Meet the new boss …

As has happened before, I was travelling when the Prime Ministership suddenly changed hands. I’m still on holiday, though I briefly appeared before the South Australian Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle yesterday. But even without following the news closely, it’s easy enough to see that the Turnbull LNP government is basically the Abbott government with the gratuitous culture war element removed.

On climate change, for example, we’ve seen the end of attempts to kill the highly successful Clean Energy Finance Corporation, but no major change to the absurdly misnamed “Direct Action” policy, and a doubling down on Abbott’s support for coal from newly promoted minister Josh Frydenberg.

In particular, contrary to suggestions that Turnbull is going to push for a more “market liberal” approach, Frydenberg is still touting the idea of subsidising the Adani Carmichael boondoggle. I doubt that anything will come of this (on this score, the supposed deal with Downer EDI to build Adani’s railroad seems to have quietly died), but it’s indicative of the government’s position. And the new coalition deal, handing over water policy to Barnaby Joyce, amounts to a repudiation of everything Turnbull stood for when he was Water Minister under Howard.

The abandonment of the culture wars looks like something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was obviously necessary, given the extent to which Abbott’s absurdities discredited the whole enterprise. On the other hand, much of the LNP base and commentariat are so committed to culture war politics that they will have grave difficulty in supporting Turnbull even if they want to: most of their usual lines against inner city elites, latte liberals and so on are far more applicable to their own new leader than to Labor and the Greens.

My success as a pundit is notoriously mixed. Still, I find it hard to see how Turnbull can sustain his initial bounce in the polls without taking tougher decisions than those he has been willing to make so far.

44 thoughts on “Meet the new boss …

  1. Malcolm Turnbull has the same fundamental problem which Julia Gillard had: once in power, they are stuck in the mire of the policy directions of yesterday prior to their ascent; it is very difficult to recant today what you were spruiking yesterday (unless you are Tony Abbott, but then that’s got a fair bit to do with why he lost the top spot). Perhaps MT will perform some deft surgical strikes in the policy areas which need it, and perhaps a couple more cabinet positions could be replaced in the summer, ready for a policy change (or two) in the lead up to the next election. MT has the time to selectively prune policy thickets. Unlike last time, when he has the head of the opposition, this time the LNP have to think long and hard before engaging in another leadership spill; they would be the laughing stock of political history if they chucked MT under the bus before the next election, for instance.

  2. You could say now to new acquaintances you are a Climate Change Sceptique – Tendance Politique – if anyone asks.

    If your fears are true, as seems likely, (carbon) black humour may be the only sane response to the the surreal doublespeak which should emanate shortly from our cute and cuddly financial barracuda of a new PM as he tries to explain how coal (like toxic sludge) is good for us despite everything he has said in the past.

    The big test of course will come shortly at Paris. Will Malcolm go and charm them with grand solutions – like restarting the carbon capture technology boondoggle? Or will he realize his positions cannot pass the laugh test for long and use the current honeymoon period to build up enough support to win at a double dissolution before his true colors are revealed in detail?

    Also thanks for noting the problem of Barnaby as minister for dams and more dams. Water was another of those environmental issues Malcolm made a lot of noise on though he has been quiet now since the drought broke. With all the rain we’ve had this unsolved dilemma always tends to be forgotten.

    (in case the Tendance ref seems a bit obscure – a friend has this T shirt emblazoned with “Je suis un Marxist – Tendance Groucho).

  3. Turnbull is a multi-millionaire, financier PM. He is there to make policies to suit multi-millionaire financiers. Prepare for further subsidies for financialisation and further wrecking of the real economy.

    Why do land developers become mayors? Why do millionaires become PMs? There’s only one reason.

  4. John,

    As usual, you are very kind. I don’t think Turnbull stood for much in his hydraulic period except flimflam. There is not much to show for all that expenditure on irrigation infrastructure kicked off by the superficial Howard-Turnbull water plan of 2007. Best Al.

  5. @rog

    after deposing Rudd Gillard also enjoyed an “election winning” bounce in the polls

    Soon after which she won the 2010 election.

