Thursday, 19 October 2017
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister representing the Prime Minister (Senator Brandis) to questions without notice asked by Senator Collins and Senator Polley today relating to energy.
I remember so clearly standing exactly here a few months ago when we had a range of questions about the Finkel review, and that there was great exhortation across the chamber that we needed to work together—that we needed to work together on an effective policy—and there was the praise given to the recommendations of the Finkel review. Ministers of the government, doing the same kind of marketing that they're doing now for this next plan that they're proposing, were saying how strong Finkel and the recommendations around renewable energy were. They were saying they were going to work together on prices. Here we have another process now.
We should've known we'd be having this discussion this week, because last week The Australian actually told us what the government was going to do. The Australian and, in fact, my own local newspaper, the Courier-Mail had as much detail as we have now. We heard what the government was going to do. Headlines said they were no longer going to be looking at supporting renewable energy. In fact, they were saying they'd moved away from many of the recommendations of the Finkel review.
We had the warning that the government was going to be doing this. For most policy now, if we can just get hold of a Murdoch press a couple of days earlier, we'll have what's going to be done by the government. We had that warning, and then we had to go through the process because it had to go to the cabinet and it had to go to the party room. Then Senator Brandis, in his answers this week, told us about what happened in the party room and about how excited they were in the party room about this new policy. But then the document was released. We now have the eight pages which are, in fact, all we have to look at on what is going to be this Holy Grail of energy policy into the future. What we don't have is any detail. We don't have modelling—in fact, we very rarely have modelling, but we live in hope that this time we will get some modelling that gives detail to the would-be guarantees that the government has given to the community about this new policy.
In his normal, gracious way, today the leader of the Senate talked about the need for us to work together. In his normal, gracious way he talked about U-turns from the Labor Party and backsliding from the Labor Party and desperation from the Labor Party. This is, as usual, the way the government actually wants to seek to work together. Clearly, we have looked at the eight pages in detail, we have studied the Courier-Mail to see exactly what the government was going to do, and now we are asking quite direct and quite simple questions like, 'How is the policy expected to work?'
It's good to have goals. In fact, we often have goals and we can actually share those goals, because we do want the community to have an effective energy policy. We listen to the community, and we know it's an issue of importance to them. We've heard that the government is offering guarantees, and we've also heard that they're working very, very hard to fix the energy issues in Australia. We acknowledge that. We'd just like to know how it's going to work so that we will have information that our people can look at so we can make an informed decision about engaging in future energy policy. It's not enough just to say, 'You should get onboard, because this is what we want to do,' but that's exactly what the Treasurer has been saying in his marketing campaign to make sure that this eight-page document becomes the future energy policy for our country. He's saying he wants to make it so secure that the awful prospect of a change of government would not be able to wind back what they are now putting into place.
We aren't talking about U-turns. We aren't talking about backsliding. What we're talking about is getting some information, some facts, some details and some modelling about how we can turn an eight-page concept paper into an effective energy policy about which the whole of the community can feel secure and with which we can look at ways that we can work together. To just say what you're working hard on is not a policy. (Time expired)
I too rise to take note of the Attorney-General's answer this afternoon. I start by heartily congratulating both the Prime Minister and our outstanding Minister for the Environment and Energy, Josh Frydenberg. They have done an extraordinary job with this policy. It is absolutely based on science and expertise. I also congratulate the Energy Security Board for their advice on this matter. What gives me great heart is knowing that we're going in the right direction. The first person who came out, probably before even reading the document, was the Leader of the Greens. When he's almost frothing at the mouth and having a heart attack about a policy, then you know you're going in the right direction. It also seems to have caught those opposite flat-footed. Instead of arguing against any of the measures that the government has announced, they're already trying to drill into the detail. They fail to acknowledge that a policy is only a piece of paper. So many policies of those opposite have been broken and never implemented. What this is is a very clear plan for reform of the energy market.
What makes me so proud of this document and to be sitting on this side of the chamber as part of a government that's initiating this plan, is that it is affordable and reliable and still meets an emissions guarantee. I am so proud that this is all based on what Australians need. The average Australian wants, demands and expects in the 21st century that they can have reliable and affordable power. Needless to say, their employers, or prospective employers, will actually be able to afford to operate here, to manufacture, to keep the lights on and to keep their plants and machinery operating. Again I say how proud I am of this government.
