House debates

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Ministerial Statements


10:05 am

Photo of Mark ButlerMark Butler (Hindmarsh, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | Hansard source

We've had to wait until this minister's third year for him to make a statement, and all the statement confirmed was, firstly, how utterly bare this government's cupboard is of energy policy and, secondly, everyone's suspicion, already pretty well founded, that this minister is without a doubt the worst energy minister in living memory. I've been in this portfolio for several years, and I've worked with his predecessors, Ian Macfarlane, now at the QRC, and the now Treasurer. These were people with whom I regularly disagreed on policy but people—Ian and the Treasurer—who were well renowned for being able to work across the aisle in the national interest. I did that with both of them in a constructive way, but this minister, according to all reports, finds it difficult even to work with his own colleagues, let alone work across the aisle. At the end of the day it reflects pretty poorly on this Prime Minister that he decided, after the election particularly, after the hullabaloo of the coup against Malcolm Turnbull was all over, to keep this minister in this portfolio. We've got an incompetent ideologue, weighed down by a seemingly endless litany of scandals, in this portfolio at a time of the biggest transformation in the global energy sector in living memory.

This is the minister's third year in his job, and he's delivered just two things. He told us today he's delivered the Grid Reliability Fund, but we haven't even begun debate on that legislation in this House. He told us he's delivered the refunding of ARENA, and we thank him for that, though it's a body that this government spent years and years trying to abolish. He tells us that he's delivered an Integrated System Plan, a plan he described a couple of weeks ago as 'transmission lines to nowhere'. In truth, the only two things this minister has delivered are a grant of almost $9 million to the operator of the Vales Point coal-fired power station and a grant of almost $4 million to Shine Energy, a company that's never delivered any project whatsoever and a grant which has been referred to and is being investigated by the Auditor-General—a grant that was announced before the department had even bothered to ask this company to apply for a grant to be able to conduct its own feasibility study into its own project.

But, to be fair to this minister, he never claimed to have any ambition to achieve anything positive in this sector. This minister was elected on a platform of stopping stuff, and he spent all his time as a backbencher advocating the stopping of stuff. This minister only believes in one thing in the energy portfolio, and that is to stop the expansion of renewable energy. This minister, before he was elected and as a backbencher, was, as we all know, the poster child of Alan Jones's anti-windfarm rallies, and later on, along with Tony Abbott, the member for Hughes, the member for New England and a whole bunch of other fellow members of that clique within the coalition party room, he ambushed the then Prime Minister, the then Treasurer—now Prime Minister—and the then energy minister—now Treasurer—and killed off the National Energy Guarantee. This was a policy that had been sought by this government, recommended to this government and supported by every single state government in the country, Labor and Liberal alike. It was supported by every business group and described by the now Prime Minister as the policy which had the greatest level of consensus he had ever seen in his time in the parliament. It was a policy which the now Prime Minister and the now Treasurer said would save households $550, but because it countenanced the expansion of some renewable energy it was ambushed and killed off by this minister when he was a junior.

Well, they got their wish. The NEG is gone—the last chance of an enduring bipartisan energy policy coming out of this parliament for the benefit of the nation. They got their wish. But, like the dog that finally caught the car, this minister has had no idea what to do next. His first obligation, of course, was to report back to his mentor, Alan Jones. He did that within a couple of days of being appointed minister for energy, and he reiterated to Alan his absolute commitment to stopping more solar and wind. He said to Alan, 'There's too much solar and wind in this system,' and under him there would be no more. Of course, investor confidence collapsed, but that didn't bother the minister, because he said, 'A government should not even try to boost investor confidence.' God forbid that would be the role of a government in a mixed private-public economy. His plan, instead, was to set up a policy, which he gives the fancy name 'Underwriting New Generation Investments'—a policy he didn't refer much to in his statement—to be able to pick his own pet projects. There were no guidelines, there was no transparency, and, as has been pointed out by a number of these operators, there was no actual delivery, except for a grant, as I said, to the Vales Point coal-fired power station.

In spite of the minister's best efforts to abolish Renewable Energy Target, along with those fellow travellers several years ago, there was a final burst of investment in renewable energy over the last several years as the Renewable Energy Target legislation tapered off. But there is a clear policy vacuum for investors, a policy vacuum business groups, and obviously the industry, complain about regularly. Even worse than a vacuum, they have a situation where there's no investment framework coming out of this parliament and a policy that says that, at any moment, this minister will issue a media release saying that he intends to put taxpayer funds behind one of his pet projects, which might end up competing with a private investment. In contrast to what the minister said, after the Renewable Energy Target tapered off last year, the Reserve Bank made it clear that investment had collapsed by 50 per cent.