  6. a repudiation of everything Turnbull stood for when he was Water Minister under Howard

    Since Turnbull gave $10 million to a political donor to try an unproven cloud seeding technology when he was Water Minister, that might not be such a bad thing.

  7. @Uncle Milton It was not exactly a “win” more like a just scraped in. Don’t forget the previous election was far more convincing, a 23 seat “landslide”.

    If history were to repeat itself Turnbull would be lucky to win the next election.

  8. @rog

    History never repeats itself. The next election is wide open. Turnbull might charm the pants off the voters just as he did Leigh Sales the other night, or he might crash an burn. We’ll see.

  9. @Troy Prideaux

    Quite possibly. As David Marr makes very clear in the latest Quarterly Essay, Bill Shorten is really just a pedestrian machine-man. There is nothing about him to interest, much less excite, anybody. The election is Turnbull’s to lose.

  10. So, narrowing this to the specific issue of coal, what is your view on the increasing evidence that the life-cycle greenhouse impact of coal is actually lower than that of natural gas (once allowance for the leakage of methane of – now estimated at over 5% – in the supply chain is accounted for)?


  11. @Uncle Milton
    What’s more, I wasn’t aware just how bad Abbott actually was. I knew (like everyone else) about the ridiculous captains calls, the anti science agenda, the complete disparity with the rest of the west’s social policy direction, the primary focus of fear and negativity, the reluctance to tackle economic and social issues like housing prices and how to transition the economy from the mining boom and utilise the lower dollar, his reluctance to be interviewed on lateline, Q & A, 7:30 or any other probing ABC program. However, since his demise, I’ve been surprised at how many other issues have been raised by either Liberal MPs or Journalists sympathetic with the LNP and he was still realistically in the race.
    It’s definitely Turnbull’s to lose although we haven’t really seen Shorten campaign as a leader – it’ll want to be completely different to his overtly “machine-man” performances so far.

  12. @Troy Prideaux

    Even Kevin Rudd managed to pull of a frisson of excitement with the Kevin ’07 campaign. Maybe I’m underestimating him, but I just don’t see Shorten doing it. Turnbull, in contrast, radiates the sunny possibilities of a limitless future, combined with Point Piper progressivism on all matters social.

    Of course if the economy goes in the tank next year – and you’d be a fool to rule it out – then the game changes again.

  13. The problem is that at this stage it’s hard to tell whether Turnbull has sold out on his previous beliefs or is just being cautious and Machiavellian in his approach to implementing them. An immediate root-and-branch change would play into the hands of the angry and wounded right wing. But a methodical and orderly cabinet-based issue-by-issue move to the center (with sensitive coalition issues like water left to later) would be the sensible way for Turnbull to remake the party in his image.

  14. @Benjamin O’Donnell

    This is largely correct (but don’t kid yourself that Turnbull is some kind of social democrat). He knows it is not in his interests to antagonise his Taliban wing too much; they comprise 30% of the parliamentary party (the 30 who voted for Kevin Andrews as deputy) and they might just be prepared to blow the party to pieces. And then there’s the Nats.

    On the other hand, Turnbull has been plotting this for 40 years. He didn’t go to all this trouble to be George Christensen with an Apple watch.

  15. Turnbull has the objective of switching things around. To criticise him for not immediately reversing bad policies is just misreading the politics. He can only work with what he has – he does not own the Liberal Party. Turnbull needs to acquire allies if he is not to be restricted to making noises rather than trying to immediately introduce new policies but instead finding himself being replaced. He is a vast improvement on Abbott and would make a much better leader than Bill Shorten.

    On climate he can act if (as now seems likely) China acts. All that said I think his policy go giving water to Joyce was an excessively generous attempt to gain influence.

  16. @SamB

    My impression is that the methane leakage problem is real, but is

    (i) often overstated (eg by using a 20 year timeframe)
    (ii) substantially fixable at relatively low cost

  17. I don’t accept that Turnbull can’t reverse bad policy, on winning the leadership poll in 2009 Abbott reversed coalition policy on the ETS.

