PRESS GALLERY SKETCH: The big stick Question Time

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(Cartoons by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons)

Parliament entered a reverse universe in Question Time yesterday. Everything was the wrong way around.

Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek asked the Prime Minister about his recently modified "big stick" policy to force energy companies to divest if they are manipulating prices. At first, this policy was going to give the relevant minister the power to do this.

The change is minor. Now it can only be done if the Federal Court approves it.

Plibersek quoted the Business Council of Australia to the effect that this heavy-handed policy was more like a Greens Party policy than a Liberal Party one. The Prime Minister responded that he, unlike the Labor Party, stood with consumers, not the big businesses ripping them off. (My translation; not his exact words.)

When Greens Member for Melbourne Adam Bandt asked a question about the lack of an energy policy to address climate change, the response of Energy Minister Angus Taylor, the so-called minister for cutting electricity prices, said, unsurprisingly, that the Coalition was about cutting electricity prices — unlike the Greens and the ALP. We "stand for mums and dads" got a run among the other slogans.

Another question along the same lines from Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen got much the same response from the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. "Lower electricity prices, lower electricity prices, lower electricity prices" was the mantra.

On and on it went. When the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy Mark Butler asked another question on this topic, quoting the former Liberal Party member and current crossbencher, Member for Chisholm Julia Banks to the effect that forced diversification should not be a Liberal Party policy, the mantra was the same: "lower electricity prices". 

Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle O’Connor mentioned that the energy companies, business groups and even Government members were opposed to the forced divestment approach, the Prime Minister did not deviate from the lower electricity prices mantra. And he even threw in a few references to "mums and dads" to top it off.

Evidently, we will all be better off with a Coalition Government. Lower electricity prices – which the Government’s various environmental and energy policies will not produce – are the new nirvana. As one Labor backbencher interjected (often), what about real wages? It was a question no Government minister addressed. 

Falling electricity prices, if, miracle of miracles, that were to happen under this coal addicted Government, will not improve wages for mums and dads and the other ten million workers in Australia.

IA had thought that no one would mention the other elephant in the room — privatisation. Then Opposition Leader Bill Shorten did. He referred to a report in the Courier-Mail which argued that under the Morrison Government’s "big stick" approach to electricity companies, Queensland’s electricity system could be privatised.

The Prime Minister responded that electricity prices in Queensland were higher than the Australian average. In response to a similar question later from the Leader of the Opposition which mentioned the Tasmanian electricity system and the Snowy Hydro scheme as potential privatisation/divestment targets, he gave much the same response and told us the Queensland system made over $ 1 billion profit last year.

He also threw in a bit of legalism. Evidently, if divestment goes through, these government-owned entities could be buyers. This produced guffaws from the Opposition. While technically true, the reality is they would be the targets of this neoliberal Government and its ability to divest.

John Quiggin has pointed out that privatisation is a major cause of high electricity prices and has argued for the renationalisation of the electricity grid. Neither party will address that issue. While Labor might protect the current Queensland and Tasmanian arrangements, they are not for nationalising the whole system.

The end result? Electricity prices will continue to go up in the medium to long-term. And Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise.

You can follow Canberra correspondent John Passant on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016), are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

This piece was originally published as part of the Independent Australia weekly newsletter. These editorials are usually only available to subscribers. It takes less a minute to subscribe to IA and costs as little as $5 a month, or $50 a year — a very small sum for quality journalism and many great extras.

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