The Hon Greg Combet AM MP
Recognising the important role that you will undoubtedly play in shaping our future energy policies, and mindful of the difficult situation that we, as a party, currently find ourselves in, I write to respectfully suggest that there is, under our noses, a politically adroit solution to our dilemma, a policy change that would not only solve the knotty problem of arriving at a credible climate response that doesn’t compromise our national development trajectory, but would also serve to recast our relations with the Greens at the same time.
I would be very interested in your thoughts on the merits of my arguments, and especially in your judgement as to whether or not the left could be persuaded to support such a policy change. I am also forwarding a copy of this letter to Don Farrell.
Briefly put, I wish to argue that our traditional opposition to nuclear energy has effectively blinded us to the significant advantages that would actually follow from a well managed change in policy, and that our politically expedient concord with the greens on this issue is coming at a very high cost, to the party, to the Government, and to the public interest, and that it needs an urgent rethink.
I go on to make the case for the inclusion of nuclear energy in the currently bipartisan MRET scheme, a policy change that, when analysed for its political implications, shows that distinct advantages would accrue to us if we did so.
I believe I make a compelling case for the left to seriously question the wisdom of continuing its currently expedient strategy of indefinite deferral of the nuclear question.
I am a long-time member of the ALP, and currently a member of the Norwood branch, here in Adelaide. I went to Adelaide Teachers College and Adelaide Uni with John Bannon, David Combe, Chris Sumner, John and Anne Summers, and so on. So I am one of the old crusty’s of the party. I got my BSc in biochemistry in 1965, and was supposed to be a science teacher, but went tuna fishing instead, and then went abalone diving in Western Victoria. The others went into politics, and thereby hangs a tale.
I was the federal candidate for Wannon in 1990. As Portland Branch President during the Hawke years I often had the good fortune to work with Senator Barney Cooney, who had Wannon as his country area of responsibility. I still stay in contact with him, and I am sure he would be pleased to attest to my party bona-fides, and to confirm that it was he who suggested I contact you, as Minister, and as a senior member of the left, to outline my thoughts on just how the anti-nuclear policy might best be changed, and present my reasoning as to why the left should support such a change, and to seek your response.
THE GREENS AND LABOR. A country perspective.
During my Portland years I also got to know John Kerin, who was Resources Minister at the time, and another one of the real gentlemen of our party. And the challenge of the time, as we saw it, was what to do about the challenge presented by the Greens, who were beginning their long, slow rise.
During my campaign I earned some notoriety around our party circles for making the public argument that the Greens were not always our comradely allies on the disaffected left, but were actually a threat to our party’s social-democratic and secular values, harbouring within them, as I saw it, a rather poisonous mixture of slightly nutty folk, lost in the thrall of the new millenarianism, in its various forms, and, of course, our old foes, the Trots.
Some of our members were offended, of course, but, with the encouragement of Barney, John Kerin,, Caroline Hogg, and many others, I have stuck to my guns over the years, and nothing that has unfolded in the last 20 years has changed my mind about the threat that “environmentalism” presents to our party, and to our country.
John Kerin and I thought our party’s proper response to this new challenge should have been a policy of dividing the greens, rhetorically at least, into fundos and realos, (to borrow from the German lexicon ), thus publicly underlining the fact that the fundo Greens harboured the social revolutionary types, the millenarians, limitationists, transformationists, AGW catastrophists, and assorted other ecomaniacs, and people who were certainly no friends of us social democrats, while the realo wing of the Greens just wanted practical things like improvements in the management of water and forests, more parks and wilderness areas, coastal protection, saving whales, and so on, hardly the stuff of revolution. Landcare comes to mind.
John told me he even raised the matter in cabinet. But Richardson apparently shot down the idea, saying any criticism of the green agenda would require some sort of scientific rebuttal on our part, and that “none of our candidates know any science!” Sad, but true. I wonder how many science graduates the ALP has had as candidates in the years between me and you? Not many, I bet.
