House debates

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Matters of Public Importance


3:16 pm

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (McMahon, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | Hansard source

For most governments and for most ministers having an Auditor-General's report which finds the misuse of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money would be a scandal. For this government it's called Thursday and for this minister it doesn't even touch the side. We heard him in question time: 'Nothing to see! All tickety-boo!' Three million dollars was given to a company which told the minister they couldn't do a feasibility study; he wouldn't take no for an answer, he was so determined to give away taxpayer dollars.

This report, which was released after the parliament rose last Thursday, should be categorised by the Parliamentary Library under 'H' for 'horror stories'. Even by this minister's standards, this is a damning indictment of his mismanagement. This report finds that the allocation of the funding was not fully informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice on the award of grant funding. It found that there was no probity framework covering the entire program and that appropriate arrangements had not been implemented to manage conflicts of interest. It found that Sion energy, as I said, told the government they couldn't deliver. It found that the department told the minister that there were real risks that the project would not be delivered. And it found that this company, which the minister was so determined to give almost $4 million to, had assets of $100 and debts of $70,000 with no other form of income. They have never delivered a coal-fired power station, let alone any other type of energy facility, yet this minister was very determined to give taxpayer money away.

When a government is soaked in scandal, it's our country that pays the price. When a government is so obsessed with spin and survival over policies and priorities, it's our country that pays the price. This government and this building are dealing with the most serious of issues at the moment. The most important thing is to ensure that women feel safe and valued in our national capital and in our national parliament. It's vitally important, and this minister will not use it as an alibi for his mismanagement. This minister will not use it as an excuse for his mismanagement. This is a minister who is a walking advertisement for the need for a national integrity commission in this country. This minister is a walking advertisement for the need for a federal ICAC. Our country pays the price for his maladministration of his portfolio.

To understand the context of the Auditor-General's report, we need to go back a little to the last election campaign. We need to go back to the Liberal and National parties telling the people of North Queensland and Australia that they had an answer for Australia's energy needs: it was a coal-fired power station in North Queensland. There were some on that side who said it shouldn't happen. There were members and cabinet ministers who said it will never happen. The member for New England said it was a firm commitment. He said there would be a coal-fired power station in Collinsville; he talked up that commitment. They were at war about whether to have a coal-fired power station in Collinsville. They knew that the private sector would never fund such an investment. They knew the private sector would never invest in a coal-fired power station in Collinsville or anywhere else. So these free market warriors, these protectors of our free enterprise system, came up with a cunning plan, a taxpayer funded coal-fired power station! But the minister at the table couldn't get the commitment to build it. So he promised decisive action, a feasibility study funded by the taxpayer!

So this maladministration started with dishonesty. The Auditor-General's report confirms, for anybody who's interested, that this was all about getting votes from North Queensland, not delivering energy to North Queensland. The people of Collinsville were promised a coal-fired power station. Now they're not even going to get a piece of paper for the $3 million which has been expended. This all comes down to the fundamental dishonesty of the government in the lead-up to the last election campaign. We in this chamber are all used to 'Taylor-made scandals'; we've seen them and heard about them. What the minister at the table hasn't learned in dealing with these Taylor-made scandals is the old lesson that the cover-up is normally even worse than the crime. The minister told us at question time that everything's fine, tickety-boo: 'We may have spent $3 million, and we're not even going to get a feasibility study, but, apart from that, the project worked perfectly well. The surgery went very well. The patient may have died but the operation was a success,' the minister told us. His other alibi is that, all the way through, he was informed by an independent strategic study. This independent strategic study apparently told the minister he had no choice but to go down this road: 'It had to be done. We needed a coal-fired power station. We needed the feasibility study. We need to do this because of the independent strategic study.' That's very interesting given that the minister announced the study in March 2019 but commissioned the independent strategic study seven months later. And the Auditor-General pointed out that, as of last January, he had not yet been briefed on the independent strategic study, which he had regarded as so important for this decision.

All of this has a real cost for our country and all of this is part of a pattern of behaviour by this minister. It's all part of a pattern of behaviour by this minister who, as a priority, engages in sledging the Sydney City Council based on the latest and best information he has at hand—which he downloaded from a website and has never really fessed up about where he got it from or who gave it to him. This is a minister who's very quick to get access to other cabinet ministers about things which are important to him. But is he so quick to get access to cabinet ministers about things that are important to Australia?

What is important to Australia, as we've been talking about on this side of the House, are the opportunities of getting energy policy right in this country, the opportunities of actually getting emissions and energy prices down—because that's what good climate change policy and good industry policy, working together, do. What is important are the opportunities for manufacturing in Australia, the opportunities for getting energy prices down, the opportunities for regional Australia—those areas which have built our country through cheap and reliable energy, who are the same places who can deliver cheap and reliable energy into the few future with the right policies; those areas with access to ports and railway lines and pipelines, with space for renewable infrastructure. They are the areas that can build our future. They are the areas that can power our economy into the future but they need policies. They need the right policy framework. They need a minister focused on the job at hand. They need a minister who understands the opportunities, not a minister who dishonestly plays games with the people of North Queensland—before the last election—and can't even implement that dishonesty with a degree of professionalism.

This minister can't even implement a feasibility study without the Auditor-General finding the need to bring out a report—which is very innocuously named Award of funding under the Supporting the Reliable Energy Infrastructure Program, but is a damning indictment of him and his management of his portfolio. This is a minister who told us the Clean Energy Finance Corporation Bill was a milestone for Australia. His personal talisman, his great legacy that he was going to leave—a milestone for Australia. It has been introduced into the House. We've all spoken on it. It's all been processed. I wake up every morning and I get the House of Representatives blue thinking, 'Maybe today's the day where it's going to come on for a vote. Maybe today's the day where we can see how the vote will go.' No, the minister doesn't bring it on for a vote. I have to say to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, we'll never see it again. We will never see the bill again, because this minister is too incompetent to deliver it. He can't even deliver government policy, a bill to this chamber, let alone a policy for the country. He can't even deliver a framework for investment for our country. The people of regional Queensland deserve better. The people of North Queensland deserve better. The people of Australia deserve better. They're not going get it while this government is in office. They're certainly not going to get it while this minister is in office.


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