent people that we have seen in the past violent protesters on the far left and the far right … who put the balaclavas over their nose and mouths to disguise themselves”.

The ConversationA ReachTEL poll taken after Hanson’s stunt found majority support for banning the burqa.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/qi46m-71c69c?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Coal and the Coalition: the policy knot that still won’t untie


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

As the Turnbull government ties itself in yet more knots over the future of coal-fired power, it’s worth reflecting that climate and energy policy have been a bloody business for almost a decade now.

There was a brief period of consensus ushered in by John Howard’s belated realisation in 2006 that a price had to be put on carbon dioxide emissions. But by December 2009 the Nationals, and enough Liberals, had decided that this was a mistake, and have opposed explicit carbon pricing ever since.


Read more: Ten years of backflips over emissions trading leave climate policy in the lurch.


The resulting policy uncertainty has caused an investment drought which has contributed to higher energy prices. Now, with prices a hot potato, there are thought bubbles about extending the life of coal-fired power stations and a new effort to set up a Conservatives for Conservation group.

But the Liberal Party’s tussles over climate and energy policy (as distinct from denying the science itself) go back even further – some 30 years.

Early days and ‘early’ action

It’s hard to believe it now, but the Liberal Party took a stronger emissions target than Labor to the 1990 Federal election. Yet green-minded voters were not persuaded, and Labor squeaked home with their support. After that episode the Liberals largely gave on courting green voters, and under new leader John Hewson the party tacked right. Ironically, considering Hewson’s climate advocacy today, back then his Fightback! policy was as silent on climate change as it was on the price of birthday cakes.

In his excellent 2007 book High and Dry, former Liberal speech writer Guy Pearse recounts how in the mid-1990s he contacted the Australian Conservation Foundation, offering to to canvass Coalition MPs to “find the most promising areas of common ground” on which to work when the party returned to government. The ACF was “enthusiastic, if a little bemused at the novelty of a Liberal wanting to work with them”. Most Liberal MPs – including future environment minister Robert Hill and future prime minister Tony Abbott – were “strongly supportive” of the idea. But others (Pearse names Eric Abetz and Peter McGauran) were “paranoid that some kind of trap was being laid”. Nothing came of it.

Elected in 1996, Howard continued the staunch hostility to the United Nations climate negotiations that his Labor predecessor Paul Keating had begun. Not all businessmen were happy. Leading up to the crucial Kyoto summit in 1997, the Sydney Morning Herald reported how a “delegation of scientists and financiers” led by Howard’s local party branch manager Robert Vincin and Liberal Party grandee Sir John Carrick lobbied the prime minister to take a more progressive approach. Howard did not bend.

Howard stayed unmoved until 2006 when, facing a perfect storm of rising public climate awareness and spiralling poll numbers, he finally relented. Earlier that year a group of businesses convened by the Australian Conservation Foundation produced a report titled The Early Case for Business Action. “Early” is debatable, given that climate change had already been a political issue since 1988, but more saliently the report tentatively suggested introducing a carbon price. And Howard finally relented.

The carbon wars

The ensuing ten years after Kevin Rudd’s defeat of Howard don’t need much recapping here (go here for all the details). But one interesting phenomenon that has emerged from the policy wreckage is the emergence of some very unusual coalitions to beg for certainty.

In 2015, in the leadup to the crucial Paris climate talks, an “unprecedented alliance” of business, union, environmental, investor and welfare groups called the Australian Climate Roundtable sprang briefly into life to make the case for action.

Then, after the seminal South Australia blackout last September, a surprisingly diverse group of industry and consumer bodies – the Australian Energy Council, Australian Industry Group, Business Council of Australia, Clean Energy Council, Energy Users Association, Energy Consumers Australia, Energy Networks Association and Energy Efficiency Council – called on federal and state energy ministers to “work together to craft a cooperative and strategic response to the transformation underway in Australia’s energy system”.


Read more: Who tilts at windmills? Explaining hostility to renewables.


It’s in this light that the new Conseratives for Conservation lobbying effort should be seen. Its spearhead Kristina Photios surely knows she has no chance of converting the committed denialists, but she can chip away at the waverers currently giving them comfort and power.

