Former Liberal minister’s new climate role heightens federal energy clash

The new chair of Australia’s peak climate change agency,former NSW Liberal minister Matt Kean,has rejected nuclear power in public remarks that have infuriated the Coalition and heightened the federal clash on climate and energy.

Kean,the former state treasurer and energy minister,said he believed nuclear energy would have “bankrupted” NSW because scientific advice showed it would take too long and cost too much to build the controversial power stations.

Matt Kean (left) and Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen on Monday.

Matt Kean (left) and Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen on Monday.Alex Ellinghausen

The comments triggered attacks from the Coalition over the federal government’s decision to name Kean asthe new chair of the Climate Change Authority,the agency that advises on climate targets,amid a wider argument about whether to embrace nuclear or renewable energy.

A new survey shows voters strongly back the use of government subsidies to help families install solar panels on their homes,with 62 per cent in favour of the financial support,far ahead of other options such as large-scale wind and solar farms.

The findings by Resolve Strategic,conducted exclusively for this masthead,also show that 39 per cent of voters believe governments should subsidise home batteries,a policy option for both Labor and the Coalition ahead of the next election.

But the support for subsidies slumps to only 26 per cent for nuclear energy and just 14 per cent for coal-fired power stations when voters are asked about the use of government funds on each energy source.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told parliament on Monday that wind and solar power were the best choices for the future,while Opposition Leader Peter Dutton stood bythe nuclear plan he released last Wednesday to build seven nuclear power stations at a cost that is yet to be revealed.

Kean added new details to the debate by revealing he had received advice from NSW Chief Scientist Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte five years ago that found nuclear power was the wrong choice and that the state should encourage more renewable energy.

“His advice to me was that,in order to bring nuclear into the system,it would take far too long and would be far too expensive for NSW,” Kean said on Monday,while standing alongside Albanese in Parliament House.

“Now,I didn’t want to bankrupt the state and I didn’t want to put those huge costs onto families.”

Federal Energy Minister Chris Bowen gained cabinet approval on Monday to appoint Kean to the new post,replacing business chief Grant King,after discussions about the job over the past month.

Sky News revealed comments from Kean as state minister in 2021 that lent support to nuclear power.

“Into the future,will nuclear have a role to play? I think so,and I hope so,but right now I can’t bet on technology that isn’t readily available,” he told Sky at the time.

Kean said on Monday that the advice he received in 2019 had been supplemented by findings from the CSIRO and others.

“They very clearly say that the cheapest way to transition our electricity system is to move towards renewables backed up by firming and also storage,” he said. He added that this is what he had done while energy minister.

With the major parties clashing in question time,Dutton had to contend with remarkshe made to news site The Daily Aus in March last year that ruled out large nuclear power stations.

“I don’t support the establishment of big nuclear facilities here at all – I’m opposed to it,” he said.

“But,for the small modular reactors,we can have them essentially replacing brownfield sites now,so you can turn coal off and put the small modular reactors in,and it’s essentially a plug and play.”

The Coalition plan released last week,however,suggests small modular reactors in two locations and large power plants in five others,with the option of multiple reactors at each of the sites.

Federal and state governments are pouring taxpayer funds into energy schemes to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the closure of coal-fired power stations,offering grants and rebates for those who install rooftop solar panels.

The financial aid has also included mammoth spending on renewable projects such as the Snowy Hydro scheme,support for large-scale solar and wind projects and anemergency payment by the NSW governmentthis month to extend the life of the Eraring coal-fired power station.

Resolve Strategic surveyed 1003 eligible voters from Thursday to Sunday,generating results with a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

The survey found voters weresplit on nuclear,with 41 per cent in favour and 37 per cent against,and that a clear majority backed renewables above other energy sources.

In a more detailed question about subsidies,reported here for the first time,voters favoured government support for rooftop solar above all other options.

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David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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