The Coalition’s nuclear fantasy serves short-term political objectives – and its fossil fuel backers Peter Lewis

July 2, 2024

Image by Markus Distelrath from Pixabay

Dutton’s policy latches on to genuine concerns about power prices and disruption evident in the latest Guardian Essential report, but what are its real motivations?

In 1959 the US government hatched a covert scheme to replace every single bird with a replicant surveillance drone to spy on its own citizens. This is only the second silliest theory flying around the internet right now.

Peter Dutton’s make-believe nuclear plan bears some of the hallmarks of Peter McIndoe’s actual piss-take, “Birds Aren’t Real”, which became so real he wound up doing interviews with Fox News and running large-scale community rallies where only some of the participants were chanting his nonsense slogan ironically.

There’s not too great a distance from “bird truthers” to the Coalition’s latest permutation of fossil-fuelled climate skepticism.

In a world where information is driven by platform algorithms designed to maximise attention and reinforce existing prejudices, any theory can find a home; the crazier and louder the claims, the more likely they are to take off.

This is the truth at the heart of the Coalition’s latest climate fantasy: it gives people concerned about the speed and impact of the energy transition an alternative reality where this change doesn’t have to happen.

As this week’s Guardian Essential Report shows, support for renewable energy is contested. Lining up renewables, nuclear and fossil fuels, we found a lack of consensus on price, environmental impact and economic consequence.

While renewables are seen as the best energy source for the environment and most desirable overall, fossil fuels are seen as cheaper and better for jobs. It is here that the Coalition’s nuclear fantasy plays a critical bridging role.

The rollout of the renewable energy grid is a genuinely disruptive development; coal communities genuinely fear for their long-term economic future; consumers genuinely feel power prices rising as the rollout of renewables gathers momentum.

Coalition energy spokesperson Ted O’Brien is tasked with convincing those who have genuine concerns that if they just embrace nuclear, they can stop all these things they don’t like and still hit net zero by 2050.

Just like the bird conspiracy, this nuclear policy isn’t real: it has no scope, no production estimate, no costings, no timeline. But it’s a device that serves a flock of short-term political objectives.

It creates a reason to delay decommissioning coal and gas because, like magic, nuclear will provide a short cut. That’s good for the LNP’s fossil fuel backers and communities that rely on the production of these energy sources.

It offers hope to coal communities that they can become home to a new heavy industry. While critics of nuclear can make fun of the three-headed fish near the Springfield nuclear power plant, the truth is Homer Simpson enjoyed the sort of secure job these communities fear will soon disappear.

And it sends a message to every regional community that they might not need to host the new renewable energy grid that is being rolled out. Because if you have a choice between looking out across a valley or looking out across power lines, who wouldn’t take the valley?

The problem for the Albanese government is that while each of these justifications is patently false, attacking them head-on risks a rerun of the voice referendum dynamic where “two sides” reporting creates a false equivalence that ends up defining the contest as a coin toss.

Exacerbating this challenge is the fact that fewer people trust the main proponents of the energy transition – the government and energy companies. Instead, trust is anchored at the level of the local.

The only people we really trust are those who we know personally – our friends and family and members of our community. Which raises the question, who do the people we trust get their information from? Perversely, the answer can only be “us”.

As McIndoe riffs in a hilarious piece of performance media: “Just because it’s a theory doesn’t mean its fake. It’s on the media, you can find it … Truth is subjective … There’s different proof out there for different things and if you do your research, you just might find it.”

Given this environment, the choice for Labor is whether to get dragged into a nuclear showdown where alternate facts will be wished into existence or simply dismiss the whole charade as the piece of political theatre it is.

A final question in this week’s report suggests the more effective way of confronting the nuclear “debate” is what disinformation experts call “pre-bunking” by calling out the opposition’s real motivations.

These findings show that half the electorate – and nearly two-thirds of young people – will reject the idea that this is a legitimate debate at all. Taking these people out of the equation before embarking on any merit analysis drastically reduces the number of votes in play.

Rather than trading economic models or platforming nuclear safety fears, the best approach might actually be the most honest one: to drag nuclear back into the political swamp from which it has risen.

First, expose the interests that will benefit from Dutton’s nuclear fantasy. Put the spotlight on the fossil fuel and nuclear players, who runs them, where they converge, who they pay to keep their dream alive and how much they stand to make by delaying the energy transition for a couple more decades.

Second, take away the oxygen for nuclear by doing the hard work required to build social licence for renewables, responding to legitimate concerns by giving communities a greater say in the way development occurs and how both costs and benefits are distributed.

Finally, turn the opposition to renewables back on to the LNP. While the political opportunism of the Dutton nuclear play is obvious, there are also risks that this decision comes to define not just him as a leader, but his entire political apparatus.

In a world where younger generations just want to get on with the job of addressing climate change, a major political party is walking away from this challenge in the interests of its corporate masters.

That’s the real conspiracy. And it’s not just a theory.


Originally published in the Guardian Australia, 2 July 2024