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AFR: Matt Kean's journey from PwC accountant to electrifying Liberal

Minister Kean Photo By Peter Braig

Berowra Waters Inn is a day in the country, a water-access-only foodie’s paradise sited in dense bushland just an hour north of Sydney’s centre. At least, that’s how it used to be. The Glenn Murcutt-designed, glass-walled 1980s icon was considered among Australia’s most expensive and cutting-edge restaurants, the place for those raking it in when greed was good.

But when our guest Matt Kean, NSW’s outspoken Minister for Energy and Environment, suggests it, I question whether it’s still a going concern. High-end restaurants are boom and bust and this one has done each, quite a few times. Turns out that, yes, it’s still in operation, flying largely under the radar in this post-power-lunch era.

“I chose it because it’s the most famous restaurant in my electorate, and they serve local produce,” says 38-year-old Kean shortly after picking me up from my home in his new Tesla Model 3. 

This is the first fully electric ministerial car in the country, he says, all bonhomie and slightly frantic energy, tapping at the huge central screen to reject yet another incoming call, apologising again for being so late. With boyish enthusiasm, he explains he’s run the numbers for this car and it’s no more expensive to lease than the Toyota Kluger it replaces, yet is more efficient and a better all-round experience. “So why wouldn’t you go electric?”

Running the numbers is something the former PwC accountant insists should underpin everything, including our energy policy. And his decisions based on those numbers have been getting under the skin of those Nationals and federal Liberals who’ve never seen a lump of coal they didn’t like.

There’s plenty to talk about. But first, it’s down a plunging, winding road, into a long, slightly muddy carpark, and onto a private ferry. After a four-minute ride along Berowra Creek, a broad tributary of the Hawkesbury River, we jog up a short ramp in the pouring rain. We go through a door that is more a secret panel, and we’re in the warm, light-filled corridor that is the 2020 Berowra Waters Inn. It’s now under talented chef-owner Brian Geraghty. There is just one row of tables, suitably distanced. Each is pushed up close to the louvred glass wall, and looks straight out at the water, the moored boats and the heavily wooded sandstone cliff opposite.

The décor is sparse; Murcutt’s original vision of a “verandah on the water” is intact. We stay on electric cars as oysters arrive. I mention the lack of local incentives, emission legislation that lags Europe by more than a decade, and now the NSW Treasury calling for a special tax on battery vehicles. “It’s abysmal, absolutely appalling,” he responds. “The problem is we’ve seen climate change only as a threat to our way of life, a threat to our standard of living, a threat to our economy and threat to the jobs that we have. It is a threat, but it’s also this enormous opportunity.”

Since his appointment little more than a year ago, Kean has hit the ground running. Usain Bolt-like. He’s been successfully expanding national parks, planning regional Renewable Energy Zones that will replace coal-fired power stations, badgering reluctant Feds for a “green cop” to oversee environmental legislation compliance, saving koalas, culling brumbies and upsetting colleagues, the Prime Minister and cotton farmers.

Cotton is hugely water intensive,” he says. “There is finite water. It’s becoming even more finite due to climate change. It needs to be shared. We can’t trash our environmental assets. We can’t deprive downstream communities of water, just so some wealthy agribusinesses can line their pockets at the rest of our expense.”

Hooked on politics early

Yep, not one for holding back. He insists his is a thoroughly Liberal agenda, based on science, engineering and economics. His energy plan has NSW reducing its emissions by 35 per cent by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, but he believes it can comfortably beat those targets, while reducing prices and improving reliability. Cleaning up the electricity grid is priority one and he’s as ebullient about that as his new Tesla.

“Everything hangs off the grid. So you decarbonise transport once you’ve decarbonised the electricity system.” He says the cheapest way of producing electricity is not coal, gas or nuclear. “It’s wind, solar, backed up by pumped hydro and batteries, and batteries are coming down the cost curve dramatically. With pumped hydro, the major cost is capital in nature, so by actually building the infrastructure, after that it’s zero marginal cost to produce the electricity. With interest rates at record lows, now is the time.”

Pumped hydro is literally pushing water up a hill when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, and letting it flow back down through turbines when it’s not. “It’s just a price arbitrage.”

Kean says even without the environmental benefits, cheap renewable energy will enable a boom in agriculture and heavy manufacturing. “So regardless of how much [former resources minister] Matt Canavan yells and screams, the market and capital have made up their minds and they’re moving ahead with the transition, in spite of angry voices trying to defend old technology.”

Kean was born in 1981 and grew up in the upmarket northern Sydney suburb of Wahroonga. He was educated at Jesuit school St Ignatius, Riverview, along with many other future Liberals. There, a teacher with TV connections recommended that her most talkative and energetic – no, hyperactive – year 10 pupil be considered as an anchor for a Saturday morning television show. He scored the gig.

“It was called Y Generation on Channel 9,” says Kean, smiling. “It was about kids getting into the workforce and different types of careers, and stuff like that. So Tony Abbott was the minister for workplace relations at the time and he came to the launch.”

Kean asked to do work experience in Abbott’s electoral office, but it didn’t last long. “We read different books … he’s a conservative, I’m a liberal.” It was work experience with the future NSW leader of the opposition, John Brogden, that “lit the flame”. Kean joined the Young Liberals. “If I could have injected politics directly into my veins at that stage, I probably would have,” he explains, hands raised, face beaming. “I’d found my place.”

To read the full article by Tony Davis in the Australian Financial Review here