Two issues stand out in the current situation. We urgently need a credible energy policy that can reduce our emissions trajectory without trashing our economy. You have said so yourself. We also need to redefine our relationship with the Greens, something you and John Faulkner have also said.
I believe that by carefully playing the nuclear/ MRET card, BOTH objectives can be achieved at one stroke, and recommend that you seriously evaluate the rationale I present below.
THE KEY POLICY CHANGE
The key policy decision, the game-changer, from which our whole energy and climate response strategy would then flow, involves the simple declaration that the MRET legislation will be changed to recognise nuclear energy as a carbon-free source of power! This measure is simple, unambiguous, and costless.
But with big implications, and far reaching consequences, as I contend.
A key to the success of the strategy that I propose is that it must be a bipartisan policy, a “consensus” in fact, so as to ensure the eventual isolation of the die-hard anti-uranium vote with the greens, at little cost to the relative positions of the major parties.
I have good reason to believe that a bipartisan approach could be achieved through discreet negotiation with the opposition. My reason for holding this view comes from personal communication with Nick Minchin, and from the Glenn Milne article, in the Australian recently, reporting that shadow minister Greg Hunt, in a speech to the BCA, before the election was called, and talking of nuclear policy, had said that he had “a model for discussion on the table”, and expressed a desire to “sit down and negotiate a consensus on the issue” with Labor.
I believe this was a serious offer by the opposition, and is still probably on the table, and should be boldly taken up while we still have the opportunity, and while we still have more to gain from doing so than they do. Admittedly, the opposition gets off the hook over its lack of a credible climate response policy, but then, so do we!
Nick Minchin tells me that the opposition will just run dead on the nuclear issue until such time as Labor changes its mind, so as to avoid a nimby clobbering from our side. And so Labor runs dead on it too, preferring not to publicly confront the obvious irrelevance of its traditional anti-uranium policy, resulting in a cynical standoff that is ultimately unworthy of us all.
However, as I contend below, Labor has much more to gain from the breaking the nuclear logjam than the opposition does.
REASON FOR USING THE MRET AS THE VEHICLE OF THE POLICY CHANGE.
The most obvious reason for using the current MRET scheme is that it already exists as our mechanism for placing a price on carbon. We therefore don’t need a new one. It is already a bipartisan policy. Tripartisan, in fact.
And it just sitting there, albiet hardly known, or understood, by the public, but waiting for us to recognise it as the obvious means by which we can extricate ourselves from a difficult situation.
It should therefore be used, in a modified form, as the centrepiece of our climate response, thus obviating the need for the development of another layer of carbon taxes etc, a process that will bog us all down in partisan argument for years. This is a key consideration.
I realise that such issues as transport fuel policy, and overall energy efficiency measures, still remain as matters to be further addressed by you, and the Government, but with the ETS and other carbon taxes off the agenda, you will at least have the time to bone up on David Millibands’ nuclear-enablement legislation!
PRESENTATION OF THE NEW POLICY
To make the new policy broadly credible, and easy to argue and justify by both sides of the house, the eventual package should include at least the following elements.
* Aside from being amended to include nuclear power, the new scheme should also be extended to cover the years out to 2050, rising ( say ) to 30% by 2030, 40% by 2040, and 50% by 2050, ending up with a situation as envisaged by Ziggy Switkowski, with his 25 reactors.
* It would also have to be made clear that no Government subsidies would be given to the nuclear industry. This is the case with the rollout of the six new nuclear generators in England, where, with realistic leadership, the Labor Government overcame its cold war predjudice against nuclear energy, and now even the Lib/Dems, in coalition, support it!
* There is no reason why many of the current Government programs that provide direct support for the development of “clean energy “ technologies shouldn’t largely continue, at least for a time.