This minister talks about installations. Of course installations were still going strongly last year. They are a lagging indicator of financial decisions made two years earlier. The Reserve Bank and the industry itself said that investment decisions have collapsed, because after the Renewable Energy Target was completed there was an utter policy vacuum. This minister might try to pretend otherwise. The Reserve Bank of Australia made that point last year before COVID-19. The University of Technology Sydney has said that, because of that policy vacuum, 11,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector will be lost over the coming two years because of the lack of an investment framework. At a time when we need the creation of new jobs, in a sector that, around the world, is seeing investments created by the hundreds and hundreds of thousands, jobs are going backwards under this minister because of his ideology.

To cover up this abysmal lack of delivery, a few weeks ago we saw a week of announcements. This Prime Minister is good at announcements. He is very, very good at announcements. One of them was the Technology Investment Roadmap—a document that included some good things. It included, for example, a focus on hydrogen. We had a hydrogen policy last year at the election; the government then described hydrogen as snake oil. We're glad to see that they have changed their view about that. Hydrogen is something that I think this parliament as a whole can get behind. But there were some inexplicable details in this technology road map. Bioenergy: where members talk so much about regional Australia, you'd think this would be an area they would support strongly. Bioenergy was utterly missing from this technology road map, but of course nuclear energy was in. Bioenergy out, nuclear energy in.

Energy efficiency was described as an emerging technology. The International Energy Agency describes it as the first fuel. Around the world we see energy efficiency as the best way of driving down power bills and energy bills more generally, the best way of creating new jobs. We see this in the UK, in other parts of Europe, in the United States and, increasingly, in developing countries like China. But, for this minister, energy efficiency, in one of the most energy-inefficient economies in the world, is just an emerging technology. Of course, after their ridiculous, hysterical campaign last year, electric vehicles simply warrant a watching brief. We'll just watch what's happening all around the world. In this document there are no timetables; no milestones; and some really weird, inexplicable detail. It is all announcement, no delivery.

The centrepiece of this government's economic recovery strategy—the so-called gas-fired recovery—was hyped up over several months, puffed up over several months. When the document finally came out, it was full of spin and was light as a feather on substance. First of all, this gas-fired recovery document that was released by the government does absolutely nothing to resolve the crisis that has emerged under this government and been in place for years. It talks about spot prices and contract prices during the COVID pandemic. The prices paid by Australian manufacturers have tripled under this government. According to the ACCC, companies have closed under this government because of the gas prices. Contract prices have not come down. They are still at three times their historical prices, threatening the viability of thousands of manufacturing jobs, and this announcement did nothing to resolve it.

Indeed we've heard this week, with the release of a discussion paper that deals with the export controls that we have been advocating for for years to back the interests of Australian manufacturers and Australian households and see less of our gas shipped oversea so that it's reliably and affordably supplied to Australian users, already they are crab walking away from that. That's what we read in the Financial Reviewthey are backing the big gas companies again over the interests of Australian manufacturers, Australian workers and Australian households.

The most extraordinary thing about this gas-fired recovery announcement is you cannot point to a single job that will be created in the time frame we require—the next year or two. There's not a single job that you can point to in that document. Not only does the so-called gas-fired recovery fail to deliver any recovery; it is completely out of touch with the clear message being given by all business groups, investors, lenders and central banks here in Australia and all around the world, and that is that economic recovery pathways out of this COVID pandemic and the recessions that are being driven by the pandemic should be paved with clean energy.

The Business Council, the Australian Industry Group, the big banks, the big insurers and the super funds here in Australia have all said the economic recovery pathway must be aligned with a national commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. It's just the smart thing to do. Two big challenges facing our nation should be dealt with together. You can deal with them together because paving the pathway out of this recession with clean energy is the smartest way to create jobs. In contrast to the gas-fired recovery that delivers not a single job, the Clean Energy Council makes it clear that renewable energy projects that already have planning approval and would be ready to go and ready to be built if they had an investment framework that would accommodate them are ready to create 50,000 real jobs now.

But, of course, this government won't commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 because the only thing this minister hates more than renewable energy is climate action. He described climate change in this House as:

The new climate religion … has little basis on fact and everything to do with blind faith.

