South Australia shows up the federal government ... and rightwing commentary | Jason Wilson

Jason Wilson
‘Cast your mind back to 2016, when South Australia suffered from major power outages. The right took this as a propaganda opportunity for the promotion of dirty power.’ Photograph: David Gray/Reuters

The South Australian government announced on Tuesday that it would address market failure with the time-honoured measure of government intervention. In addition, the Weatherill government has chosen to continue to rely extensively on renewable energy. Together, these themes in the government’s announcement have provoked the kind of howling rightwing atavism that shows exactly why they are increasingly at odds with the Australian public on this issue.

Cast your mind back to 2016, when South Australia suffered from major power outages. The right took this as a propaganda opportunity for the promotion of dirty power. The problem, op-ed after op-ed from Einsteins like Chris Kenny proclaimed, was the reliance on wind. Magic words like “baseload” were relentlessly defecated into the pail of our energy debate. The verdicts of experts were roundly ignored, if not castigated. It was all of a piece with the madness that has produced Senate inquiries into imaginary ailments and the veneration of inanimate carbon in the parliament.

Sensibly, the South Australians have brushed aside pretty much all of this. Weatherill’s statement laid the blame where it belonged: a dysfunctional national energy market, an absence of national policy, lazy coal-fired generators which don’t maintain their plant, and a perfect storm. Through a mix of public and private initiatives, the government will build in redundancies using battery storage and a 250MW gas-fired plant. And the energy minister will direct the market.

Environmental groups and the Greens are concerned about the continued presence of gas in the energy mix, but even some of these groups managed to give qualified approval. Industry leaders seem relieved that someone is approaching these problems rationally. But the lizard brain faction of the right – encompassing the Australian’s opinion section, certain thinktanks, and the dominant faction of the Coalition – is furious.

In the Australian on Wednesday, their somewhat ironically titled environment editor bravely spun the announcement as a slap in the face for “armchair electrical engineers” who advocate battery power – even though battery power is part of the mix. Coming heartbreakingly close to grasping the idea of market failure, he called it a “slippery slope to further ­nationalisation”.

Judith Sloan, meanwhile, pretty well accused the state government of panicked and unprincipled vote-buying. Even if we took that seriously, it would just underline the plan’s implicit demolition of the idea that coal is the last word in cheap and reliable power generation.

As for Nick Cater, he returned to one of his favourite themes by placing South Australia’s power problems at the feet of “cultural Marxism”. Science – whether climate science or electrical engineering – is just a smokescreen for nefarious leftist plots. “The science of global warming”, he wrote, “offered the intellectuals another chance to organise the world as they wanted it to be, to take charge of human affairs and to bypass the irksome process of democracy.”

Fellow travellers in the media like Chris Uhlmann – himself a big fan of the cultural Marxism conspiracy theory – were trying to save face over previous prognostications on the power grid by pretending they were right all along.

From farther out the fringes, the usual clown troupe has clumsily piled on. The IPA took us through the looking glass by accusing the South Australian government of an “ideological opposition to coal”, in between ritual incantations of the word “baseload”. And Malcolm Roberts seemed to think that carbon-reduced power generation posed some unspecified risk to carbon-based life.

The difficulty that the right will face on this issue going forward is a microcosm of their more general problem. Their increasingly fanatical dedication to fossil fuel, and their relationship with miners and generators, is increasingly at odds not only with public opinion, but with the lived experience of many Australians.

Voters support renewable energy, and in turn they want governments to do more to support it. More importantly, they are choosing in droves to supply their own homes with renewable sources, especially with photovoltaic solar rigs. South Australia is second only to Queensland in domestic solar installations, and a greater proportion of Australian homes have solar power than any other country.

Meanwhile, the federal government is countenancing a subsidised loan to a coal project which is reportedly structured in a way that enriches a single family at the expense of other shareholders.

Malcolm Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg are not following public opinion as they investigate obstacles for the SA proposal. They are, in effect, pandering to the rightwing tail that wags the Coalition dog, and to a reactionary opinion bubble centred on the Australian. The Coalition under Abbott managed to scupper efforts to institute a price on carbon, but their war on renewables may be too much of an offence to common sense.

The WA election result shows where that leads, as does the continuing flirtation by elements of the party with a spectacularly failed prime minister. The Liberal party is being dragged right, to the point where One Nation seems “sophisticated”. But this leads them to do things that are as irrational as they are politically unpalatable. The West Australian correctly pointed out that the Australian’s coverage of the state election showed how far adrift it, too, is of community sentiment on a range of issues.

As the reef is bleached, as mangroves die, and as Australia relentlessly heats up, it may be small comfort to know that the Coalition’s perversity on energy might add to its deep political difficulties. But at the very least, South Australia may be showing us how ideologically driven federal intransigence can be sidestepped.

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