11 August 2012

The price of power

Tony Abbott can't be Prime Minister because he hasn't made the case that he'd do that job better than Julia Gillard is doing it. In recent weeks we have seen Abbott flick the switch that should have displayed the power he has at his command - the power he would exercise on our behalf, if only we vote in the way that the empty refractions known as polls might indicate.

Let's start with the domestic: electric power, the reliability of its supply and the price thereof.

This has been a major issue in Australian politics for at least twenty years. Only people who know nothing about Australian politics, such as members of the Canberra press gallery, would have failed to miss:
  • NSW, where the current Foreign Minister was embarrassed by his party for failing to privatise electricity assets, the largesse from which was apparently going to fund anything but actual renewal of electricity assets (or even, heaven forbid, new ways of generating and distributing and consuming electricity);
  • Victoria, where the Kennett government succeeded in privatising electricity assets and failed to get re-elected because there was no discernible impact on the state for this political triumph. The state's schools, hospitals, roads and public transport were no better off, there were fewer jobs in the communities that generated electricity - and as for law-and-order, for much of this period a drug-dealer considered himself "The Premier" because all the rhetoric about cracking down on drugs and crime made no difference to him either;
  • South Australia - as in so many things, just like Victoria only much less so;
  • Western Australia, where the money flowing into the state might mean they would need a better power generation and distribution system than the jerry-rigged one they patched together during their povvo years, only there isn't as much demand from industry in the south-west as had been imagined (and as politicians had promised). This absence of vision and effective policy is another reason why Collier's "cane toad" statement was so silly. We'd better not even think about other ways of generating electricity because it might damage confidence in key commodities markets;
  • Queensland, as above but substitute SE for SW; and
  • ACT and Tasmania have the hydro, so once again here is a pressing national debate in which they play pretty much no role.
It is foolish to assume that this stuff, so complex and unresolved for so long, would never make it to the federal arena. When state governments come to Canberra with their begging-bowls, a core part of their problem is stuffed-up electricity policy. It was crazy to assume that such a key aspect of national economic infrastructure would never confront those who deal with Australia's economic policy - the Treasury, the Productivity Commission, Infrastructure Australia, and yes, the government.

Members of major political parties and professional journalists have no excuse for not seeing this issue coming at them. People who have worked closely on the issues arising from the generation and distribution of electricity and who understand it intimately have largely disappeared into the banks, because if your best efforts are going to be ridiculed, scapegoated and/or ignored you may as well be paid well and have a nice office. The federal bureaucracy, the policy advisory ranks of major parties, and the still-bloated ranks of the press gallery sorely need such people; those who make hiring decisions over such people should have taken more interest in such qualifications and background than they have.

The generation, distribution and pricing of electricity was a major political issue when Tony Abbott was writing Battlelines. It isn't exactly a go-to text on that subject. It falls to blogs like evcricket to pick up the slack of actually informing readers what this issue is about and how it affects you. Journalists would grumble if such a person were invited to contribute for their outlet, fancying themselves capable of all that and more besides. The truth is the most senior of them can only produce guff like this. Compare the two links in this paragraph and weep, those who reflexively defend Australian journalism, and let us have no more risible concessions that a good blog is rare while quality journalism is so commonplace and self-evident that it can and must always be defended.

You can use the facts Benson raised to make a number of different, and much better, stories:
  • Gillard is finally rising above NSW ALP politics to introduce economic reform of national importance;
  • Gillard is, once again, delivering on a policy that Rudd squibbed. This is a pattern that poll-jockeys cannot see, let alone evaluate, and which largely explains why Rudd-fans are kidding themselves about a restoration;
  • Chris Hartcher and Barry O'Farrell have long had a difficult relationship - O'Farrell has put Hartcher into a bastard of a portfolio, which neither man is handling with the aplomb that they brought to bear-pit tactics back in Opposition days; and most importantly
  • Abbott has nothing useful to say on this issue.
Earlier this week Abbott looked like every other pathetic opposition leader, feebly accusing the incumbent of "gold medal hypocrisy" like some time-server e.g. Eric Ripper or John Robertson. It's too late for that, really it is. First-movers on long-festering issues get accused of hypocrisy for not moving earlier, and eventually they get credit - see Howard and GST, Keating and Aborigines, Hawke and industrial relations reform, or Fraser keeping many of the Whitlam government's reforms. Only partisans think that charge has any sting; it's more than compensated for by the acknowledgment among the disinterested that a long-overdue issue is finally being addressed.

