Published at ABC The Drum on 19 January 2012
It’s an odd scenario when the Coalition becomes the main opponents to a new, profitable business. Long seen as the small government, pro-business party, the Coalition has engrained itself in the business community and business interests.
Yet, with the election of the Victorian and New South Wales Liberal Governments, it has become increasingly apparent that the Liberal’s pro-business pedigree is only extended to certain business operations – normally the dirtiest ones to boost.
It all started with new regulations in Victoria in 2011. Passed through both houses of the Victorian Parliament in 2010, these rules set strict new regulations on the development of wind farms in the state. Based on the idea of ‘community concerns’ about wind development, the regulations state that any person who lives within 2km of a proposed wind turbine will now have the ability to veto the project, with very little discourse for wind operators. The bill has the potential to cost Victoria $3 billion in wind investment and means that it would now be easier to get approval for a coal power plant in Victoria than a wind farm.
Despite outcry from the Victorian environmental and business community, on the eve of Christmas the New South Wales Coalition Government followed its Victorian counterparts in adopting similar regulations. The New South Wales Government boasted that these were the “toughest wind farm guidelines in Australia and possibly the world”. As Barry O’Farrell said, if he had his way, there would be no more wind farms ever approved in New South Wales.
It seems odd doesn’t it? Since when would a “pro-business” Government turn so angrily against a booming industry based on, often difficult to prove, concerns of a few NIMBYs in the area? What happened to their pro-business pedigree?
Looking into the events deeper it soon becomes clear that these regulations have nothing to do with health concerns, or worries about community consultation, but everything to do with a war against renewable energy that is being waged to bring the industry down.
Conservatives governments around the world have for a long time resisted new technologies to replace our energy system. For example, in 2004, it was revealed that prime minister John Howard held a secret meeting with fossil fuel industry representatives in order to discuss ways to stifle investment in renewable energy. This meeting was held just weeks before the release of the Government’s energy white paper, which called for large investment in ways to make fossils fuels cleaner.
In the United States, Republicans have long fought against the advancement of renewable technology. In releasing their budget proposal for 2011, Republicans argued for $899 million cut in renewable energy, whilst fossil fuels would have only lost $31 million.
Why should this be the case? Even if you don’t believe in climate change, what is the harm in having a booming renewable energy industry? For a pro-business government, the industry can only be a good thing for the community, particularly one that is now as profitable as wind.
What we can see is that the fight against renewable energy has taken an ideological tinge, with a conservative v progressive approach to the technology.
As the main rallying point for progressive activists who want to tackle climate change, renewable energy has in many ways been seen as an answer to many problems, as it ‘benefits workers, the economy and Australia’s climate’. It is almost seen as an answer to all our problems – renewable energy is all good and dirty energy is all bad (I won’t delve into a critique of such a position in this post).
What this picture has done has created two opposing poles – the progressives who want change in our economy and are therefore pro-renewable energy v the conservatives who are happy with our economic system and therefore want to stick with energy systems we have. For many on the progressive side, this has lead to full, sometimes a little uncritical, embrace of everything renewable, whilst for those on the conservative side, it has often lead to a full ideological opposition to renewable energy.
For a long time it has been very easy for conservatives to engage in this war. Renewables have been seen as too expensive and unreliable to provide a real alternative to fossil fuels. It was therefore easy to attack it – simply say it was too expensive, put money into making fossil fuels ‘cleaner’ and let the industry wither.
Now, however, backed by the fossil fuel industry, the campaign against solar and wind power in Australia has exposed many of the very anti-business policies of the Coalition. With dropping costs and increasing reliability for renewable energy, conservatives have had to turn to ‘community concerns’ to wage their attacks. These concerns are based around a very tiny, loud minority, and apparently don’t exist for the coal or coal seam gas industry. They also go against strong evidence that show that renewable energy is extremely popular. For example, a survey conducted by the NSW Government in 2010 showed that wind and solar are the two most acceptable forms of energy production by the community. These results show that the anti-renewable campaign has nothing to do with an outpour of community angst, but is rather part of a broader ideological war.
There is no doubt that the renewable energy industry will continue to grow throughout the world. Wind and solar are booming and will soon be cheaper than current fossil fuels. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t regulate the industry, and any idea that all renewable energy companies are all good should disappear from our mindset. But as conservative governments engage in an ideological war against renewable energy it is clear that we will soon fall behind very quickly. Europe, Asia and the Americas are all embracing new forms of renewable energy and are reaping great benefits from it.
As long as we engage in these games we are certain to lose out.