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New Climate Change Battlefront Pits Tony Abbott Against The Anti-Coal Brigade

Paul Kelly, The Australian

With his statement that coal is “essential for the prosperity of Australia” and “essential for the prosperity of the world”, Tony ­Abbott has declared political war on the green activist campaign to shut down Australia’s cheap ­energy sectors and undermine our competitiveness.

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke Source: Supplied

Speaking at Moranbah in Queensland at the opening of the Caval Ridge Mine, the Prime Minister sharpened the ideological contest for the next election, signalled his alarm at the sophistication and finances of the green movement, and sent an unmistakable message to industry — it must fight for its social licence.

When Abbott issues a rallying cry it is unmistakable. And he ­issued such a cry this week. His ­aggressive strategy rests on two propositions: that coal is economical and that it is ethical. This position will reverberate across Australia’s society and economy, with consequences for coal, gas, industry, jobs, living standards and environmental politics.

Abbott’s message is that if you want jobs, cheap energy and economic prosperity then you must oppose the ideological campaign to close down fossil fuels as soon as possible in the cause of renewables. But this is part of a bigger story. It was displayed this week in Abbott’s new industry policy with its overarching “competitiveness” agenda — that means “making the most of our strengths in the months and years and decades ahead”.

His political strategy is obvious. Abbott intends to separate Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020 from the ideological campaign against the fossil fuel sector.

He sees this campaign as little short of madness. Abbott tells Inquirer: “We are very confident we can achieve the 5 per cent reduction target by 2020 but that does not require a massive attack on the use of fossil fuels.”

Abbott says Australia can have both and, indeed, that it must have both. He takes the intensified green activist campaign against Australia’s most successful industries as a mortal threat to the nation’s future. But Abbott believes this threat is the latest chapter in the central contemporary conflict that plagues the Labor Party and progressive politics.

He thinks Labor will be caught at the next election between supporting jobs on one hand and making concessions to the pro-green compulsion to punish fossil fuels and accentuate their decline on the other.

Recent polls show the Greens polling well under Abbott — a danger to him but a bigger danger to Labor. Abbott stands by the views he gave the author in January this year: “Labor tries to say that green policies will create jobs. It’s rubbish. They will never provide the long-term employment that Labor’s working-class base knows is necessary.”

The resources sector believes the threat from the green movement is real. “I think this movement is a risk,” Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Brendan Pearson tells Inquirer.

“There is a co-ordinated, well-funded network of groups committed to the demise of the fossil fuel sector. This is regardless of the fact that it would cause economic harm to Australia.”

Because Australia is a critical global supplier of coal and gas this battle of ideas is probably more important to this country than any other Western nation. The outcome will directly affect our living standards.

The core ethical issue was recently put by Bill Gates, who said poor countries “desperately need cheap sources of energy now to fuel economic growth that lifts families out of poverty. They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions and we can’t expect them to wait for the technology to get cheaper.”

Gates’s rational assessment of the positives as well as the negatives of fossil fuels enrages the activist movement. The ethical case for fossil fuels is powerful even when offset against the clean energy negative.

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