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Coalition dissidents demand national energy guarantee meeting be open to all

Craig Kelly wants meeting for business leaders to be open to all MPs ahead of expected party-room protests

The energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, is being lobbied to open a private meeting of the government’s backbench energy committee to all comers ahead of more protests about the national energy guarantee expected in the Coalition party room on Tuesday.

Frydenberg has organised a delegation of business leaders to address a special meeting of the Coalition backbench committee on energy and the environment early Tuesday morning, ahead of the regular gathering of the Coalition party room, in an effort to keep a lid on the internal debate.

Ahead of Tuesday’s meetings, Nationals were also meeting separately to discuss the policy on Monday, with the junior Coalition partner split about the Neg.

Government MPs say the former prime minister Tony Abbott is likely to attend the early committee meeting on Tuesday. The government’s other main Neg dissident, the chair of the backbench committee, Liberal Craig Kelly, told Guardian Australia the meeting should be open to anyone who wanted to come “because this is such an important area of policy”.

Kelly also fired a shot across the bow of the business delegation – which includes the Business Council of Australia, the Minerals Council of Australia, BHP, the National Farmers Federation and the Ai Group – groups that are all broadly supportive of the government’s energy policy.

The BCA’s chief executive, Jennifer Westacott, said: “Our members employ over one million Australians and are strongly supportive of implementing the national energy guarantee”.

“Business is crying out for policy certainty. The guarantee can be a circuit breaker for the stale energy debate, which has paralysed investment in new generation,” the BCA chief said. “It can give people the confidence they need to invest and build new generation capacity”.

“The nation simply can’t afford another period of policy paralysis. Denying consumers the opportunity for reliable, affordable energy is unacceptable”.

But Kelly said business groups needed to be careful of what they wished for. “It’s surprising that these business leaders are such vocal advocates for the national energy guarantee when they don’t yet know all the detail, and with the Neg, the devil will be in the detail”.

“The call for policy certainty sounds nice, but if Labor plans to substantially increase the emissions reduction target, this will undermine the so-called certainty,” Kelly said.

The Liberal MP said some of the people present at the meeting represented corporate interests that would be exempt from the proposed emissions reduction requirement in the Neg because they were deemed emissions-intensive and trade-exposed.

“We have to understand that people are defending their interests. If certain companies are exempted from the Neg and the costs are therefore borne elsewhere, it does tend to undermine the strength of their arguments.”

Separately, on the Alan Jones program on 2GB, Kelly declared the agriculture sector would be decimated by the emissions reduction being countenanced in the Neg, and said farmers would have to start culling their herds. “We’re looking at around about the culling of 690,000 dairy cows, the culling of about 7 m beef cattle, the culling of around about 20 m sheep”.

“I don’t know how you can get around these numbers,” he said.

Dissidents have been escalating their criticisms about the Neg over the past fortnight because it is their last chance to try and scuttle the policy, or lock Frydenberg into a no-compromise posture, before a make-or-break meeting of state and territory energy ministers in early August.

Any state or territory could veto the Neg when the Coag energy council meets in August. The ACT has warned it will be very difficult to sign up if Frydenberg is not in a position to offer any compromises.

The ACT climate minister, Shane Rattenbury, told Guardian Australia last week he believed the rearguard action by government conservatives was designed to lock Frydenberg in to an untenable position on the policy in the Coag energy council, and this “puts the federal minister in a particularly difficult position”.

With Frydenberg under pressure from both conservative dissidents and the ACT, Liberals and Nationals have rallied publicly in support of the policy over the past week.

Liberal Trent Zimmerman, who is also on the backbench environment and energy committee, said last week: “We have three goals in energy policy: providing grid security, lowering prices and meeting our Paris targets, and all three of these things are equally important”.

He warned internal critics of the policy that it would be a serious “mistake” for the Coalition to ignore the rising concern of Australian voters about the impact of climate change.

Another member of the Coalition’s backbench committee, the Queensland Liberal Warren Enstch, added his voice to the internal show of support on Tuesday.

“I think Josh has been delivered a shit sandwich, and he’s doing a very good job of unravelling it,” Entsch told Guardian Australia.

“I absolutely support the minister”.

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