Lenore Taylor is wrong: there is no split within the Coalition because there is no policy over which to split. There is no excuse for this. Shadow Energy Minister Ian Macfarlane could and should have made life hell for his government counterpart (and his successor in the energy portfolio), Martin Ferguson. Rather than allowing Gillard to take the initiative, a bit of effort from Macfarlane might have made it a running sore for the government and proof-positive of Ferguson's intellectual and policy laziness.

Abbott tries to represent the experience of his frontbench as a positive thing. Macfarlane's inertia in taking it up to the government shows that it isn't. There should be a tangible policy direction on electricity reform - with abatement of carbon emissions as part of it - and the fact that there isn't is the reason why Tony Abbott isn't in the race.
Tony Abbott had been pondering how he could get [carbon tax] back on the agenda. Voila.
And in doing so, Simon, he sounded like a plonker, a Johnny one-note who can't change his mind and therefore can't change anyone's nor anything else either. Notice how Abbott disappears from the rest of your article after that, and rightly so. Voila, my arse.

Abbott brings nothing to the table in negotiations on electricity reform. He can't offer the states a stack of cash because, apparently, the economy is stuffed and so is the budget. He can't identify the sticks-and-carrots that he'd use to drove state governments in the direction he wants to go, because he doesn't have a clue what do to and where to go on this issue.

Talking up "the carbon tax" rebounded on him when the sky failed to fall on poor Whyalla and the debate shifted to other factors driving up electricity prices - other factors about which Abbott has nothing to say, nothing to contribute.

The decision to go light on policy development has hurt Abbott. He should be shuttling between state capitals to bring about the solution that Gillard can't deliver and making the case the he should be in the job she occupies today.

Renowned by journalists for his verbal skills, Abbott isn't capable of making the sort of substantial speech Gillard made earlier in the week - not on that issue, nor any other really. Because she's in there trying and he isn't, she's in front on an issue she has neglected and on which her long-serving minister is no help at all. 

Gillard's success in getting bills through parliament and other deals done is negated by a perception that she's a cold technocrat with no vision for the nation. The absence of a policy direction means that Abbott cannot contrast that vacuum with any vision of his own. This, combined with the pervasive and arrogant Coalition attitude that Labor is as good as defeated, means that the next election is shaping up as one of the great tortoise-and-hare contests.

Let us have no nonsense that the Coalition will have a policy all in good time, as and when blah blah. You can get an idea of policy direction without a formal policy document, which is just vapid dot-points these days anyway and hardly telling electorally. It's a year until the election is due: by this point before the 1996 election, Keating government ministers were on the back foot with thoughtful pieces emanating from the opposition which steadily built a perception that it deserved a chance at governing, at dealing with issues that had long been put on the back-burner or junked altogether.

In his second term as Opposition Leader, Howard showed that powder is not always best deployed when simply kept dry. Sometimes you've got to detonate a bit of it from time to time, to blow a minister out of their job and show the government that it might be in office but not necessarily in power. Rudd in 2007 was similar to Howard, but better at running the government ragged and daring people to imagine it as an alternative government. Abbott's popularity falls when people seriously contemplate the prospect that he might be Prime Minister, and that their vote may be implicated in getting him there. All this journo-talk that Abbott is the best-ever Opposition Leader overlooks Rudd's more considerable success, vindicated by an election victory that has eluded Abbott before and which will elude him again.

Abbott's sweep through Washington and Beijing was meant to be a triumph, but it was a fizzer. Conservative foreign policy commentators like Tom Switzer or Greg Sheridan have no case to make that Abbott, or his shadow foreign minister, would be competent at administering this country's foreign policy. The idea that they might be better than the incumbents is demonstrably false, whatever may be said of the government's policies and performance.

Rather than atone for this disaster, he made it worse. The newly elected Queensland government wasted its goodwill and momentum with a series of culture-war spats that have nothing to do with the problems they were elected to address, and which made Queenslanders question whether they were right to elect an LNP government. What does Abbott do but wade into a culture war of his own, winning no support from swinging voters but reinforcing their doubts.

