House debates

Thursday, 6 December 2018



3:01 pm

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (McMahon, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the Member for McMahon from moving the following motion immediately—

That the House:

(1) notes:

(a) the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Governments have failed to provide a consistent energy policy for Australia;

(b) that the Government has embraced respectively, before each policy was abandoned:

(i) an emissions intensity scheme;

(ii) a clean energy target;

(iii) at least six different versions of the national energy guarantee; and

(iv) three different versions of divestment just this week,

(c) the Government's most recent attempt at forced divestment policy has been panned by experts as increasing sovereign risk, chilling investment and putting upward pressure on power prices;

(d) that the divestment policy had to be completely rewritten to remove the power to order divestiture from the Treasurer to the courts;

(e) that the legislation tabled by the Treasurer yesterday allows for the privatisation of energy assets if divestiture is forced in relation to a government owned asset;

(f) that the Treasurer and other Government ministers have continually denied this is the case despite the legislation being clear on this point;

(g) that the Member for Kennedy has moved an amendment, seconded by the Member for Dawson, which seeks to ban privatisations as part of a divestiture process, which confirms that the current bill does not; and

(2) condemns the Government for their complete failure in energy policy, their botched divestiture policy and for seeking privatisation by stealth.

There has been a lot of intemperate language in the House and in the building today from the Prime Minister. We heard of 'clear and present danger'—he swallowed one too many Tom Clancy novels—in a very un-prime-ministerial and unedifying performance from the incumbent in the job, but what we actually see here is what happens when a government's policy agenda falls apart before our very eyes. Nowhere is this more evident and more important for the economy and for households than in this government's complete failure when it comes to energy policy. This is a government which has had so many energy policies that the House would be forgiven for forgetting just how hopeless it has been when it comes to stability and certainty in energy.

The now Treasurer, when he was Minister for the Environment and Energy, had an emissions intensity scheme as his policy. The House would be forgiven for forgetting that, because it lasted less than 24 hours before the extreme right-wing, climate-change deniers opposite killed the then energy minister's policy. Then the Chief Scientist recommended the clean energy target. That lasted a couple of weeks—relative longevity as an energy policy for the government—before it was destroyed. Then we had the National Energy Guarantee, which was personally designed by the now Prime Minister and the now Treasurer. The National Energy Guarantee was personally designed by them and redesigned by them. We had four versions in 14 days of the National Energy Guarantee.

Now, to make up for their lack of policy, we have the made-up policy of divestiture. It is poorly designed, poorly implemented policy on the run. It has had three versions already and it's a week old. We had the version where the Treasurer would be able to force divestiture of energy assets. We had the version where the Treasurer wouldn't have the power to force diversion of energy assets; the courts would. And now we have version 3, which the government seemingly embraced during question time, which embraces an amendment moved by the members for Kennedy and Dawson. So, clearly, the legislation allows for privatisation. You shouldn't need to be a Rhodes scholar to know that it allows privatisation. The members for Kennedy and Dawson could work it out, but the Minister for Energy and the Treasurer couldn't work it out.

Why would the Australian people be concerned about privatisation under this? Because the government believes in it. The now Prime Minister himself said: 'privatisation of the New South Wales electricity network will place downward pressure on electricity prices'. He believes in it.

The Treasurer's alibi here is that the legislation allows for a government entity to be disposed of to another government entity. Who is going to buy these assets whose divestiture is being forced? Is the Queensland government going to sell it to itself? Are they going sell it to Tuvalu maybe—or Morocco or Tunisia? Which government owned entity is going to buy the asset which they are being forced to divest themselves of? Are the people of New South Wales expected to buy the Queensland assets when they're being privatised in New South Wales? This is absurd policy on the run from the Treasurer and he should have the gumption to admit he's got this wrong. He should have the gumption to admit he's had to rewrite his policy and he should have the gumption to admit that his policy will put upward pressure on energy prices.

The Minister for Energy says that this side of the House voted nine times for higher energy prices. I'll tell you what we voted nine times for: good policy. I'll tell you what we voted nine times against: sovereign risk. We voted nine times against a policy which would chill investment in this country.

The Treasurer talks about Venezuela. If he wants to talk about Venezuela, he needs to go no further than the nearest mirror. That's where he needs to go if he wants to talk about Venezuela, because he'd see the policies of a country which does not believe in stable policymaking but which does believe in sovereign risk. The words 'sovereign risk' should not be uttered about Australia. It should be the first responsibility of the Treasurer of Australia to ensure that the words 'sovereign risk' are not uttered in relation to us. On this Treasurer's watch he is introducing sovereign risk in a way which is extremely dangerous for the Australian economy.

