Senate debates

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Bills

Clean Energy Finance Corporation (Abolition) Bill 2013; Second Reading

11:28 am

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (Abolition) Bill 2013, something I hoped I would never have to say in this chamber. I would like to inform those opposite me that it was a ridiculous proposition to debate all of the repeal bills at once. The coalition would like it very much if we remained quiet whilst they busily swept away hard-fought legislation designed to address climate change and reposition Australia's economy. But we did not allow that to happen. We will not do it, because there has been minimal time for committee consideration and, perhaps even more importantly, no genuine examination of just what they are proposing to do. When all you have is a hammer, every solution is a nail, and so we have a coalition getting ready to repeal legislation wholesale in 2013 and beyond. All they know how to do is block, repeal, frustrate and hack away at policy reforms that are in long-term interest of Australia. They are acting in government just as they did in opposition.

Proper debate needs to happen. That is why we are here; it is why parliament is sitting. The Prime Minister seems to somehow have forgotten that. He is leading the least transparent government in living memory. What the government have failed to adequately explain to the Australian people is that once they repeal this legislation of Labor's, including the price on carbon, they will not be introducing anything to replace it. Instead Australia will be a country without a climate change policy, which is quite simply unacceptable.

The value of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is well known to those with any sort of interest in combating climate change. That does not include those opposite, so allow me to educate you a little. The corporation itself is critical in Australia's efforts to reduce our reliance on carbon emissions. By facilitating comprehensively commercial loans for renewable clean energy technology investments, it acts as a vital catalyst for investment and growth. When it comes to encouraging new forms of energy technology and repositioning the Australian economy, it is a real game changer. Also it must be pointed out that the government's alternative plan as part of its Direct Action policy, the Emissions Reduction Fund, will cost taxpayers billions of dollars. The fund would not be self-sustaining and it would not boost government coffers. In contrast, the CEFC funds emissions reductions at a negative cost to the government, so that means a negative cost to the taxpayer. In fact, it has the potential to return $200 million per year to the government coffers, all the while reducing carbon pollution and changing how this country meets its energy needs in the 21st century. It sounds like value for money to me, but perhaps I do not understand because I refuse to embrace things like a 'commission of cuts' to repeat what Premier Newman has done in Queensland on a national scale.

It really is extraordinary that the government do not see the value of retaining this body. They are blind to scientific evidence. They are blind to commercial opportunities. They are blind to common sense. They are reckless zealots who would make Nick Minchin blush. I wish he were here right now. He would shrink in his seat to see the monsters he has created on the other side.

The CEFC's role is so important in the fact that it has been tasked with managing $10 billion to invest in renewable energy projects. As the Climate Institute chief executive, John Connor, said recently:

We still need the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to help commercialise new technologies and to build the skills in our own financial services sector.

The CEFC has achieved this great success so far in transitioning Australia from a higher carbon economy to a lower carbon economy as efficiently as possible. Even though it has only been up and running for a year and a half, it has led to $1.6 billion in private sector investments through co-financing schemes—that is $1.6 billion of new investment. This is something that Labor should be proud of, and we are.

It is particularly dispiriting, though not at all surprising, that the government has not offered the CEFC chairwoman, Jillian Broadbent, proper respect and courtesy. She knows and indeed the entire corporation knows that the Prime Minister is not listening and the government is not open to new advice. Ms Broadbent is an economist and a successful businesswoman, but her insights are no match for the cynical political calculus favoured by the current government. It is a case of David versus Goliath, and in this instance David will not win.

The coalition machine has latched on to something where it can see a distinct political advantage. Never mind the future of Australia's economy, never mind Australia's future energy consumption, never mind the incredible work of the CEFC and never mind boosting investment to combat climate change. None of this matters to those on the other side. By abolishing the CEFC, the Abbott government plans to drag Australia backwards and make us significantly less competitive in the emerging 21st century markets of renewable and cleaner energy technologies.

Australia of course is not the only country to devise a body with the aim of providing commercial loans and investment in this area. In fact, about 14 similar organisations exist around the world. What the coalition has to realise is that these countries will capitalise on the Abbott government's parochialism and short-sighted self-interest. They are not going to pack up shop; they will pounce on our mistakes, and they will reap the rewards. These are countries in Europe such as Germany that recognise where the world's future energy needs will be supplied, and they want to be at the forefront of new technologies for decades to come.

