Sorry, Matt Canavan, no one believes coal magic means everyone wins | Katharine Murphy | Australia news

Matt Canavan has an economics degree, graduating from the University of Queensland with first class honours. The Nationals senator and federal minister for resources worked at the Productivity Commission before he entered politics, first as a staffer for his colleague and friend Barnaby Joyce, before being elected to the Senate himself.

The economic pointy head backstory makes Canavan an unconventional National, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed among his party room colleagues. It also makes some of his public commentary this week just that bit harder to get your head around.

In a busy week, where the government prosecuted but lost an attempt to steer its big business tax cut through the Senate, where Tony Abbott was so desperate for a “look at me” moment he launched Pauline Hanson’s new book, where the nation roiled inconsolably about the behaviour of our cricketersCanavan fronted the National Press Club to try and generate a couple of headlines of his own.

Canavan, like every other resources minister I’ve seen before him, is an unabashed champion of the mining sector. Boosterism comes with the territory, and the current occupant of the portfolio doesn’t disappoint.

Given every major business sector in the country is pursuing a “please like me” soft advertising campaign of some type – the Business Council of Australia launched one this week, BHP urges us on high rotation to Think Big, the banks have ads specifically to tell customers they aren’t that awful – it was unsurprising to hear Canavan flagging (among other things) efforts to “bolster the community support for the resources sector” including through an “ongoing campaign” to inform people of its benefits.

All just as you’d expect, right down to Stop Adani protesters bursting into the room to puncture his remarks. Where things took an unexpected turn was in the questions, when Canavan raised a balled fist of protest against the future.

Asked whether as federal resources minister (as well as a democratically elected parliamentarian in a representative democracy) he felt an obligation to help Australian communities face up to the inevitability of a carbon-constrained future – Canavan suggested the world needed to stay as it is.

It was “objectionable” he said, to talk about people losing their livelihoods. He said concepts like “just transitions” were a con. “I don’t like the term transition, let’s be frank. If you want to shut down the coal industry and cost people jobs, say it. Have the guts to say it.”

Canavan advised the questioner (which, full disclosure, happened to be me) to take a trip to northern Tasmania to see what a transition really looked like. “Real poverty,” he noted. “House prices halve, people get locked in to an environment they can’t get out of and their lives are destroyed.

“Utter heartbreak.”

You might need to remind yourself at this point of the recount that this is a former Productivity Commission economist talking. If Productivity Commission economists are a foreign species to you, think about people mildly obsessed with transformation, structural adjustment, economic efficiency – that sort of thing.

They are the folks who have been saying for decades in the politest possible way: suck it up soldier, your economy needs you to understand that things change, and the way to get through these adjustments is to pursue evidence-based policy.

Couple of things.

Canavan’s empathy for the coal and power workers – while doubtless sincere at a personal level – is a bit hard to square with his service for a government that shuttered the Australian car industry with barely a backward glance.

I really don’t remember much outward concern for falling house prices, or destroyed lives or “utter heartbreak” in Adelaide. Perhaps some displaced workers are more equal than others.

Then there’s the inconvenient fact that it is his own government’s policy driving the transformation he says shouldn’t happen.

Canavan was part of a government that signed the Paris climate agreement – a set of commitments that make decarbonisation not optional, or hypothetical, but inevitable. Nobody held a gun to the government’s head and made it sign an international agreement to reduce emissions. Abbott might have grumbled at the time, and he engages in active revisionism now, but the fact is he signed Australia up, voluntarily.

If Canavan thinks there should be no adjustment for coal communities, then he’s actually arguing that Australia should quit the Paris agreement – except of course he doesn’t argue that, because that would be problematic for Liberals trying to hold urban seats.

The resources minister attempts to tip-toe through the obvious contradictions by arguing that high-efficiency coal will help reduce reduce emissions and help Australia meet its Paris target. In this happy story, we can reduce our emissions and boost the coal industry too.

But is this happy story true?

While it is self-evidently correct that “clean” coal plants are better in terms of emissions than ageing dirty ones, the minister omits several relevant points. “Clean coal will help us meet Paris” ignores the fact the technology is incredibly expensive; that taxpayers would bear significant risks because clean coal plants are not financeable in Australia unless the government agrees to indemnify projects against the future risk of a carbon price being introduced, and against the cost of delays prompted by likely community protest action. And the electricity grid in Australia is moving inexorably in the opposite direction – towards decentralisation.

There’s one more point that we can make about who should bear the transition. If Canavan thinks coal communities shouldn’t be made to adjust, but it’s OK for Australia to remain in the Paris deal, then he should be arguing in public and around the cabinet table for other sectors of the economy to do their fair share of heavy lifting.

The government is trying to pass off the as-yet-unfinished national energy guarantee as a settled climate and energy policy, which it most decidedly isn’t. Assuming they can land it, this is not mission accomplished. The national energy guarantee is a policy for only one sector of the economy – electricity – and a sector of the economy where emissions are already falling.

Thus far, the government has produced no plans for other sectors of the economy – say transport, or agriculture, where emissions are currently rising – presumably because the Coalition can’t ever have a rational conversation about emissions reduction without someone having a brain explosion.

So what are the facts?

If Australia remains in the Paris agreement, and we honour the undertakings we have made (and the government keeps saying we will do both those things), then a transition is coming.

The transition can’t be avoided. It is already under way.

Ultimately, the question I asked Canavan wasn’t about whether he was intrinsically opposed to the future, but about who takes responsibility for it.

This government, and future Australian governments, will determine whether the transition associated with decarbonisation is fair and orderly and structured, or whether it is chaotic and ugly and deeply unfair to the regional communities the resources minister says he cares about.

Empathy is fine from politicians, welcome in fact, but truth is better, because these communities aren’t stupid, and they won’t be bought off by facile storytelling that suggests coal magic means everyone wins, and no one has to pick up the tab.

They want to know that someone in elected office is thinking about a new pipeline of blue-collar jobs.

These communities need a plan, and they need political representation with the foresight to give them one, and to do that, our elected representatives have to be very clear about why they are in public life, and who it is they actually represent.