    Turnbulls task is twofold, he has to win over the hard right in the govt and change govt policy to win over the electorate.

  18. @rog

    …he has to win over the hard right…

    I don’t get this idea that the “hard right” – of either duopoly party – is somehow due greater deference than its representation in the electorate (about 20%).

    Stuff the “hard right”. They only have this imaginary power because of a megaphone/propaganda establishment media saying they do. It simply isn’t true.

    Look at the hysterics in the UK over Corbyn. The “hard right” is just a terrified shriveled little old man behind a flimsy curtain yelling commands into an amplified sound-system.

  19. Those who think Turnbull will win the next election are assuming that the electorate will forgive the last two years of destruction, that turnbull can tame the right wing of his party and turnbull can turn off his waffle machine. All huge assumptions. The present PPM Is just a sign of relief Abbott is gone. I wait to be convince that Viscount Vaucluse can connect.

  20. @hc
    Turnbull a better leader? Really? He’s already destroyed the biggest and most important infrastructure project in the last 50 years. And whats the point of being a good leader and n a party of drongos

  21. It is true that Frydenberg’s assault on ecology demostrates that the Culture Wars are anything but over. The Adani attempt is going to be as much about reassertion of the Zombie Economics tendency and system and oppression of th eintelligent as anything to do with enviro or wisdom in commerciality, except that enviro is used as repressive tolerant club against those hoping for an end to the Dark Ages.

    It does seem they are destructive in a wilful cold blooded way that even the emotionally reactive and thus blinkered Abbott couldn’t sink to, but the plot thickens because we know not, out here in the boondoggles, precisely what or who the influences local and offshore are and to what extent local politicians are compromised by these.

    I do not think suffficient time has elapsed to judge the correctness of the contention of hc, et al, that the current PM and his government are an improvement on the Monk or merely an example of how an (apparent) change of bias to rationality is actually a disguise for emanation of a far worse irrationality.

  22. Surely the point is to reduce all fossil fuel use to zero. We know now that this is feasible. Special pleading for gas is keeping one foot in the fossil fuel camp.

    On a related issue, I detest those ads on TV where children are exploited to promote new internal combustion engine cars. They talk about a future they can look forward to. It’s sad. It’s not going to be a future to look forward to if we keep burning oil.

    I’ll believe we have some future when 100% of the land transport advertised on TV is bicycle or electric.

  23. @SamB

    On the first point, methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere nearly as long as CO2. So, if you want to exaggerate the global warming effects of methane, you cite the impact over 20 years rather than the time frame we are actually concerned about (50-100 years or more). Robert Howarth, who’s one of the leading anti-gas campaigners does this all the time, which leads me to distrust everything he says.

    On the second point, the EPA has just released regulations which, they say will reduce methane leaks by 45 per cent over 10 years. The comparable technology for CO2 is carbon capture and storage which has gone nowhere.

  24. I was going by Anthony Ingraffea who said that Methane has some 90x greenhouse effects as CO2 and that leakage across the supply chain is >5%.

    Now I don’t know much about this, but it seems that even with the 45% reduction and allowing for the 20 years rather than 50-100 (call it 75 on the average) … 90 * 5% * 55% * 20/75 = 66%.

    So, in the best case quoted, gas has 66% of the effect of coal (admittedly, without allowing for the non CO2 pollution from coal and assuming 1:1 energy yields from gas and coal).

    BUT, it seems that when acknowledging the sources for most gas production, it is quite likely that the 5% figure is quite conservative … at 10%, any benefit from gas seems to vanish.

    I am not saying that these calculations are correct … but it certainly seems less of an open and shut case than it is presented.

    The alternatives (solar, wind, etc) … are obviously a cleaner option … but not quite there yet, and there have been questions raised about the life cycle cost of those also (mainly regarding the cost of battery production).

    So, as it seems this is a field you spent some time looking into, more expansive analysis overall would (I’m sure) be welcome to all.