What the Prime Minister cannot see is that real work is required to boost these fledgling markets to ensure that Australia can compete with other countries that have the potential to race ahead of us. As Ms Broadbent herself said:

Getting financiers to move to new areas is very hard to do and you can say there's a market and it just happens. I really believe the market should solve these things. But I can also see when markets aren't working and this is a very focused effective tool to help the market to work.

That is the key to all of this. The coalition's stubborn mindset holds that the market should be the arbitrator of everything, that the businesses should be left to thrive or perish. But what they do not recognise is that there are many barriers to private financiers in the renewable and clean energy sector, and we need to foster and encourage private investment in emissions reductions. Ms Broadbent has noted:

If you say to one of the major banks go out and find energy efficiency projects of half a million to one million they won't really do it.

It is as simple as that. The market as it currently stands will not allow Australia to move into a low-carbon world.

The CEFC board comprises individuals who understand how markets work and how to commercialise new technologies. It is made up of former investment bankers and energy executives. They know business. They are market based people at the top end of the game. Yet we are set to ignore their expertise, intellect and drive at the expense of commercialising renewable and clean energy growth.

Perhaps senior coalition figures have not yet been properly briefed on this subject—apparently, they are still busy trying to fill ministers' offices with staff. I am told that people are reluctant to serve under this government without a boost in pay, and I certainly cannot blame them. But, if they had conducted their research, they would know that the CEFC is fundamentally about building commercial expertise.

It is honestly heartbreaking that they cannot see that. Instead of focusing on renewable energy projects that could transform the nation's economy, the environment minister has labelled the corporation a fund 'borrowed in taxpayers' name for investing in speculative ventures'. How pathetic. These are not speculative ventures; renewable energy is the future. If you really are a party that is open for business, you should be embracing opportunities to take advantage of these new technologies. If you cannot see that, you should not be in power; it is as simple as that.

Of course the abolition of this body is part of something broader. It is about the Abbott government's reluctance to embrace renewable energy and cleaner technologies and act on climate change. I am here to tell you that such an approach will prove disastrous for Australia and it may well prove particularly disastrous for my home state of Tasmania. That is why it is so disappointing to have senators like Senator Bushby, who is in the chamber, neglecting future opportunities for Tasmania.

During the federal election campaign it was clear that the chief concerns for many Tasmanians were jobs and growth. The challenge lies in identifying precisely where Tasmania can exploit competitive advantages and in the process find new, innovative ways of boosting the economy. One such area where Tasmania and other areas of Australia with relatively high unemployment can get ahead and achieve positive change is the renewable energy sector. This is of course an important component of the modern economy—

Senator Bushby interjecting—

something that Senator Bushby over there does not understand—that is no doubt bracing for the worst now that the Abbott government is in power and repealing climate change bills left, right and centre. Once again, it is all about negativity.

Unfortunately, as I have indicated, the Prime Minister and his party do not understand that encouraging developments in renewable energy has the capacity to transform the Australian economy and lower total carbon emissions. A typical example of this parochial mindset has been observed in recent months with the new member for Bass claiming that abolishing the price on carbon will 'boost growth, increase jobs'. This is a statement that deserves careful scrutiny. It also is blatantly obvious to everyone that the new member for Bass does not understand new technologies. He does not understand climate change.

We need to remember what placing a price on carbon was designed to achieve: a transition from a reliance on carbon emissions to greater utilisation of cleaner technologies. Without carbon pricing, many experts fear—these are experts—that there will not be the same investment in renewable energies, and projects will not reach their full potential.

As I noted in the Senate chamber earlier this year, in recent times the policies delivered by Labor have ensured that the renewable energy industry has gone from strength to strength. To take one example, wind capacity in Australia rose from just over 1,100 megawatts to over 3,000 megawatts during Labor's time in power. In fact last year wind farms in this country produced enough electricity to power over one million homes, a target that seemed impossible not that long ago.

