Government MPs ridicule claims of ‘looming backbench revolt’ over electric cars

A Liberal MP purportedly leading the charge against increased taxpayer support for electric cars says there is no looming backbench revolt, as other Liberals dismissed divisions over the issue as “nonsense”.

Craig Kelly, the chair of the Coalition’s energy and environment committee, played down ructions despite having warned that electric vehicles have a bigger carbon footprint than conventional cars – a view that has since been rubbished by the expert who created the website upon which the assertion was based.

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This is the future: Frydenberg

The government will continue to support the electric car industry according to the energy minister, despite opposition from colleagues.

Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg this month kickstarted debate on electric vehicles in an interview and opinion piece for Fairfax Media, saying the right preparation, planning and policies would allow Australian consumers to benefit from the transport “revolution”.

Electric vehicle advocates say financial incentives should form part of government assistance to the industry, however Mr Frydenberg has not committed to this or any other measure.

On Monday he told Sky News that “we are not proposing new subsidies”.

Mr Kelly told The Australian last week that electric vehicles relied on coal-fired electricity to run and created more carbon dioxide pollution than petrol vehicles.

He further warned against any subsidies to make electric cars price competitive, arguing “you’ll have the rich person in Balmain buying a Tesla, subsidised by the bloke in Penrith who’s driving a Corolla”.

​The Sydney-based MP was reportedly backed by Nationals Andrew Broad and John Williams, and would raise the issue of government assistance in the party room when Parliament resumes.

However Mr Kelly on Monday rejected suggestions of an internal brawl.

“It’s not so much [about] raising it in the party room. Transport policy as far as carbon emissions reduction will be an ongoing debate throughout this year,” he told Fairfax Media.

Mr Kelly said he opposed subsidies for electric vehicles, but “absolutely” supported other government efforts such as the removal of red tape, support for research and better co-ordination between governments.

“I’ve got no beef against electric cars … You want a level playing field towards the technologies then let them go hell-for-leather competing against each other,” he said.

Senator Williams said he would not back subsidies but “I’d love to see a big electric car industry in Australia”.

Mr Broad denied a groundswell of Coalition angst over support for electric vehicles, saying “I don’t know whether the party room has a view”.

He did not believe the government should provide financial incentives for electric vehicles because “I don’t believe governments should pick winners when it comes to technology”.

Mr Kelly’s view that electric vehicles produce more emissions than conventional cars was largely based on the government’s online Green Vehicle Guide, which allows comparisons between models.

However former government official Tristan Edis, who led the development of the guide in 2003, said the website used 2015 data that did not reflect the current level of renewables in the electricity mix, and so inflated the emissions produced by electric cars.

Mr Edis said the guide should use updated emissions data or government projections that would show electric vehicles such as the Tesla S or Nissan Leaf were less emissions intensive than a Toyota Corolla, and that the discrepancy widened over time.

“[Mr] Kelly is misunderstanding the nature of the tool and … is coming to the wrong conclusion as a consequence,” Mr Edis said.

Mr Kelly said other factors, such as emissions from manufacturing, also increased the carbon footprint of electric cars. The Electric Vehicle Council says carbon savings accumulated by driving electric cars offset manufacturing emissions in around three years.

Several Turnbull government backbenchers had reacted strongly to the suggestion of divisions within the party room, insisting the government needed to remain focused on future job opportunities in what is expected to be a rapidly growing sector of the national car fleet.

Mr Kelly is understood to represent a current of thinking within the Coalition party room which opposes anything that would reopen car industry subsidies. But a number of MPs said the analogy was wrong.

Sarah Henderson, the Liberal MP for Corangamite which takes in Geelong where Ford vehicles were manufactured, said there were many ways in which companies could be part of the emerging technologies of cars. She said government had a role to play.

“As a result of some significant support the Turnbull government is providing, we are seeing a carbon fibre-led boom underway in advanced manufacturing in Geelong, she said.

“Our government has played a very important role in the growth of this sector but, ultimately, these businesses succeed because of the incredible work they are doing … the electric cars of the future will comprise lightweight materials such as carbon fibre.

“If there’s an opportunity to produce electric cars in Australia of components for electric cars, then Geelong is the place to be.”

Another backbencher, who did not wish to be named, said the majority of the party room knew there was a global shift to electric vehicles and that Australia would follow suit.

“The only question is do we want a piece of the action, or should we instead have a heated ideological fight over it and then import everything?” he said.

Another MP, Jason Falinski, said Australia owned the intellectual property around some of the biggest advances in battery technology, dismissing claims of party room divisions. 

“I don’t think that’s true to be honest, there’s no backbench revolt.”

About Nino Plevnik

I am an electric cars lover. I love our planet and want to leave it in good condition to our children. One of the good ways to do this is to reduce harmful emissions into the atmosphere. As a technical person I worked on computers, hardware maintenance and programming. Otherwise I like advanced technologies, music, books, movies, life and nice weather.

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