Self-destructive Coalition Luddites

In the early 19 th century in Britain, Luddites destroyed new technology and opposed the Government. In the early 21 st century in Australia, neo Luddites prop up old technology and are the Government.

In Britain, destroying machines carried the death penalty and a dozen or more Luddites were hanged.

In Australia, the neo-Luddite madness infecting the Federal Government has run to a promise of $600 million in government money for a gas-fired power station and $2 billion to prop up two oil refineries that make inferior petrol.

There was a time Liberals stood for the Government not getting involved in industry and for boasting that the private sector did things more efficiently.

Now, no-one in the private sector will build a gas-fired power station or continue to refine oil in the face of competition from clean power and more efficient foreign refiners. That should surely be a sign to the conservatives that these are dead activities.

The way to fuel security is not to prop up an old technology but accelerate new technology that does not need oil so that no fuel security is needed.

These old-industry props, run against the Australian grain – the land of the Victa lawn-mower, the Hills Hoist and the stump-jump plough, and the early adopters of mobile phones, credit cards and solar panels.

Australia has a long history of inventiveness necessitated by the harsh climate and the tyranny of distance.

Where are the voices in the Liberal Party of reason and innovation and against neo-Luddite pandering to the forces of backwardness? Why do they allow a few National Party and climate-change-denying fossils blackmail the party to continuing with economically and environmentally destructive policies that only serve a few donors?

It is contemptible verging on the sad that moderate voices in the Liberal Party have not put a stop to this by threatening the same public fuss or even the resignations that are threatened by coal-supporting MPs in both the Coalition and Labor. Intelligent, moderate people with a moral sense in the Liberal Party like Marise Payne and Simon Birmingham should have stood up.

If would be in the best interests of their party if they did so.

These decisions to wastefully throw Government money at what will soon become stranded assets fly more in the face of Liberal Party philosophy than any amount of Keynesian deficit spending on unemployment and social security.

The Liberal Party used to stand against government waste.

And this is government waste on a grand scale. It is money down the toilet for which this and future generations will have to pay.

This contrasts with debt run up to prevent unemployment which pays for itself in the long run by preventing the damage to children caused by unemployed parents and turning the idle into taxpayers. This waste contrasts with debt run up to build infrastructure which creates jobs and greater efficiency in the economy.

Any return to debt-and-deficit obsession by the Coalition after the next election should be met with a just accusation of hypocrisy. There is good debt (investment in people and productive industry) and bad debt (wasting money on old technology).

There are more jobs and economic return in renewables and the transition to electric vehicles than fossil-fired power stations and oil refining.

This week’s failure of Queensland’s Callide coal-fired power station which blacked out 500,000 homes, businesses, hospitals, emergency services etc is just another example of the lack of future for fossil energy. And BTW renewables bailed out the grid.

The longer we cling to old technology without a mandatory expedited transition to renewables and electric vehicles, the more we will pay as the rest of the world imposes carbon tariffs on our exports (not just coal, but across the board) and sells us as complete mugs its remnant petrol and diesel fleet that no-one else will buy.

It is going to happen anyway. The internal combustion engine and fossil electricity generation will go the way of whale-oil lamps, typewriters, film cameras, and incandescent light globes.

There used to be billions of these around the world. Now there are virtually none outside museums.

And on the Labor side, it must stop straddling the fence. That will inevitably lead to the emasculation of its vote. It cannot credibly serve both coal-mining and climate action.

Rather it should realise that voters in the bush who in the past saw their future in coal-mining are more concerned with their own future (which they must deal with) than the future of coal-mining per se (of which there is none).

It must come up with a credible transition plan. It should emphasise that workers’ trade and engineering skills will be needed in the transition to renewables. Further, much of the transition will occur in the places where coal mining is established because the electricity network of poles, wires and transformers were put there as was other infrastructure that followed.

Without this, Labor will continue to see its primary vote erode. Similarly, the Coalition is losing primary vote in the inner cities. 

This is one of the lessons of last week’s NSW by-election. The major parties lost more than 10 per cent of the primary vote since the previous election.

Federally, minor parties took 26 per cent of the primary vote in the House of Representatives in 2019 (up from 14.5 in 2007). In 2019, 70 per cent of House seats were decided on preferences.

If the trend continues (which is inevitable if the major parties do not face up to climate reality), there will come a tipping point when minor parties and independents will win enough seats to make majority government impossible.

In short, the penalties for Luddite behaviour will be as severe in the 21 st century as they were in the 19 th.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 29 May 2021.

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