What this Treasurer and this government have done is unite energy consumers and energy producers in one view. The energy consumers and the energy producers released a joint statement, together with the leaders of the business community, earlier in the week saying that this is bad policy which will make electricity more expensive. You'd think that, if the energy consumers thought that this was a good idea and it was going to reduce power prices, they wouldn't have signed on to that statement. Well, they did. It's there for all to see. The energy consumers have united with the energy producers. Well done, Treasurer! You've managed to bring Australia together and unite the producers and the consumers in opposition to your policy. That's what the government has managed to do. It takes an effort, it takes some doing, but they've managed to do it. That's what happens when you have such bad policy being implemented by this government.

You have the opportunity for the privatisation of assets. You have that being facilitated by this government. If they really didn't believe in the privatisation of assets, if they had had the chance to make sure that the legislation was crystal clear on that point, maybe if they'd spent more time getting it right—if that's their real view and not their secret view—maybe they would have spent time referring it to an inquiry, having draft legislation, showing it to the states, showing it to the industry and showing it to experts. No state saw this legislation before the Treasurer introduced it yesterday. No industry players saw the legislation. It was introduced confidentially and not released for draft exposure. The Liberal and National Party rooms did not see that legislation. I doubt that cabinet saw the legislation before the Treasurer introduced it.

This is what this government has become. We have reached the nadir of policymaking on this Prime Minister's watch, the nadir of policymaking of this once great party that once believed in sound economic policy, that once eschewed sovereign risk, that once believed in investment certainty and that once consulted with industry and with consumer groups before embarking on such a policy.

This government has lurched from crisis to crisis in energy. It has destroyed one Prime Minister so far and it should destroy this Prime Minister today. We'll talk of clear and present danger if you really want to. This Prime Minister is a clear and present danger to electricity prices, if that's the language he wants to use. The nation has been subjected, on their watch, to the most un-prime-ministerial Prime Minister we have seen since Billy McMahon. He is the most un-prime-ministerial Prime Minister we could imagine—a man who will always see the politics in any issue. You can take the member for Cook out of the role of state director of the Liberal Party, but you can't take the state director of the Liberal Party out of him. He will always find the cheap political stunt, he will always find the slogan and he will always find the cheap policy.

Where we have divestment, a policy which stands against everything the Liberal Party once believed in, and a policy which stands against everything that political and economic conservatives in this country once advocated, we know that this Prime Minister has jumped the shark. He's finally jumped the shark when it comes to economic credibility.

Former Liberal leaders will be hanging their heads in shame. John Howard and Peter Costello will be hanging their heads in shame that a government has been reduced to forcing electricity companies to divest their assets if the government is not happy with the way they conduct themselves.

There's a better way. There's a better way than this and it's policy, stability and certainty under a Shorten Labor government. If you're so certain, call an election and we'll bring it on.

3:14 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

3:11 pm

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

It is. A very serious energy crisis has emerged under this government, an energy crisis that is crippling household budgets, that is seriously threatening the viability of businesses and hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country and a crisis that is seriously damaging Australia's reputation as a sound destination for investment either in energy or in energy-using manufacturing across the globe. In response to this crisis this government has now reached its 10th energy policy in just this parliament—its 10th energy policy since the 2016 election and it still hasn't been able to land a single one of them.

The emissions intensity scheme, which my colleague the shadow Treasurer spoke about a little earlier, was a policy that had the support of every single business group in the country and every single state government—Labor and Liberal alike—in the country. The National Farmers' Federation supported it. As the Deputy Prime Minister will remember very well, I'm sure, the Young Nationals annual conference supported the emissions intensity scheme. It was extraordinary consensus, yet after one radio interview that the Treasurer did with Fran Kelly in late 2016 it was smashed by a veto led by the member for Warringah.

The then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, tried again. He asked the chief scientist, Alan Finkel, to come up with an alternative, and he did—a clean energy target. The story's rather familiar. Every single business group in the country supported it. Every state government, Labor and Liberal alike, supported it. Federal Labor said we could work with it. I'm not sure about the position of the Young Nationals—the Deputy Prime Minister might inform us—but they seemed to take a pretty constructive view about energy policy. The National Farmers' Federation supported it. Again there was a veto led by the member for Warringah—sorry, I forgot to mention the member for Hughes—and many others on the hard Right of the Liberal Party to smash yet another attempt to gain consensus to solve to energy crisis that has emerged under this government.

