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Publisher's Letter

Australia’s energy needs are in the hands of the clowns

I sat down to write this editorial with optimism. There was news this morning that the Minister for Resources & Energy, Martin Ferguson, was releasing the Federal Government’s draft energy white paper which would set out the plan to cope with Australia’s growing energy needs. The government was said to be concerned about feed-in tariffs and their effect on consumers who can’t afford to install solar panels. In other words, green schemes are costing us too much.

This sounded very promising, I thought. At last the Government may be realising that its plethora of green energy schemes is very costly, causing all sorts of distortions within the economy and that Australia’s ability to provide sufficient electricity at reasonable prices to consumers in the future is in serious jeopardy. So full of optimism (idiot), I decided to download the white paper – all 329 pages of it!

It is jam-packed with bureaucratese – important-sounding buzzwords and meaningless phrases; things like policy outcomes, promoting indigenous opportunities, clean energy transformation, development of regulatory settings that support increased innovation by energy retailers in terms of tariff design and consumer engagement and “a series of interconnected policy positions that collectively form the overall policy framework”.

This gibberish will make it difficult for anyone who is supposed to make sensible comment. After all, it is open for comment and consultation until March 2012, so any stakeholder (another buzzword) who wants to make a contribution needs to respond very quickly. Just reading the document in its entirety will take many hours. I confess to scanning most of it within an hour or so.

My reaction is simply one of dismay. Can this really be the result of months or possibly years of serious consideration by public servants within the ministry for Resources & Energy? Is this the best that they can do? Are there no energy and resource specialists in the ministry who would be able to put worthwhile ideas forward? Maybe I am simply being naïve and there are no such specialists. If there are, they were not involved in the preparation of the white paper.

Well, maybe that’s being too pessimistic. The white paper does contain significant amounts of relevant information, contributed by such bodies as the Australian Bureau of Agricultural & Resource Economics & Sciences, the Productivity Commission (which the Government seems to consistently ignore), Geoscience Australia, the ministry’s own Bureau of Resources & Energy Economics, the International Energy Agency and not forgetting the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency! Nor should I forget to mention inclusions from the Treasury’s esteemed paper entitled “Strong growth, low pollution: modelling a carbon price” (2011).

Mind you, the Treasury paper on the carbon price is highly tendentious to say the least, and mostly in the realm of fantasy, as a more brutal assessment. And the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency must be contemplating an uncertain future after the next federal election, given the stated intentions of the Federal Opposition and the recent decisions by the Canadian government to disband their equivalent department and to formally opt of the Kyoto Protocol.

In the meantime, if the much-vaunted white paper is anything to go by, energy policy in Australia is in a mess. There is no plan. It is merely a series of observations and platitudes. And yet, energy policy in Australia could be so good. We are a very rich country. We are one of the biggest energy exporters in the world (via coal, uranium and gas).

Let us hope that the next government can put things right.

Leo Simpson

 

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