ANDREW CARSWELL: Attacks on renewables could doom the Coalition’s nuclear vision

Andrew Carswell
The Nightly
The real threat to Peter Dutton’s nuclear ambition, of winning hearts and minds to a bold energy revolution, may reside within his own joint party room.
The real threat to Peter Dutton’s nuclear ambition, of winning hearts and minds to a bold energy revolution, may reside within his own joint party room. Credit: Supplied/The Nightly

Forget Labor’s cringy Simpsons memes, references to three-eyed fish, and juvenile scare campaigns.

The real threat to Peter Dutton’s nuclear ambition, of winning hearts and minds to a bold energy revolution, may reside within his own joint party room.

This is despite the fact that for once, to Dutton’s immense credit, the joint Liberal and Nationals party room are broadly united on an energy and climate policy. After a decade of internal rumbles that often spilled into open hostility over such divisive policy areas, they have stumbled across their kumbaya moment.

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No dissenting voices have been muzzled by party solidarity. No bickering around the fringes, or media leaks.

Nuclear has fused them together. This is from a Coalition that the Labor Party has long pilloried as having more energy policies under Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison than years in office.

No, the risks are not disunity. The risks are overreach and one-upmanship, of charging too far to the fringe right having been emboldened by public support. The risks are saying controversial and provocative things in order to stave off political rivals or build a profile. The risks are responding like-for-like to Labor’s attempts to shape the debate through fear and scorn.

But enough about the National Party.

The Opposition has made much of the overreach by Albanese and his troops since Dutton snatched the political narrative away from Labor with his nuclear energy vision. They’ve lined up to express outrage at the orchestrated meme offensive, where Labor MPs went out of their way to out-dumb each other. Labor didn’t need to be told this strategy was counterproductive. The kids running their social media would have noted the stark ratios between the thumbs-up crowd and those gathering in the comments section with pitchforks and fiery torches. The condemnation was biblical.

The anti-nuke campaign sank like a stone and caused Labor immeasurable damage to its already weakened credibility. Not that failure will stop them. This is ideological, and Labor is terrified of yielding this space to the Greens.

But in seeking to redress that idiocy, the Coalition must resist the temptation to join Labor in the naked pursuit of populism, pushing the nuclear debate to the extremes, or using shock tactics to prove its point.

Stay sensible, stay smart, and the arduous debate is there to be won. Get fanatical and let the right-wing zealot out of the basement to rage and roar, then trouble is on the horizon.

Frustratingly for Dutton, who has maintained his discipline under fire, there are already early signs of degradation coming from a familiar camp that cannot resist the temptation to see energy policy as an opportunity to burn the place down, on purpose or inadvertently. It’s become instinctive for the National Party. Pure Pavlovian.

And there is always one abiding reason for such self-harm. Leadership ambition.

Dutton has to accomplish the improbable.
Dutton has to accomplish the improbable. Credit: BIANCA DE MARCHI/AAPIMAGE

As if his job is not hard enough — selling a nuclear vision to a nation that has long been fed a steady diet of nuclear alarmism, pitted against a Government using the strength of incumbency to ridicule it — Dutton has to accomplish the improbable, from Opposition, all the while his partners in the Nationals agitate once again for the leadership of their party or for greater prominence.

Such constant leadership tension seems the default position of the junior Coalition partner. Each leadership contender hits the daily hustings, boosting his or her credentials by provocation. Who is louder, who is prouder?

And specifically, who hates renewable energy the most?

When you are trying to convince Australians to embrace nuclear energy, calling a press conference and demanding a cap on renewable energy is counter-productive. When you are selling the benefits of nuclear power on breakfast TV and call wind turbines “spindles” that desecrate regional Australia, you are punching yourself in the face.

Such a belittlement of a source of energy that more than 70 per cent of Australians support, only serves to peel people away who were genuinely beginning to look in your direction.

Nuclear energy? Interesting. Do you hate renewables? See ya later.

That is not diminishing the genuine concerns regional Australians have over the proliferation of renewable energy projects and transmission lines that scurry across prime agricultural land; the handling of which has been a stain on the Albanese Government and its complicit State comrades. And the Nats are right to point out issues of deployment and concern over intermittency.

Nor is it suggesting the Government’s 82 per cent renewable energy target is fit for purpose, in an age when first-world nations are tearing up such compacts, having realised that such a narrow pursuit would lead to broad economic and social consequences.

But the unfiltered denigration of renewable energy is a fast track to ruin. It opens up an easy avenue for Labor and its merry band of nuclear-free zoners to paint the ensuing debate as a definitive choice: nuclear energy or renewable energy?

The opportunity is far too important to be reduced to such simplistic binary propositions.

It is not either or. It is both. Lots of both.

The irony of combating a dangerous narrative about three-eyed fish when you are boorishly one-eyed.

Andrew Carswell is a former adviser to the Morrison government.

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