Questions on notice

Of course, there are always cultural (or even psychological) issues, but you’d think that conservation would be a no-brainer for conservatives (the clue should be in the name).

There are a few questions, of course (with my answers in brackets).

  • Where were all the people who are now calling for policy certainty back in 2011 when Tony Abbott was declaring his oath to kill off the carbon tax? (They were AWOL.)

  • Will any business show any interest in building a new coal-fired power station? (No.)

  • Is renewable energy technology now advanced enough for them to make serious money? (We shall see.)

  • Can we make up for lost time in our emissions reductions? (No, and we have already ensured more climate misery than there would have been with genuinely early climate action.)

  • Will the Liberals further water down the Clean Energy Target proposal? (Probably.)

  • What will Tony Abbott say to UK climate sceptic think tank the Global Warming Policy Foundation when he gives a speech on October 6? (Who knows –
    grab your popcorn!).

  • What will happen to the Liberals in the medium term? (Who knows, but Michelle Grattan of this parish has some intriguing ideas.)

  • Are there reasons to be cheerful? (Renewable energy journalist Ketan Joshi thinks so.)

Perhaps the last word on this issue should go to John Hewson, who noted last year:

The ConversationThe “right” love to speak of the debt and deficit problem as a form of “intergenerational theft”, yet they fail to see the climate challenge in the same terms, even though the consequences of failing to address it substantively, and as a matter of urgency, would dwarf that of the debt problem. The “right” is simply “wrong”. It’s political opportunism of the worst sort, and their children and grandchildren will pay the price.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

AGL rejects Turnbull call to keep operating Liddell coal-fired power station



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Malcolm Turnbull told parliament on Tuesday he and Josh Frydenberg are in discussions with AGL about keeping Liddell operating beyond 2022.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Energy giant AGL has delivered an initial sharp rebuff to Malcolm Turnbull’s plea to extend the life of the Liddell coal-fired power station by at least five years.

But Turnbull is said to be determined to keep Liddell open and is exploring all options, saying on Tuesday night that while AGL wanted to get out of coal, it would be prepared to sell the power plant.

Turnbull on Tuesday rang AGL chief Andy Vesey to discuss lengthening Liddell’s life, after the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) warned urgent action is needed to ensure Australia has adequate reliable power during the transition to cleaner energy.

The Liddell plant, located in New South Wales’ Hunter region, is set to close in 2022, and AGL has had a long-running advertising campaign saying things need to change and “we are getting out of coal starting 2022 and ending 2050”.

Turnbull told parliament in Question Time that he and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg “are already in discussions” with AGL “about how we can ensure that the power station stays in operation for at least another five years after 2022”.

Vesey fired off tweets reiterating the company’s intentions. Responding to a Tony Abbott tweet that had said “good that AGL is no longer getting out of coal!”, Vesey tweeted: “We’re getting out of coal. We committed to the closure of the Liddell power station in 2022, the end of its operating life”.

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In another tweet, Vesey said “keeping old coal plants open won’t deliver the reliable, affordable energy our customers need”.

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After the tweets Turnbull rang Vesey again. Later Turnbull told reporters: “I’ve spoken to him several times about this matter. He says AGL wants to get out of coal, but he has said that he is prepared to sell to a responsible party and that’s what we’re talking about.”

“Mr Vesey has obligations to his shareholders, my commitment is to all Australians – families, businesses big and small – to deliver affordable and reliable electricity,” he said.

Turnbull appeared to rule out the government buying the station, saying “I think it’s better that the private sector owns generators like that”.

He said there were “obviously other options but one option clearly, that I responsibly as prime minister have to explore, is keeping Liddell going”.

Tony Wood, energy program director at the Grattan Institute, said on Tuesday night that a sale of Liddell would be possible if the price was right and there was a commercially viable market for the power.

The AEMO report says the National Energy Market (NEM) “is not delivering enough investment in flexible dispatchable resources to maintain the defined target level of supply reliability, as the transition from traditional generation to variable energy resources proceeds”.

It stresses immediacy, saying “short-term measures will be necessary until a long-term solution is agreed and becomes fully effective”.

