“We have a plan.” Scott Morrison, has ABC listeners in stitches Monday with yet another of his funny but freaky comedy routines. “… The Government,” gags the Coalition’s creepy clown, as he effortlessly tosses off a penicillin metaphor, “is working right across the spectrum to deliver more affordable, more secure, more sustainable electricity prices.”
Affordable? Howls of laughter and snorts of derision are heard across the nation. Pensioners and penalty cut-rate workers laugh especially long and hard. Power bills are rising steeply since privatisation and “marketization”, the selling off of state assets to private companies by Coalition governments keen to do the bidding of powerful business interests and the Neoliberal “think tanks” and lobby groups that serve them such as the Business Council of Australia.
In South Australia, for example, five years after the state privatised electricity in 1998, helped by independent, former Liberal “nifty” Nick Xenophon, who voted with the government, prices increased on average by 23%. Across the nation from 2000 to 2014, the Australian ABS Electricity Price Index (EPI) shows household electricity prices rose by 174%.
Expensive electricity, is not, as we are told, a matter of supply and demand but a tale of private profiteering. Demand began to flatten in 2004 and has been falling since 2009. More than anything, higher network charges, boosted in 2005 by John Howard’s ironically titled Australian Energy Regulator (AER) have caused power bills to skyrocket.
In 2009, the AER ruled NSW distribution networks could claim 8.78% per annum capital cost on money they could borrow securely from a triple-A-rated state treasury for half that amount. The rate quickly became ten per cent.
Privatisation, it was claimed, would lower business taxes and boost investment: the same specious arguments and faith- based assumptions used today to defend company tax cuts, minimum wage restraint and lower penalty rates.
Instead it has helped low-income and vulnerable households across Australia to be increasingly enslaved by energy poverty. The poor spend more and more of their income on energy. Deprivation and social exclusion are the results.
Low income households lose 12.4% of their income to utility bills and fuel each week, calculates The Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre compared with 2.9% for high income households. Modelling by St Vincent de Paul based on 200,000 disconnections in the four largest states reveals some poor families are disconnected five times in three years. Towns in rural New South Wales and outer Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide suburbs experience the most disconnections.
Six per cent of us must join electricity hardship programs just to keep the power on. Last June, 18,423 residential customers in Queensland and 32 000 in NSW joined 33,000 Victorians in hock to a power company. A rising tide of power debt swamps low wage workers and welfare recipients. Tasmanians have the highest per capita electricity debts.
It will get worse. Bills will rise $28 to $204, depending on area. And worse. Morrison’s “more affordable” energy plan will abolish energy supplements: single pensioners will lose $366.60 per year and couples $551.20 for a couple.
Not to worry. NSW Water and Energy Ombudsman, Janine Young, is almost as upbeat as the vapid Federal Treasurer.
“Most (consumers) quickly reconnect through family loans, payday lenders and forgoing food, but others may experience a longer term off supply,” she says, reassuring all those who may worry that power companies are price-gouging themselves out of the market. While starving to keep the lights on is always an option, not every poor person can borrow from family and payday lenders charge exorbitant interest rates.
A family which borrows $2000 from a payday lender will pay back $3,360 over a year according to ASIC’s calculator. In SA last year it was reported families who can’t pay immediately are paying up to $586 per year more than those who can.
ScoMo set the bar high when he worked coal-tossing into his parliamentary stand-up, but Monday he surpasses himself. Like John Howard’s original gift to allow to companies to electricity as a luxury item and his farcical national electricity market, a device for companies to rig the price, this is gold standard satire, self-parody and slapstick all in one.
No-one suggests that instead of his corporate tax break, he invest $2.6 billion in solar energy for the poor, like Bangladesh and Mongolia. 3.5m solar homes systems installed in 2015 in rural Bangladesh, created 70,000 direct jobs.