Tasmania was the recipient of several grants under the Clean Technology Investment Program and the Clean Technology Innovation Program, which allowed numerous local outfits in northern Tasmania and indeed across the state to upgrade equipment and reduce emissions intensity.

As I also noted, there is much planned for the future of Tasmania's renewable energy sector as well, including a 200-turbine wind farm development on King Island. It will not surprise many Tasmanians to learn that the state has a distinct advantage when it comes to wind power development. We are of course placed squarely within the roaring forties, which means that we receive some of the most reliable winds anywhere on the planet. According to Hydro Tasmania, the project on King Island will bring hundreds of millions of dollars into the local community as well as infrastructure upgrades and new jobs—and we need those jobs in Tasmania. But right now companies across Australia are expressing alarm at the Abbott government's lack of commitment to national renewable energy growth goals.

Andrew Thomson, the chief of an energy company which is a recognised leader on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, is particularly concerned. Earlier this year he said that vital investments in renewable energy targets were dependent on the coalition affirming its commitment to the bipartisan Renewable Energy Target. He also said that power purchase contracts are being delayed due to the uncertainty of the coalition's approach. This is not what we want. The government, which previously committed to the target of sourcing a fifth of Australia's power from renewable energy by 2020, plans to review the RET in 2014. Given the coalition's indifference to the aim of reducing our carbon footprint via renewable energy and its outright hostility to pricing carbon, it is apparent that Mr Thomson's concerns are entirely justified. Now is the time for us to really embrace the renewable energy sector and make sure that the Abbott government does not hinder progress.

If approached intelligently, renewable energy will allow us to take advantage of new innovations in the coming decades that promise to revolutionise how energy is produced. It is not good enough to stick our heads in the sand—and we know that that is what they do best on that side. If we don't jump on board and do everything possible to encourage renewable energies then the accompanying jobs and growth opportunities will flow elsewhere overseas. Renewable energy represents a potential goldmine, but only if we work to make it happen. Proactively fostering developments in the renewable energy sector, including the work of the CEFC, is about long-term vision. I know I should not use 'the Abbott government' and 'vision' in the same sentence, but this really is about long-term vision. It is about considering what sort of planet we want to leave behind us. In particular, it is about new jobs that can be created in rural and regional areas, like my home state of Tasmania. These opportunities have the potential to enhance our economic prospects for generations to come.

At times the response from sections of the media and the Australian public to announcements on climate change policy and renewable energy in this country has been closed-minded and short-sighted. I certainly hope that the coalition does not continue to exploit outdated views to suit their own political objectives.

I would also like to add that numerous commentators over the past few weeks have revisited the events that led to the Prime Minister opposing an emissions trading scheme for Australia, and it makes for grim reading. Everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten that in 2007 then Prime Minister John Howard had undergone a personal transformation on the matter of climate change and was preparing an emissions trading policy to take to that year's federal election. We also know that key Liberal figures on the shadow front bench, including the current Prime Minister, supported this policy—that is, they supported John Howard's policy that would of course have tremendously benefited renewable energies and cleaner technologies. So what changed?

I think we all know the answer: the Prime Minister figured out that he could tap into suspicions that persisted in the electorate and exploit them to his own advantage. He defeated the member for Wentworth but sacrificed any sort of real stand on climate change. In contrast, I would remind those opposite of the stance taken by the United Kingdom's Prime Minister, David Cameron—an actual Tory—on climate change following the typhoon that wreaked havoc in the Philippines. He said:

I'm not a scientist but it's always seemed to me one of the strongest arguments about climate change is, even if you're only 90 per cent certain or 80 per cent certain or 70 per cent certain, if I said to you, there's a 60 per cent chance your house might burn down, do you want to take out some insurance? You take out some insurance. I think we should think about climate change like that.

If only this view were shared by the coalition in Australia. Let's hope that the next 100 years sees even greater investment in renewable energy. We have an awful a lot to gain from such a commitment.

It is nothing short of disgraceful that the government does not see a place for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. It is a key component in positioning Australia for a low-carbon world. But really, it says all you need to know about the coalition's priorities on climate change and renewable energy in this country. Shame on Greg Hunt. Shame on Joe Hockey. Shame on Matthias Cormann. And shame on Tony Abbott for neglecting our younger generations, and our future generations.

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