The politics of ignorance

The party-political games being played over energy policy are beyond a joke.

“Don’t be afraid” was the taunt of the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, as he waved his piece of coal in parliament. PHOTO AAP

“Don’t be afraid” was the taunt of the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, as he waved his piece of coal in federal parliament. PHOTO AAP

The only real story in Cory Bernardi’s inevitable divorce from the Liberals was the timing of his departure, just seven months after Liberal voters gave him a six-year senate term.

Ten weeks into that term Bernardi flew to New York, to represent our parliament at the United Nations for three months, along with Tasmanian Labor senator Lisa Singh. They were meant to get first-hand experience of UN operations, but Bernardi’s blog posts show that his real focus in New York was the election of Donald Trump, which he saw as vindication of his battle against “the advancing tide of the tyrannical progressive agenda”.

One of the things that Bernardi finds most attractive in Trump is an aversion to environmentalism and the science of climate change, which they both see as part of the “green agenda”. For both, fossil energy is king and renewables are the enemy.

So Trump’s win was Bernardi’s trigger to cut and run. But to hear his former party colleagues in parliament last week, from the PM down, doing such a splendid job of undermining renewable energy investment in Australia, you have to wonder why he felt so compelled to leave.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools are now delivering “alternative facts”, repeated so often they become part of the furniture. Genuine information about the world – truth untainted by ideology, personal advancement or financial gain – is getting harder to identify.

The ideologies of Bernardi and others of his kind still inside the Coalition tent have have profoundly affected the thinking and behaviour of the Turnbull government. Nowhere is this more evident than in what passes for its climate and energy policy, which has now descended into farce.

Summer’s worst heatwave didn’t stop government MPs, in their air-conditioned bubble, last week shouting down any mention of the purpose of a strong renewable energy target – helping to cut emissions and limit global warming – while blaming renewables for power cuts and rising prices.

There was no debate of serious questions, like errors by the market operator, suppliers bidding up prices or the extreme heat that led to the South Australian blackouts. This was a fact-free zone, peppered with personal insults and cheap theatre with the obligatory prop, a piece of coal.

Such behaviour is commonplace in our parliament, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. When matters of immense, immediate public importance are treated in this way, it’s hard not to conclude that some in the parliament have an interest in maintaining public ignorance.

Politicians’ attitudes to climate change are doubtless shaped by the culture of the party room and discussions with colleagues, and it’s not always easy to separate manipulator from manipulated. Some people can come to believe myths that they themselves have helped to create.

But climate-energy policy here and elsewhere has been degraded by a determined push to keep the status quo, driven by commercial interests facing disruption, by conservative ideologues like Bernardi, or by Trump-style populists. None has any interest in the free flow of information.

Malcolm Turnbull’s own behaviour during this debacle has left his credibility in tatters. Having once stood for rational climate policy, he has now taken on Bernardi’s robotic denunciation of the only policy position that can bring some stability to the energy market – carbon pricing.

Whether they’re in public or private hands, electricity generators and networks need investment, and investment needs the long-term steadying impact of a carbon price. It isn’t just me saying this; it’s also engineers, economists, energy regulators and the companies themselves.

The network load of the past week will happen again, continuing to reveal deep flaws in the structure and operation of the national energy market. Fixing them will require sound, bipartisan political decisions at a national level, far removed from the mindless brawling we saw last week.

Above all, a functioning democracy requires an informed public, which has to be able to separate wheat from chaff – real, solid information from misinformation and spin, masquerading as fact. That’s a problem for the ages.

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