Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greenest of them all?

The WA Liberals’ bold energy and climate policy platform has enlivened what was looking to be a fairly run-of-the-mill state election. Given we are still in the middle of the COVID crisis, voters are expected to stick with what they know and re-elect the McGowan Labor government.

In its four years, the McGowan government has done the kind of careful due diligence on its power sector and plausible futures that policy wonks appreciate. This includes a Whole of System Plan prepared in conjunction with AEMO and a DER integration plan.

But the public is less interested in these worthy tomes and more in understanding what is going to get built and hearing a vision for the future. The young WA liberal leader Zak Kirkup has given them that in spades with a self-described “visionary plan” based around decarbonisation and new industries for the state, including:

  • Closing the remaining coal-fired power stations in the state by 2025.
  • Creating a transition fund to assist the Collie region (where all the coal plants are).
  • Underwriting a 1500MW renewables precinct in the state’s Midwest, as well as the necessary transmission connection.
  • A target of supporting a further 4500MW of renewables to power renewable hydrogen and “green steel” industries.
  • WA government activity to be zero carbon by 2030.

Kirkup supported his vision by referencing two of the previous industrial development successes in WA: iron ore and LNG, which he said were kickstarted by previous Liberal governments. In doing so, he glossed over some key differences: renewables and hydrogen won’t deliver royalties to the government’s coffers, and renewable hydrogen/green steel are currently more expensive than their more carbon-intensive counterparts.

The plans provoked an aggressive reaction from the government with energy minister Bill Johnston calling the Liberal’s platform “reckless” and “too risky”, and suggesting it would lead to 11 days’ blackout a year – as well as costing the state $16bn. This is an amusing flip of the switch to observers of Australian politics – a Liberal leader cheerleading renewables while Labor attack him with doomsaying about reliability and cost. Some will find it refreshing to see the two major parties competing over who can be the greenest during an election campaign

Some of Johnston’s criticisms are valid – there are some gaps in the Liberal story (more specific analysis can be found here). But in some ways this misses the point. State oppositions rarely have the resources to construct watertight plans for technically complex industries. It’s more likely that a future Kirkup government would seek to follow “the vibe” of his plan rather than the specifics.

The local inspiration for Kirkup’s strategy is probably NSW energy Minister Matt Keen and his Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap.  But Keen has the advantage of being in government and having the resources of the NSW Public service at his disposal. So, in some ways, Kirkup is more reminiscent of the former UK prime minister David Cameron, and his pre-election vision for leading “the UK’s greenest government” among other policy reversals designed to make his Conservative party less “toxic” with middle of the road voters. Crucially, of course, Cameron won, which was the ultimate vindication of his policy platform, especially among his sceptical parliamentary colleagues. And the UK has reaped the dividend of his decision to call a truce in the culture wars around climate change and renewables, with the country arguably the leading developed country in delivering emissions reductions.

But Kirkup is unlikely to win and given his green platform was apparently developed without consulting with his party colleagues, the knives may be out if the LNP performs poorly in the upcoming election. With the popular McGowan expected to romp home, he probably felt there was little point in playing it safe. Whether this approach endures in future WA liberal policy platforms remains to be seen.