Barnaby and the cult of climate change

The re-election of Barnaby Joyce as leader of the Federal National Party and Deputy Prime Minister was built on a campaign against political correctness, in particular on climate change. Joyce’s successful pitch to his party was he was going to put the jobs and futures of regional Australians ahead of any international pressure for climate emissions commitments.

His line about not being told what to do by Danes or Germans might be scoffed at in parts of urban Australia, but clearly plays well in the Nationals’ regional heartland. It’s a return to climate change being cast as trendy cause of the affluent Chardonnay socialists, rather than the challenging global science, engineering and diplomatic challenge that it really is.

How much this matters politically is the subject of sustained analysis and polling. Until this week the Coalition was quietly confident on its positioning on climate change, with its focus on cost of living, delivery and track record over targets. They believed this gave them credibility and differentiated them from Labor who kept making promises they couldn’t deliver. They also saw their technological optimism playing out better than Labor’s threat of  economic instruments, a united team compared to Labor’s division on jobs in energy resources.

Until this week the Morrison Government was almost certainly intent on committing to net zero by 2050 at Glasgow in November. This was to defuse climate change, remove its symbolism.

The revival of Joyce poses a threat to many of these political objectives. It risks removing the positives: reigniting government divisions, allowing the Government instead of Labor to be targeted on climate ideology. It may become a serious problem for the coalition, these extent to which Joyce will seek to damage the Coalition in order to strengthen his own base is unclear. Its certainly likely to be uncomfortable for the Government.

At the operational level, the shift in Government direction appears less significant. A net zero by 2050 target is a 29 year objective: it was not going to be backed with policy to deliver it and was not going to materially shift business investment any more than it already is moving.

Electricity investment has now all but been commandeered by the States, technology funding run on a tight leash by the Commonwealth through its agencies like the ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC). Gas investment will be framed by conditions on approvals and developers managing reputational risk.

Joyce has a track record of energy symbolism over substance. The protracted but pointless campaign to consider a new coal fired power station in Collinsville was a case in point. It was and is never going to get past first base, or ever get state government approval. The proponents have no experience in building or running anything, let alone a multi billion dollar project like a coal fired power station. It’s the equivalent of getting a Jim’s Mowing franchisee to build the MCG.

Barnaby won’t directly impact energy investment or markets, at least in the short term. His re-ascendancy is a reminder of the lens through which sections of the community still see the climate and energy debate, like Trump Republicans in the US.  They remain the single greatest barrier to a cohesive and efficient transformation of energy in the 21st century.