Again, he was making it very clear where he stands on this seismic challenge to Australia. So, even though net zero emissions by 2050 is required by the Paris Agreement that this government signed Australia up to, even though it's required and dictated by all scientific advice about what we need to do for the interests of future generations, even though it's supported and committed to by all state governments—Labor and Liberal alike—federal Labor, every business group, the biggest mining company, the biggest bank, the biggest telecommunications provider and all of the big insurers and investors in this country, even though CSIRO modelling used all the time by the New South Wales Liberal government shows that net zero emissions by 2050 will deliver higher wages, stronger economic growth and lower power bills, that's not good enough for this minister and this Prime Minister.

The performance of this government on climate change is abysmal. The Climate Change Performance Index that ranks the biggest 56 producers of greenhouse gases in the world consistently ranks Australia under this Liberal government outside the top 50. It can't even make the top 50 of 56. That plummeted obviously under Tony Abbott when he was Prime Minister, but it hasn't recovered under either Prime Minister Turnbull or the current Prime Minister because, although the marketing and spin might have changed, this government has kept the business model of Tony Abbott. It's absolutely kept true to it. There is no better evidence of that than the fact that this minister holds this portfolio.

We also see its failure in the emissions data that the government itself publishes. The latest data was published only a few months ago in August. What it shows is this: in the six-year period of the last Labor government, emissions came down by 15 per cent. They came down 15 per cent in six years. In the six years of this government, emissions have come down by one per cent. That's one per cent in six years. It will take 600 years to get to net zero emissions under this government's current rate of emissions cuts. The Prime Minister and the minister again today said, 'We smashed the Kyoto protocol target.' Well, the Kyoto protocol required us to cut emissions by five per cent and the government's own data shows that we're well short of that. They try to employ the overachievement during the Labor years, driven by policies that they strongly opposed, but what is clear is emissions have flatlined under this government.

The second falsehood that this Prime Minister continues to put to the Australian people is that we'll meet and beat our Paris target of 26 per cent by 2030. It should have been a walk in the park, given the trajectory we were on under the last Labor government, but, again, the government's own projections published last Christmas by the government, not by me, show very clearly we are way, way off track. According to those projections in December 2019, between 2020 and 2030, on this government's policies, for a whole decade we'll cut emissions by four per cent. It will take us 230 years at that rate to get to net zero emissions. By 2030, according to their data, we'll be at 16 per cent—not 26 per cent. That was confirmed again this week by RepuTex.

When the Prime Minister says: 'We're meeting and beating the Kyoto targets. We're meeting and beating the Paris targets.' he is deliberately misleading the Australian people. I'm not just saying that. His own data says it, and the experience of the last six or seven years under this government shows it too.

This active opposition and this campaigning against climate action is obviously important for its own sake. Climate change poses a deep, mortal threat to our security and our prosperity today. We will see that when the bushfire royal commission is finally released. We saw it from the drought coordinator's report 12 months ago when he said that climate change is driving more frequent, more intense droughts that affect parts of the country that haven't been traditionally prone to drought. We will see exactly that advice, I'm sure, from the bushfire royal commission.

It's a threat to security and prosperity that we're already seeing play out. It's a threat that will only become deeper for our children, our grandchildren and generations of Australians beyond, if we don't act. But it's also deeply irresponsible and negligent, because there is a race on around the world. There is a race for investment and job creation in the transformation of the global economy to a clean energy economy. And that is a race that Australia should be leading. We have the best solar resources on the planet and some of the best wind resources on the planet. If we harness that with a policy framework of the type you see in so many other democracies around the world, we will be not a renewable energy super power but the renewable energy superpower. If there as ever an opportunity for the Liberal Party to break from the Tony Abbott business model on climate change and energy policy, this pandemic was it. Investors want them to do it. Business groups want them to do it. The community and trading partners want them to do it. It's the right path for Australia. It's a path that should be paved with renewable energy, but they clearly haven't taken it.

We just heard a ministerial statement full of the fatuous ideological claptrap we have come to expect from him. But, indeed, the clearest possible evidence that this Prime Minister has decided to double down on Tony Abbott's agenda is the fact that this minister is still in his job.


Bill Thomson
Posted on 30 Oct 2020 11:14 am

"Bioenergy out, nuclear energy in"

What are you trying to say here, Mark Butler? You do realise that bioenergy has, hands down, orders of magnitude more environmental impact per joule of energy than nuclear?

Fatuous ideological claptrap indeed.