Originally published in The Canberra Times on November 2, 2019

by Ebony Bennett
[Originally published in the Canberra Times, 02 November 2019]

In his government’s latest free-speech crackdown, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has vowed to outlaw civil society groups campaigning against Australian businesses that work with companies with dubious environmental, human rights or ethical records.

Morrison’s plan would criminalise, for example, the thousands of young people who joined the Australian Youth Climate Coalition’s call for the Commonwealth Bank not to finance Adani’s coal mine. A generation of Dollarmite kids, who would quite like to protect the remaining half of the Great Barrier Reef from mass bleaching, used stickers, posters and ATM signs to ask the Commonwealth Bank not to lend to Adani’s coal mine. This secondary boycott (targeting one entity through its relationship to another) worked.

The bank ruled out lending to Adani, as did other banks – in part because AYCC’s Dollarmite protests were a real risk to their brand (this was before the banking royal commission tanked it) but also because Adani’s coal mine is a dud project that has failed to secure finance from virtually any bank or investor, except for billionaire Gautam Adani himself.

Scott Morrison says this style of campaigning “is a potentially more insidious threat to the Queensland economy and jobs and living standards than a street protest”.

Is Australia a democracy or not? The fact the Prime Minster of Australia considers street protests an “insidious threat” to anything is shocking in itself. The risk to free speech from a clampdown on secondary boycotts was clearly articulated by the then-director of policy at the Institute of Public Affairs, Simon Breheny, who said: “Freedom of speech is vitally important for a properly functioning economy. Liberal democracies should never be in the game of clamping down on an individual’s freedom to express their values in the choices they make through the market. Advocating for or against a particular company’s practices is an important part of that equation.”

That was in 2014, when former prime minister Tony Abbott proposed a ban on secondary boycotts. Australia’s competition laws already restrict secondary boycotts – but that is mostly targeted at unions, with exemptions for campaigns run by environmental and consumer groups.

But Scott Morrison wants to outlaw anyone speaking up about companies who provide services to other companies “they don’t like”.

Anyone who has joined a push to tweet Qantas and ask them to play ABC in the Qantas lounge instead of the loonies on Sky After Dark: you’re an outlaw.

Anyone who has posted a comment on a company’s Facebook page, asking them to withdraw their advertising from Alan Jones’ radio show after he encouraged Scott Morrison to “shove a sock” down New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s throat? Scott Morrison is targeting you.

Scott Morrison doesn’t like it when quiet Australians break their silence and take aim at dodgy companies or those who choose to provide services to them – especially when they’re in his favoured industries, like the coal industry. While the Coalition government rolls out the red carpet for the coal industry, it can’t pull up the drawbridge fast enough when it comes to renewables.

If the Minerals Council says jump, the federal government (and NSW and Queensland governments) say “how high?” Whereas the Coalition government has done its level best to kill off the renewables industry. Thankfully, in the long term they have been about as effective at killing off renewables as they have been at cutting emissions: hopeless.

The Morrison government regularly boasts about Australia’s record on renewables, but the fact is it is single-handedly destroying the holy trinity of renewable energy policy: the Renewable Energy Target (RET), the Australian Renewable Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC).

Collectively, the RET, ARENA and the CEFC are responsible for unleashing $23.4 billion worth of investment in renewable energy over a five-year period (2013-18). But there’s nothing the Coalition loves more than throwing sand in the gears of the success of the renewables industry.

Looking ahead, the RET has been exhausted, ARENA is running out of money and the last bastion of renewable energy investment, the CEFC, is now being bastardised to fund fossil-fuel projects.

The RET runs to 2020 and calls for 33,000 gigawatt hours (about 23 per cent) of the electricity grid to be renewable electricity. It used to be higher, at 41,000 gigawatt hours, but it was watered down after Tony Abbott threatened to kill it off. Instead of building on the RET’s success, the government is going to kill it.

As a proud Canberran, I love the fact that the ACT is now 100 per cent powered by renewable electricity. According to Australia Institute research, the ACT is the first jurisdiction outside Europe to achieve that transition. Yet the Prime Minister seems committed to containing the ACT’s renewable example to within the Canberra Bubble, and to do all he can to pop the national renewable revolution.

ARENA was set up during the minority government under Julia Gillard to fund the early research and development of renewables. ARENA was given $2.5 billion and has invested in a number of impressive projects, from big batteries to pumped hydro to hydrogen. Without further government support, ARENA is unlikely to be able to fund any new projects from around August 2020, and will cease to exist by mid-2022.

The CEFC was set up with $10 billion to invest (and make a return) on clean technology opportunities. Every dollar of CEFC finance was matched by an additional $1.80 from the private sector in 2018. It has been a huge success, and it’s making money for taxpayers. Cue the government trying to wreck it.

This week Energy Minister Angus Taylor announced the injection of an additional $1 billion into the CEFC. But that $1 billion is ring-fenced for the Minister’s cherry-picked energy projects – including five new gas-fired power stations – under the most shady, backward initiative put forward by the government, the Underwriting New Generation Investment (UNGI) program. So, the Morrison government is only cashing up the “Clean Energy” Finance Corporation on the basis that it’s a fig leaf to cover financing more fossil-fuel power generation.

The UNGI – apart from having a terrible name – has no formal guidelines or criteria, only a focus on so-called “firm” energy, to the exclusion of wind and solar energy. This is despite the CSIRO confirming that wind and solar electricity are the cheapest forms of new power generation in this country. So much for trying to keep power prices down.

The lack of concern with cost might explain why the federal government is forcing the country to have another “debate” on introducing nuclear power, the most expensive form of electricity across most markets.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has gone to great pains to talk up renewables, but the truth is that the PM is quite happy to wreck the renewables revolution. He labels those who protest companies wrecking our environment as “selfish and indulgent”, but the truth is that under Scott Morrison, free speech is reserved only for people with paid jobs, and protests are only to be tolerated at convenient times, in convenient places.

If you don’t like it, shut up – or Scott Morrison will make you shut up.

How good is Australia?

Ebony Bennett is deputy director at independent think tank the Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett.

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