  25. @John Quiggin
    I think the real problem with methane will eventually come from dissociation (melting) of CH4 clathrates from warming permafrost and submerged continental margins. While the residence time of CH4 in the atmosphere is short compared to CO2, as you say, the clathrate reservoir size is very large.

  26. @JKUU

    I agree. The argument that methane – whilst far more potent as a greenhouse gas – is short-lived compared to CO2 is a furphy. It’s like saying that a week of 40c temperatures would be the same as just one day of 280c temperature.

  27. It’s wrong to pretend that methane emissions can be simply mapped into CO2 equivalence by comparing the total extra energy capture per kg over lifetime of each gas in the atmosphere. If we had hundreds or thousands of years up our sleeves to get back to 350ppm (or lower) then that would be a reasonable approach.

    If you think that more urgent measures are needed – did someone mention Arctic clathrates? – then methane’s higher immediate impact is more relevant than its shorter atmospheric persistence. If CSG is meant to be a “transition” fuel allowing us to translate the urgency of deep CO2 cuts into action, then fugitive methane becomes a deal breaker.

    It’s also worth noting that the US shale gas industry is more about oil replacement/independence than as an alternative to coal used for electricity generation – and so the CO2 equivalence needs to be considered against other petroleum sources and emissions abatement in the transport sector.

  28. If one kilogram of carbon in the form of black coal is burned to generate electricity it will produce about 3 kilowatt-hours and result in the release of 3.67 kilograms of CO2. If I burn one kilogram of methane with the same efficiency as the black coal it will produce about 5.1 kilowatt-hours and result in the release of 2.75 kilograms of CO2.

    So for every kilowatt-hour of coal electricity generated about about 0.33 kilograms of carbon are burned and 1.22 kilograms of CO2 is produced. And for every kilowatt-hour of natural gas electricity about 0.2 kilograms of CH4 are burned and 0.55 kilograms of CO2 is produced.

    One estimate is that over a 20 year period methane results in 72 times more warming than an equal amount of CO2. So if methane leaked into the atmosphere equal to 5% of what was burned then that would be 10 grams of methane per kilowatt-hour which would be the CO2 equivalent of 0.72 kilograms of carbon dioxide, which would make the warming effect from burning coal and natural gas roughly equal after 20 years and as methane in the atmosphere has a half life of about 7 years its warming effect would soon be less than generating electricity from coal.

    However, leakage from burning methane to generate electricity is not 5%. It is under 2%. A lot of leakage of methane comes from domestic distribution for heating purposes. So at 2% leakage using methane to generate electricity results in significantly less warming than burning coal and will continue to decrease over time from that point on.

    Now I have noticed that people can be amazingly stupid and fail to understand that just because one thing is worse than another thing it does not make the less worse thing good. So I will specifically point out that just because burning methane to generate electricity is not as bad as burning coal, that does not mean it is a good idea to generate electricity from burning methane. It only means that it is better than burning coal.

    Everybody got that? Or do I need to state it again, but simply this time?

    Efficiency note: For black coal generation I used 33% efficiency. The efficiency of gas generation varies much more from generator to generator than for black coal, ranging from about 26% to 50% for electricity generation and potentially 90% efficiency with cogeneration. Obviously the most efficient turbines are preferenced over the less efficient ones, but assuming an average efficiency of 33% for both coal and gas is not unreasonable for the simple comparison I have done here.

  29. is better than burning coal..

    Or, it might be “less bad than burning coal”, but still bad.

    Cracking open coal seams (or shale seams) to let the methane out isn’t a good idea.

    Harvesting methane from our rubbish tips is a much better idea – since we’ve already “created” it and should therefore deal with it.

  30. @Megan

    The U.N. has historical statistics but they don’t seem to reach into recent years. IMF supposedly has data too but I can’t find it. As an uninformed layperson all I can say is that recent or up to date statistics in this arena seem to be hard to come by. I guess it takes a while to data collect.

