Tony Abbott has changed his mind and now says Australia should stay in the Paris climate agreement.
Abbott, who signed up to Paris when he was prime minister but then declared that Australia should pull out during the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull, confirmed he had changed his mind again during a debate on Friday morning with the independent challenger Zali Steggall and other federal election candidates in his seat of Warringah.
Asked by moderator David Speers if his change of heart was due to the ousting of Turnbull as prime minister, Abbott said it partly was.
“I certainly thought that the only way to break the emissions obsession was to pull out of Paris,” he said. “I think that the government has lost its emissions obsession now that Angus Taylor is the energy minister … Circumstances have changed. We have a new prime minister and a new energy minister.”
“So when Malcolm Turnbull was prime minister we should have pulled out?” Speers asked.
Abbott replied: “We had an emissions obsession that needed to be broken and changed. I am now confident that we can meet our Paris targets without significant damage to our economy.”
Abbott backed the creation of new coal-fired plants, even saying that the Snowy Hydro 2.0 project, which is owned by the government, should now look into investing in new coal projects.
“We do need more baseload power in the system,” he said. “Why not coal-fired power? Coal fire remains the cheapest form of baseload power.”
But it isn’t. Today the cheapest form of new dispatchable or base load energy is renewables plus storage. We are now able to have lower emissions and lower prices but we need to plan it using engineering & economics rather than ideology and innumerate idiocy— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) March 7, 2019
“Because of political risk it’s very difficult for most investors [to invest in coal], but there is no reason why Snowy, as a government entity, couldn’t take a much longer view. Snowy would fund hydro, that stacks up. If we take the long view, then absolutely coal stacks up too.”
Steggall, an independent who promised to run a climate-focused campaign, rejected this, and said the claim that coal was the cheapest was incorrect.
“Coal is not economical. It still plays a part in our energy mix, and there needs to be a gradual retirement of coal…The reality is that the cheapest form of power is renewable.”
“Not 24/7,” Abbott replied. “When the wind blows, but otherwise not.”
Steggall: “That’s the most ludicrous argument… There is no question of intermittency. ”
.@TonyAbbottMHR: I think we do need more baseload power in the system and why not coal-fired power? It remains the cheapest form of reliable baseload power. I'm all in favour of renewables, provided they're economic.— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) March 7, 2019
MORE: https://t.co/ykweMevBOK #SkyLiveNow pic.twitter.com/X2O0lWUOiS
Turnbull also tweeted his thoughts in real-time during the debate, challenging Abbott.
“Today the cheapest form of new dispatchable or base load energy is renewables plus storage,” he wrote.
“Snowy Hydro 2.0…delivers the massive storage which does make renewables reliable and this enable our progress to lower emissions and lower energy prices.”
Steggall told the audience “it will be a climate election” and said she wanted a 60% reduction of emissions by 2030, compared to 2005 levels – higher than both Labor and the Coalition.
“My platform is that the new generation wants a new era and movement on climate change,” she said. “It will be a climate election. People want movement.”
Abbott took 51.6% of the primary vote at the last federal election, but faces a strong challenge from Steggall, who has pitched her campaign as a high-profile local with a heavy emphasis on the environment.
Steggall also took aim at Labor’s proposed franking credit policy, which would end the cash refunds for dividend imputation credits given to retirees and those with self-managed superannuation funds who earn below the tax threshold.
“I think it is an absolutely appalling proposal by Labor, I think it is extremely divisive,” she said.
“You are now saying to [retirees with excess credits] ‘Thanks for paying all your taxes for all those years and by the way, we are now going to stick you in your retirement.’”
However in a fiery debate with a lot of interruptions, neither Abbott nor Steggall offered a response when Speers asked the panel if they knew the current generation cost of a new coal-fired plant.
Only the Greens candidate, Kristyn Glanville, and the Labor candidate, Dean Harris, offered the figure.
Steggall also offered support to the idea that Australia should slow its immigration intake, as Abbott called for a “substantial reduction”.
“In my discussions with millennials and younger Australians,” Steggall said, “there is a concern that immigration levels are too high in relation to the level of infrastructure … I wouldn’t go as far as Tony Abbott, but [immigration] needs to be done in an orderly and measured way.”
Another independent candidate, Indigenous broadcaster Susan Moylan-Coombs, said Australia should be open to immigration by people who would be forced from their homes due to rising sea levels in the Pacific and Torres Strait.
The debate also covered local issues such as the proposed Beaches Link tunnel and kicked off a fierce debate over whether residents would be able to take their surfboards to the beach.
Harris said he opposed the project because it “puts more cars on the road” and would worsen congestion.
“It won’t help parents get their kids to school in the morning. It won’t help people get to the beach on the weekend,” he said.
Abbott replied: “How do you take your surfboard on the bus?”
“Well how do you take it through the tunnel?” said Harris.
“Of course you can,” Abbott said.
Steggall said she supported the tunnel, but wanted it paired with clean public transport.
“From the millennial generation and down, they are not interested in car transport. They want electric vehicles on the market. They want clean public transport. The reality is that there needs to be a tunnel that does create that access.
“You would be surprised,” Steggall said. “Kids take surfboards on their bikes.”
“Not longboards,” Abbott said.