The big idea to save money and help the environment was steered into a ditch on the side of the road. Nobody even bothered to lift the hood and attempt some repairs. The idea was left there, waiting for a day when someone might try to restart the engine.
The peak group meant to make this change happen, the ministerial forum on vehicle emissions, went into limbo. It was led by Frydenberg and Fletcher and met eight times in 2017 and 2018 but has not met since.
The last gathering was a few months after Scott Morrison became Prime Minister. Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack convened the meeting with Energy Minister Angus Taylor and Environment Minister Melissa Price. That was on November 29, 2018.
The result? “Nothing has happened,” says one industry observer. The government identified the challenge in 2015, explained why it mattered and outlined its plans. And then did nothing.
This is a reality check when the government is now talking, again, about acting on climate change. If action is so important now, why were ideas shelved for a year or more?
Morrison is responding to a brutal political awakening during this bushfire season. Australians are losing patience with the deniers within his government. Liberals in metropolitan seats are losing patience, too, because they are losing voters who can see the way the conservatives block action at every turn.
The answer this week is a technology investment roadmap. It will be released for public comment in the coming weeks and will promise to reduce emissions using renewables, energy efficiency, carbon capture, hydrogen and advances in agriculture.
Governments are preparing for electric vehicles around the world. Not in Australia, yet. There are significant advantages in this shift, not least reducing the reliance on oil imports, but Morrison has positioned himself on the wrong side of the change.
Who can forget Employment Minister Michaelia Cash thundering against Labor for wanting half of all new vehicles to be electric by 2030? “We are going to stand by our tradies and we are going to save their utes,” she declared during the election campaign. It was fevered nonsense then, but it hobbles policy now.
Governments are improving fuel standards around the world. Not in Australia. The go-slow not only means inaction on climate change but also means Australians are exposed to more noxious fumes.
In the government’s defence, one change is under way. The government chose last year to apply a new petrol standard to reduce sulphur to 10 parts per million from July 2027 and reduce aromatic content as well from January 2022.
But noxious gases and carbon emissions are covered by separate standards. There are no decisions on these so far, even though the ministerial forum was set up more than four years ago to act on these challenges.
The danger for Australia is that it is being left behind by a world that is moving to cleaner fuel to suit cleaner cars. Whether the government acts or not, carmakers are upgrading to meet higher standards in Europe and America, which means we will need better fuel.
There is a trade-off for motorists in any transition to cleaner fuel. Mandating a higher standard means pushing up the price of a new car, but it also means saving money at the petrol pump because the car is more efficient. The government’s own analysis shows the benefits outweigh the costs, but they take time to arrive.
Frydenberg and Fletcher drew on this analysis when they promised savings two years ago, and Labor used it again to argue for better fuel standards during the May election campaign.
Morrison had a different take. He focused on the up-front costs to accuse Labor of adding $5000 to the cost of a car. He applied the worst-case scenario to the capital costs and ignored the long-term savings. For good measure, he claimed Labor wanted to “end the weekend” with its support for electric vehicles.
Does this surprise? The election debate on cars was just another instance of a climate change debate full of hysterical rhetoric, tricky numbers and overblown scares. And now the government wants Australians to accept its technology roadmap as the answer.
The government is also planning a National Electric Vehicle Strategy in the first half of this year. This is a good idea, but also proof of the opportunities lost. It will arrive long after the government should have come to a position on how EVs will change energy use and erode fuel excise revenue.
Liberals privately worry Australians will not believe them on climate change because they think Morrison does not speak with conviction when he says the science is real and he is acting on the problem. What do words matter when Morrison is branded by the moment he walked into Parliament with a lump of coal?
Morrison talks of going “even further” to reduce emissions and building “resilience” to cope with a changing climate, but it is too soon to judge if this rhetoric signals anything other than a political panic.
The technology roadmap may include wonderful ideas for the future, but it is only required because of the failures of the past.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.