Big stick energy laws bare climate splits

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called for people to stop the blame game over the bushfires.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called for people to stop the blame game over the bushfires.

Tempers have flared among politicians this week in an unedifying race to lay blame for the bushfires raging around the country.

Depending on who was speaking, it was down to either not enough action on climate change or too much concern for the environment.

Nasty and personal attacks from both sides led to the prime minister and opposition leader calling for people to take it all down a notch.

None of the passionate arguments in Canberra can help those who have lost their lives, homes and livelihoods in the unprecedented blazes.

There is a case to be made, however, that policymakers do need to urgently consider the contribution of climate change to the disaster as part of efforts to reduce the future risk or better adapt and prepare for it.

The argument that you can't consider such things in the midst of a disaster is disingenuous.

Those in charge of our nation are smart people.

They can presumably both respond with empathy and practical assistance to the disaster unfolding and think about bigger picture policy issues at the same time.

Firefighters briefing media on fire bans and weather conditions this week were happy enough to take questions on the way climate change has affected their work.

And former fire chiefs have increased the volume on their calls for the government to act now and act hard on climate change.

But every question that vaguely relates to climate change seems to make the deep fault lines in Australian politics on the issue that little bit wider.

While all this was going on, the Senate quietly passed what amounts to the government's signature energy policy.

You could be forgiven for not noticing.

A year ago the Morrison government was full of tough talk about its "big stick" energy laws that would make companies lower electricity prices or face the threat of being forced to sell some of their assets if the competition regulator deemed they had too much market power.

This week, there was barely any celebration.

The Senate's tick off didn't even merit a ministerial press conference.

The legislation does still need to head back to the lower house to become law after changes were made in the Senate, but that's a rubber-stamping exercise.

This is the measure that's supposed to protect consumers, force companies to pass on reductions in wholesale energy prices and make it easier for small players to enter the market.

When the forced divestment plan was first floated, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said handing such powers would be an extreme step.

The industry has been consistently worried about the move.

Remember, the energy sector has been crying out for certainty and policy stability for a decade.

As the nation's power stations - let's be frank, mostly running on coal - approach the end of their life, energy company bosses recognise they need to replace them.

After all, if they don't have generators creating electricity, what are they going to sell people?

But the business case around building a new generator is a decades-long prospect, so they need to be sure what the rules and regulatory environment are going to be like before deciding to go ahead.

That includes factoring in any potential changes to climate change policies or a sharp cut to emissions.

How much certainty is there in the prospect that your company could be forced to split or sell a major asset to a competitor?

It's not just the energy companies that are worried.

The big business lobby spoke out in disappointment that the legislation had passed, saying it wouldn't reduce power prices for anyone.

Business Council of Australia head Jennifer Westacott called the laws an "unprecedented intervention in the market".

"Business investment is already in the doldrums. The government must now ensure this dangerous precedent does not spread to other sectors of the economy," she said.

The reaction is a far cry from the widespread embrace of the national energy guarantee across business, the energy sector, experts and environmentalists.

But there's no use wishing for bygone energy policies.

After all, who wants to make the political faultlines around climate change widen yet again?

Australian Associated Press