Dutton’s nuclear non-policy sets a new low for political debate

Columnist

Two weeks ago,Peter Dutton revealed he would oppose Labor’s 2030 climate target. In the same interview,he also said people were reconsidering who he was,watching him “in a different role” dealing “with the breadth of issues starting with the Voice and other economic and security issues”.

This sounds bland. In fact,it’s crucial. Dutton learns from his political mistakes. A few weeks back,he was in dangerof becoming known merely as “Migration Man”. Last week’s nuclear announcement was the next step,after his rejection of the climate targets,in a course-correction:making sure voters know something else about him.

Illustration:Jim Pavlidis

Illustration:Jim Pavlidis

Dutton should be thrilled with how recent days have gone. “Bold” and “visionary” were how he described his own plan. “Bold” and “brave” were the words adopted in the press,even in critical pieces. This was curious,given the policy seems born of cowardice,namely the refusal to confront divisions on climate in the Coalition. Dutton will be doubly pleased,because “bold” and “brave” are the opposite of the word with which he has chosen to paint the prime minister:“weak”.

There are several facts that made last week remarkable.

The first is that Dutton could generate the amount of press he did with so little. We did learn some new things. We learnt how many nuclear plants the Coalition is proposing,where they would be,when Dutton said they would start,and that the Commonwealth would own them.

All this is newsworthy. But immediately you run into the fact that Dutton is,in part,promising to implement technology that is still being developed,in the form of small modular reactors. Right after that,you run into the fact that most experts will tell you the timeline is implausible. And right after that,you run into the long lists of what Dutton did not tell us,including:the cost,the price of electricity,how much energy we’d get,what we’d use in the meantime,and when emissions will fall.

Does this count as “policy”? Not by conventional standards. We do not know how it will work. We can’t test it because we know so little. Nor by Dutton’s own standards. He told us his “major announcement” was the product of “an enormous amount of work”. This should surely prompt the question:on what? Dutton tweeted a picture of “the concept design” of a small modular reactor that,as was soon discovered,had beentaken from the Rolls-Royce website. This was indicative of the depth of Dutton’s “policy”.

Some believe the press should have ignored this announcement – I don’t agree. I also think the media did a good job of listing problems and unknowns. But there is a question that comes before this,important and difficult:if a political party announces something it says is big,how should it be treated?

Surely the paucity of detail and Dutton’s treatment of the announcement as significant should have been judged against each other,with the conclusion being this was a damp squib,an embarrassing attempt to dress up something trivial. Especially when you consider the fact this announcement had been repeatedly delayed.

Or is this the new standard for political debate in this country?

Arguably the most significant fact about recent weeks is the way that Dutton is lowering the bar for debate,one way at a time. First,with his determined political exploitation of migration. Second,by deploying policies that are not quite policies.

This second element is,importantly,consistent across both migration and nuclear. This is twice in just over a month that Dutton has made large announcements without being able to explain how his approach will achieve what he promises. In each case,senior Coalition frontbenchers have seemed to contradict each other. Significant elements of the “policies” have wobbled in the days that follow. Large questions remain unaddressed.

The largest of those questions leaves a chasm at the heart of Dutton’s twin announcements on targets and nuclear,which became more central as the week went on:what happens to renewables in the next 10 years,especially if investors flee and projects are cancelled? As I wrotelast week,the climate debate is shifting away from moral abstractions and towards practical questions,as coal-fired stations shut.

Part of the reason Dutton’s plan can appear “bold” is in comparison with Labor’s timidity. Labor left an opening and Dutton walked through. But the danger for Dutton is that,with these practical questions looming large,the holes in his announcements become,in voters’ minds,the most notable fact about them,the greatest clue to his likely character as prime minister. At the same time,they could play into Anthony Albanese’s self-presentation as a low-key prime minister working steadily through problems. This is the political flipside to Dutton’s “boldness” gambit.

Before the announcement,Labor had been looking for a way to shift from its mid-term attack on Dutton – that he has no plan – to the position all governments eventually take on their opponents:that they are a risk. It may now have material,but whether it has the political skills to make the case remains unknown. We will get some hints this parliamentary fortnight – though it is worth remembering that John Hewson only had his disastrous birthday cake moment more than a year after his Fightback! policy had first been announced,just 10 days before the election.

The question is often raised:is this country still capable of serious policy debate? There are tests for the major groups involved. If Peter Dutton wants a “mature conversation” about nuclear,as hesaid on Saturday,then he must provide some facts. If Labor wants to shift the debate back towards policy,then it must show persistence in challenging Dutton on those grounds,and avoid fudges of its own,such as carbon capture and storage.

And if the media,so fond of deploring soundbite politics,wants something substantial to cover,then it needs to learn that objectivity does not mean treating soundbites as equivalent to substance just because one side claims that to be the case.

Sean Kelly is a regular columnist and a former adviser to Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

Sean Kelly is author of The Game:A Portrait of Scott Morrison,a regular columnist and a former adviser to Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

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