Abbott is proposing to change the law of the land to favour one of his mates: all of Andrew Bolt's avid readers are Coalition voters anyway. Abbott explicitly stood with conservative churchmen at a time when Australians are ambivalent at best about the leadership of churches, and about their relationship to government policy. The conservative base are wrong to seek reassurance at a time when people are not yet won over to what Abbott is offering.

Far more substantial than any policy achievements as Opposition Leader have been Abbott's dirty-tricks campaigns against the admittedly flawed Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson. Bloggers, not MSM journalists, led the campaigns to expose Ashby and Jackson-Lawler, which means that neither the sleaze nor the perception of Coalition distance from them are assets for Abbott.

Now Abbott should be on a winner with electricity, and he isn't. No amount of PR glitter-rolling, no amount of parliamentary theatrics can give him the credibility and the gravitas he has frittered away.

It was understandable that they should give him the benefit of the doubt but now the press gallery embarrass themselves when they simply take him at face value. I talk a lot about the politico-media complex but increasingly, if nobody listens to Abbott on the big issues at the crucial moments, eventually journalists have to stop taking him seriously.

Abbott hasn't paid the price for power, the consideration about what it means to govern this country well and what you might offer toward that end. The humility of the great responsibility of office is being diminished by conceited prats like Chris Pyne who take victory at the next election as given. Oh, yes, Battlelines; more honoured in the breach than the observance in terms of actual Liberal policy directions today. Isn't electricity pricing (and associated issues such as generation and distribution) such a signal issue for Australian families today? Isn't it as important to Abbott as "the greatest moral challenge of our time" was to Rudd (and if not, what is)?

Abbott is committing the worst offence possible against the modern media - providing dull copy - without the gravitas and seriousness of considering the future of the nation and preparing for government. Ironically, any shift by the Liberal Party away from his leadership is made harder, not easier, by the absence of any thought about what a Coalition government might mean (other than winding back anything and everything Rudd and Gillard ever did and pretending the future is 2005). Abbott is to blame for this, and so are those who sold their party out to him so comprehensively, and so cheaply.


  1. Well I was shocked to read this sentence in Laura Tingle's piece yesterday: "The clunky way Abbott has started to move into new policy areas as the carbon tax caravan has started to move on has surprised MPs on both sides of the political divide..." This can't possibly be true, but perhaps this is the framework the press gallery will use to start earning some self-respect again and signals the free ride is over for the Opposition. (http://www.afr.com/p/opinion/abbott_struggles_to_find_form_as_6T9xNT2nvhcBHpd7dwirUP)

  2. And isn't the Liberal party machine going to be very angry when they finally work out that the government is going to run for 3 years (I too have noticed even the ruddstoration camp is finally giving up) and that Abbott isn't going to win.

    I said when Howard lost, the Liberals had a future if the mad right exited stage left, they didn't.

    When Abbott (lets be honest who is there to replace him) loses there is going to be a lot of pain.

  3. I simply don't understand how the LNP can't see that Turnbull is their only hope.

  4. Space Kidette11/8/12 11:00 am

    The shift in policy reform to a series of policies which directly affect households have the ALP finally addressing WIIFM.

    "What's In It For Me" in their big reforms in the first half of their term was largely missing. Whilst I agree with those reforms, it was difficult for voters to see how it impacted them (muddied messages from both the LNP and media didn't help) but now with NDIS, Electricity, Schoolkids Bonus and Gonski, the policies are more direct, more noticed and too date, largely unanswered by the LNP, apart from 'No' or 'aspiriational'.

    All of a sudden the ALP are connecting to voters with policies that matter to them.

  5. "as for law-and-order, for much of this period a drug-dealer considered himself "The Premier" because all the rhetoric about cracking down on drugs and crime made no difference to him either"

    Hang on, didn't you say a little while ago you didn't care about Victorian crime stories because they lacked "significance outside of a narrow coterie of numb-nuts that think The Godfather was a documentary"?

    1. That was for news editors and their lack of understanding of what news is. This is about politics and its relationship to policy execution. It's called different perspectives: don't you wish you had some perspective rather than just jonesing for a gotcha?

    2. But isn't it first necessary to establish who these people are in order to establish their importance to policy? If so, how do you propose to do that without all that crime reporting you deride?

    3. I derided the celebrity-following aspect of reporting, not the crime reporting. You're making a solid case for your redundancy.

