Turnbull transforms tech right off his agenda

But he's keen on a technology-agnostic NBN energy policy with lots of coal in it


Listen closely and you'll hear the tears of hipster app creators, angel investors and "Silicon Beach" real-estate speculators weeping that Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, once such folks' champions, appears now to be ignoring them.

In a speech to the National Press Club yesterday - traditionally regarded as a platform from which to detail the government's agenda for the year - the PM couldn't even bring himself to invoke his hallmark "agility".

Apart from remarks about clean coal technology, the only moments where tech got a look-in was to justify an as-yet-unannounced review into education funding, and in justifying trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the government still hopes US President Donald Trump won't abandon.

Regarding the link between technology and education, he said: “Our Innovation and Science Agenda ensures we have more kids studying science and technology, and more research and investment in the technologies of the future.”

On that score, Turmbull said (transcript here): “Political opportunists want us to turn inward, and revert to higher barriers to trade and investment. But they are doing nothing more than playing on the fears and hardships of those in the community who feel they have not shared in the benefits of globalisation and technological change.”

The tech sector, perennial supplicant to Australian governments, won't see much nourishment in that.

Large-scale energy storage outfits might be soothed that the PM's managed to pluck AU$20 million from somewhere to spend on storage trials (they will, however, have to share it with pumped hydro storage).

And then there's clean coal – carbon capture and storage - about which Turnbull says:

“We've invested $590 million since 2009 in clean coal technology research and demonstration and yet we do not have one modern high-efficiency low-emissions coal-fired power station, let alone one with carbon capture and storage.”

Instead of concluding that half a billion for zero return means a bad investment, Turnbull promised …

... Actually, looking at the transcript of the speech again, it's clear that he promised nothing. There's no suggestion whatever that the money tap will be opened to help build carbon-capture power plants.

Instead, there's an echo of rhetoric that's eerily familiar to those who remember Turnbull's "sooner, cheaper and more affordable" National Broadband Network which (as his signature achievement – quit laughing, you down the back) was also absent from the speech).

“Australia should be able to achieve the policy trifecta of energy that is affordable, reliable and secure and that meets our substantial global emissions reduction commitments as agreed in the Paris Climate Change Treaty last year” (emphasis added).

To clear up the question of whether he can count, since there are four items in that trifecta, he added that “Security, affordability and emissions reduction - that's what we need to achieve.”

However, it's clear that the PM – or whoever is advising him – hasn't read or didn't understand the Australian Energy Market Operator's reports into South Australia's storm-driven blackouts last year, because it's clear that he believes only fossil fuel plants can provide “synchronous” power (that is, can provide frequency services that phase-lock the grid).

“Storage has a very big role to play, that's true. But we will need more synchronous baseload power and as the world’s largest coal exporter, we have a vested interest in showing that we can provide both lower emissions and reliable base load power with state-of-the-art clean coal-fired technology.”

And in yet another echo of NBN policy, after praising his favoured technology, the PM explained that: “The next incarnation of our national energy policy should be technology agnostic. It’s security and cost that matters most, not how you deliver it.”

There was, we suppose, one snippet of tech/political news of interest in Australia yesterday, but it wasn't in the PM's speech. It was the discovery that a “software” company called Parakeelia donated more than half as much to the Liberal Party last year as the PM himself.

The $900,000 it managed to find suggests its licence sales – which are paid for by the Liberal Party as part of the normal electoral allowances every member of parliament receives – are doing so well that an IPO must surely be in the works. ®

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