Morrison’s power plan spiel is indulged Monday in an on-air massage on Fran Kelly’s RN Breakfast show, a comfort station for Liberal politicians and backers, which doubles as a government megaphone. An ambulance chaser follows, bringing listeners the full gory details of the Hazelwood Power station’s head-on collision with economic reality. ABC TV continues the shameless Peabody energy propaganda that falsely posits energy as a choice between coal or jobs.
Hazelwood: a dirty business, is weepie of the week; a full-scale tear-jerker noir with endless grainy close-ups, interviews with stoic, blokey workers, Stakhanovite-style amidst stacks of angst and long shots of idle but uplifting chimneys.
Overlooked amid the melodrama of coal stokers cast off by cruel fate, victims of Labor’s green ideology is the fact that each worker will receive an average redundancy payout of $330,000 largely thanks to their union and state government.
By week’s end, a filthy Malcolm Turnbull trashes his earlier commentary and any residual integrity to lash Dan Andrews’ socialist Victorian state government for doing the dirty on workers in choosing clean renewables over brown coal.
He lies. Turnbull the coal-burner contradicts his earlier rebuke of Abbott that the closure is a hard-nosed commercial decision by the plant’s joint private owners, Engie and Mitsui and Co Ltd. Hazelwood has been privately owned since Jeff Kennett, another visionary Liberal politician, sold it to the sensitive, caring multinational corporations in 1996 for $2.35 billion. Had it not sold, it was set to be closed by the State Electricity Corporation of Victoria in 2005.
Expunged from Coalition nostalgia is the uncontrolled fire in Hazelwood’s lignite mine, a fire which burned for 45 days near Morwell in 2014 and which led to its owner being charged with 10 breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act – including failing to provide a safe workplace and failing to provide a safe environment for the community.
In a huge stretch, Sunday, on ABC Insiders, Morrison uses the word “plan” to dignify his tax cuts for businesses. It’s not a plan – more of a kneejerk capitulation to the government’s business backers. Money will go to the government’s mates instead of schools or hospitals. Cutting business tax has no economic justification. It did not boost employment under Howard. Nor will it now. Treasury modelling shows that all the benefits of a company tax cut go to companies.
The nonsense that it will boost investment in Australia is refuted by Australia Institute research showing 97 per cent of the applications to Australia’s foreign investment review board come from countries with lower company tax rates.
Let’s call it for what it is. A reward to its supporters. And if it’s no fillip to wages or growth it’s ill-timed. It’s a $26 billion cash splash on its electorate while it cuts penalty rates and opposes upping the minimum wage for all other Australians.
But ScoMo’s always entertaining. The way he works his man with a plan gag is a crack-up. It’s going to grow the economy. Boost paypackets. Businessmen with less tax to pay will increase wages in his manic flights of pure fantasy. Elliptical as ever, suddenly, he’s praising a humble local artisanal chocolatier, an inspiration to us all.
I mean put yourselves in the shoes of a company like Zokoko, they’re a chocolatier out in Penrith, a small business, between $2 and $10 million. They are not only getting a 27.5 per cent tax cut, they are getting access to pool depreciation, the instant asset write-off, they can do their GST on a cash basis. That means they can invest, they can look at new markets, they can look at taking more people on.
Let them eat chocolate. Great plan. And all from the creator of the $55 million dollar Cambodian two person refugee resettlement scheme; a minister whose government is a mare’s nest, a government which quickly dropped its vows of dialogue to revert to Abbott’s mindless sloganeering even aping his inane braying, hectoring and bullying, lately.
Morrison may howl “jobs and growth” like a man snorting powdered unicorn horn but it’s only corny performance art. This week The Brotherhood of St Lawrence reports that youth underemployment is the highest it’s been for forty years.
ScoMo’s “working” pun is just as much fun. This government is as unworkable as Abbott’s. Voters punish it, accordingly, in opinion polls. Monday’s Fairfax Ipsos Poll puts Labor ahead by a massive 56-44 two party preferred while the PM has a 40% approval rating, his lowest since he deposed his former leader. 48% disapprove of his performance.