The details will be worked out and, in fact, are being worked out. Any good policy needs at the start to have very clear objectives and outcomes: things about which you can nail your colours to the mast and say, 'This is what we are going to achieve.' It is wonderful. What I particularly love about this is that it embraces new technologies. It implements new technologies that are based on science, and not some extreme green theology. Also, what is very sensible about this is that it is based on dispatchable power. Guess what? As great as they are, things such as solar and wind are variable. When the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow, the consequences are devastating, as South Australia has seen. The focus on using the best technologies we have to provide and guarantee dispatchable power when every Australian needs it at an affordable cost is critically important. We're doing this all without a clean energy target and with no extension of the RET. It is absolutely fabulous. It is completely focused on this country and not some ideological theology that would see us back in the dark ages where we can't even turn the lights on, as South Australia has seen, and with absolutely scant or no regard at all to the economy and to jobs.
We have a plan. It now has to be worked through COAG, but we have a plan that is good for all Australians because it provides affordable and reliable electricity and provides an emissions guarantee so we can still meet our emissions targets. We're doing it based on science and on what Australians need and are still meeting our targets. We're also still transitioning, over time and in a sensible way, to renewable technologies. We have a plan. I hope those opposite come on board, but today I've heard there is no alternative. In the absence of those opposite not having an alternative at all for this policy, I really hope that, in the national interest, they do come on board with this policy and work with the government and the state Labor leaders, to encourage them to come on board, because this is in the interest of every single Australian.
I think senators may know about the Rorschach ink-blot test—the psychological test, very popular in the sixties, where you show the respondent a blot of ink and they tell the psychiatrist or the psychologist what they see there. It is the subject of a very funny joke with a good punchline, but it's a little bit too risque for the chamber so I'm not going to repeat it. But the point of the joke is that, with the Rorschach ink-blot test, you can pretty much look at it and see anything you like, and I'm starting to think that this eight-page policy released by the coalition is a little bit like the ink blot and, much like the ink-blot test, a lot of the reactions to this National Energy Guarantee tell us as much about the respondents' energy-policy id as they do about the plan itself.
The first issue, I suppose, is whether or not people viewing these eight pages consider that they contain any sort of carbon price. The briefing note said, 'Some electricity retailers will not be able to meet the required emissions profile, while others will overachieve, and therefore a secondary exchange'—which sounds a little bit like an emissions trading market—'will occur between retailers to balance their portfolios.' So that is what is in the eight-page glossy.
Energy minister Frydenberg was asked about this: 'Is it like a carbon tax?' He said: 'Two letters: N O.' Asked the same question, the CEO of the Australian Energy Council, Matthew Warren, answered, 'Of course.' David Uren, a commentator in The Australian newspaper and an economist, says:
The proposed emissions guarantee is the carbon tax you get when you ask a regulator to design one …
So there is quite a lot of disagreement from respondents when they look at that particular ink blot.
Will there be price reductions? Senator Brandis has been extremely keen in this chamber to reassure everybody that there will be a price decrease and that that will be in the order of $115 a year per household—a big call, because that's not actually what nearly anybody else is willing to say. Asked about the same question, Dr Schott, who Mr Brandis has been so keen to rely on, said:
… I don't think anybody can guarantee a price reduction …
Mr Pierce, Chair of the AEMC, when asked about it, said: 'Well, there's a range of reductions you might see. It really depends on the scenario that you model.' The Prime Minister, according to newspaper reports, has repeatedly refused to guarantee a price reduction. I think that what he has told the other place is that savings are 'likely'. 'Likely'? He's refusing to guarantee any sort of price reduction until the regulators conduct more modelling. Mr Morrison, of course, always fierce, defends the $115 annual savings estimate. He's on the same page as Mr Brandis. But what you can see is a very wide range of views, and they seem to depend a great deal on just how keen you are to defend the government's record, as opposed to how keen you might be to engage with the actual facts that are on the table.
Is this a plan for coal or is it a plan for renewables? Senator Reynolds said that it will introduce new technologies based on science, and she went on in her later remarks to say that they'll be transitioning in a sensible way to renewables. The renewables sector says that this requires us to place an artificial cap on the amount of renewables that would come into the system, while Mr Christensen from the National Party says that the test of this is that the NEG will only work if it enables investment in coal-fired power, preferably in North Queensland, and he calls on the government to directly invest, to provide public funds, to build a new coal-fired power station.
How can there be this much confusion? How can so many respondents look at the same ink blot and come up with such different answers? The truth is: it's because this is a half-baked plan. There is no detail. And, as my colleagues in this place have pointed out repeatedly, eight pages is no real substitute for an actual policy. Dr Finkel produced 200 pages. When Labor introduced our carbon pricing approach, we had an 800-page analysis. I had the good fortune to work in part on the Garnaut review from a state government perspective—only a little bit—and it was thousands of pages. This isn't a policy. It's a joke.
