Is a hung parliament good for the environment?

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RenewEconomy's Giles Parkinson discusses the prospect of a hung parliament and what it will mean for climate change and renewable energies.

NEARLY THREE YEARS AGO, on the eve of the last Federal election, Renew Economy warned that a Tony Abbott-led Coalition Government presented a grim outlook for clean energy and climate change and we warned too that it could be even worse than most people feared.

It turned out that we were right. And the outlook for the current election is similarly grim, whatever the optimists want to think about Malcolm Turnbull and his ability to swing the far right of his party. There is nothing, in the party’s policies or rhetoric, that suggests a change from the Abbott era.

And what did the Abbott era deliver? The carbon price was trashed, the renewable energy target was effectively brought to a halt and then cut savagely, the Direct Action Plan was introduced and promptly handed out a billion or two to projects that were mostly already happening, the Climate Council was abolished and the Climate Change Authority was ignored.

Abbott has gone and been replaced by Turnbull, sparking hope of a change for the better. But Turnbull’s past – including his pledge to never lead a party that did not take climate change seriously and even his support for 100% renewable energy proposals – are now but a distant memory.

Turnbull did not even bother to release an energy policy in this campaign but it is still the Coalition’s intent to strip the remaining $1.3 billion in funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (if it can get approved in the Senate).

It will also retain Direct Action and its world-trailing emission reduction targets and wants voters to “trust them” when it comes time for a review next year. Only the Clean Energy Finance Corporation has been saved, mostly it seems to serve as some sort of giant pork-barrell for election promises.

The rhetoric is also little different. Australia, Turnbull says, will not do more on climate change until others do. Any proposal to increase Australia’s targets and to strengthen renewable energy targets – including by Labor and the Greens – are met with Abbott-style scare campaigns about soaring costs.

The renewable energy target remains stuck in the stalls. The Coalition now declares itself to be a supporter of “renewable energy” but – even if it wanted to – could not find a single photo of a wind farm or solar farm that it has caused to be built in its three years in office.

The best it could do is to show a photo of Barnaby Joyce “turning the sod” on a wind farm near Glenn Innes, a 175MW project that he has had to embrace – despite his dislike of wind farms – because it is in his own electorate where he has faced a tough contest from independent and former member Tony Windsor.

And so we went to the polls again. The polling and the pundits suggest a tight race, with the two main parties running neck and neck, with a big potential increase for small parties and independents, encouraged by the low hurdle of a double dissolution.

The pundits favoured a small majority to the Coalition. Turnbull has been supported by both the Murdoch media and Fairfax (the Australian Financial Review, The Age and the SMH). The Senate is anyone’s guess, with minor parties and independents likely to attract at least 20% of the vote.

The Greens remain the only political party with the policies that resemble the science, and match the ambition and the reality of what is happening overseas, as the major economies put the brakes on fossil fuels, and coal in particular, and fast-track investment in wind, solar and storage.

They propose ambitious renewable and carbon abatement policies, incentives for battery storage, community energy and solar for public housing, and a transition plan for affected coal communities. No one else comes close and yet the Greens are branded as “extreme”, even as their policies are the very same adopted by major international companies.

Economists and businesses talk of the huge opportunity that Australia has in leading the world when it comes to renewable energy, but while Labor has embraced this at a sub-national scale – the ACT’s 100% renewable energy target, South Australia’s world leading push into wind and solar and Victoria’s recent embrace of a zero emissions target – its federal body seems strangely cautious.

True, they have a 45% emissions reduction target that is the minimum needed to get close to the Paris target and Labor proposes a 50% renewable energy target for 2030.

But it also favours the removal of $1 billion in ARENA funds and it has been reluctant to make climate and clean energy a major issue a big campaign bogged down by the minutae of future budget numbers.

That seems a waste in an election campaign where all the surveys point to massive support for renewable energy. Survey after survey point to overwhelming support for solar and other renewables, for more biting policies to save the Great Barrier Reef and to address the risks of climate change.

The Greens are expected to retain their numbers but their influence over the Senate may be diluted by the gains made by the Nick Xenophon Team.

Xenophon supports higher renewables and emissions reduction targets but he has a thing against wind energy. It is not clear to what extent he will be a help or a hindrance, or even if he will give the issue much thought.

Glenn Lazarus may also be returned, which will be a potential plus for renewable energy. But then so too may Jacqui Lambie (with a running mate) and Pauline Hanson. And that would be bad.

It seems, then, that the best we can hope for in this poll is a hung parliament. If Labor wins the lower house, hopefully it will push forward with its policies with vigour and have the Greens and other independents in the Senate to keep it honest and on track.

If the Coalition wins the lower house, then the hope is that there are enough votes in the Senate to stymie the worst of its policy atrocities, because there is nothing to suggest that Turnbull has the ability, or even the will, to sweep aside the protestations of the hard right of his own party and the Murdoch media.

And if that’s the case, then Australia’s renewable energy industry will become almost entirely dependent on state-based policies — the initiatives set up by the ACT, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland.

That may just suffice for now but the states and the regulators, will need to be strong as they face up to the extraordinary market power of the energy oligarchs, who exercise almost complete control over market pricing and are already pushing for a review of the renewable energy target.

What the industry really needs is a clear national strategy. But barring a major surprise [over the next few days], it won’t occur any time soon.

That leaves individual household and businesses and local communities, to do what they can. Hello more solar, hello storage.

This article was originally published in RenewEconomy on 1 July 2016 under the title 'A hung parliament? It might be the best we can hope for' and has been republished with permission. You can follow Giles on Twitter @GilesParkinson.

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