The problem posed by the planned Liddell closure is a recurring theme in the AEMO report, which is also cool on new power plants “with uncertain long-term business viability”. Liddell, commissioned in the early 1970s, has a total capacity of 2,000 megawatts.

AEMO says that consideration should be given “to the possible extension of the capability of some existing resources … This could take the form of life-extension or investment to increase the flexibility of current dispatchable resources, and thereby improving their business viability and extending their life in the market.”

The report recommends:

  • before the coming summer: a strategic reserve of about 1,000 megawatts of flexible dispatchable energy resources is needed to maintain reliable supply in South Australia and Victoria. AEMO is already acting to deliver this.

  • up to 2020-22: progressively decreasing levels of strategic reserve will be required over the summers – and new mechanisms to deliver these must be put in place in time for 2018-19.

  • before the scheduled 2022 Liddell retirement about 1,000 megawatts of new investment is expected to be needed to preserve supply reliability in NSW and Victoria. Mechanisms should be established in the NEM design to deal with these and similar needs for the long term.

The government, which has before it the proposed clean energy target policy recommended by the Finkel report, in June commissioned the AEMO to assess the risks to reliability and affordability posed by the closure of the Hazelwood power station and similar closures to come.

Apart from the Vesey tweets, a spokesperson for AGL reiterated AGL’s position on closing Liddell. “AGL has committed to the closure of the Liddell power station in 2022, which is the end of its operating life.

“AGL has provided this advance notice to avoid the volatility created by the sudden exit of other coal-fired power stations. AGL is actively assessing what capacity will be needed post 2022 and we, along with other market participants, will consider AEMO’s report in light of these plans,” the spokesperson said.

Frydenberg said that “building on our actions to date including putting in place new restrictions on the export of gas and opening up discussions with AGL over Liddell, the Turnbull government will leave no stone unturned to ensure affordable and reliable power for all Australians”.

Labor’s climate change spokesman Mark Butler, referencing a Vesey tweet, said Turnbull’s “claim of a five-year extension didn’t last five minutes”.

Butler said the government’s policy inaction was driving up electricity prices and a clean energy target “is the solution to crippling policy paralysis.

The Conversation“Yet the government refuses to act, citing any and all excuse to delay, when everyone knows it is internal Coalition division and the weakness of the prime minister that are really to blame,” Butler said.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Newspoll 53-47 to Labor, but Turnbull’s better PM lead blows out


Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

This week’s Newspoll, conducted 31 August to 3 September from a sample of 1610, gave Labor a 53-47 lead, a one point gain for the Coalition since last fortnight. Primary votes were 38% Labor (steady), 37% Coalition (up 2), 9% Greens (steady) and 8% One Nation (down 1). This is the Coalition’s 19th successive Newspoll loss under Turnbull.

There was little change in the leaders’ ratings. 34% approved of Turnbull’s performance (down 1) and 54% disapproved (down 1), for a net approval of -20. Shorten’s net approval was also steady at -20.

On the better PM measure, there was a solid shift in Turnbull’s favour, from a 43-33 lead last fortnight to 46-29 this week. While the Coalition has trailed consistently on voting intentions in Newspoll, Turnbull has led Shorten comfortably as better PM in all these polls.

The better PM measure virtually always skews towards incumbents relative to voting intentions, but Turnbull’s leads have been stronger than expected given voting intentions, and indicate that the public prefer Turnbull to run the country, even as voting intentions favour Labor. An argument can be made that Shorten is holding back Labor, but also that the Coalition is a drag on Turnbull.

According to Kevin Bonham, there have been seven previous cases of a greater better PM lead for the incumbent when the government was behind 53-47 or worse; all occurred with John Howard as PM and Kim Beazley as Opposition Leader from 2005-06.

In the last fortnight, there has been much debate about cultural issues, such as changing the date of Australia Day and amending statues from our colonial past. Turnbull has argued against such changes, and this appears to have boosted his better PM rating.

In this week’s Essential, voters opposed changing Australia Day by 54-26. In Newspoll, voters opposed making changes to the statues by a 58-32 margin, though in Essential opposition was milder at 42-29, perhaps because voters were asked about changing “inscriptions” on public statues, not the statues themselves.

