House debates

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Matters of Public Importance

Energy Security

3:51 pm

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the government's failure to address the national energy crisis. During question time, the Prime Minister claimed that I want to close down the Hunter region's electricity generators. This is not true. The fact is that they are reaching the end of their commercial life, and this government have no plans—no plans for regions like mine. I was absolutely galled as they handed around the piece of coal last week. I tell you, I have more knowledge of coal in my little finger than the whole collective of this government. None of them would have been down a coalmine. None of them would have fired a shot in an open cut. None of them would have any understanding of what it is like to go underground to earn a living out of coal. You clearly have no clue, and you have no clue about the energy requirements of this nation either. I stand as a representative of people who work in pits, whose families are supported by pits. I support them, as I support my aluminium workers.

I want to thank the workers of Tomago Aluminium, in my electorate of Paterson, who pushed on through blistering heat on Friday and Saturday to minimise the danger of damage to the pot lines forced by a power shutdown. They are still working to return to normal operations, which could take up to a week. The Tomago aluminium smelter is one of Australia's biggest manufacturers. It supplies 25 per cent of Australia's primary aluminium and supports 1,000 families in my electorate. As that dreadful heatwave hit the eastern states of Australia on Friday, it had no choice but to curtail its production by 300 megawatts, or 30 per cent. Tomago is contractually bound to do what its energy provider, AGL Energy, asks it to do. It has no choice. AGL Energy CEO, Andy Vesey, told me in a conversation on Friday that his company had been asked by the Australian Energy Market Operator to reduce power demand because of the record heatwave conditions and that a shutdown of Tomago was considered the best course of action.

Tomago draws 12 per cent of the state's power, so on face value it seemed like a pragmatic and sensible choice. But shutting down pot lines—if you know anything about aluminium smelting—can cause irreparable damage. AGL argued that with proper notice Tomago could put procedures in place that would protect the pot lines and prevent the kind of catastrophe we saw in Victoria last year. But that decision had ramifications in that smelter in my electorate of Paterson. It required workers to work through blistering heat. It required precarious decision-making on the part of smelter CEO, Matt Howell. It also required a bit of faith—faith that there would be sufficient power to get the pot lines back up to speed and that no damage would be done through aluminium solidifying; faith that in such precarious market conditions the owners of the Tomago smelter, Rio Tinto, CSR, Alcan Australia and Hydro Aluminium, would not decide to shut up shop altogether if this state and country could not guarantee a secure energy source. That is what we are facing.

Mr Craig Kelly interjecting

You cannot get your act together, so manufacturers like Tomago are put at risk. We have seen one aluminium smelter in my electorate close, and I do not want to see another go. Our local economy and our local families rely on Tomago. Kurri Kurri, my home town, is still reeling from the closure of the Hydro Aluminium smelter in 2012, and our region can ill afford the closing of another smelter.

From the bottom of my heart I thank Matt Howell and his team at Tomago for their incredible efforts but—and it is a big but—why, in Australia in 2017, are we being asked to make a choice between cutting off the power to a major Australian manufacturer and cutting off the power to 300,000 homes? Why are we not able to keep the fridges going, the lights on or the air conditioning running during a heatwave? Think of the elderly people and the young families. What sort of a choice is that? And why should we be making it? It is because you have no plans. You have no clue how to transition. Was it a forced decision? Did AGL have no choice but to shut down Tomago? Was it directed to do so? Was it a commercial decision by AGL to choose this course of action to make a tidy profit? Who is calling the shots when it comes to keeping the lights on and the power on for industries in this country? When will this government sort this mess out?

Last week those guys passed around that piece of coal. We know that that coal was just a sham, and that is what this government is. It is a power sham.


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