    4. The problem is that you seem to demand every story cover every aspect and, as you said earlier, trace the consequences back to the "vegie-buying public".

      That's simply not how reporting has ever or can ever work. It is incremental. Facts are built up over time.

      Your failure to want to grasp this is the key problem with your press criticism.

    5. The "vegie-buying public" is your phrase, and a silly one, because it reveals your contempt for those upon whom your "profession" really relies. The idea that every article must do this is wrong too, but it is a useful test of what you should focus resources on. Stories that add nothing should not be commissioned, written or published. Your insistence on setting up straw men and ignoring teal and valid criticism means you can't be part of the solution.

    6. Er, no, "vegie-buying public" is your phrase.

      "Your insistence on setting up straw men and ignoring teal and valid criticism means you can't be part of the solution."

      Pot, kettle, black.

    7. No it isn't, and I'd never use it with the condescension with which you wield it.

      You recognise straw-man work as a bad thing but I don't think you understand how it invalidates the argument you tried to make. From you point of view, you've excreted a riposte and who cares whether it makes sense?

      You're in no position to rule anything in or out because plugging away as you do is wrecking your "profession" and the industrial structure that sustains it into the short term. I tried to show you the error of your ways but you just wallow in it like a pig in shit.

      I'm the customer and you're not meeting my needs. One of us will have to go and the game ends when the customer departs, not when some particularly feeble and utterly interchangeable employee gets their pink slip. Nothing good our nutritious can come from the burnt-out kitchenware that you rattle at me attempting to justify your position.

      I've noticed you, so you're valid. But at the same time I pity you.

    8. As of right now, your blog is the only place Google can find that exact phrase. In a comment by you. Man up and own it.

    9. Only the words; the condescension is all yours.

    10. Lachlan Ridge14/8/12 9:47 am

      The comments you attributed to Mr Elder were mine actually - vis a vis the Godfather, etc - in response top an anonymous commenter defending the absence of press releases in coverage of various boring underbelly type soap operas that media seem to think are relevant or useful information for working stiffs like myself. I'll man up and admit it. You've done nothing but reinforce my belief that the mainstream media is ready to charge off down the first rabbit hole they stumble across because there must be something shiny down there, which suits the foxes just fine. Here Mr Elder is pointing out to you that your 240 volt power is threatened by bad policy, and you seem to think a few wide boys from Carlton are a greater threat to civilisation. Grow up! It beggars belief what you'd do if you had to get a real job.

    11. Gotta love an anonymous poster who tells *me* to "man up and own it", and who reckons my challenge is to save industrial journalism.

  6. The right-wing politicos have historically viewed as a given that they will be backed in their electioneering by either a willing military or/and a willing media. The oversight by the current conservatives is that both have changed beyond recognition of historical norms! The military is no longer the public darling it used to be and the MSM. has been "junked" by the bloggers fifth estate!
    They;the conservatives, are now on their own with their policies displayed in the naked light of day...and my!..they indeed look naked!!

  7. Thanks for the links, especially to evcricket, what an interesting journey into the world of smart cities and virtual power. That journey then leads back to Gillard who in October 2010 signed the "Smart Grid, Smart City project funding agreement". I wonder if the journalists can play catch up to Gillard? And I wonder if the penny will drop with Abbott that for all his carbon tax doom and gloom, Gillard from the time of the minority government deal had a policy and future plan for Australia in a Carbon reduction world?

  8. They are all as bad on refugee law, they all prattle and babble about policy and dismiss the law as a trifle.

    Even Michael Gordon is at it.

    I want a leader who will uphold the human rights of everyone who ever gets to this country and stops pandering to the racists.

  9. It's so hard to judge since he has been thoroughly awful throughout but i think this is pretty clearly the worst few weeks he has had for awhile. Even our desperately apologetic media noted a few of the sillier things he said this week. Meanwhile Gillard is to my mind starting to really bed down an image as a real fighter who is actually trying to find solutions to serious problems.

    Somehow our beloved press managed to miss this gem though

    ‎"The decision to ban the live export trade in panic after a television programme was probably the most disastrous single incident in the history of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia"

    1. Lachlan Ridge14/8/12 9:52 am

      My god! Did he really say that? ominous for Timor Leste.

  10. Anonymous, I also read the Laura Tingle article and hoped that at last we might get to see some media analysis. Though its not the first time that Tingle has written disapprovingly of Abbott's performance.