I also rise to take note of answers given by the Attorney-General to questions asked during question time today. I'm not sure I have an energy policy id, but I'll try and find it later. The Labor Party are playing their usual political games in this place and in this policy space because they're incapable of delivering anything else or anything that looks like a policy. The National Energy Guarantee is designed to ensure that Australian families and businesses have access to reliable and affordable electricity whilst meeting our international commitments. For too long, governments, federal and state, have seen fit to meddle in the Australian energy market, picking winners through a vast regime of subsidies and regulation. The coalition's National Energy Guarantee brings to an end the government subsidies for energy, bringing us back to a technologically neutral energy policy which will allow energy providers to invest in the reliable base-load capacity that Australians need whilst meeting those important international commitments.
There was an interjection during the excellent contribution of Senator Reynolds that the government should be investing in batteries. No, actually—the government should never be investing in batteries or any particular technology. What we should do is have a technologically neutral policy, which we have for the first time in a long time. This policy will provide power generators with the certainty they require to invest in the latest technology, be it batteries or the next generation of low-emission, high-efficiency coal—or who knows? Perhaps one day Australia will see investment in fourth-generation nuclear. Thorium power inches closer to commercialisation. It will no longer find itself at an unreasonable competitive disadvantage in the future, and we may see investment in that area. Similarly, we may see a breakthrough in fusion technology. Who knows what the future will hold in 10 or 15 years? That is why we need a completely technologically neutral policy. We don't want to pick winners. We need to let the energy market make those decisions on a source of supply whilst maintaining reliability. We can't have the blackouts. These cutting-edge low-emissions technologies can produce cheap, reliable energy for Australia for generations to come. It is not acceptable that a country as prosperous and energy-rich as Australia faces a second summer in a row of potential brownouts, blackouts and energy rationing in South Australia and across the eastern seaboard. Reliable and cheap energy is the cornerstone of Australia's economy, and virtually every sector is completely dependent on the provision of this as a basic part of operating.
Those opposite us have done nothing in this space. We saw the Leader of the Opposition out yesterday playing games again, manipulating numbers to suit his own agenda while offering no solutions whatsoever. It's clear that Labor has no plan for energy. Senators opposite prefer to sit on their hands as their colleagues in South Australia and Victoria take a wrecking ball to energy infrastructure, with no plan to address the shortfall in base-load capacity. Those opposite bemoan the demise of the Australian manufacturing sector, once a pillar of our economy. Yet how can we have a manufacturing sector unless we can deliver reliable and affordable electricity? When it comes to energy security, Labor simply cannot be trusted. Whilst senators opposite will no doubt jump up and down bemoaning the end of the grandiose regime of renewable energy subsidies that have strangled our energy sector, I remind them of the words of the Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, who this week described our plan as 'a credible mechanism'. That's what the sector needs. It needs credibility, it needs security of policy and it needs an end to the game playing. Don't just take Dr Finkel's word for it when it comes to subsidies; perhaps also listen to the words of our colleague Senator Di Natale, who said: 'It's cheaper to build wind power than to build coal-fired power.' If this is true then there's no reason not to end the subsidies.
Only the coalition government has a plan to ensure Australians have access to reliable and affordable electricity while continuing to meet our international obligations for emission reductions. Labor have no plan for reliable energy. They refuse to prioritise affordability and reliability, ignoring the advice of energy industry experts. They are addicted to the reckless renewable energy targets that would drive up prices and undermine reliability. (Time expired)
I also rise to take note of answers from Senator Brandis on the government's National Energy Guarantee.
What a display we saw today! The question from Senator Collins couldn't have been a simpler question to Senator Brandis. I just want to go to what the question was, because it was a very good one from Senator Collins. What she asked was:
Given electricity retailers will trade to meet required emissions targets, can the minister confirm the policy effectively imposes a price on carbon?
Of course, Senator Brandis used a quote from one individual—Mr John Pierce, the Chair of the AEMC—to try to put together an answer. This was cherry-picking of the highest order as only Senator Brandis can. But when faced with alternative opinions from Mr Matthew Warren, Chief Executive of the Australian Energy Council, and Mr Hugh Grossman, Executive Director of RepuTex, Senator Brandis went to water. All he could do was attack the Labor Party; all he could do was make the most ludicrous accusations and feign ignorance of the comments from Mr Warren and Mr Grossman.
