Interview: A lot of hot air – Murdo Fraser

The parliament’s energy committee convener stands by decision to invite controversial tycoon Donald Trump to give evidence

by Apr 23, 2012 No Comments

A few short months ago, Murdo Fraser, then a Tory leadership candidate, was potentially facing the weekly task of crossing swords with Alex Salmond in First Minister’s Questions.

Now, as the convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Energy, Economy and Tourism Committee, he is preparing himself for a different kind of challenge – controlling the force of personality that is Donald Trump. The US billionaire is giving evidence to Fraser’s committee as part of his growing campaign against windfarms.  If his previous visits to the country are anything to go by, his visit will not go unnoticed.

But while the Tory Mid Scotland and Fife MSP admits members are preparing themselves for a “media circus”, far from putting them off inviting Trump to the panel to present his views, he says it is helping to bring the thorny issue to a wider audience.

“Clearly there was a risk that the appearance of a figure like Donald Trump, who has a high profile and is controversial, would become something of a media circus,” he says, “[but] creating public interest in the committee inquiry and the broader debate of renewable energy is not a bad thing.

“What we have already seen, partly because of Donald Trump, is a substantial level of public and media interest in the inquiry.

“Donald Trump does actually have a viewpoint on these particular issues. He does in his views represent many people who share some of the concerns he has expressed.

“He is not coming just by himself, he is going to be on a panel along with a representative from Communities Against Turbines Scotland.”

As reported previously in Holyrood, Susan Crosthwaite, the chairwoman of CATS, who will be appearing alongside Trump, has confirmed the tycoon would fund an antiwindfarm campaign for the upcoming council elections. And Fraser admits that although the committee had not discussed what questions it would ask, the issue of the anti-windfarm fund could come up in the evidence session.

Trump’s much-awaited appearance was sparked by a complaint in September last year about the proximity of a multi-million offshore wind farm in Aberdeen Bay to his new golf course development, under way on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire. But it has erupted into an all-out assault on wind energy, and has featured angry letters, including one to Alex Salmond, branding the First Minister as “Mad Alex”. Trump’s visit will coincide with a march down the Royal Mile by protestors and he has launched a nationwide advertising campaign urging people to join it.

But Fraser said the committee should not stray into individual planning concerns. He says: “We made it clear to Mr Trump’s team he has come to the inquiry to give his views on renewable energy. This is not about his views on a particular planning application for an offshore wind development in Aberdeenshire.

“It is not a parliamentary matter. It would be inappropriate for the committee to make any statement on a live planning application, even if we wanted to say anything.” So why does he think wind energy is such a divisive issue?

“It is simply the scale of the development we are currently seeing,” he says.” Whether it is considered a positive or negative you cannot deny it has an impact…

“There are very strong opinions on both sides of the debate. It is not just wind power that gets objections. A lot of people have objected to biomass projects.

“We took evidence at a previous session from environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth. They were against large scale biomass plants; even an environment group who are almost fanatical about renewable energy were against this.”

The Tory MSP has himself been a critic of wind power and spoke out at his party’s conference in Troon this year about the rising number of developments across Scotland. He has criticised the higher costs of energy bills, which have been blamed in part on the extra cost associated with renewable energy.

He says: “I don’t think even evangelical supporters would argue that developing renewable energy would reduce fuel bills. They acknowledge that developing renewable energy is expensive. It comes at a cost.

“They would argue that is worth it, to pay the extra costs because of our environmental considerations.” He says that green energy targets needs to focus on reducing carbon emissions as well as ensuring the power behind it comes from green sources.

“I think everybody acknowledges that the potential gain for Scotland is from wave and tidal but realises we are not going to get a large enough return from wave and tidal by 2020.”

He adds: “The committee did a short report on fuel poverty. The levels of people in fuel poverty are surging upwards because of the cost of energy. Much of that is caused by rising gas prices. Some of it is because of green levies we all pay on our bills. Renewable energy is not a cheap way of providing power.”

But he says the inquiry is not just a chance to put forward a political message about renewable energy and was about upholding the government’s high aims of achieving the equivalent of 100 per cent demand for electricity from renewable sources.

He says: “What we are trying to find out from our inquiry is, are the government’s energy targets achievable? What we don’t want to do is ask whether renewable energy is a good thing. That would be a very political issue. That said, we can’t avoid hearing evidence or having some discussion on it.”

Fraser has been convener of the committee since the end of last year, having previously twice been deputy leader of his party in Scotland. Now he is settling into life as a backbencher after coming off second-best in the leadership election last November to new girl Ruth Davidson. But he says he is relishing his new job.

“I have always had an interest in economy and energy matters,” he says: “I was on what was then called the enterprise committee in the second session between 2003 and 2007, so this is going back to familiar territory for me.

“I have never before had the chance to be a committee convener and I am also enjoying the freedom of not being a frontbench spokesman.”

He came second in the election battle after he took the controversial decision to base his campaign on a rebranding of the party North of the border, which would see it renamed and separate from, although still voting alongside, the Tories in Westminster. It won the backing of many of his fellow MSPs, but failed to win over grassroots members. But “apart from not winning” he insists there are no regrets about the campaign.

“It seems to me that I would have been dishonest to have gone into an election campaign not saying what my own view was.”

But he says the party have now regrouped and are united. “Loyalty has always been the Conservatives’ strong point.” He adds that Ruth Davidson has made a good start and that the party is going into the upcoming election campaign with good local campaign messages.

Does he have any regrets when he sees his rival taking on Alex Salmond every week in First Minister’s Questions?

“I have had more than my fair share of questions in FMQs,” he says. “I am still keeping my hand in.”

Who is the bigger personality to cross swords with, the SNP leader or Donald Trump?

“I suppose in terms of ego, I don’t think there’s a lot in it.”

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