In Newspoll, 45% thought Labor’s 50% renewable energy target would increase electricity prices, 22% decrease and 24% thought there would be no effect, so this is 46-45 for no effect or a decrease. 49% are not willing to pay anything for renewable energy (up 4 since February), 25% will pay $100 a year (down 1) and 13% $300 or more (down 4).

Essential 53-47 to Labor

This week’s Essential, conducted over the last two weeks from a sample of 1780, gave Labor an unchanged 53-47 lead. Primary votes were 37% Labor, 36% Coalition, 10% Greens, 8% One Nation and 2% Nick Xenophon Team. Last week, the Coalition was ahead 37-36 on primary votes, so rounding explains the lack of a headline move to Labor. Additional questions are based on one week’s sample.

Among those who say they will definitely vote in the same sex marriage plebiscite (62% of the sample), 69% will vote Yes and 28% will vote No (67-30 last fortnight). The overall sample supported Yes 59-31 (57-32 last fortnight).

49% blamed private power companies most for rising energy prices, 22% blamed the Turnbull government, 9% environmentalists and 5% renewable energy companies.

In last week’s Essential, voters were asked to rank the last four governments – the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments, and the Abbott and Turnbull Coalition governments. On first preferences, Rudd had 32%, Turnbull 26%, Gillard 22% and Abbott 20%. Labor and Greens voters preferred Rudd to Gillard, while Coalition voters preferred Turnbull to Abbott. Other voters, which included many One Nation supporters, had Abbott at 34% and Rudd at 30%. The Abbott government was the most disliked, with 37% ranking it last.

By 51-40, voters thought the tax system was not fair (55-36 in April 2016). Majorities were bothered a lot by some corporations and wealthy people not paying their fair share of tax.

By 41-40, voters thought dual citizens should be allowed to be MPs. By 41-40, they thought ministers who may hold dual citizenship should stand down while their cases are being decided by the High Court. By 59-25, voters supported a review into all MPs to ascertain who may be a dual citizen. In an additional Newspoll question last fortnight, voters thought politicians entitled to a dual citizenship should be disqualified by 44-43.

By 39-38, voters approved of Pauline Hanson’s burka stunt in Parliament. Kevin Bonham has said that Essential’s online panel appears to have attitudes that are closer to One Nation than a truly representative sample would produce. In effect, Essential may be biased towards non-politically correct responses. This bias may also apply to YouGov.

YouGov 50-50

This week’s Australian YouGov poll, conducted 31 August to 4 September from a sample of 1030, had a 50-50 tie, a one point gain for Labor since last fortnight. Primary votes were 34% Coalition (steady), 32% Labor (down 1), 12% Greens (up 2) 9% One Nation (down 1), 4% Nick Xenophon Team (down 1) and 3% Christian parties (down 1).

The major party primary votes are much lower than in other polls. Votes for Christian parties would probably be Coalition votes in other polls, and this explains why YouGov is skewed towards the Coalition.

Pauline Hanson had a 50-42 unfavourable rating (52-39 in late July). Nick Xenophon had a 52-28 favourable rating (50-25 in July). 66% were worried about North Korea, and views were split 43-43 on military action. Voters would oppose a ban on the hijab 61-29, but support a burka ban 67-24 and niqab ban 64-26.

By 62-24, voters thought Tony Abbott should be reprimanded after he admitted he had missed a vote in 2009 when he got drunk the night before.

State representation changes in the lower house

The ConversationI wrote on 30 June, following the release of 2016 Census data, that Victoria and the ACT will each gain a House seat, while SA will lose a seat, so there will be one additional House seat after the next election. On 31 August, the Electoral Commission confirmed this outcome, and will begin redistributions in the affected states. Labor will benefit from the new ACT seat.

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Turnbull is pursuing ‘energy certainty’ but what does that actually mean?


Alan Pears, RMIT University

Today Malcolm Turnbull met with energy retailers to discuss high power prices, for the second time this month. The retailers agreed to try even harder to inform their customers of cheaper contracts, but they also took the opportunity to call yet again for urgent commitment to a Clean Energy Target (CET).

The prime minister hopes to deliver a CET by Christmas, but has not indicated what the target would actually be.