Of course, we on this side are very used to that, as Senator Brandis often says he's unaware of comments made when they don't suit his policy positions. As always with Senator Brandis, there was so much bravado and so little basis to his arguments. It was a sad display! Senator Brandis kept trying to make the claim that the Labor Party doesn't have an energy policy. Senator Brandis had the gall to come into this place and claim that the party that has led the debate on energy for over a decade doesn't have a policy. Senator Brandis couldn't be further from the truth.
For almost 10 years, the opposition has led this debate. Senator Brandis, Mr Turnbull, Mr Abbott and others in the government have been running around fighting one another, fighting with the science and fighting with the economics as they search for a way to reintroduce a price on carbon in Australia. While they might all be in agreement up here in Canberra that this new policy—this eight-page concept—is a winner, I want to refer the Senate to comments from the Tasmanian Liberal government's newly-minted energy minister, Mr Guy Barnett. Some of us here in the Senate would be familiar with Mr Barnett; he graced this chamber some years ago.
Obviously, Mr Barnett is now a member of the Tasmanian parliament, and he is their new Minister for Energy. Mr Barnett made an interesting start, to say the least. Yesterday, Mr Barnett issued a statement where he stated unequivocally:
We aren't yet convinced by what we have heard and we need further detail on the Federal Government's plan.
I have to say, he was probably being very generous to suggest it was actually a 'plan'! But he said, 'we need further detail on the federal government's plan.' This is one of the two state Liberal energy ministers in the country who says he is not convinced and that his government is not convinced. Mr Barnett set three criteria the federal government needs to satisfy before receiving the government's support:
Any federal energy policy needs to meet those aims for Tasmania before receiving our support.
And what are those aims?
That means lower prices, energy security and developing more renewable energy generation in Tasmania.
And what does the National Energy Guarantee do for Tasmania? Lower prices? Well, supposedly. Maybe. No guarantees, because no modelling has been done. The NEG will supposedly save households $115 a year from 2020. There are still no guarantees.
Tasmanians remember the false promise from Senator Brandis, from Mr Abbott and those three amigos, who said that households would save $550 a year from the abolition of the Clean Energy Future Package. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.
That the Senate take note of the responses given by the Minister representing the Prime Minister (Senator Brandis) to the question asked by Senator Richard Di Natale today relating to energy.
This government has shown throughout this week just how tightly it is in the pocket of the coal and fossil fuel industry. Make no mistake: the decision to roll backwards on the clean energy target, cut and slash the Renewable Energy Target and create massive uncertainty throughout the renewable energy sector is because Malcolm Turnbull has been forced by Tony Abbott and the other coal-loving members of his party room to back the dying, old fossil fuel industry over clean, green renewables.
We are in the middle of an ideological war. There are those who understand that we need to transition from old, dirty-style fossil fuel energy production to cleaner, more renewable energy, not just because we need to reduce emissions to tackle climate change, but because new renewable energy is cheaper than any suggested new coal-fired power plant or the massive subsidies that go to the gas industry, which we have seen over and over again. Despite the facts on the table, this government continues to do the barracking of the fossil fuel industry rather than looking towards the future, where renewables—solar, wind—with storage technology and demand management, can actually deliver cleaner, more reliable and cheaper power.
The other issue is that, in a time of climate change and global warming, we must do everything we can to reduce pollution. We've signed up to the Paris targets, but, under this plan put forward by the government, we will not meet them. Australia will again be shamed on the international stage because we will not even be able to meet the low targets that we had set in relation to the Paris agreement.
Some would say that this is just kicking the can down the road, and they would be right. We should be taking action and making decisions now, not simply leaving it to others in five, 10, 20, 30, 40 years time to deal with the onslaught and damage that is going to come from a further worsening of climate change and global warming. Kicking the can down the road is not the type of leadership that we need right now. We could be reducing pollution and doing what we can to help save the Great Barrier Reef and to ensure that we tackle climate change, and we could be investing in the renewable energy industry, which is jobs-rich, provides cheaper power and is, with the amazing technologies of storage and demand management, also more reliable.
We don't have an energy supply problem in Australia; we have a problem with how it is dispatched and how we manage peak demand. Yet all we hear from this government is bluster after bluster, excuse after excuse as to why they want to spend more public money, taxpayers' money, propping up the coal industry and giving subsidies to the gas industry. There's a lot of complaint about how much money is spent on renewable energy. Well, it doesn't come anywhere near the blank cheques that this government wants to write to the coal industry—a billion dollars to the Adani coalmine. We have One Nation pushing and campaigning and lobbying for a new coal-fired power station. That's going to cost billions of dollars. We have Tony Abbott himself, the former Prime Minister, demanding—