Four decades ago, in a private conversation that was relayed directly to me at the time, Malcolm Fraser spoke of the task of “doing the hypocrisies”. The former Liberal Party prime minister was joking about the necessity, from time to time, to be nice to people whom you do not like or care little about.
When it comes to doing the hypocrisies, the Labor Party did an excellent job at its national conference earlier this week in Adelaide. Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, who was deposed by his colleagues in June 2010 only to be restored briefly in 2013, received life membership of the party.
Labor leader Bill Shorten, at times a bitter opponent of Rudd, spoke of the need for “healing”. Rudd responded in like manner. And no one talked about his recently released memoir, The PM Years, which thoroughly bags such ALP identities as Shorten, Julia Gillard and Tony Burke, along with current Labor Party president Wayne Swan.
When it came to serving up the hypocrisies, Shorten and his team could not be faulted. Labor wants to go to the 2019 election as united as possible.
The Liberal Party, along with the Nationals, has much to learn from the contemporary Labor Party. There are greater potential political divisions between the Left and Right of the Labor Party than within the Coalition. It’s just that the ALP has learned from its very public conflicts of recent memory and now manages dissent well.
Many in the Coalition have been, and remain, dismissive of Shorten and have underestimated his capabilities. Yet, over the past five years since he became Opposition Leader, Shorten has been able to unite the potentially divided party with the help of his deputy, Tanya Plibersek, and Penny Wong among others. The last opposition leader to achieve a similar feat was Tony Abbott, who came close to winning in 2010 before leading the Coalition to victory three years later.
The disunity within the Liberal Party right now was never more evident than when NSW Energy and Utilities Minister Don Harwin sandbagged Scott Morrison and Energy Minister Angus Taylor on Wednesday, on the morning of the Council of Australian Governments meeting in Adelaide.
Don who? It’s a reasonable question. Before bursting on the national scene this week by attacking his colleagues, little was known of Harwin. He was not a national figure and rarely heard of in his home state of NSW.
Harwin’s one brush with fame (of a certain kind) occurred when he celebrated his 50th birthday with a private party on the Cook Islands. It seems that on the occasion of his half-century in 2014, Harwin was less concerned with carbon emissions than he is now. Otherwise the knees-up might have been held at, say, Cronulla Beach or Avalon Beach.
In any event, on Wednesday The Australian Financial Review ran an opinion piece by Harwin that commenced with the statement that in 2016, “the NSW Liberal-Nationals government announced its policy to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050”.
This surprised many followers of NSW politics who had regarded this as merely an aspirational goal and could not remember a firm promise of net-zero emissions in NSW by 2050 as a Coalition policy in the 2015 state election.
Harwin went on to criticise the Coalition for having abandoned the national energy guarantee, which was dropped towards the end of Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership, and called for an “end to the climate wars” — whatever that might mean.
When COAG met in Adelaide, Harwin — without notifying federal and state colleagues in advance — moved that the Energy Security Board provide policy options as to how to achieve NSW’s (alleged) “net-zero by 2050” vision.
As it happened, the commonwealth delegation, with the support of the Liberal Party governments in South Australia and Tasmania, blocked the Harwin ambush. But the outcome of the intervention was to bring about a situation where the Coalition government in NSW is seen to be at odds with the Coalition government in Canberra.
If the Coalition is to win NSW’s March 23 state election next year as well as the federal election (which will probably follow in May), it needs to get the debate back on the economy.
As federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann documented last week, with the release of the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, the Australian economy is one of the best in the world.
The Prime Minister as well as NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian need to be focused on the Coalition’s strengths — the economy, border security and the like. However, gratuitous attacks of the kind engaged in by Harwin are simply a distraction. Especially given Harwin has never criticised Labor with the intensity he demonstrated against his colleagues.
On ABC Radio Sydney on Thursday, Harwin went so far as to support Rudd’s 2009 carbon pollution reduction scheme and assert that it was defeated by “the ridiculous alliance of Tony Abbott and the Greens”. There was no such alliance.
Harwin also claimed that Rudd’s defeat on the CPRS led to Turnbull “being rolled as opposition leader in 2009”. In fact, Turnbull lost the support of his parliamentary colleagues then as he did again in different circumstances this year.
Harwin’s grandstanding this week focused on NSW’s energy situation in 2050. However, that state will face potential energy problems as early as 2022 following the scheduled closure that year of the Liddell coal-fired power station.
Harwin is the Energy Minister in a state where both the Coalition and Labor support heavy regulation that restricts onshore gas development. This was commented on this week by Australian Competition & Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims.
The disincentives that exist in NSW and Victoria with respect to investment in gas production are a real and present problem — more than 30 years before 2050 comes around.
Harwin’s decision to focus on the future rather than NSW’s immediate energy problem to score political points against his colleagues in Canberra is likely to be counterproductive.