This is just one more step towards the elusive goal of certainty in the energy market, which politicians, the energy industry and businesses have been calling for with increasing frequency. But underlying the ongoing political scrimmage is the reality that certainty means something very different to each player. It’s particularly difficult to achieve in a time of disruptive change.


Read more: Turnbull to tell power companies: do better by customers


What is certainty?

For politicians, certainty means getting energy prices and policy out of the media, ensuring construction of a new coal-fired power station, or both.

On the other hand, incumbent energy companies want to protect profits by blocking emerging competitors and guaranteeing their revenue.

For emerging energy businesses that sell renewable energy, batteries and smart energy solutions, it’s about opening markets to fair competition and finding a role in a rapidly changing environment.

For business and industry, it’s about access to stable, reliable, reasonably priced energy, so they can get on with their core business.

Households (and voters) also want affordable and reliable energy bills (and some basic respect from energy companies and politicians) but that doesn’t necessarily mean low prices: it can mean low fixed charges, access to energy efficiency programs, and finance for rooftop solar and batteries. Then they can buy less energy while living in comfortable homes with efficient appliances.

The traditional energy system involves large capital investments and long timeframes. This doesn’t sit comfortably with the agendas of many of the people described above, who want quick solutions – which can be delivered by emerging alternatives.

New solutions create new challenges

Any inflexible baseload power station faces the growing problem of the “duck curve”. That is, solar power is reducing baseload demand for energy during the day, but leaving the evening peak-time demand untouched – creating an exaggerated upswing in demand after about 4pm.


Read more: Slash Australians’ power bills by beheading a duck at night


This reduced daytime power use deprives a baseload plant of the demand it needs to keep running continuously. Excess electricity during the day also drives wholesale electricity prices down from traditionally high levels. Daytime sales have comprised a large proportion of revenue for base load generators.

Large scale wind and solar without storage are price takers: they’re paid the going wholesale price at the time they generate. They have benefited from the high daytime prices that solar is now undermining, and from high prices on tradeable certificates for renewable energy, driven by shortages caused by Tony Abbott’s “war on renewables”.

Certificate prices should moderate as more renewable energy capacity is built. Future investment depends heavily on decisions regarding national and state clean energy targets beyond 2020.

Batteries, pumped hydro and other storage rely on the gap between the lowest and highest price each day. Solar is reducing, and even reversing, this price gap in the daytime. But morning and evening demand offers some opportunity, as long as excess storage capacity doesn’t flood the market with electricity and depress prices at those times. In future, they will store cheap daytime excess power for use at other times. And storage will be increasingly important as variable renewable energy capacity grows.

Improving efficiency is ‘the first fuel’

Demand response, where consumers are paid to reduce demand at times of high wholesale electricity prices, is a serious threat to revenue for generators and energy storage. It usually involves smart management of consumption or use of existing backup generators, with little capital cost.

As the Australian Renewable Energy Agency has found, there is a lot of latent capacity. Its call for bids in May for its pilot scheme – originally aiming to provide 160 megawatts (MW) of reserve capacity – has unearthed almost 700MW available by December this year, and over 1900 MW by December 2018.

Our failure to properly manage demand for decades, despite the recommendations of many inquiries, has led to wasteful overinvestment in network and generation capacity that is now exposed to market forces. Now someone will pay for this policy failure: will it be shareholders or consumers?

Energy efficiency improvement adds another unpredictable factor. As shadow environment and energy minister Mark Butler commented at a recent conference, Australian governments have not performed well in this area. But the Finkel Review highlighted its substantial potential and called for governments to do better. The International Energy Agency calls energy efficiency “the first fuel” because it is so big and so cheap.

Our failure to capture energy efficiency is costly for the economy and consumers. When energy suppliers are prepared to invest in projects with risky annual rates of return of 8-15%, energy efficiency opportunities with returns of 20-100% are ignored.

Another complicating element is consumers, many of whom are no longer passively accepting energy market volatility and increasing prices. “Behind the meter” investment in energy efficiency, demand management, storage, on-site renewables and even diesel generators is making increasing sense. Indeed, social justice campaigners are increasingly calling for action to help vulnerable households be part of the future, not victims.