    I suspect recent stats (like 2014) are unavailable, as in not collated yet, but I might be wrong. I wonder if any of the data is reliable anyway. I mean, who would believe China’s figures? Who knows what really happens in China? And even the USA figures, does anyone trust US data about anything these days? I don’t.

    Maybe I am too cynical, but I have little trust that this sort of data is all that accurate. Bottom line, in my uninformed opinion, it would take at least a decade to sort the wheat from the chaff and to have a reasonable idea of what production actually was. So currently I don’t think we know what is really happening. Others might say I am wrong. This is a non-professional, very biased and jaundiced opinion on my part after all.

  31. This;

    is an example of why, if you don’t do a real physical inventory of everything, you simply cannot trust any numbers out of China… and maybe out of a lot of other places too. We are well into late stage crony-gangster capitalism. It’s a giant ponzi swindle scheme now and it’s very hard to figure out what the real economy is actually doing. A safe assumption is that it is doing a lot less than the numbers claim.

  32. This;

    Click to access globalip.pdf

    indicates that world industrial production has trended to flat (no growth) following a recovery of sorts after the GFC or Great Recession. Whether this trend to flat is an indicator of a new state of the economic system (maybe even presaging decline) is too early to say. How this publication derives its figures I do not know. I suspect we will only know what 2015 means when we in 2020/2025 and able to look back at it.

  33. Ikon,

    Thanks for digging that up. I’ve tried and also drawn blanks on finding a source for “global per-capita industrial output”. I think you’re right that it will be more clear several years down the track where we are (or were) today.

  34. Megan, extracting coal seam gas is definitely bad for the planet. It’s just better than actually extracting the coal itself. If we wanted to we could produce methane (and ethane) for plastics and chemical feedstocks from sewage and other waste (or treasure as we call it in the sewage treasuring business) but plastic production and so forth is only a quite small portion of natural gas use compared to electicity generation, process heat, and heating builldings and water. Fortunately we are on track to massively reduce our natural gas use in Australia through expanding rooftop solar and wind power capacity and presumably home energy storage. We’ve already made a good start. The doubling or so of natural gas prices in Australia means that households are generally much better off installing solar or potentially a heat pump rather than getting the gas on, so domestic gas and its many leaks will probably gradually disappear from Australia. (The distribution of LPG is considerably less problematic due to it not being a powerful greenhouse gas like methane.)

    However, Australia has been shameful when it comes to methane leaks from its main pipelines. In the past they would just let them blow out methane for months and only fix them when it was convenient to get workers out there on account of how our stranded natural gas wasn’t worth very much. But now that it has increased in price so much I would expect holes in pipelines to be fixed in much fewer months.

    Secrecy about pipeline leaks is necessary when they are occurring to prevent curious people going there and blowing themselves up, but it has also allowed the shameful damage to the environment they cause to be swept under the rug afterwards since no one involved is ever in a hurry to advertise that fact that there was a massive leak.

  35. most of their usual lines against inner city elites, latte liberals and so on are far more applicable to their own new leader than to Labor and the Greens

    The “elites” slur was, I believe, invented by the Republican Party in the US for use in their electioneering strategy and subsequently adopted by John Howard’s campaign for use in his election.

    I always found the term supremely ironic. If any party represents elites then it is the Liberal Party’s conservatives that represent wealthy constituents. It was a masterpiece of re-denotation to assert that the Labor Party was the party of elites. But it worked so well for the Republicans in the US that it was a golden opportunity for the Liberal Party in Australia.

  36. @Megan

    It’s like saying that a week of 40c temperatures would be the same as just one day of 280c temperature.

    Yes but we’re not going to suddenly get 7 times as much methane in the atmosphere as the long term average (barring any large scale release from clathrates, which is extremely unlikely). The level of methane in the atmosphere is the weighted average of emissions in the past discounted by the decay rate which has a half-life time of 7 years. So any methane emitted now is only half as important as methane emitted 7 years from now and only one thousandth as important as methane emitted 70 years from now. Our present methane emissions are far less significant than future methane emissions when the world will be much warmer.

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