In currency and interest rate markets, it’s known as “jaw-boning” – the technique used by officials to simply talk about action, usually on currency and credit marks, to get the market to pay attention.
It has been used to influence outcomes in combating the credit crisis of nearly a decade ago, and more recently by Australian Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stephens on the level of the local currency.
And it has also been used – to devastating impact – by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in trying to prevent investment in wind farms in Australia.
The wind industry has not been short of policy support. A target for 41,000GWh actually remains in place, at least until a Senate vote expected early this week.
But Abbott and his government ministers have managed for the past two years to talk investors out of putting money into wind farms, first by signaling a review to the legislation, then by appointing a climate sceptic and pro-nuclear businessman to lead it.
Then it took eight months to strike an agreement with Labor over a reduced target, and now – just as the new legislation for a 33,000GWh target appears set to be put in place, frustrating Abbott’s stated desire for a much deeper cut – the government has gone back to jaw-boning the sector again.
This time by complaining about its aesthetics, expressing concern about health impacts, and expressing a desire to reduce the target if it could. It is only one vote in the Senate away from being able to do that.
It seems a deliberate strategy to talk down the sector. One wonders what an international investor or financier is to make of Australia’s position and its “commitment to renewable energy”, knowing that the PM is one vote short of being able to turn legislation on this “visually awful” and potentially unhealthy technology.
After Abbott’s extraordinary intervention late last week, where he complained about the noise of wind farms, despite only ever being near a single turbine on Rottnest Island, it was the turn of environment minister Greg Hunt to comment on the fate of the renewable energy industry.
If the wind sector was hoping for support from the minister whose portfolio directly covers the renewable energy target, then it will have been disappointed.
First of all, Hunt refused to be drawn on his view of wind farms, either because he doesn’t have one, or because he has decided it is not politick of him to express one in the current environment.
In several radio interviews and doorstops on Friday, Hunt was repeatedly asked about Abbott’s comments, but said only that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”; that he (Hunt) had a “neutral view”, and pointed – obliquely – to the fact that Abbott “likes Picasso” and Hunt prefers Dali.
Then he gave succor to the protests of the minority of people who are actively protesting against wind farms:
“I’m a little less fussed about this, but for some people, it really matters to them and so we have to absolutely respect what happens to people in their own lives and their own backyards ,” Hunt told Radio 2UE on Friday.
“So they’re entitled to be heard and sometimes people deride those who actually have to live in an area where suddenly something has been built.”
Hunt’s reluctance to express an opinion is perhaps not surprising, given that he has spent most of the last two years saying that the RET was being reviewed because it would have been hard to meet, and that the proposed amendment was in fact an increase, only for Abbott to say the real reason was because the government didn’t like them, and thought they were harmful, and that the new target was a cut, not an increase.
On those supposed health impacts referred to by Abbott in his interview with radio host Alan Jones on Thursday, Hunt suggested that, despite the findings of medical authorities in Australia, the US, Canada, and Europe, the jury was still out on the issue.
At a doorstop interview on Friday, he was asked.
Minister, do you agree with the Prime Minister that wind farms are causing health problems in the community?
Oh look, there’s a Senate assessment and I won’t try to pre-empt that. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
This is extraordinary, given that the current Senate inquiry is being manned by anti-wind politicians – from both the Coalition and the cross-benches – who say they have already made up their mind about the medical impacts of wind farms. Hunt also made note that the National Health and Medical Research Council is commissioning an assessment “so the last thing that I would want to do is pre-empt that.”
So, do wind farms have a future in Australia’s energy mix?
Hunt dodged the question again, pointing instead to the future of solar.
“Look, they (wind farms) are a part of the Renewable Energy Target but I think you’ll find that solar is becoming increasingly competitive.
“The whole purpose of this target is to achieve a certain renewable energy outcome for Australia – 23.5 per cent by 2020 – and then to let the different forms of renewable energy compete, and solar’s becoming more competitive each day.”
That’s an interesting assessment, indicating no long-term potential for wind. Indeed, it points to RenewEconomy’s report on Thursday that the government is looking for ways to push solar over wind farms.