Lastly, there is the elephant in the room: climate change. Fossil-fuel-sourced electricity generation produces around a third of Australia’s emissions. And there is much more scope to cut emissions from electricity than from many other parts of our economy.

Where to now?

No government can provide certainty for all these competing players. Each face their own risks and opportunities, and powerful disruptive forces are at work. Trying to provide certainty for some involves propping up declining business models, at the expense of positioning the Australian economy for the future.

Despite criticism from the federal energy minister states are likely to continue setting their own clean energy targets.

Businesses and households are investing to insure themselves against the policy mess and, in doing so, are transforming the energy system. Local councils and community groups are coordinating action. Emerging businesses are taking risks to capture opportunities. Existing energy businesses are trying to juggle their existing assets while transforming. State governments are trying to win votes and capture jobs in emerging industries. Meanwhile, the federal government’s party room is split over a clean energy target.

The ConversationThe challenge for governments is to nudge this chaotic system in ways that deliver equitable, affordable and reliable energy services.

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: If defeat comes, what then for the Liberals’ succession?


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The conservatives’ strategy is to reap what victories they can while Malcolm Turnbull leads.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

If the Turnbull government’s present agonies become death throes and the election is lost, coping with opposition will test to its very core a Liberal Party that in power has been fractured and self-indulgent.

For a start, would the conservatives, who at the moment have an ideological mortgage over the party despite moderates holding some key cabinet posts, be able to foreclose and, if so, with what consequences?

It’s almost two years since a widely hailed moderate prime minister overthrew a conservative one. Yet in many areas Malcolm Turnbull has not been able to assert his authority over the party. Instead, he has been forced to, or chosen to, accommodate the right’s demands and embrace senior conservatives as his closest ministerial confidants.

The conservatives’ very effective strategy – from their own point of view if not electorally – is to reap what victories they can while Turnbull leads. But their real moment could be in prospect if he loses (assuming he takes the party into the election).

It would depend on who emerged as leader – which in turn would be affected by the size of the defeat and the composition of the post-election party. But conservatives, already shaping the internal debates, would seem well placed in the field of successors.

Peter Dutton, their hardman, has gone from the minister Turnbull didn’t want on cabinet’s national security committee to the prime minister’s adviser and protector, recently rewarded with the creation of the proposed home affairs portfolio.

Dutton can afford to be a mainstay of Turnbull’s praetorian guard. His best chance of leadership lies in Turnbull losing and his pitching as the tough Tony Abbott-style headkicker the Liberals might think they need in opposition.

Meanwhile, the immigration minister burnishes his right-wing credentials by relentlessly milking the border protection issue, assiduously feeding friendly Murdoch tabloids, and maintaining a warm dialogue with 2GB shockjocks.

If not Dutton – who could conceivably lose his marginal Queensland seat – the Liberals would be looking at Scott Morrison, Abbott, Christian Porter (also vulnerable in his Western Australian seat), Josh Frydenberg and Julie Bishop.

Morrison is an ideological chameleon, so it would be hard to predict where the Liberals would head off to under him. While his stocks have receded, in opposition he might be viewed as a compromise.

Abbott would surely be seen as yesterday’s dog.

Porter, a former WA treasurer and attorney-general, arrived with much promise but so far has lacked the popular touch.

Frydenberg probably wouldn’t be regarded as ready.

Bishop doesn’t appear up to – or up for – years of opposition slog, and would likely quit parliament.

Of this list, only Bishop is (sort of) a moderate; Frydenberg is (sort of) centrist.

The lack of moderates in the succession list is notable, given Christopher Pyne’s ill-judged boast to that faction that it was in the “winners’ circle”. It’s not, if we are talking about future leaders. Nor is it articulating, in the sense of a broad manifesto, what the party stands for, according to moderate lights.

This failure to proselytise – something they did diligently at times in the past – is one source of the moderates’ current weakness.

For the most part, Turnbull has failed to chart a philosophical path ahead for the Liberals. Buffeted by political circumstances, bad opinion polls and determined internal critics, he has lacked the opportunity or will to do so. Or perhaps, as a primarily transactional politician, he doesn’t have the intellectual bent for that sort of task.

