Coalition Remains in Serious Trouble

Newspoll & Subsequent Policy Announcements Suggest Coalition Still in Serious Trouble

Due to a major technical problem which put my computer out of action for two days (possibly caused by a hacker I was advised) I am now in a catch-up position in regard to  circumstances where numerous pre-election statements have been floated around by both major sides of politics. It has almost seemed like a new policy per day, which seems unlikely to have attracted votes because of the limited attention by the Coalition to explaining benefits. One commentator even described Morrison as a  Muppet and, despite his increased media appearance, it is difficult to see a closing of the polling gap next time.

The February Newspoll left the Coalition on a 47/53 TPP for the third  successive time and showed a fall in Morrison’s net satisfaction rate from  minus 2 to minus 4 (Shorten’s also fell to a similar extent). This polling occurred despite expectations that Labor would be adversely affected politically over the passage of the Medivac bill instigated by Labor/Phelps/Greens and passed because the government had lost its control of the lower House. This legislation allows refugees and asylum-seekers to be fast-tracked to Australia for medical treatment on the ­orders of two doctors and involves an effective loss of border control decisions by a Minister, although the concern seems more about what would be likely to happen under a left wing Labor government than about the exploitation of the Medivac.

In fact, instead of a Labor win, Morrison appears initially to have instigated a favourable course of action by announcing that existing asylum seekers on Manus/Nauru will be transferred to Christmas Island and this initially secured approval from Shorten. However, Shorten has since backed away from his “approval” and it is not clear if the possible “misuse” of the legislation can be made there too.

That aside, Morrison has responded to pressure from within the Coalition, and of course from Labor’s accusations (and from some media “experts”) that it is taking no action on climate change or to fulfill its undertaking to reduce electricity prices. Morrison has apparently decided to make various day by day announcements designed to convey the impression that action is being taken. But the measures announced would be unlikely to involve any significant reduction in prices (unless accompanied by increased subsidies) and are suddenly focused on increasing the Coalitions’ reliance on renewable as a major part of its CC policy, viz

“the Prime Minister said the government’s support for big hydro project­s was vital and economically prudent, as Australia’s energy­ market “continues to transition towards renewables”. “If you want to have a renewables future, you’ve got to have big batteries like this, and the commercial element of that is quite compelling and that’s what the numbers so far have shown,” he said. “We get the economic harvest­, we get the jobs harvest, we get the energy harvest, and we get the renewable and the sustainable energy harvest that delivers on our environmental commitments.” The opposition said the government­’s commitment to hydro power “only make sense under Labor’s renewable energy policies” (see Morrison Announces More on Renewables).

However, in the same article Energy Minister Angus Taylor claimed the new energy effic­ien­cy measures would cut energy bills while lowering carbon emissions­. “We know that businesses and community groups are struggling under the weight of high power prices,” he said. “That’s why we’re taking strong steps to ensure they get the practical support that they need to reduce their energy use without reducing productivity.”

True, the reduction in emissions from the (newly announced) shift to renewable would in themselves favour lower prices. But renewable additions would also add to costs (including of course the additional back-ups needed in case renewable are not available) and would be unlikely to lead to lower prices overall (see also Coalition Climate Policy).

It was particularly disheartening to see on Sky News that there was agreement amongst participant that Turnbull’s decision to expand Snowy Hydro was endorsed by Morrison as a major component of his latest climate  change policy. No account seemed to be taken of the much higher cost of such expansion compared with the cost of producing the electricity using fossil fuels. As Judith Sloan points out, “were the electricity market not so distorted, there would not be any economic case for Snowy 2.0. The project has been around for many years and it never stacked up. The cost and the ­execution risk made it a complete non-starter. The fact the Coalition government refuses to unpick the distortions in the market, rather than adding to them by promoting Snowy 2.0, is a sad indictment of where energy policy has landed. And, by the way, for the sort of investment being devoted to Snowy 2.0, you could get several high efficiency, low emissions coal-fired plants” (see Sloan Says Snowy2.0 Fairy Story).

Many others have concluded that the Snowy2.0 should not be started but it seems likely that bureaucrats in PM&C and Environment have promoted the case.

In considering possible electricity price reductions, it is pertinent to note that under policies adopted by  the various states in recent years (which have been based on the perceived need to reduce the usage of coal because of the supposed danger from higher temperatures):

  • The adoption of such policies has been a major contributor since 2010-11 to a trebling in average wholesale electricity prices, rising from about $30-40 per MM to about $80-110 per MM;
  • While businesses and households would be unlikely to have experienced similar such increases at the retail level (data for retail prices back to 2010-11 are not readily available), they would undoubtedly have increased since 2010-11 at a much faster rate than pre 2010-11;
  • The retail figures available for 2017-18 show an increase of more than 10% on the previous year according to figures published by theAustralian Energy Market Commission (AEMC), which was set up by the Council of Australian Governments through the Ministerial Council on Energy in 2005. In the current year the AEMC estimates a reduction of about 3% followed by another reduction of about 9% in 2019-20. The AEMC says the estimated falls since 2017-18 are “driven primarily by wholesale costs” but details of these estimated costs are not readily obtainable.
  • At this stage it is difficult to see any significant price reductions except by the Federal government establishing the Default price it has canvassed and by enforcing a maximum price at a lower level. Such a policy, said to be operated by regulation and claimed not to require legislation, would imply that there is inadequate competition in the current market and that seems to have been assumed in regard to the major generators. But no explanation has been given as to why the ACCC could not act to enforce competitive measures rather than the government itself establish a regulatory direct.

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