What Turnbull’s removal from a NSW board says about post-pandemic energy plans

By Chris Woods

Monday April 12, 2021

Malcolm Turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull speaks. (AP Photo/Andrew Taylor)

The highly-politicised dismissal of Malcolm Turnbull from New South Wales’ Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy board comes roughly four months after the state passed its landmark Electricity Infrastructure Investment Act, first outlined in late 2019 and bulked up throughout the course of the pandemic.

In a three-part series, Mandarin Premium examines what Turnbull’s removal means for the state’s energy roadmap, and how other 2020 energy initiatives are faring post-pandemic.

What does Turnbull’s removal say about NSW’s climate transition?

Roughly a week after announcing the appointment, NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean removed Turnbull after the former prime minister’s support for a moratorium on new coal mines led to backlash from deputy premier John Barilaro — who backed Turnbull’s appointment in cabinet last week — and a slew of negative articles in the Daily Telegraph.

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Reactions to the news include: Kean arguing that while he still believes Turnbull is qualified, “it’s not just about having the right person, it’s also about managing the politics and bringing people along on the journey and Malcolm Turnbull does alienate some sections of the community”; Gladys Berejiklian echoing claims the appointment was proving to be a distraction; Barilaro claiming Turnbull was in conflict with the state’s policy on new coal mines; and Turnbull claiming the state party was beholden to coal interests and the media campaign.

That the Upper Hunter electorate, a coal community, is heading to a crucial by-election on May 22 looks to have played some part; “Some of my colleagues didn’t appreciate those comments … on the eve of the (triggering of a) by-election,” Kean admitted to the ABC on Wednesday.

Although as the Sydney Morning Herald revealed, several non-city Liberal backbenchers, specifically Nathaniel Smith in Wollondilly, were primarily opposed because they believed Turnbull “had damaged the Liberal Party brand after he left politics and that he was not representative of anyone living outside the north shore or eastern suburbs of Sydney.” The paper also points out that Turnbull remains something of a mentor for Kean, who earlier nominated the former prime minister as NSW’s pick for an Australian Energy Market Operator board position, which was unsurprisingly rejected by federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

Richard Denniss, an adjunct professor at Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, co-authored the Australia Institute’s inciting ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: New coal mines in the Hunter Valley’, which called for a moratorium on new coal mines until the NSW planning department developed a plan for how many would be needed to meet world demand and how much expansion of rail and port infrastructure would then be required.

He argues at The Conversation that while rushing to green light eleven proposed coal mines in the region could only hurt existing mines currently operating well below capacity, Turnbull’s support for the report and subsequent fate shows there’s no room for the “sensible centre in the Australian coal debate”:

“Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon said Turnbull “wants to make the Upper Hunter a coal-mine-free zone”. The Nationals’ Matt Canavan suggested stopping coal exports was “an inhumane policy to keep people in poverty”. The head of the NSW Minerals Council suggested 12,000 jobs were at risk.

“But of course, the opposite is true. Turnbull’s proposal to protect existing coal workers from competition from new mines would save jobs, not threaten them. He didn’t suggest coal mines be shut down tomorrow, or even early. And, given existing coal mines are running so far below capacity, his call has no potential to impact coal exports.

“Predictably, the Murdoch press ran a relentlessly misleading campaign in support of the coal industry and in opposition to their least favourite Liberal PM. But surprisingly, the NSW government rolled over in record time.”

But while much of the Daily Telegraph’s coverage was skewered against climate action in general and Turnbull’s history with the Liberal party in particular, the paper also reported cabinet concerns over potential conflicts of interest.

Three state ministers reportedly raised questions about a “real or perceived” conflict between a role designed to guide emission-reduction policies and initiatives and Turnbull’s appointment on two other other non-government boards in February: a non-executive role on the board of the International Hydropower Association, where he was also asked to represent the group as co-chair of the International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower; and chairman of the Australian Fortescue Future Industries, a Fortescue subsidiary currently looking to build a renewable energy portfolio of more than 235GW.

The paper also revealed that, prior to the appointment, Turnbull and his wife Lucy co-signed a letter to the state’s planning department objecting to the Mount Pleasant Optimisation project — a coal mine expansion that would extend the life of the mine to 2048 — citing their family’s nearby 2700 acre grazing property among other reasons.

Will the scandal impact NSW’s roadmap?

For some context, the Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy board was established under Kean’s legislation to “provide strategic and expert advice on program design and funding proposals under the state’s inaugural $1 billion Net Zero Plan”. The plan is designed to support a range of initiatives targeting electricity and energy efficiency, electric vehicles, hydrogen, primary industries, coal innovation, organic waste and carbon financing i.e. supporting businesses to modernise their plant and increase productivity, providing farmers with new markets and technologies.

It is separate to the NSW Electricity Strategy governing the state’s Renewable Energy Zones and other infrastructure initiatives, both of which were designed as part of the state’s goal of a 35% cut in emissions by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

Denniss, in his overview of the scandal, argues that Turnbull’s removal was a mistake, a “denial of economics and climate science” that will not help existing coal workers, the agriculture and tourism industries, or, even from a political point of view, inner-city Liberals.

But colleagues Frank Jotzo, a director at the Crawford School’s Centre for Climate and Energy Policy and Mark Howden, director of the ANU Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, are relatively optimistic at the Sydney Morning Herald , arguing that, “the momentum in the shift to a cleaner economy will ultimately sweep aside the adverse politics”.

Jotzo and Howden highlight the fact Kean has succeeded where many in the Coalition have failed in securing support from all parties (other than One Nation) for the Electricity Infrastructure Investment Act, even securing Nationals support by adding a fourth Renewable Energy Zone located in, coincidentally, the Upper Hunter.

The Central-West Orana Renewable Energy Zone will be Australia’s first “REZ” and, with a pilot currently in the planning stage, is expected to be shovel-ready by the end of 2022. Source: Energy NSW.

Jotzo and Howden point out that alternative political ecosystems exist where the transition to cleaner energy has matured even further — i.e. Germany, where all major stakeholders hammered out an agreement and transition plans were established for  coal workers — and that while Turnbull again fell foul to “ideology, sectional political interests and the micro-politics of ‘the way things have been done around here'”, the NSW government has only temporarily “moved in reverse a bit to accommodate some tricky politics” and, with the byelection out of the way, will soon resume its transition and “be freer to do what needs to be done, at least until the state election looms.”

For now, deputy chair, NSW chief scientist and engineer professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte steps in as acting chair, and while while there’s no guarantee that the issues that plagued Turnbull’s appointment won’t be repeated for his permanent replacement, it could well be a lesser-known personality has more success in navigating them.

Alternatively, as comedian and writer Sami Shah puts it at The Saturday Paper, Berejiklian’s argument that Turnbull was proving to be a distraction suggests:

“he was drawing too much attention to himself, and thus to the Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy advisory board, which is really set up to be more ornamental in nature. If people started expecting actual results, that could be disastrous for the original intentions of the board. Now, with Turnbull gone, we can go back to forgetting about its existence entirely.”

Part two will delve into how federal energy initiatives are faring post-pandemic.


Is Malcolm Turnbull the only Liberal who understands economics and climate science – or the only one who’ll talk about it?

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