In Australia, Can Renewable Energy Get Over the Tea Party Blues?

“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.”

Niccolò Machiavelli

Australia’s government is trying to initiate a new era of clean energy and facing such powerful opposition that some renewables companies that will benefit from the policy are scared to proactively campaign for it.

The debate around Australia’s new Clean Energy Future legislation has seen conservative parties here — as in the USA — take a stance that is not just oppositional, but dangerously radical. They now oppose traditional conservative measures such as carbon trading and corrections to market failure and a substantial minority are vocally anti-science.

“We can repeal the tax, we will repeal the tax, we must repeal the tax. This is a pledge in blood. This tax will go,” says opposition leader Tony Abbott.

What Abbott is calling ‘the tax’ is a comprehensive suite of measures, the Clean Energy Future package. If implemented, the CEF it will stimulate tens of billions of dollars of investment, create jobs and increase Australia’s long-term energy security. But Australia’s conservatives have seemingly abandoned their traditional role as advocates of effective markets and technological progress.

The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer blames Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation for undermining Australia’s progress towards market-based, technological solutions to climate change;

On many of the underlying structural dynamics, Australia resembles the United States pretty closely. Coal and agricultural interests wield a lot of clout. Per-capita carbon emissions are high. There’s a well-developed network of climate denialism — the country’s best-selling newspaper, the Australian, regularly gives voice to skeptics of global warming.

As in the U.S., Australian conservative parties have been the target of a take over by self-styled Tea Party radicals in recent years. In the past, the intellectual leadership in conservative politics came from smart executives and well-educated professionals. 

Conservatives are increasingly led by a more shrill, less educated set, who are more likely to be small business owners or from the resource sector. To these climate denialists, renewable energy is part of a global conspiracy to destroy prosperity and Western values. Solar and wind, whether they like it or not, are being defined as a politicised brand in Australia, wrongly associated with radical green values.

Unsurprisingly, some think tanks on the conservative side of politics are now linked with the notorious climate denial and astroturf efforts of the Koch brothers.

A new low point was reached recently, when Australia’s opposition finance spokesman, Andrew Robb, made an uninformed attack on the integrity of the clean technology sector. In an interview with the Age, Robb accused the clean technology sector of being “white-shoe salesman” and “vested interests.”

Robb alleged that corrupt deals have been struck between renewable energy companies and the Labor Government and the Australian Greens. He is pursuing “what backdoor promises and commitments have already been made and to whom,” in an ill-advised witch hunt against some of America’s and the world’s smartest technology companies.

The practical implication for investors and technology companies is that he reiterated the opposition’s determination to axe the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which is a centerpiece of Australia’s whole climate legislation package.

Informed commentators are almost unanimously in favor of the corporation and the rest of the package. The Guardian’s Bryony Worthington praises the policy, writing ‘This is very good news. It has been an uphill battle, with the opposition and business lobby all but claiming that the sky would fall in should the bill be passed.’

Worthington says that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and related measures are not just good policy but also good politics;

It will also be used to stimulate investment in new clean energy technologies leading to new jobs and increased inward investment. Hopefully over time this will boost Labour and the Greens’ popularity, so ensuring that the policy is protected – despite opposition leader Tony Abbott’s “blood promise” to repeal the legislation.

Global warming is forcing conservatives in America and Australia to declare their hand. They a have to make a choice between the interests of the economy as a whole or the politically dominant fossil fuel sector of the economy. Australian conservatives have chosen to back coal, oil and gas interests, to the detriment of the Australian economy.

For more than a century, parties such as the Opposition’s Liberal and National Parties have been clearly aligned with the interests of capital against parties of the left, that were aligned with the interests of the working class or a broader, social majority. Big business supported the conservatives at most elections during the 20th century.

Over the past 10 to 20 years, Australian society has undergone social and technological transformations that make the old alliance between conservatives and business problematic. Enter the inconvenient truth of global warming and the system is pushed to a breaking point.

It is too early to say where these shifting tectonic plates will come to rest, but the political landscape is new. Every day there is a new innovation or major deal in the clean tech space internationally and Australia’s conservatives are left further behind.

Multinational technology and renewable energy companies now get a better hearing from the Australian Greens than the Liberal Party. This is despite the fact that the Greens are associated with the progressive values of the Occupy Movement and constantly under attack from Rupert Murdoch’s climate denial mouthpiece, the Australian.

Smart companies are political pragmatists. They are finding ways to exploit the new situation and forging working relationships with the Greens, because it benefits their economic interests. This is a foretaste of the emerging political economy, where the relationship between business and politics is more open and flexible than in the past.

In Australia, the best option for the renewable energy sector is to ‘man up’ as Sarah Palin would put it. It needs to define the agenda in the media and shape its political relationships. Something like 90 p[ercent of the Australian public supports renewable energy so if the industry wants to have electoral clout, it just has to get organized.

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Dan Cass is strategist at The Australia Institute and an honorary associate at Sydney Business School. He has advised international and Australian energy companies, and is now on the advisory board of Solar Head of State and was a director of Hepburn Wind. @DanJCass

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