The Monash Forum and energy policy: Making the most of the 30th Newspoll

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Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons.

The coal-worshipping Monash Forum is a rearguard guerrilla action against the incumbent Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is putting the coal back into "Coal-ition", writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

SOME NAMES survive their owners and become possessions to be gathered by subsequent generations. 

They find themselves appended to street signs, buildings and associations. 

Sir John Monash – for one – Australia’s haloed general from the First World War, was one such figure. Not only does he have scholarships and a university named after him, he now finds himself saddling a forum of conservatives who have more than a passing flirtation with fossil fuels.

The Monash family are beside themselves with the appropriation; Monash’s great-grandson Mark Durre stated the position on ABC Radio:

“We dissociate ourselves specifically from the Forum’s use of the Monash name for their anti-science and anti-intellectual argument, to give that an air of authority.  And we are asking that they withdraw the name.” 

The select group of conservatives insist on keeping it, though some ministers, such as Minister for the Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg, would rather they ditched it. Pundits have been making various claims about what a modern Sir John would do with the current energy imbroglio. “Members of the forum,” observes the New Daily's Paula Matthewson, “are seemingly lost in a time-loop that resists any contemporary information.”

The manifesto – a copy of which was obtained by The Australian – commences with a worshipful remark “of our greatest general who was also one of our greatest engineers”.  The link between the warrior man and the visionary engineer becomes more evident later: "[Monash], the designer of Melbourne’s early bridges; and, post-war, the man who turned the Latrobe Valley into an electrical powerhouse that made Victoria Australia’s industrial capital”.  (Victoria is a State, rather than capital, but shoddy drafting does not stand in the way of patriotic endeavour.) 

On the one hand, members claim not to be opposed to renewable energy per se,

“ ... provided it’s economic without grants or mandatory targets and provided it doesn’t prejudice the reality of supply.” 

The same cannot be said about the Good God Coal, a divinity of such sacred power any move against it would be nothing less than a profanity. 

Instead, such a god should be propitiated and offerings made: 

“If the government can intervene to build Snowy 2.0, why not intervene to build Hazelwood 2.0 on the site of the coal-fired power station in Victoria that is now being dismantled?” 

Put the coal back into "Coal-ition", goes this sentiment. 

This entails throwing public monies at a coal-fired power station in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley (some $4 billion) to make electricity more affordable. The Liddell Power Station in New South Wales, likewise, where the Government is facing a stubborn AGL and its pugilistic CEO, Andy Vesey, who insists on renewable energy as the pathway to salvation.

Spurious claims are made to back their cause, including the number of coal power stations being built globally and the claim that electricity generated by coal-fired power stations is cheaper than solar facilities and wind farms.

Matthewson rightly points out that establishing a modern power station in the Latrobe Valley using coal is daft and self-defeating. The brown coal found in the region is “essentially wet dirt that must be dried before being burnt to drive the turbines”. The process of drying adds to the cost of running the station, and consequently, the cost of generated electricity.

Politics, however, remains politics, sense or nonsense. Environmental and energy merits count less than the ideological scratching evident in the modern Liberal Party.

It continues to wrestle with the words of its founder, Sir Robert Menzies, made during the August 1945 launch:

“Liberalism proposes to march down the middle of the road.” 

The Monash Forum has become something of a rearguard guerrilla action against the incumbent Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, whose spokesperson is MP Craig Kelly. But while Kelly remains a public face, the ventriloquists are taking turns operating him — be they former PM Tony Abbott, Member for Menzies Kevin Andrews or Senator Eric Abetz. With an urgent enthusiasm come such Nationals as Member for Dawson George Christensen and former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

It was Turnbull who, in a moment of glorified self-justification, claimed that predecessor Abbott required removal as Liberal leader, and, therefore, as Australian Prime Minister. (They do that in the Westminster System.)  Abbott had lost his 30th straight Newspoll, ripening him for the execution. Turnbull is similarly obliging, losing the 30th Newspoll in a row this morning. 

Incubating in the reactionary undergrowth, the Forum boasts figures who are dissatisfied with a man deemed the great compromiser and the supremely compromised. The targets here are the cost of energy and Turnbull’s technology-neutral approach. Why not slant the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), suggested Kelly, in favour of coal? From behind the scenes, hardline conservatives are cocking their rifles and readying for the shoot, though any sensible hunting season would only commence later in May, given the timing of the Federal Budget.

There are previous examples of such behind-the-scenes marauding (influence is the gentler term). The Australian Christian Lobby, founded in 1995, made its presence felt in the 2004 Federal Election. Former PM John Howard was returned with an increased majority and the Family First Party made its moral-filled debut in the Senate. 

Within the Liberal Party, Abbott has long-standing form on the destabilising front, being something of a reputation assassin. He proved an important figure in pressing more reactionary policies within the Liberal Party from the 1990s. Within the New South Wales branches, he made it his mission in what was called the Mainstream Committee to gather followers and ideological arms against the “moderate” wing of the Liberals, loosely termed “The Group”. His report card, in the final analysis, was bloody but good: Howard’s Liberals exiled, ostracised or forcibly converted moderates with an inquisitorial fervour to rival that of Tomás de Torquemada.

Such projects as the Monash Forum, framed as a constructive front, essentially pursue a similar purpose. On paper, they speak of moderation, hoping to lure the horse to water and convince it to drink. In practice, its members hope to waterboard that same animal into submission. Turnbull’s leadership, not to mention the National Energy Guarantee, supposedly meant to placate markets and consumers, is now becoming the stuff of daily speculation. 

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark.

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