On California dreaming. Not. This is a reality check

24 July 2014 — Rob Stokes has made good the hopes of his many fans. The NSW Environment Minister, known for being a supporter of renewable energy, has a made a pitch for more sustainable NSW, with renewable energy, energy efficiency and environmental outcomes high on the priority for the Baird government.

He wants NSW to be Australia’s answer to California. We need to remember that California went greenest with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor.

Stokes is smart. A PhD in urban planning, with a focus on community participation, helps. The Baird government is smart. It wants to be re-elected so it’s creating policies that resonate with the voters.

It’s not certain the Abbott government understands this. Or does it?

In some ways the Abbott regime is reminiscent of the Whitlam government, which on some analysis got into power and immediately went about reshaping the nation as fast as it could because it knew it would be thrown out at the next opportunity.

We’re still living with the legacy of the Whitlam government – in arts, education and much social policy as well. But the trouble was there was a big cost to making those big changes.

The Abbott government wants to have as big an impact as Whitlam’s, but in the other direction. Again, the cost is massive, and so it is working as fast and furiously as Whitlam, and for the same reason. It’s early days still but the polls so far have not been at all positive for the Coalition. Sure they kicked up in the wake of the MH17 disaster, (disasters are always good for a sitting prime minister) but whether this puts the uptick into long term territory will depends on how Abbott behaves on domestic issues, including his responses to climate issues that are  again of growing concern to voters.

Support waning for conservative governments, bar NSW

While the NSW government is gaining praise, the news isn’t great for some other conservative governments.

Federally, the axing of the carbon tax has not stopped Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s slide in the polls, with the latest and perhaps last Fairfax Nielsen Poll showing Labor well ahead of the Coalition at 54-46 on a two-partied preferred basis.

Abbott’s “blood oath” to repeal the carbon tax hasn’t done any favours for his trustworthiness rating, at a record low of 35 per cent.

The honeymoon period for Abbott has been unseasonably short, much like Australia’s recent winters. His approval rating stands at 18 per cent, and has been in negative territory since May, just eight months after taking the reins.

The result is the worst for a Prime Minister in Australian history, barring Paul Keating of course, who started out in negative territory. Even Julia Gillard remained in positive territory for the first 13 months of her incident-prone tenure as PM, and Kevin Rudd never strayed into the negative.

Bad news for Queensland too

In Queensland things don’t appear to be going much better. Campbell Newman’s government finds itself on the nose, having sustained a massive 18.6 per cent swing against it in the northern Brisbane seat of Stafford by-election – the largest swing in more than 20 years for Queensland.

Mr Newman’s interpretation of the results was that they showed Queenslanders just didn’t get why the government was making unpopular moves like public service cuts and following a privatisation agenda.

“I think the issue is that Queenslanders perhaps didn’t appreciate how much of a mess the state was in, how diabolically bad the finances were,” he told media.

Opposition Leader Annastacia Palaszczuk said the results reflected a growing sentiment, and was symbolic of how people were feeling “right across Brisbane, in Ashgrove, and right across Queensland”.

“People don’t want an arrogant, out-of-touch government. They want a government that listens, that cares about them,” she said.

Labor also won a by-election in Redcliffe, north of Brisbane, in February, with another large swing of 17.2 per cent away from the government.

The latest Newspoll shows Labor now in front at 51-49, and an approval rating for Premier Newman of -24 per cent.

However, election analysts still predict a LNP win, though Newman is in danger.

“The LNP will win the election and Campbell Newman will lose Ashgrove,” election analyst Malcolm Mackerras told AAP, describing Newman as “very abrasive” in the style of Jeff Kennett – “but less successful”.

The Queensland government election is due in less than a year.

Victoria faring poorly

The latest Age/Nielsen poll shows Labor leading the Coalition 54-46 on a two-party-preferred basis, though much better than the last one of 59-41.

It’s not much of a surprise given some dud moves by the Napthine government, including the recent axing of the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target, which a report found was done on the basis of “dodgy data”, and which put energy sector interests ahead of consumers.

Perhaps knowing it’s re-election chances are slim, the Napthine government is now in turbo mode, handing out planning approval to an abundance of residential skyscrapers in a move that could see the CBD with a density higher than that of Hong Kong, and releasing statements saying Labor will destroy construction jobs and raise the cost of housing by opposing CBD towers.

High density doesn’t have to mean high rise

Speaking of density, Peter Newman’s blockbuster story on high density myths continues to draw comments, and one that really struck us was Matthew Hardy’s observation that “high density” does not necessarily mean “high rise”. While the residential behemoths increasingly gracing the Melbourne skyline are drawing comparisons to Hong Kong, there is also the kind of density seen in older European cities. Walkable. Intimate.

One of the features of these types of communities is the mix of generations and embedded sense of belonging to a place, which is an antithesis of an investor-driven paradigm where there is a constant churn of people and property in order to continually reap expected capital gain.

Many of the best sustainability ideas for medium density neighbourhoods such as productive urban gardening, microgrids, local barter networks and recycled water systems rely on people investing their energy and resources with a longer-term view. They also have their roots in a strong sense of community, which again comes back to people having a relationship with a place rather than being focused on the movement of the market and where the next predicted hotspot might lead them.

The Sustaining Our Towns initiative is a good example of this approach to sustainability. The project is being delivered over 13 councils across south-east NSW, and it aims to enable people to build networks for things like car pooling, community gardening, swapping of goods, even sharing of tools and equipment.

Adding these kinds of ideas into the mix in inner urban settings, and continuing to push the envelope in terms of good design and discerning choices of materials, methods and building systems, might just be the recipe for a kind of density people can thrive in.

Productivity Commission on infrastructure

It’s not only the federal government that opposes the idea of the public owning energy assets by calling for the privatisation of all state-owned energy distribution and generation capacity. The Productivity Commission has also made this one of the main points of its infrastructure funding inquiry report.

One of the obvious concerns about the whole idea is that the fossil-fuelled energy industry has shown itself reluctant to act in the public interest, and particularly reluctant to assist in its own demise through a shift to microgrids and distributed local energy systems using renewable power. Understandably.

But it therefore seems a bit risky to hand them the whole box and dice and say “now, play nice fellas”. As we saw play out in the Latrobe Valley, when private coal-fired energy generators feel threatened by talk of reducing emissions they hold the blackout gun to the community’s head and spend up big on lobbyists and scare campaigns.

Professor John Thwaites, chair of ClimateWorks and the Monash Sustainability Institute, told The Fifth Estate that while privately owned coal-fired power generators can campaign more effectively against renewable energy, if the generators are government-owned the coal lobby will instead use more covert tactics of lobbyists as a route to oppose change.

“We’ve also seen the problem with government-owned networks of them potentially gold-plating assets. The privately owned networks in Victoria are more efficient than the state-owned ones,” Thwaites said. “And in Queensland the government-owned generators are one of the strong opponents of renewable energy.”

Thwaites said it needs to be made absolutely clear that the world is going to shift to lower emission electricity, or we are going to suffer catastrophic climate change.

“It must be made absolutely clear to any purchaser of these assets that the future environment will be a very different one, and they cannot be allowed to hold a gun to the head of government. Privately-owned generators should not be allowed to campaign against renewable energy.”