Right now, the Liberal Party of Australia is perhaps at its darkest moment since its formation by Robert Menzies in late 1944. It is in government only in NSW (in coalition with the Nationals) and in Tasmania – with Australia’s most populous state, NSW, to go to the polls towards the end of March next year after three terms in office.
Moreover, the Liberal Party (in coalition with the Nationals) faces a difficult task to prevent the Labor Party in Victoria, led by Daniel Andrews, from winning a third term at the upcoming election.
Once Victoria was referred to as the jewel in the Liberal Party’s crown – now it is very much a Labor state, pending the result next Saturday.
In politics, the saying “division is death” is something of a cliche but it contains an essential truth. On occasions, divided parties can prevail at election time. But only if internal conflicts are well managed and disguised to the extent that this is possible.
In view of this, it was an extraordinary occasion when Matt Kean, the NSW Treasurer and Minister for Energy, effectively distanced himself from NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet earlier this week.
This followed Perrottet’s decision to appoint Paul Broad, formerly the chief executive officer of Snowy Hydro 2.0, as his special adviser on energy matters. Apparently, Kean found out about Broad’s pending role in the NSW government while in transit returning from the COP27 meeting in Egypt.
Broad is a good appointment. He is an economist who has worked in the commonwealth Treasury and at the Industries Assistance Commission – as well as in business heading such companies as Sydney Water and Energy Australia.
It is believed that Broad departed Snowy Hydro after a disagreement with Chris Bowen, the Minister for Climate Change and Energy in the Albanese Labor government. According to reports, Broad told Bowen that, at this time, it is not possible for Snowy Hydro’s Kurri Kurri gas plant in the Hunter Valley to be converted to use green hydrogen. It is understood that Broad was of the view that there are no adequate supplies in the Newcastle area at the present time to implement Bowen’s wishes. Time will tell if such a view is correct. In the meantime, Broad will be advising the Perrottet government, at least up until the NSW election.
Last Tuesday, Kean responded to a question without notice from the Labor Party in the NSW House of Assembly about the Broad appointment. In mocking tones, Kean replied that “the Premier is a great captain and Paul Broad is his pick for a staff; look what he has done to Snowy 2.0”.
Labor knew what to expect from the question. Last Saturday, The Daily Telegraph quoted Kean as having said: “(Broad) is well placed to advise the Premier on one of the greatest risks to the energy transition (to renewables), the significant delays on the Snowy Hydro project that are threatening energy security on the east coast.”
This was a cheap shot. It’s true that Snowy Hydro 2.0, an initiative of the Malcolm Turnbull-led Coalition government, is running over time and above budget. But so are most of the transmission lines that will carry renewable energy to the power grid – all of which are supported by Kean, who is very much an enthusiast in the rush to renewables, as is Bowen. The problem with transmission was described by Ted Woodley in his article in The Australian on August 30 this year.
It would appear that Kean was using the pulpit of the NSW parliament to return fire at Broad. Interviewed by The Australian Financial Review in February last year, Broad said that Kean’s energy infrastructure road map, designed to rely on renewables once the coal-fired power generations are closed down, was “fundamentally flawed”.
It’s too early to determine who is correct. But the fact that Perrottet is seeking advice from Broad suggests that there are divisions within the NSW government about how to handle problems of energy costs and supply.
As Kerry Schott, the former head of the Energy Security Board, has said: Australia’s march to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 will be difficult. Interviewed by Patricia Karvelas on Radio National Breakfast on November 7, Schott commented that the task “may not be possible” but added “we’ve got to try”.
With a state election looming, those who follow politics might have assumed that a senior NSW minister like Kean would not be taking on his Premier in public. With the Perrottet government already of the minority kind, without unity the NSW government’s task of winning in March will be even more difficult than it needs to be.
A Labor victory in NSW early next year would leave the Liberal Party out of government throughout the Australian mainland – unless Matthew Guy can pull off a political miracle by defeating the Andrews government in Victoria.
Of all the Australian political leaders during and immediately after the pandemic, Perrottet showed the most awareness of the need to care for the health of Australians while not crushing individual rights and destroying small businesses. Andrews, on the other hand, presided over the most locked-down society in the democratic world – often with an evident sense of enthusiasm.
Few expect that the Andrews government will be defeated next Saturday. For their part, the Liberals are asking voters to put Labor last on ballot papers behind the Greens. This is a controversial decision – especially when it is remembered that the Greens’ leader Adam Bandt entered the House of Representatives on Liberal Party preferences in 2010.
The Liberal Party rationalises its preferences decision by virtue of the fact that Andrews runs a socialist-left government – unlike former social democrat Victorian Labor premiers Steve Bracks and John Brumby. For its part, Labor will not preference the Liberals ahead of the teal independents in seats the Liberals need to win.
It’s difficult to see how the Liberals delivering seats to the Victorian Greens can overcome the impact of a likely Coalition loss next Saturday. But forcing Andrews into minority government might lift their current dark mood for a while at least.