Red dirt and sun; Western Australia has some of the best solar resouces in Australia.
Red dirt and sun; Western Australia has some of the best solar resouces in Australia. Image Credit: RenewReporter

The Western Australia State election is less than a week away. By all indications, it is going to be a tightly fought contest, and there is a legitimate possibility that the state will came away with a result on Saturday that offers no clear winner.

This creates a fraught situation for investment in renewable energy projects for the state, which otherwise has some of Australia’s best wind and solar resources.

In a political environment that has been so focused on a polarised fight over the future of energy policy at both Federal and State issues, you’d be excused for assuming that it would be a major point of contention in Western Australia.

However, late last week, the WA Labor leader Mark McGowan effectively neutralised it as an issue.

WA Labor will not introduce a State-based renewable energy target”, WA Labor shadow minister for Energy Bill Johnston said in a statement issued through Mr McGowan’s office.

After the election, we will sit down with industry and the community to see what is achievable and affordable.”

The statement has hallmarks of the renewable energy policy that the Federal Labor party took to the 2016 election. While the Federal party still adopted a nominal 50 per cent renewable energy target, it did not outline (and still hasn’t) any specific policy mechanisms by which it would be achieved.

Instead, just as the WA Labor party has done, it pledged to consult with industry in developing a new approach and set of policy initiatives once elected.

Polling suggests that the WA Labor party should roll into power, with the most recent polls putting Labor ahead by somewhere between four to eight percentage points on a two-party preferred basis.

Support for stronger renewable energy policies has consistently polled well across Australian voters. What has driven the WA Labor Party, led by Mark McGowan to back down from setting a specific renewable energy target has been an internal push from those in vulnerable, coal dependent, electorates.

Labor member for Collie-Preston, Mick Murray, threatened to resign from the party if a specific renewable energy target was taken to the State election. The Collie-Preston electorate is home to some of the state’s largest coal reserves, as well as its largest coal-fired power station.

The electorate’s economy is under threat from the rise of renewables and the incumbent Labor member understood too well that the party’s position on energy would potentially decide his own political fate.

The WA Greens, who will be seeking to draw renewable energy friendly voters away from Labor, slammed the announcement as a cop-out.

“Promising to sit down with industry and the community after the election is an absolute cop-out by Bill Johnston and WA Labor, and the people of Western Australia will not buy it.” Greens Candidate for East Metro Tim Clifford said.

“Transitioning to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030 is both affordable and achievable, and I challenge WA Labor to come up with a real promise to the people of Western Australian that says they are serious about climate change.”

There is a complicating factor to this, and that is the rise of the One Nation vote. In most cases, polls derive a two-party preferred vote based on preference flows at the most recent election. This works for the most part, but is undermined by substantial changes in the level of support of one or more parties.

It’s understood amongst everyone on the ground in WA that the situation is a lot closer than the polls suggest, and the chance that One Nation could play a spoiler role in the election results is significant. There is discontent amongst Liberal voters about the preference deal the party made with One Nation, but its yet to be seen how this discontent translates in terms of election results.

While polling pegs support for One Nation at around 10 per cent, which is consistent with support that Pauline Hanson’s resurgent party has gained nationally, its sufficiently concentrated in areas to put specific seats at risk.

It likewise places One Nation in a good position to snatch a handful of seats in the State’s upper house, potentially handing it a balance-of-power position with a Labor controlled lower house.

This is likely to have been a major motivator in WA Labor’s decision to shy away from pushing ahead with a state based renewable energy target, as has been both policy and practise of state and territory Labor parties across the country.

It creates a likely scenario after Saturday whereby Western Australia could be the only Labor held State without an ambitious renewable energy target, creating a fraction in an otherwise strong and coordinated campaign from Labor to lead on the issue.

Watch this space.

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