The LNP backbencher George Christensen has signalled he won’t vote for a new clean energy target because it won’t end the decade long climate wars – because Labor will “out Finkel us on Finkel”.
Christensen said on Wednesday evening that he saw no prospect of achieving policy stability on climate and energy policy through bipartisanship, because the gulf between the major parties was too wide.
“Given the history of climate policy in this place, given we’ve got the Labor party pushing 50% renewable energy targets … given we’ve got some Labor MPs talking about no more coal-fired power at all – how are we, honestly, going to have policy stability?” the outspoken MP told Sky News.
Christensen said he had no intention of voting for a clean energy target that penalised coal and neither would the bulk of the National party. “I’m out. I won’t support that”.
He said that, rather than legislating a clean energy target, the government would be better off building high-efficiency coal-fired power stations to replace the ageing coal fleet. Christensen contended that approach would reduce carbon pollution.
The backbencher’s public declaration of opposition follows an extraordinary Coalition party room meeting on Tuesday night in which government MPs ventilated their concerns about the Finkel review, which recommends introducing a clean energy target to deliver policy certainty for investors and reduce emissions.
Senior government sources maintain there is a viable pathway through the Coalition’s biggest internal battle in climate policy since 2009, pointing to support for the Finkel framework at the cabinet level and a widespread acknowledgement in the party room that business as usual is unsustainable.
But other MPs believe the chief scientists’s blueprint will not emerge unscathed from the government party room. One MP told Guardian Australia on Wednesday that, given all the internal cross currents, it would be “very dangerous” of the prime minister to bring Finkel forward without substantial amendment.
The former prime minister Tony Abbott – who was a vocal participant in the special party room meeting, and floated the desirability of the government buying the Hazelwood power station – continued his public critique of the Finkel review on Wednesday afternoon.
Abbott said the “problem” with the review was it was “all about reducing emissions”. He said Australia did not need to conform with the commitments he made as prime minister in the Paris climate accord if those commitments “clobbered” power prices.
He said the mood in the party room on Tuesday night was one of “robust common sense” and the Coalition did not want to engage in “green posturing”.
Labor has signalled it is prepared to be constructive in dealing with the government on the Finkel review but it argues a clean energy target that benefits coal is not a clean energy target.
The shadow climate change minister, Mark Butler, told reporters: “You can’t rig the definition of clean energy to include new coal-fired power stations just to placate Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce.
“That would make a complete mockery of a very serious process that the chief scientist and his panel followed over months”.
The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, said Labor was not intent on making Malcolm Turnbull’s life harder.
“What we are saying is we are prepared to compromise from an emission intensity scheme to a fair dinkum clean energy target,” he said. “Mr Turnbull needs to step up and show some leadership. He needs to stare down the recalcitrants who have held back climate policy in this country for 10 years”.
In an interview with Guardian Australia this week, the chief scientist said it would be surprising if governments used the overhaul of energy policy to incentivise new coal-fired power stations.
He pointed out that modelling associated with the review did not envisage new coal power stations being built.
Industry stakeholders are exerting considerable pressure for major party agreement, arguing the lack of investment in thermal generation will not change if the national policy is subjected to an overhaul every time a new government comes to power.
MPs in the party room meeting on Tuesday night expressed concern that Labor was not committed to a sincere act of bipartisanship.
Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday left ample room to move to placate internal opponents. He said the Finkel review was “not a report by government, but a report to governments”.
Pressed on when the government would develop concrete recommendations in response to the review, Turnbull said the government would take the time to get it right.
In a clear swipe at Abbott – who won the 2013 election with his “axe the tax” campaign – Turnbull told reporters “glib answers and one-liners have been of no assistance in keeping Australians energy secure and affordable”.
He said “glib leadership” had delivered nothing, apart from driving power prices up and putting energy security at risk.
“What Australians need is wise leadership, not glib leadership,” the prime minister said.
Turnbull said the government had to take action to deal with the challenges in the energy market that had manifested as a consequence of the decade long climate wars. “Business as usual is not an option”.
“Industry does need certainty,” the prime minister said. “There’s been too much politics, too much ideology, not enough economics, not enough engineering.
“My commitment is to ensure that Australians have affordable, reliable energy, and that we meet our commitments, our international commitments to cut our emissions”.