Malcolm Turnbull laid out a transformative agenda for his Prime Ministership at his first press conference as leader, saying his government would be “focused on ensuring that in the years ahead as the world becomes more and more competitive and greater opportunities arise, we are able to take advantage of that.”
The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves.
“We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it,” Turnbull said.
Whilst the leader has continued to talk about the need for Australia to be agile and innovative to the point of it almost becoming a cliché, his emphasis on disruption disappeared almost immediately after being elected. His reflection that “disruption” and “volatility in change is our friend” hasn’t been repeated since.
This is more than semantics.
This has not been a disruptive government. Nor has this been a government that has embraced disruptive technologies.
Many people expected something very different from the Turnbull Government. They expected a clean break – a disruption – from the Abbott Government, but this has been more about continuation than change. Even Tony Abbott has remarked that the Turnbull Government is really a continuation of his own.
Before he became Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull openly embraced disruptive technologies.
In February 2015, he visited Tesla’s factory in California, taking a test drive in its latest electric vehicle and describing it as a “great thrill.”
“Batteries have the potential to revolutionise the energy market, reducing peaking power requirements, optimising grid utilisation of renewables and in some cases enabling consumers to go off the grid altogether," he said at the time. "The excitement of technology in the Bay Area is exhilarating…but not quite as palpable as the jolt you feel when you hit the accelerator!”
Turnbull's excitement was palpable and the message to his colleagues and the public was clear. Turnbull as leader would be very different to Tony Abbott. His Government would embrace, not fear, the future.
But just as Turnbull quickly dropped the use of the word “disruption,” so too did he drop his interest in renewable energy, battery storage and disruptive technologies.
The Turnbull Government has essentially continued the Abbott Government’s destructive approach to renewable energy. Almost right up to the moment the election was called, the Government had Bills in place to abolish the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), the two most important renewable energy agencies.
The Government did announce the establishment of a new $1 billion Clean Energy Investment Fund, merging ARENA and the CEFC, but this was in reality a $1.3 billion reduction in funding for renewable energy, with a move away from grant funding to debt and equity arrangements. $1 billion was redirected from the CEFC to create the new Clean Energy Investment Fund.
On June 13, the Government announced another $1 billion would be redirected from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to support water quality and clean energy projects aimed at protecting the Great Barrier Reef.
On June 20, the Government raided the CEFC yet again to redirect $100 million a year to urban infrastructure “green cities” projects, including renewable energy and traffic management.
The Government has gone from wanting to abolish the CEFC to using it as an election slush fund.
It is noticeable that there have been no other significant renewable energy funding announcements during the election campaign and, unlike Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, the Prime Minister has not visited any renewable energy companies or projects. Nor has he embraced the rapidly emerging energy storage industry as leader, taking a remarkably different approach to his position prior to becoming leader.
The Government’s election strategy on renewables has largely consisted of a series of grants to community groups in marginal seats across the country to invest in solar panels and hot water systems, as well as raids on the CEFC. This may be good local politics, but it is of limited national significance.
On climate change, Turnbull has largely continued Abbott’s agenda. Media reports in late September 2015 indicated that one of the pre-conditions for becoming leader was no change to Abbott’s climate change policy. Turnbull acknowledged this on the ABC’s Q&A program.
This has placed Turnbull and his government in a climate straight jacket.
Whilst Turnbull previously described Abbott’s climate change policy as “bullshit” and Direct Action as “fiscal recklessness on a grand scale”, he has now embraced those very policies.
Turnbull has pointedly refused to announce any new climate change policies during the election campaign. This again demonstrates continuity rather than change.
Disruption no longer seems to be the Prime Minister’s friend.