* It is important to note that the issue of cost, which our side has traditionally used as an excuse for refusing to address the matter, would now be irrelevant to the new debate. If nuclear energy cannot compete with renewables, then so be it. And those who honestly believe that “renewables” are a cheaper option for Australia can hardly object to competition from nuclear energy.
* A levy on the industry, of, say, .2cents a unit, should be charged, so as to create, over 40 years or so, a substantial “ storage fund ”, similar to the US Yucca Mountain scheme. Long term storage facilities will not be necessary for 40 years anyway, as short term storage is done on site, as you know.
* The Productivity Commission should be charged with arriving at a preliminary analysis of the necessary enabling legislation that might be needed, the site selection protocols, educational infrastructure requirements, etc, as the first step down the road. One idea that comes to mind is that the sites selected could eventually be auctioned off, raising funds for infrastructure.
* Australia should also signal its intention to join the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) consortium. This will serve to demonstrate that any nuclear rollout that Australia might undertake is for one generation only, so as to play our part in meeting the “ low-carbon challenge ”. And by the time they are ready to be retired, we will have nuclear fusion, or generation 4 IFR reactors on tap.
Or something better that hasn’t been invented yet. Like a renewable that works!
With this sort of package of policy refinements, we could justifiably claim to have an internationally credible and practically achievable way of mitigating our future emissions, without recourse to further carbon taxes or ETS schemes, or whatever, by virtue of a growing nuclear ( and renewable ) sector over the decades ahead.
THE IMPACT ON THE GREENS AND THE AGW BELIEVERS.
Aside from the environmentally oriented voters, of which more later, the growing Green constituency also includes many non-environmental voters, people who are usually defectors from our own side, be it over issues like refugees, aspects of industrial relations policy, the American alliance, bringing troops home, drug law reform, gay rights, and so on. I fully understand that having to govern from the centre-left will inevitably result in some such situation, and I would not presume to offer any advice to you, or your colleagues, on where we should draw the line in any particular case.
But simply prescribing the adoption suitably accommodative policies as the best means of stemming the Green ascendancy, as some might suggest, misses the fundamental point that our actual problem at the moment stems from the fact that the non-environmental vote is now accruing to a single party only, the Greens, which is actually the party of the radical transformationists, with whom they have little in common, save a shared disdain for the Government.
So the question should properly be: How do we effectively drive a wedge between the two strands of Green voters? And do it without sacrificing support from the centre? The answer is under our nose.
By the simple means of playing the MRET/nuclear card, we would effectively isolate the diehard anti-nuclear rump of the Greens from the rest of the non-Labor vote, at a stroke!
There will certainly be the entertaining spectacle of the Greens having a huge bunfight over how to respond to the new consensus.
Firstly, the AGW believers who voted Green will split on the issue. This is because many of them already believe nuclear energy should be in the mix, such is their heightened sense of urgency regarding the need for climate action.
People like the doyen of alarmists, James Hansen, and the Gaia Guru Lovelock, are very influential, and pro-nuclear to boot, as you would know, and could be expected to suitably laud our new approach. Closer to home, Bob Carr and people like Professor Barry Brook come to mind, not to mention Ziggy, as folk who ostensibly believe in AGW, but who see nuclear energy as the only rational response to the challenge at hand. It is rumoured that such people even inhabit the cabinet room!
If the major parties were presenting a nuclear alternative, this significant slice of the AGW/Green voters would desert the anti-nuclear Greens. They would vote instead for a credible response to the imperative of climate change action, as presented by both the major parties. And they will move back to the ALP, rather than to the opposition, if my judgement is correct.
The parliamentary Greens may or may not split on the issue, but with both major parties rightly accusing the hold-out nuclear rejectionists of being impractical and unreasonable, and of having another agenda that’s out of step with the aspirations of most Australians, etc, they will lose a lot of support from the non- environmental bloc as well as . Our people, remember?
And, by isolating the deep-greens over the issue, we will have finally succeeded in realising John Kerin’s vision of splitting the Greens into the fundos and the realos.
