The Treasurer Scott Morrison brandished a lump of coal in Parliament last week, against rules that are supposed to prevent props being used (Adam Bandt has since brought a solar panel. The speaker has now told everyone to knock it off).
Morrison, mocking the Labor Party members, cooed “This is coal… Don’t be afraid… don’t be scared.” (And has since boasted about this to radio shocking jock Ray Hadley.)
As one astute journalist wrote three years ago it’s part of
“a long campaign to redefine the stuff that comes from burning coal as a “colourless, odourless gas”, a harmless three-way cuddle between one carbon and two oxygen atoms that, happily, provides “plant food”
While a purple haze introduced to the Bureau of Meteorology maps in 2013 causes confusion, Australia, like many other countries, faces an ‘energy trilemma’ – problems of price, security and decarbonisation.
Clean coal is not going to be cheap, “clean” coal is not going to be clean enough to compete with gas or renewables, and most importantly clean coal is not going to happen – the CEFC, Bloomberg, and AEMO have all pointed out that, given the expectation of future carbon constraints, no private investor will come anywhere near new coal. Gina Rinehart isn’t interested and so the government (i.e. the taxpayer) would have to bankroll it, something that Barnaby Joyce is relaxed about.
Policy versus politics
What we are seeing is not actually a policy battle, but a politics battle, and one that has been going on since at least 2000. That was the year that, after the Australian Greenhouse Office had commissioned a series of reports on the emissions trading, then-Environment Minister Robert Hill, brought a proposal for an emissions trading scheme to Cabinet. It was defeated thanks to the opposition of Liberal Senator Nick Minchin. Meanwhile, battles over whether the Kyoto Protocol should be ratified were raging, both among politicians and within industry. Australia had received a very generous ‘reduction’ target that actually meant it could increase its emissions to 108% of its 1990 level, and this was supplemented by a clause (known as the Australia clause) which gave credit for reductions in land-clearing, but still they prevaricated.
Howard famously decided that Australia would not ratify unless the US did, so things were basically put on hold until after the 2000 US Presidential election. Labor, seeking green votes, seemed more keen, but under influence of the powerful CFMEU Union, re-wrote policy platform in mid-2000 to remove mention of Kyoto Ratification. Then Shadow environment minister Nick Bolkus famously said “...I am not going to be a kamikaze pilot when it comes to taking Australian industry and Australian jobs.” Labor confirmed support for Kyoto ratification before the 2001 Federal Election, and Howard toured the Hunter Valley to argue ratification would cost jobs, raise power prices and hurt industry.
[McSweeny, L., Polglaze, K. and Hamilton, F. 2001. Fed – Govt warns of job losses under ALP Kyoto plan. Australian Associated Press, 7 November.
Pulling the Greenhouse trigger
Howard’s wedging attempts continued – why change a winning game? In late 2006, with the climate issue heating up, Labor and the Greens tried to get the ‘greenhouse trigger’ – the idea that the Federal Government should have both the power and the responsibility to give a final yay or nay on any particularly carbon intensive projects – back on the agenda (this was another battle that Robert Hill had lost to Nick Minchin in 2000). The Environment Minister of the time, Ian Campbell, knew what to do….
According to one commentator “Senator Campbell’s response to the criticisms was to describe the greenhouse trigger amendments as the ‘anti-coal amendment’ and seek to paint the ALP as being against the coal industry.”
(Macintosh, 2007: 54)
Labor, under Kevin Rudd, tried to square the circle of climate concern and coal industry support with the notion of Carbon Capture and Storage, but this fell by the wayside by 2010 or so, after geological reality imposed itself and costs spiralled. It is significant that the coal industry and government have switched to “High Efficiency Low Emissions” as their techno-fix du jour.
Meanwhile, the cultural battle – over who is ‘authentic’ and supportive of regional Australia continues unabated. Prime Ministers Gillard and Abbott seemed glued to hard hats and fluoro jackets in their flesh-pressing tours. In July 2014 Senator Ian MacDonald came to parliament in a fluorojacket, provided to him by the same people who gave Morrison his lump of coal.
One useful way to think of the current hi-jinks is as part of a cultural battle over the cleanliness and moral rectitude of a product or commodity. The US firm General Electric tried to portray coal as sexy in this jaw-dropping 2005 advert
and a battle of television adverts on clean coal broke out in 2008/9 in the US.
The divestment campaign, which aims to make coal look outmoded and dangerous not only to the planet but also investors, is the key example, and it has drawn a sharp response from the coal industry and its political supporters (see especially October 2014, in the aftermath of the Australian National University’s announcement of a very partial divestment).
One relatively recent academic paper, called From Pabst to Pepsi: The Deinstitutionalization of Social Practices and the Creation of Entrepreneurial Opportunities captures the decades long struggle between the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the producers and sellers of alcohol. The authors point out that as well as condemning alcohol, the anti-drinking movement also opened up space for entrepreneurs – motivated by morals or money or indeed both- to create an alternative product – ‘soft drinks’ as opposed to hard liquor.
That fight took decades (and ‘winning’ it lead to the disaster that was Prohibition). And the authors point out that
“the brewery industry was composed of thousands of small, independent businesses. This fragmentation of the industry may account for its lack of success in refuting the WCTU’s attacks”
“multiple attacks by anti-smoking advocates such as the American Cancer Society on the tobacco industry—a consolidated industry with a few very large players—have had limited success in recent decades.”
The coal industry – often compared to Big Tobacco – has the same advantages, and it seems that Australia is no closer to finding a solution for the “nonn-delivery of an invisible substance to no-one.” to the dismay and outrage of many, especially the young.
2017 is already living up to its billing.