It's great news, but sadly, Turnbull's hiding the greens under the mash | Lenore Taylor

Lenore Taylor
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull needs to do a lot more to build consensus. Photograph: Sahlan Hayes/AFP/Getty Images

Once there was a well-tested system for leaders who wanted to achieve policy change. It wasn’t that complicated really. They thought through the idea and then they advocated it. First to their own party, then to the public and the interest groups directly affected and finally to the pollies whose votes they needed to get it through the parliament. Winning the debate at each step helped build momentum for the next one.

It wasn’t always smooth – special interest groups fumed and spluttered, backbenchers sometimes folded under the pressure, cabinet ministers disagreed. But there was an accepted direction of travel and it was propelled by a leader advocating a policy.

One of Malcolm Turnbull’s big problems, we know, is that he is unwilling to take the first step in that blindingly logical process. On so many issues he can’t or won’t fight the ideologically calcified position of his own backbench, so he can’t properly advocate good ideas when he has them. We know it, but it remains astonishing how this one thing degrades the policy-making process.

This week the prime minister announced some details of a big idea he has been hinting at all year – the massive potential of pumped hydro to help solve Australia’s energy crisis.

But like a parent hiding the nutritious goodness of veggies under the familiar stodge of gravy and mash, he covered the truly exciting potential of his plan under the reassuring nostalgia of a revived “nation-building” Snowy Mountains scheme, complete with hard hat and hi-vis vest.

It was duly reported as a “blast from the past” and a “trip down memory lane” with much reassuring emphasis on the jobs that could be created and file footage of hard-working post-war immigrants.

But – if it works – this revived Snowy Mountains scheme could actually pave the way for a reliable 100% renewable energy grid. It could end all that talk about how we need super-duper extremely “clean” coal for “baseload” power. Once you can store and dispatch power at this scale, the whole idea of “baseload” has been overtaken. And this latest “push” for nuclear energy will be dead before the mining industry has a chance to wind up another million-dollar advertising campaign. If the feasibility studies are positive, it won’t be a “blast from the past” at all, it will be a big leap into the future.

Turnbull’s idea draws on modelling from Andrew Blakers and others at the Australian National University that showed wind, solar and pumped hydro storage was in fact the cheapest way to reliably replace the sputtering old coal-fired power stations, two-thirds of which will come to the end of their days over the next 20 years – cheaper than super-critical coal and also cheaper than gas, which will certainly be needed in the interim.

Turnbull knew this because he has spoken to Blakers a couple of times over the summer. He had the findings well before they were released in February. Blakers and his team are already mapping sites around the country where pumped hydro could work, with funding provided by Arena – the same body that is now studying the feasibility of the Snowy scheme and the same body that Tony Abbott wanted to abolish.

With 64% of voters telling the Essential report they believe renewable energy is “the solution to our energy needs” and 65% saying they approve of a 50% renewable energy target, and an idea to do even more than that in the palm of his hand, and $2bn (from somewhere or other) in the kitty to pay for it, a prime minister following the olden days’ script for building support for a policy would surely have shouted its virtues from the mountain top.

But even as Turnbull was considering it, the Coalition’s public script was still all about demonising renewables as part of an Abbott-style power price attack against Labor.

With Barnaby Joyce still insisting the idea of 50% renewable energy by 2030 is “bat poo crazy”, the prime minister had to muffle the news that it might be easily possible to go even further; he had to hide the greens under the mash. He mentioned renewables only in passing, concentrating instead on the whole nation-building schtick, apparently as part of a plan to quietly steer the policy debate back to somewhere within cooee of reason without his backbench noticing.

Of course, it had taken complete leave of reason because of another attempt to slide something past the Coalition’s climate doubters. For years, the former environment minister Greg Hunt told anyone who would listen that an emissions intensity trading scheme was highly likely to become Coalition policy this year, but he couldn’t say so out aloud before the long-planned 2017 review lest he stirred the ire of his colleagues. “I’m playing the longest game in cabinet,” he liked to say. Then his successor Josh Frydenberg did say out loud that an emissions intensity scheme was an option when launching said review, ire was raised, and the Coalition jettisoned the policy before sunset. The longest game in cabinet turned into one of the shortest policy considerations in history.

So now we are in a preposterous position where the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the National Farmers Federation, the big energy users, Energy Networks Australia, international investors, the NSW Liberal government, the federal Labor party and conservation groups are all backing an emissions-intensity scheme, but the government has already pre-emptively rejected it because of the prejudices of some in its own party. The author of the review, chief scientist Alan Finkel, it seems, may recommend it anyway.

Meanwhile on marriage equality, we learn this week that a long list of business leaders agree with the majority of the public that politicians should just vote on the legislation. We know from past statements that the prime minister would like to do this too.

But the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, spoke for all those in the government who love free speech so long as it isn’t giving advice with which they feel uncomfortable, describing a letter to Turnbull from the chief executives as “bizarre” and demanding that the chief executives “stop shoving politically correct nonsense down our throats”.

“If people want to enter politics, then do that, but don’t do it from the office overlooking the harbour on multi-million dollar fees each year. I just think it’s high time these people pulled back from these moralistic stances and we’d be a better society without them,” he told radio announcer Ray Hadley, adding that, of course, people like Ray himself had every right to express a view.

The political process is so moribund we’ve almost reversed the olden days’ process. Instead of politicians leading and building a case for change, voters and businesses and interested parties have to try to make the case to politicians – and then get abused for their efforts (unless they happen to be a shock jock with whom the politician agrees).

And sometimes the leader of the nation can join the policy discussion only by disguising his good ideas in a drizabone and bush hat, lest they be recognised for what they are by his own colleagues.

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