Conservatism and conservation in Matt Kean’s NSW

The electorate of Hornsby is as blue-ribbon as it gets in the NSW parliament. For nearly 100 years all its elected members have been members of the Liberal Party or its predecessors.

So it looked like business as usual when Matt Kean, a 30-year old accountant with a private school education and a decade as a Young Liberal, won the seat comfortably in 2011 and settled into political life under premiers Barry O’Farrell, Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian.

When Berejiklian brought Kean into her cabinet in 2019, in the key energy and environment portfolio, the state was in the grip of an intense drought threatening the viability of farms and towns in the Murray-Darling basin, followed by fires devastating millions of hectares of parched ranges and coastal lands.

In the midst of the fire crisis Kean said what everyone knew but could not utter, identifying climate as the fires’ underlying cause. He won support for his position from NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro, who said last week that emerging low-carbon industries would benefit regional communities – directly contradicting his federal counterpart Barnaby Joyce. 

Early in 2020 Kean announced that the state would invest in a plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 by supporting various wealth-creating initiatives in electricity distribution, electric vehicles, carbon farming, the built environment, zero-carbon finance and organic waste.

The principle tool for reaching that goal would be an “Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap” to replace retiring coal plants by coordinating investment in renewable generation, storage and transmission. “Renewable Energy Zones”, described as “modern-day power stations”, would combine wind, solar and other generation with storage such as large-scale battery arrays.

Planning is already well advanced for the first five of these zones. Kean told an interviewer last week that when his department recently asked for expressions of interest for one of them – “right in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate” – it received more than four times what it had asked for in new electricity proposals producing 34 Gw of power worth around $40 billion.

The financial impact of all that renewable energy, according to Kean, will be entirely positive, with home power bills projected to fall by an average of $130 a year and company bills by $430. “So we’re not putting in place policies that will hurt the economy [but] policies that will reduce our emissions but turbocharge our economy.”

On the back of that 2020 plan for net-zero emissions by 2050, the NSW government last week committed to a 2030 target – much more significant given the need for early action – of 50 per cent less emissions than the Paris baseline year of 2005. That’s nearly double the Morrison government’s 2030 reduction target of 26 to 28 percent. 

Those familiar with targets in other Australian jurisdictions, including Tasmania, will not find the NSW ones outrageously ambitious, because those governments’ ambitions far outstrip the feeble federal targets.

But for a variety of reasons the NSW government might be expected to echo federal attitudes to climate and energy. It is very close in its political makeup to the federal government. It’s a majority-Liberal, minority-National coalition, holding on to power by a small margin and dependent on keeping all its MPs on a tight rein. And NSW is Scott Morrison’s home turf.

But NSW chose its own path. Government MPs could have repeated their national counterparts’ claims that curbing emissions would harm regional economies, but Kean rejects that as a false argument. “It’s not one or the other – you can do both,” he said last week.

The resignations of both Berejiklian and Barilaro either side of the weekend raises all kinds of questions about future policies. Unlike Barnaby Joyce’s federal Nationals, Barilaro had been in lock-step with Kean’s plans. Instead of talking about keeping old coal power plants he emphasised the value of emerging low-carbon industries to regional communities. 

A new leader may decide on a new role for Kean, but the climate and energy policies he crafted are unlikely to change. Both the Liberals and the Nationals have invested too much credibility in them to back out now.

The NSW government would be wise to remember that its Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap is not a complete climate package. Fully addressing climate change is a hard slog demanding the sustained focus of leaders and whole communities.

But it has shown that conserving nature and curbing pollution are far from the antithesis of conservatism, as many of their colleagues have held for so long. Unlike its federal counterpart, in the long walk to an uncertain future at least it’s facing the right way.

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