    Maybe part of the reason is tied up with Abbott's reported lack of appeal to female voters - proving females at least are smart enough to see through the high-vis circus acts.

    This lack of appeal must still be an issue, as Julie Bishop has gone out of her way to raise it at their WA Conference this weekend. http://www.smh.com.au/national/julie-bishop-spruiks-feminine-and-caring-tony-abbott-20120811-240yk.html

    Whatever the case, we need to start demanding analysis of "what Abbott is going to do from Day 2 - we all know what he is going to do on Day 1". I'm not sure who wrote this line recently, but it is very valid and necessary for the better future of the country.

    David Perth

  11. Julie Bishop has addressed the WA Lib conference today telling them to spruik the feminine and caring credentials of Tony Abbott

    "Believe me he gets plenty of advice and takes plenty of advice on the way women see the world," she said.

    "We have a responsibility to tell people who Tony Abbott is.

    "There's so much more to Tony (than politics)."

    The fact that she would have to actually say this is an indication of just how big a problem Abbott is.

  12. Much of what we view as civilisation is heavily dependent upon the ubiquitous 240 volt three pinned wall socket, yet few Australians are aware of how their energy is generated - apart from vague idea of power stations - let alone where the electricity is actually generated.

    Much of the verbiage in the electricity privatisation "debate" in NSW from late 2007 onwards was absolute garbage peddled by discredited hucksters such as ratings agencies (Standard and Poors being a serial offender, scripting NSW Treasury and that political zygote Michael Costa) and other intellectual pygmies, such as Mar'n Ferguson.

    Electricity infrastructure was rolled out in this country largely by local government, aggregated by state governments in the latter part of the post-war boom and then corporatised through the eighties to become a ripe plum for the usual suspects in this neoliberal age.

    The assumptions of the market - and even the idea of a market as the best instrument to allocate energy resources in Australia - are seriously flawed when one grasps the inherent fallibility of base load power generation.

    An example of this is Transgrid in NSW; a State owned corporation pushing for high voltage power lines from coal-fired power stations to all parts of the state based on demand management scenarios where they got a ruler and drew a line that looked like the North Face of Everest and called it 'projected demand'. Efficiencies in consumption mean that demand is falling, or at best rising slightly, in south-east Australia.

    Another example is heating and hot water - both available from technologies far superior (and cheaper) than electricity, yet foisted on much of suburban Australia because of subsidised marketing by aggregated state owned electricity generators. Base load power needs to be justified as you can't switch an power station on and off like a torch, so they came up with off-peak hot water as a way to justify this infrastructure - providing householders with a big kettle - when gas was a far more efficient and cheaper way to heat water.

    Subsidies that taxpayers fork out to Alcoa and other aluminium smelters giver them electricity at absurdly low prices to produce little more than bottled electricity.

    The Bushfire Royal Commission in Victoria recommended a major overhaul of the 'poles and wires' network that China Light and Power has largely ignored during its stewardship in the post Kennett privatisation years. Now they are seeking permission from the Australian Energy Regulator to pass the costs through to retailers, who will do the obvious. So if you're a Victorian toddle off to www.aer.gov.au and make a submission to that little fiasco before they come to extract blood from your stone.

    Abbott's brain fart this week has measured the man as useless in this most important area. Not that the incumbents are much better, but we do need a policy something north of three word slogans if we are going to be able to afford to keep the lights on.

    Allowing electricity providers to charge households for updating transmission networks is not far removed from government underwriting the installation of horse watering facilities on every corner ten years after the arrival of the Model T Ford, and charging the cost back to households. Wonks talk sonorously about 'not pickling winners' , but what is gold plating baseload power and charging the bill back to households who have no choice but to cough up the difference?

    If we had an informed populace most energy ministers at a state and federal level would be swinging from their largely redundant lamp posts.

  13. That was a long two weeks. Welcome back.

    With the NDIS trial tucked away, carbon tax furphy exposed, new policy fronts opening up for Gillard and, what appears to be from my hopeful watch, a changing tact on reporting things may well swing in Gillard's favour in the coming months.

    This article reminded me of a comment you made in reply. Good policy makes all the difference.

  14. Wonks talk sonorously about 'not pickling winners'

    Well, you'd end up with a bunch of dills after that, wouldn't you.

    Great post, great comments.