Turnbull’s much-talked-about July speech in London, in which he said the Liberal Party belonged in the “sensible centre” – a phrase he’d taken from Abbott, though each would identify the centre’s content differently – generated intra-party controversy without inspiring the followers.

In contrast, Abbott has the time, inclination and intellectual heft to set out directions, with numerous articles, speeches and radio interviews.

While Abbott has only a small band of loyalists in personal terms – because he’s seen as electorally unpopular and as someone undermining the government’s chance of surviving – he espouses positions supported by many other conservatives within the party and their commentariat sympathisers.

The response to Pauline Hanson’s burqa stunt in the Senate highlighted the divisions among Liberals over some basic values. Attorney-General George Brandis tore strips off Hanson in a spontaneous and emotional speech, drawing a standing ovation from Labor and Greens. Education Minister Simon Birmingham – one consistently gutsy moderate voice – tweeted support. But positive reaction from the government benches in the Senate was more muted.

Brandis has subsequently come under attack from some conservatives for his speech. Peta Credlin, Abbott’s former chief-of-staff and a significant extra-parliamentary player in the “Liberal wars”, who advocates banning the burqa, wrote: “Rather than condemn Hanson to win the applause of Labor and the Greens, George Brandis should have shown leadership on an issue where women are denied their rightful place in our community.”

A Sky ReachTEL poll taken after Hanson’s action found 56% support for a burqa ban.

Brandis lost out in Dutton’s win on the planned home affairs department, but managed to retain responsibility for approving warrants for ASIO activities.

In the battle for the party’s soul Brandis may think he has little to lose by taking a stand. He’s under pressure to quit the parliament at the end of the year to open the way for Turnbull to reshuffle; it’s not clear whether Brandis would or could seek to stay a while beyond that.

Given the conservatives’ present power in the Liberal firmament, it is worth revisiting Brandis’ 2009 Alfred Deakin lecture, in which he argued that the party’s much-heralded “two traditions” – conservative and liberal – theory “was a specific contribution of John Howard’s”, rather than a historical feature.

“This awkward blending of two different systems of values was very much a reflection of John Howard’s own personal values, shared by no other significant Liberal leader. Alfred Deakin, Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, John Gorton, Malcolm Fraser were all happy to describe themselves simply as liberals. Howard was the first who did not see himself, and was uncomfortable to be seen, purely in the liberal tradition,” Brandis said.

In that lecture Brandis also pointed to the contest, when a party goes into opposition, between those who want to be brutally honest about past failings and those seeking to defend the legacy.

Unless a lot changes fairly quickly – and admittedly the election isn’t due until 2019 – extolling a rather scattered Turnbull legacy might be a challenge.

In government, the Liberals’ own goals have given Labor many breaks. In opposition, the challenges in getting their act together would be considerable.

The broad right is already splintered, with Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and, toward the centre, the Nick Xenophon Team all competing with the Liberals and Nationals.

If worse came to worst, the right could fragment further in opposition. There was muffled talk previously of those from the Queensland Liberal National Party wanting to sit as a separate group, although this isn’t considered practical.

If their vote held up better than that of the Liberals, the Nationals would likely be angry with their partners after a rout. They are already blaming Liberal ineptitude for the Coalition’s woes – although the crisis over Nationals MPs’ citizenship saw the exasperation suddenly flow the other way. A blame game would make harder the adjustment to the loss of power.

While unrelenting negativity can be an effective path for an opposition, as Abbott showed spectacularly, there is no guarantee it is enough. Bill Shorten has picked up a good deal from the Abbott playbook, but Labor under him also has a quite strong, and in parts daring, policy agenda.

The Liberals could not simply rely on a Shorten government being a shambles. They would need to develop over time a positive program – and one that connected with ordinary people, rather than being in an indulgent la-la land of the hard right.

Much would depend on leadership in a party that turns on the axis of the person at the top. That takes us back to the apparent problems of succession.

The ConversationOf course, there might be nothing for the Liberals to worry about. Turnbull – with his device of covering uncertainty with the definitive declaration – assures us the government “will win the next election”. Many of his colleagues just wish they believed him.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.