EFFECT ON THOSE OPPOSED TO ACTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE
It should also be borne in mind that an important side-effect of my recommended policy change is that it artfully disarms most of the current opposition to action on climate change. This is an interesting, and rather welcome outcome, and results from the fact that, aside from the EITE’s, who would be expected to support the policy anyway, since it lets them off the hook, most of the opposition to action on climate change currently comes from the AGW sceptics, who are also usually pro-nuclear, people like Ian Plimer, Bob Carter, Jo Nova etc, etc. So the adoption of a bipartisan nuclear policy would simply remove their opposition to action on climate change, and, at one stroke, change the parameters of the whole debate.
So, Mr Minister, if you and the PM actually want to arrive at a sellable consensus on climate action, then a bipartisan nuclear energy policy is the only way to achieve it. Any non-nuclear solution to achieving significant cuts in emissions will never get a consensus in Australia because too many people know that attempting it with windmills, solar thermal and hot rocks etc, would simply trash our economy, and is entirely unrealistic.
EFFECT ON THE LABOR PARTY.
Everyone is aware that the cabinet and caucus already have a number of nuclear power advocates, hitherto remarkably constrained, for reasons I have alluded to above. So do important parts of the union movement, who have not been so constrained. Bold leadership is required to seize the opportunity that presents itself. Which is why I write to you, in the first instance.
It is important to note that the policy change is not, in itself, an endorsement of nuclear energy.
No commitment to nuclear energy need be given, save that the “ market “ will determine the eventual outcome. But it will also signal that nuclear energy should be allowed to compete with anything the renewable industry can come up with, and if nuclear cannot be cost competitive, so be it!
This position should be easy to justify and defend.
I am reminded of the catharsis most party members felt when they bit the nuclear bullet last time , and the silly three mines policy was dropped. I predict the same thing this time, for similar reasons.
DANGER OF DELAY
It is also worthwhile to reflect on what might happen if we decide against playing the MRET/nuclear card, and the opposition comes out with it instead, in spite of Nick Minchin’s stated position! There are people already at work trying to convince the Libs that they have much to gain, at our expense, from incorporating nuclear into their climate response policy.
Think about it. Abbott would have an arguably credible energy and climate policy, which he doesn’t have at the moment, and the cabinet would have the dilemma of either agreeing with the opposition, or sticking with the die-hard anti-nuclear vote, and staying with the policy of a non-nuclear alternative. Not an easy sell. The Government would be totally skewered. And deservedly so. A big risk, in my view, when things are moving so fast in the U.S.
We should pre-empt the possibility of having the issue dumped in our laps by having our internal debate now.
THE UNITED STATES EXAMPLE
It is generally believed that the new US congress will end up opting for some variant of a mandated carbon-free target, now that cap and trade is dead over there. Of course, the US is already nuclear, and with a new reactor rollout already beginning, their adoption of a credible mandated electricity target wouldn’t expose them to any great degree of economic risk, unlike the situation here in Australia, where your comrades have given you the nigh-on impossible job of finding a credible and acceptable solution to the problem, without recourse to nuclear energy.
It would be good if we were moving parallel with the US on this, for many obvious reasons. But we will have to ditch our anti uranium policy to credibly do so.
The rising economic and political costs of trying to formulate an energy policy whilst maintaining our anti-nuclear stance has placed you in an almost impossible position, and has led to a very difficult situation that now threatens the very existence of the Government.
It is now time for our traditionally expedient, but now patently irrelevant, anti-nuclear policy to be junked, something that can only happen if our left faction is prepared to dispassionately evaluate the benefits of doing so, and summon the fortitude to change the game. I urge you to seriously consider my proposition, and await your reaction.
Finally, I am told that 6 of the 9 members of the Chinese politburo are engineers. Lord help us!
The only one we Australians have is you, Greg. And history is tapping you on the shoulder.