Coalition’s EV power plays amp up ahead of crucial vote

The Nationals have issued a directive to their Liberal colleagues ahead of next weekend’s must-win Upper Hunter byelection. Stick to bread and butter issues. And don’t mention electric vehicles.

As the Nationals try to cling on to a marginal electorate where coal is king, there’s frustration with their Coalition partners for engaging in “city-centric” debates. It began with former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s calls for a moratorium on new coal mines; now senior Liberal ministers have sharpened their focus to changes in clean transport technology.

Electric vehicles are a litmus test for NSW’s green credentials in its push to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. NSW is lagging well behind much of the world in embracing electric cars but, belatedly, the conversation on Macquarie Street is gathering speed.

Senior NSW Liberal ministers have been eager in recent weeks to outline their positions on how the state deals with the inevitable transition to electric vehicles and the best way to sustainably draw revenue from the new technology.

Treasurer Dominic Perrottet kicked off the debate last month. With the state’s finances his priority, Perrottet revealed he would take a long-term distance-based tax plan for electric vehicles to next month’s budget. He has flirted with this idea in the past but developed cold feet.

In the near future, the safety net of the federal government’s fuel excise, used to pay for road and infrastructure projects, will disappear and the states will need a replacement revenue stream.

‘More electric cars would boost demand for electricity which would help keep our struggle in coal-fired power stations running a bit longer.’

Richard Denniss, The Australia Institute chief economist

Perrottet acknowledges that the government has to encourage people to buy electrical vehicles but ultimately he needs drivers of those cars to pay for the upkeep of our roads.

In the short-term, Perrottet’s approach is likely to involve incentives and investment in electric vehicle infrastructure, such as charging stations before a levy. This would be different to Victoria, which dived in headfirst with a tax on electric vehicles at 2.5 cents per kilometre.

Not to be outdone, Transport Minister Andrew Constance – once known as more brown than green before his environmental awakening after the bushfires – quickly weighed in. He wants to avoid a conversation about tax.

Rather, Constance says NSW should be bullish in enticements and any distance-based levy should be years away. He suggests scrapping stamp duty on electric vehicle purchases, subsidising commuter car parks and providing access to dedicated transit lanes.

Anything less, Constance says, could leave NSW the “laughing stock of the world”.

A distance-based tax is inevitable. Where Perrottet and Constance differ is when to introduce it: the pair agree that sweeteners must come before tax but timing and the scale of incentives is still up for debate.

Meanwhile, Planning Minister Rob Stokes has a far more simple solution. Stop the obsession with cars, regardless of how they are fuelled. “Although [electric vehicles] are powered by more efficient and sustainable power sources, they are still cars. Painting them green does not change that reality,” Stokes told Parliament this week.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian praised her ministers for speaking out, insisting “this is the time to have these conversations”.

Richard Denniss, the chief economist at the left-leaning think tank The Australia Institute, is watching the Upper Hunter byelection closely. Much of his research is around the coal industry. He says if Upper Hunter voters are really as wedded to coal as the major parties claim, electric cars should be a popular topic there.

“More electric cars on the road would boost demand and the price for electricity which would help keep our struggle in coal-fired power stations running a bit longer,” Denniss says, questioning why the Nationals would be keen to shy away from discussing electric cars.

The Nationals argue you could not drive a Tesla from Scone to Sydney before running out of “juice”, insisting that this proves their point that electric cars are a city-centric issue and won’t shift votes in Upper Hunter.

But the Coalition needs to look beyond short-term political battles if it is to be taken seriously in its commitment to reducing emissions. Tangible outcomes, such as convincing drivers to turn to cleaner technology, must be the first step.

Extracted from The Sydney Morning Herald

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