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'The short answer is yes': Abbott's vow to cross the floor over government's energy policy

'The short answer is yes': Abbott's vow to cross the floor over government's energy policy

A crucial government meeting on energy and climate policy has ended with another warning from former prime minister Tony Abbott that he will cross the floor on the National Energy Guarantee, after he was out-numbered in a vigorous debate on the plan.

Mr Abbott emerged from a briefing on the Turnbull government’s policy on Tuesday morning to warn that he could not accept an outcome dictated by Labor state premiers when it should be decided by the Coalition party room.

Asked if he was “committed enough” on the issue to cross the floor on the energy guarantee, Mr Abbott said he was.

“The short answer is yes,” he told reporters.

“I think that I have an obligation to keep faith with the position that the government took to the people in 2013.

 

“And don’t forget what we took to the people in 2013, that the people overwhelmingly endorsed, was scrapping the carbon tax as part of ending Labor’s emissions obsession.

“Now, my anxiety about the National Energy Guarantee is that it’s more about reducing emissions than it is about reducing prices.”

Mr Abbott made his remarks after a regular Coalition party room meeting where he was outnumbered by colleagues who vocally backed the National Energy Guarantee.

The debate followed a meeting of the Coalition backbench committee on energy where MPs heard clear support for the policy from BlueScope chief Mark Vasella, BHP Billiton commercial chief Arnoud Balhuizen, Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott and Australian Industry Group chief Innes Willox.

BHP has previously said the NEG does not prevent the construction of more coal-fired power, given it is “technology neutral” and sets benchmarks on electricity retailers for reliability as well as emission reductions.

Coalition MPs told Fairfax Media that Mr Abbott began the discussion in the full party room meeting and was joined in his criticism by former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and Liberal MPs Craig Kelly and Eric Abetz.

Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg put no significant change to the NEG forward to the meeting, despite reports the Nationals were seeking a “supplement” to the policy to encourage the construction of a new coal-fired power station.

The Coalition MPs who spoke in support of the energy guarantee included Julia Banks, Andrew Broad, Richard Colbeck, Warren Entsch, Jason Falinski, Steve Irons, Bert van Manen, Rowan Ramsey, Ann Sudmalis and Jason Wood.

In a key statement to sum up the debate, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the meeting showed a “strong endorsement” of the energy guarantee.

Mr Turnbull added that any legislation needed to put the policy in place, such as laws to cut emissions by 26 per cent by 2030, would go to the party room in due course – a guarantee of further consultation later this year.

The debate began when South Australian Liberal MP Tony Pasin said Australians not only needed a guarantee on reliability and emission reductions but on price as well, suggesting a cap of $60 per megawatt hour in the wholesale market.

Mr Abbott backed the price cap and the debate gathered steam in a series of criticisms of the energy guarantee, until Liberals rose in response to warn the critics that they were damaging the government.

One of those in the room said Ms Sudmalis, who holds her NSW south coast seat by 0.7 per cent, told the critics to “pull your head in” on the issue.

“We’ve got a good policy and this continued disunity is costing us in marginal seats,” she said, according to an MP.

That sentiment was backed by Ms Banks, who holds the Melbourne seat of Chisolm by 1.2 per cent, and by Mr Wood, who holds the Melbourne seat of La Trobe by 1.5 per cent.

Mr Turnbull also used his closing remarks in the debate to caution against the push for a price cap, an idea put forward with no detail on how it might be put in place or enforced.

Mr Turnbull said people had to “be careful what you wish for” because some policy ideas could make things worse.

Mr Abbott was asked by reporters after the meeting if a failure would set energy policy back by 10 years, but he said the problems with renewable energy had to be addressed.

"As things stand, renewables have dangerously destabilised our system," he said.

“And what we need to return to is a system where reliable 24/7 baseload can cover peak demand, because we cannot rely on renewables – we just can’t, they are inherently unreliable, and when they fail we need baseload to back it up."

“And that’s why a system that’s designed to promote renewables to reduce emissions is inherently more expensive than one which focuses on affordable and reliable supply.”

Asked if Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg had offered a plan to ensure new investments in coal and gas power, Mr Abbott said that would make the energy guarantee more appealing to the backbench, for instance with a new version of the vast Hazelwood coal-fired power station that was shut down last year.

“I think that would make the whole deal much more palatable, if the minister were to come to the backbench and say, ‘yes, we will supplement the National Energy Guarantee with a governmental supplier of last resort, if you like – we won’t just step into the market to provide Snowy 2.0, we will step into the market to provide Hazelwood 2.0 or some other 24/7 thermal baseload’,” Mr Abbott said.

“I think that would make the whole thing much more acceptable to backbench members of Parliament.”

Mr Abbott expressed frustration that Mr Frydenberg intended to take the energy guarantee to a meeting of the Council of Australian Governments to get state and territory approval in the months ahead, before asking the Coalition party room to sign off on the outcome.

“My concern is that it will be COAG that determines the policy but not the government and not the party room,” he said.

The Sydney Morning Herald

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