Business generally finds nothing unusual or disturbing about otherwise inconsequential Liberal politicians achieving their once-only 15 minutes of notoriety (let’s not call it fame) by using the media to sabotage a Liberal government. But business antennas should be in receiving mode following December’s politically significant public backstabbing of Scott Morrison’s Energy Minister, the impressive Angus Taylor, by Don Harwin MLC, the obscure Liberal member of the NSW Upper House who combines the state ministries of Energy, Resources, Utilities and The Arts with being leader of the government in the Legislative Council – as well as being listed by informed sources as a key member of the Photios faction that dominates NSW Liberal politics.
At a time when business leaders have universally demanded certainty in energy policy (apparently preferring a guaranteed ‘bad’ economic outcome of governments agreeing to destructively high greenhouse emissions targets rather than supporting those fighting for a ‘viable’ one), Harwin has echoed this with a call for an end to the ‘climate wars’ that have ‘jeopardised certainty and delayed investment’. But while his adding to division within the Liberal party creates greater uncertainty, it may be countered by the near-certainty of electoral defeat and the emergence of a Shorten Labor government with an emissions policy much more compatible with Harwin’s. However, he may simply be the messenger, at last conveying what has quietly been NSW Liberal/National government official policy for two years as Malcolm Turnbull’s emissions fixation found a friendlier home in Macquarie Street than in Canberra.
Harwin’s well-publicised political stunt involved an unsuccessful attempt to insert the economy-wrecking target of no greenhouse omissions by 2050 into a resolution at a COAG meeting of energy ministers that endorsed Taylor’s proposal to impose supply reliability obligations on energy providers. While Taylor focuses on keeping the lights (and air conditioners) on, industry working and energy prices down, Harwin’s priority is an environmental agenda that critics allege suits the vested interests of those in the renewables industry. His deliberate deepening of Liberal disunity on climate targets was widely reported as having been done with neither the approval of NSW Cabinet nor the knowledge of key ministers (but nevertheless endorsed by the Premier). While further damaging the already dismal re-election prospects of the Morrison government this year, this virtue-signalling is seen as the NSW Libs, who are approaching a March election, seeking to distance themselves from their federal colleagues who they see as an electoral handicap, being ‘out of touch’ in focussing so heavily on energy reliability and price instead of making zero emissions their priority.
Business should be unnerved. Harwin is no unguided missile; as a pre-election tactic, he is actively propounding NSW Coalition policy that has been on the public record since 2016. Ignoring it as an unachievable absurdity involving some vague aspiration rather than a determined policy, meant that Taylor and his colleagues got sandbagged; business should avoid the same fate. The NSW government has published a policy framework that ‘Commits NSW to achieving an aspirational long-term objective of net zero emissions by 2050’. And the various departments that are charged with implementing individual elements of it, such as Primary Industry, Transport and Energy, are to report progress next year.
But if the reports so far are any guide, there’s a greater focus on preparing bureaucratic scenarios to deal with the consequences of climate change than success with the main objective of reducing emissions. With about 12 per cent of NSW greenhouse gas emissions coming from agriculture (mostly ruminant methane, which has a 23-times worse impact on global warming than CO2), all the ‘number of strategies’ aimed at lowering bovine flatulence are either too costly or have offsetting unintended consequences – leaving ‘reduction in livestock numbers’ as the only realistic option. Will the NSW government seriously seek re-election on a platform of ‘Kill the cows/sheep/pigs and save the planet’? Or ‘Liberal Voters Don’t Eat Meat’?