Increasingly unpopular, conflicted and chaotic, the Coalition continues to inflict inury and insult upon itself as much as others whether it be moving to extinguish Victoria’s tiny Leadbeater’s possum or offending our giant trade pal China.
Barnaby Joyce accuses a wanton, socialist Victoria of putting possums before people. Daniel Andrews rejects mill owners’ request for a $40 million to keep his state’s Heyfield sawmill running. His government also cuts back mill access to native forest to a third of that previously over-promised by a pro-logging Coalition predecessor. He tells the community “the timber is just not there”. Barnaby bores on bemoaning timber job losses. Bugger the environment.
Joyce claims new evidence shows Leadbeater’s possum thrives in the Central Highlands, a claim conservationists contest. He writes a letter to Daniel Andrews requesting Dan consider easing protected areas indirectly pressuring Environment Minister Josh Freydenberg to review the possum’s critically endangered status, a task he cannot do without state government participation. Now a state premier, farmers and conservationists are all at odds.
Divisions also help photo opportunist Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to botch the ratification of an extradition treaty with China after a meeting, Monday, with twelve backbenchers hostile to the deal. Abbott-lackey Eric Abetz threatens to cross the floor. Others could follow. Bishop is blamed for high-handedness; a lack of due consultation. Embittered back-benchers are heard to mutter about the depth of the minister’s preparation and her effective commitment to process.
Turnbull, however, unseals the deal by alienating Labor support when he links the fate of Australians already in Chinese custody into the deal. While the fiasco will dull Bishop’s potential leadership appeal, Turnbull is blasted in The Australian by Abbott pal, Greg Sheridan who wins best over-kill calling it “the single worst foreign policy fiasco in the Turnbull government”. Get a grip; get with the program, Sheridan. Without self-injury, Turnbull’s government is nothing.
Far from Morrison’s working plan fantasy, the Coalition blends chaos with catastrophe. As its chocolatier-led economic recovery anecdote reveals, its feet are firmly planted in the clouds. Or its permanently out to lunch. It is a dysfunctional, faction-ridden, delusional, policy-free zone run by mining, business, banking and Neoliberal IPA stooges. It is a right wing rabble animated only by self-interest, ambition and the maintenance of privilege. And a sense of grievance.
George Brandis is heard roaring like a wounded walrus in the senate this week when someone insults him about his obsession with changing 18 and pretending it’s about free speech. A powerful, privileged white male of the ruling elite finds it “deeply offensive and insulting” for Labor and Greens senators to suggest he supported weakening race hate laws because he was a white man. Most reasonable community members would say they were spot on.
Good news this week comes when the government loses its cynical crusade to water down our racial vilification laws. It may be more successful however, with a proposed procedural change for the AHRC which adds a reasonable community member clause to discourage complainants like George Brandis. The Australian spins it as a partial victory.
The Coalition spin machine never stops. As it flounders, flip-flops and comes unstuck, the Coalition spins itself, Pravda-style as “a government that gets things done.” Beginning the political year with an agenda so thin, it had to stretch its parliamentary breaks, it now harangues us about how much is on its plate. These include Abbott’s unpalatable leftovers rehashed in the Omnibus Savings Bill .
Helen Gibbons, assistant national secretary of United Voice, has told a senate committee it was disappointing that a boost in childcare funding was only being discussed when cuts where being made to other areas, including Family Tax benefits, Youth Allowance and Newstart unemployment benefits. So many to disadvantage. So little time.
There’s a budget to fudge. Races to vilify. A war on Shorten and the poor to be fought; a tax on the rich to reduce. All richly fulfilling stuff. Longer term, if the phrase may be applied to the Turnbull adhocracy, a prolonged fit of absence of mind, it’s kill Bill. Paul Bongiorno cites an anonymous Victorian Liberal who tells a Labor MP on the flight to Canberra.
