Frydenberg puts new energy in role

Graeme Philipson

Liberal rising star Josh Frydenberg has had environment added to his energy portfolio. And it makes sense that the two are combined into one ministry, given how closely related they are.

Get used to it – ‘Minister for the Environment and Energy’. And note that ‘environment’ is placed before ‘energy’.

Former environment minister Greg Hunt is moved to science, industry and innovation, replacing Christopher Pyne, who becomes minister for the construction of very expensive submarines (‘Defence Industry’), which does not seem to be much of a promotion.

The merging of environment into the energy portfolio (or is it energy into the environment portfolio?) might be regarded by some as a downgrading of its importance. But does not see it that way – quite the contrary.

The conservative side of politics has always been uncomfortable with environmental matters. Witness the abolition of the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency when Tony Abbott won the 2013 election. And under Greg Hunt the environment portfolio became very low profile.

But it was not ignored. It can be argued that a low profile was just what the portfolio needed, at least from the government’s perspective. Greg Hunt was able to take climate change policy off the front page, effectively neutralising it as a divisive issue within a Coalition composed of many sceptics and outright deniers. has previously commented on the lack of attention paid to innovation-related policy within the environment portfolio in both the budget and the election campaign. This is no doubt just what Malcolm Turnbull wanted.

The Greens would have liked the environment to be front and centre, but the ALP was also happy to see it sidelined, with Tony Abbott’s Great Big Carbon Tax scare campaign still fresh in its memory. Not many votes there.

Mr Hunt was criticised by many environmentalists for his low profile, but others admit that he worked hard behind the scenes to reverse, or at least alleviate, the worst excesses of Tony Abbott’s environmental vandalism.

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation survived, and some commentators (most notably Alan Kohler) said that Mr Hunt’s carbon abatement policies amount to carbon pricing by stealth anyway.

So, what can we expect now that the environment and energy portfolios are merged? It is likely that renewable energy will gradually assume a higher profile, particularly as the realities of climate change hit home and Australia’s potential as a renewable energy powerhouse become more apparent.

As energy minister Mr Frydenberg talked up renewables – though he followed the conservative line that coal is important and has an important future (conservative commentator Andrew Bolt has even called him ‘Mr Coal’). He has backed coal seam gas, an issue that may yet cause significant problems for the Coalition. And he has also attacked Labor’s 50 per cent renewables target as a pipedream.

The Greens and many environmentalists have already criticised Mr Frydenberg’s appointment, while celebrating Greg Hunt’s removal. They should not be so quick to criticise – the merging of the energy and environment portfolios may yet turn out to be the best thing the conservative side of politics has done for the environment.

Josh Frydenberg is a good choice for what will be a very important role in the new government. Elected to Parliament in 2010 for the electorate of Kooyong – the seat held by Liberal Party founder Sir Robert Menzies and former leader Andrew Peacock – he celebrated his 45th birthday at Malcolm Turnbull’s dinner at The Lodge on Sunday evening.

The former lawyer and merchant banker (sound familiar?) was an Abbott supporter in the 2015 leadership coup, but is not regarded as hard right. He is extremely articulate, and in recent years has become one of the government’s more high-profile spokesman, popping up everywhere in the media. He is even starting to be mentioned as a possible future leader.

Mr Frydenberg is the Coalition’s only Jewish MP, and was the subject of an anti-Semitic smear campaign during the election. When he was elevated to the ministry, he wore a yarmulke and was sworn in on the Chamush, the Hebrew Bible.

The consensus is that Mr Frydenberg has performed well in the energy portfolio. In May he announced that the government had commissioned the CSIRO to develop a ‘technology neutral’ roadmap for a low emissions future.

He is a strong supporter of nuclear energy, though that is a battle that has long been lost in Australia – it is unlikely he will attempt to revive it.

The Coalition has not performed well on the environment. That is the conservative way, and is to be expected.
This latest iteration – the Environment and Energy portfolio – may yet continue along that disappointing path, but it is equally likely that things will only get better from now on.
Coalition government policy on renewable energy has been a disgrace. Things improved after Tony Abbott’s demise, but there is a long way to go. The inclusion of environmental matters with an expanded energy portfolio may be just what the sector needs.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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