March 8, 2019 - The resources minister, Matt Canavan, has declared “now” is the right time to build new coal-fired power, as the prime minister insisted his pre-election priorities were securing passage of budget bills and helping north Queensland recover from the recent floods.
The comments from Canavan and Scott Morrison follow a new push from Queensland Nationals for “immediate” government action to underwrite new power station construction in regional Queensland, and a separate demand the government pass the “big stick” energy package in the final sitting week of the 45th parliament.
Canavan backed the intervention from his Queensland colleagues, which was targeted primarily at their own party leader, Michael McCormack, although he left the timing of the passage of the “big stick” legislation “to the wiser people in the House of Representatives”.
On the imperative of having taxpayers underwrite new investment in new coal-fired power, the resources minister told reporters on Thursday: “I think perhaps the best time to start building a coal-fired power station was 10 years ago, and the second best time is now.”
Morrison, for his part, dispatched the Queensland insurgency by saying he had more urgent legislative priorities for what is anticipated to be the final parliamentary sitting week before the May election.
“My priority, as we go into the budget sitting, are the budget and the key budget bills and appropriation bills, and we’ve got a couple of days there and we’ll address those as a priority,” the prime minister told reporters in Western Australia.
“Another bill that I know will be very important to north Queensland MPs … is the bill we will have to introduce to deliver that support to livestock industry, particularly cattle station-owners and managers up in north Queensland.
“They’re my priorities going into that sitting – to ensure we’re delivering the support for farmers affected by drought”.
That message was echoed by the finance minister, Mathias Cormann, who indicated the government would look at the “big stick” package on the other side of the May election.
The Nationals deputy leader, Bridget McKenzie, declined to say whether she thought the package should go to a vote this side of the federal election, telling the ABC she would like to see it implemented “as soon as possible”.
Queensland National MPs George Christensen, Michelle Landry, Ken O’Dowd, Keith Pitt, Llew O’Brien and Barry O’Sullivan have reopened internal tensions about energy policy by writing to McCormack, demanding that he insist the Liberals take concrete action on energy before the coming election.
The intervention reflects frustrations within the Nationals that McCormack is too submissive in his dealings with the Liberals, and concerns Liberals will ultimately oppose taxpayer support for new coal plants in order to shore up its disaffected heartland in the southern states.
The six MPs told McCormack “everyday consumers are at their wits’ end” because they cannot afford “such exorbitant energy costs” and the government needs to deliver both new supply and divestiture powers, because “without divestiture powers, in our view, no action can be taken which would cause Queensland Labor to reduce power prices”.
The MPs noted in their letter, seen by Guardian Australia, they have been pursuing reform to lower power prices for six years, persisting even when thwarted periodically by state LNP colleagues.
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The group then declared the Coalition executive in Canberra needed to take immediate action to “legislate the big stick bill in the next parliamentary sitting and to underwrite new generating capacity (power station) construction for regional Queensland”.
The big stick package has been popular with Nationals, but contentious with Liberals, because it includes a power to break up big energy companies if they engage in price gouging, a power which has prompted a concerted backlash in the business sector.
The government pulled the package during the last parliamentary sitting because Labor and the Greens had the numbers in the lower house to force an amendment that would have prohibited the commonwealth from underwriting new investments in coal – an amendment the government doesn’t want to accept.
While Liberals have been coy about the number of coal projects currently in the mix for taxpayer underwriting, Canavan has confirmed there are around 10 projects currently in the mix.
Canavan noted that his cabinet colleague, the energy minister, Angus Taylor, had received over 60 proposals for underwriting and he noted “some of them are very attractive”.
“Some of them are coal, some of them are gas and some are a mix of renewables and others, but all of them would supply reliable power to the Australian system, and the government is currently assessing those proposals and [will] make the right decisions in the interests of Australia”.