“Nothing personal, but we are going to try to destroy Shorten over the next six months, and if that doesn’t work we may have to destroy Turnbull.” Yet even his RN admirers would agree Turnbull is doing a good job of destroying himself.
Friday sees Australia’s shortest parliamentary sitting last less than sixty minutes. Luckily the stuff-up goes largely unremarked by a media awash in Cyclone Debbie’s tabloid depths and the eternal wake our ABC conducts for the jobs lost by the rash closure of the Hazelwood power station, something Tony Abbott tries to pin on doctrinaire froggy climate politics and which Aunty successfully implies is both unexpected and all the fault of a state Labor government.
Yet cheek of the week goes to the Treasurer. Not even Julie Bishop’s insult which angers China, our largest trading partner can compete. Not even a mutiny stirred by ex-Liberal now gang-of-one (seldom) silent-majority-Cory Bernardi can match it. Let running junk-yard dog Tony Abbott blithely tell media this week that he made China a promise he never meant to keep, as only hypocrites and liars can. None can hold a candle to ScoMo’s shtick.
Not even Iron Chef Turnbull plying a sizzling Fizza-wok at his all you can eat cross-bench banquet this week – a well buttered combination stir-fry race hate speak with a corporation tax cut sauce – can rival Morrison. The Treasurer is power-mad, certainly, but his line that his government stands for cheaper electricity is hilarious.
The Neoliberal bigot stops ranting. Sotto voce, he pitches the amazing work his government does to keep the lights on. Despite his utter lack of credibility, camp theatricality and his problem with intelligibility, the interview goes swimmingly.
Has privatisation of the energy sector failed Australian consumers? Sabra Lane asks earnestly.
“Well I don’t think you can necessarily draw that conclusion,” replies Morrison. (Only when you look at the evidence.)
The Treasurer becomes the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Wonderland. He drags in a Hazelwood of dense smoke; puffs out a vast, thick, cloud of spin – and disappears into it. A lot of pompous, lofty, do-nothing, big-noting will surely follow.
“I think what’s important with what the Prime Minister and I will be announcing later today is that to deliver energy security, affordability and sustainability, you’ve got to work across all the different areas.” (Stereo twaddle alert.)
“And we’ve been working on the gas side of things, as you know, getting all the big gas producers in to ensure we get an assurance about their supply to the domestic gas industry.” (Always focus on process if you have nothing else to offer.)
“On top of that, there’s the work being done on pumped hydro,” he lies, avidly appropriating someone else’s work. It will take ten years to build Snowy 2 and even then there are problems with the economics, the engineering and raising the capital. The only work that’s been done is by Professor Andrew Blakers of ANU’s Energy Change Institute.
There is no Federal plan to help keep Australia’s lights on. Nor is there any thought given at all to supporting the energy poor who are rapidly being priced out of the market. The government is hiding behind a Snowy 2 feasibilty study while desperately talking up its leader’s chat with the gas corporation CEOs as some kind of solution to the nation’s gas profiteering racket. In the meantime, the states are taking the initiative with solar farms, wind and battery storage.
By Sunday, the government has got half of what it wanted in its tax cuts and the failure it deserved on 18C. While others in his newspaper mark the China fiasco as an epic fail of principle and process management, Paul Kelly at least has Turnbull “snatching a surprise victory from the jaws of defeat”; “pulling off a face-saving deal.”
But those jaws will still snap, tax cuts for fat cats or not. What the government likes to call average “hard-working Australians” will not be appeased by the spectacle of an inept, remote, bosses’ government taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. Nor will those whose business interests lie with affordable energy and good relations with China – if only in trade – tolerate the chaos and dysfunction of an unpopular dysfunctional government with no plan.
For when all a Federal Treasurer has to show for himself is a tax cut and cuts to low-paid workers’ wages, together with a war on welfare and the poor, he clearly has no economic plan at all. Unless you count his dazzling comedy routine.