On Thursday, the Albanese government’s plan to offer temporary relief to Australians hit by soaring energy prices faces the hurdle of passing the Senate.
There’s nothing new in the government of the day lacking the numbers in the upper house where enough voters seem to prefer to “keep the bastards honest” by switching their allegiance to third party or independent gate keepers.
But what we are seeing at the end of a momentous year in politics is a new government comfortable in the exercise of power and confident enough of itself to risk losing a fight that it judges is worth having.
There is no running for the hills as we saw so often with the Morrison government at the first whiff of grapeshot – as former prime minister Paul Keating used to say was a measure of cowardice rather than conviction and competence.
Anthony Albanese says he would be “stunned” if a majority in both houses of the Parliament don’t support the plan hammered out over the past few months with the states and territories and after extensive consultations with business and energy producers.
The Prime Minister even says he includes the Liberal Party in that majority “in spite of their rhetoric” because he can’t believe they would “actually vote for higher energy prices”.
Penny yet to drop for Libs
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s rhetoric has certainly been strident. He says: “We are not going to support a plan that is going to have devastating impacts on the medium- and longer-term of our economy.”
The Liberals’ shadow energy minister Ted O’Brien is verging on the hysterical when he describes the legislation, which he has not yet seen, as “a disaster” and “a monster in the making” because it will fail in the short term and will have a disastrous effect on industry in the longer term because “it will kill supply”.
The penny hasn’t dropped that this is the very outcome voters who deserted hitherto Liberal seats … are demanding.
So, in the view of the Opposition the Albanese plan will see a longer-term end to coal and gas supply.
Apparently, the penny hasn’t dropped that this is the very outcome voters who deserted hitherto Liberal seats for the Greens or Teal independents are demanding.
The Liberals are yet to work out how to appeal not only to these voters but to millions of others demanding more serious climate-change action to cut emissions and provide dispatchable secure renewable energy.
The premise of the criticism ignores that these temporary price caps of $12 per gigajoule for gas and $125 a tonne for coal are in fact above what they have been getting over the past 12 months – which have still delivered super profits.
Nothing to see here
Samantha McCullough, the chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association – the industry’s peak lobby group – seems to believe the Albanese government is blind to the $440 billion she says was invested to develop the east coast gas fields and is intent on killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Conveniently ignored is the billions of dollars these producers receive in generous tax rebates and concessions, as well as the fact the gas remains the property of the Australian people through their state governments and is merely “rented” by them in exchange for internationally pathetically low royalties.
This is brazen rent-seeking from an industry that, according to Australia Institute research in October found Australia’s gas producers, “reaped up to $40 billion of windfall profits in financial year 2021-22”.
If Mr Dutton insists on voting down the relief plan he could see MPs in the lower house cross the floor to support it because they do not want to be seen voting against their voters especially small businesses, pensioners, or those who receive family payments and other government support.
The acid test will come in the Senate.
If the Liberals and Nationals are game enough to vote down price relief it will be up to the Greens and independent David Pocock or at least one other crossbench senator.
Greens leader Adam Bandt says the party will oppose any compensation to coal corporations, and that “the coal and gas corporations should instead fund higher levels of price bill relief through a windfall tax”.
Mr Bandt says: “The greedy coal and gas corporations should be compensating people, not the other way around.”
People need more support than the government is offering, Mr Bandt says. Of course, if his party opposes it there is the distinct possibility that no one will get anything.
Energy Minister Chris Bowen is confident the package will save many manufacturers in his Sydney electorate who have warned him they could not survive another year of escalating energy bills.
For politicians, being noticed, especially if you are in opposition or on the crossbench, is always important and probably explains much of the sound and fury we are seeing and hearing at the moment.
But being noticed for doing the right thing – or at least the next best thing – is a Christmas present voters surely have a right to expect.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics