Technology is blind to political labels
If word processors were invented today they would no doubt be seen through the left-right prism. Like a dying star, the 18th century political binary of left and right produces far more heat as the end of its life approaches. Is a wind turbine really "left wing"? Is a grid scale battery "progressive"?
[The article was first published by the Australian Financial Review - here]
The majority of One Nation voters in Queensland support an increase in the Renewable Energy Target and oppose giving the Adani coal mine a $1 billion subsidy. These facts confound those commentators who are determined to use cookie cutter notions of left and right to impose their idea of order onto an increasingly amorphous electorate.
The Coalition's determination to see renewables as a "left-wing technology" and coal as a "right-wing technology" means they miss the simple truth that most One Nation voters hate their electricity company more than they hate environmentalists. Likewise, most One Nation voters hate the idea of taxpayer handouts to an Indian mining billionaire. Who'd have thought?
While the idea that different technologies have different political affiliations has never made much philosophical sense, Tony Abbott showed how much political sense it could make when he managed to convince the electorate that flat real wages and fears about job security were the fault of carbon pricing and renewable electricity. Everyone knows it's easy to scare the Australian electorate, but in government Abbott quickly discovered how hard it is to actually fix their problems.
Unemployment in National Party seats is higher than the average and wages in those electorates is well below average. People in those regions are right to want more jobs and more job security. For decades new mines have been used to offer such a boost, but new technology is simultaneously reducing the number of jobs in coal mines and increasing the number of jobs from renewables.
While Minister Matt Canavan claims over and over that the Adani coal mine will create 10,000 jobs, the public are rightly skeptical. Not only did the mine proponents claim under oath that a much bigger mine than the one being discussed would only create 1464 jobs, when talking to investors Adani has been talking up the way new technology will allow the mine to be "automated from pit to port". Last week's revelation in The Australian Financial Review that automated new mines in the Galilee will displace production, and jobs, from more labour intensive coal mines in the Surat, Bowen and Hunter Valley makes an even bigger mockery of Coalition claims that it is focused on "creating jobs".
But as skepticism about the ability of new coal mines to solve regional unemployment grows, investment in renewable energy and batteries in regional Australia continues to gather pace. You would think Elon Musk's promise to build the world's largest battery in regional South Australia would have the Prime Minister, the Trade Minister and the Resources Minister crowing. But big new investments in "left technologies" don't get the kind of political love reserved for coal mines and football stadiums.
Many conservative commentators like to pretend that renewable energy and battery storage is more "virtue signalling" than vital investment. But the energy market, and the voters, are leaving such labels behind. Countries such as India and China are abandoning coal-fired power stations halfway through construction as the collapsing costs of renewables destroys the business case for finishing them.
The Australian right like to say that coal will play a role in the world's energy market for decades to come, and that is true. But what's also true is that its role will shrink. The simple truth is that world coal production fell for the last three years in a row.
The decline of coal, like the decline of typists or the decline of photo development labs, will inevitably lead to significant job losses. Similarly, the rise of renewables, like the rise of personal computers, smart phones and digital cameras, will create new jobs and new opportunities.
If the Coalition want to retain some credibility as "good economic managers" they should stop depicting new technologies as political symbols and start looking at how they can speed the transitions that need to be made while minimising the personal and community costs that will inevitably be felt. Blaming the carbon price for all the world's problems worked from opposition, but promising to build new automated coal mines will do nothing to solve regional unemployment.
Richard Denniss is the chief economist for The Australia Institute.