In response to that we had the National Energy Guarantee. There were two versions of that, and four versions in the dying days of Malcolm Turnbull's prime ministership. In just 14 days there were four versions of the National Energy Guarantee added to the original two. You have to admire maybe not their views on energy policy and climate change but the assiduous way in which the member for Warringah, the member for Hughes and the member for Hume—now the energy minister—have gone about demolishing every attempt at energy policy consensus in this country.

In some exquisite irony, the new Prime Minister gave the member for Hume, the chief spear thrower against the National Energy Guarantee, the portfolio. The dog that caught the car was finally given a chance to work on a solution to this energy crisis. Just like the proverbial dog, he's been left utterly bereft of any ideas. He had one idea: throw billions of dollars of taxpayer funds at building new coal-fired power stations, and maybe even indemnify the operators of such power stations for any future carbon risk. Now, trying to find an operator to do that would be pretty difficult. The only business figure who has indicated any interest in partnering with this government on building a new coal-fired power station is of course Clive Palmer, whose last great idea was building Titanic II. The Australian Industry Group has estimated that indemnifying just one coal-fired power station would cost taxpayers $17 billion.

Added to that brilliant exercise in fiscal recklessness, this government has come up with the idea of divestiture, a Venezuelan-inspired act of neo-Marxism the likes of which are difficult to find in the 21st century—but they've found it. And who supported this? You'd think that if this were in the interests of consumers then the consumer watchdog might have come up with the idea after an exhaustive inquiry into the electricity industry over 18 to 24 months. But they considered it and they explicitly rejected it as an extreme measure. You'd think that, if this were a measure that would cut power bills, maybe business groups that use lots of energy would support it. But, to a group, they have said over the past couple of weeks that this is a deep and real sovereign risk that will impact the Australian economy and simply force prices up.

The government haven't asked anyone else. They didn't ask any of the state governments, and we learned earlier this week why they didn't ask the state governments. It was because a more sinister purpose behind this legislation became clear from the energy minister: it was about continuing their 25-year exercise in selling off—in privatising—the people's electricity assets. They did it in Victoria. They did it in South Australia. They did it with the support of the now Prime Minister in New South Wales, and they had Queensland, Tasmania, WA, Snowy Hydro and the Northern Territory in their sights. It took the member for Kennedy to fix the government's mess. (Time expired)

3:17 pm

Photo of Christian PorterChristian Porter (Pearce, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for McMahon used the words 'cheap political stunt'. That is like Darth Vader giving a parenting class—having them accuse anyone in this place of a cheap political stunt. Let's work out why they are trying to suspend standing orders at exactly the time that they did, during question time. It is because they did not want to face another question on border protection. There is a stunt going on, and it is one that they've orchestrated in the other place. There'll be a price for that stunt, and it won't be cheap. That's why they are here now trying to divert attention away from the fact that their own stunt is blowing up in their face. Every Australian is being reminded of the absolute diabolical tragedy that occurred under their watch, under their policies. And what's the stunt that's going on? They are up there now trying to have a home affairs bill, in the portfolio of which I have stewardship at the moment—polluted with amendments that relate to medical transfer from Nauru—brought back down to this House. Why are they doing that? To try to cause some modest procedural embarrassment to the government. What's the price of that? The price of that is to fundamentally destroy one of the three central pillars of a policy that has stopped children drowning at sea. That's why they're quiet now, that's why they were quiet in question time and that's why they've moved this suspension of standing orders motion—so they wouldn't have to hear it anymore. Well, they're going to hear it a little bit more.

And let's talk about what an utter and diabolical disaster their policy was. There's a place in WA called Geraldton, 2½ thousand kilometres from Christmas Island. On 10 April 2013, 2½ thousand kilometres from Christmas Island and in fact not very far from Perth—a holiday destination for people who live in Perth—would you believe the surprise of the people in Geraldton who were having cups of tea, literally, at the cafe when they looked up and saw an asylum-seeker vessel with 66 men, women and children arrive at the doorstep of Geraldton? And do you know what? They were the lucky ones, because they made it here. They also, of course, ended up in detention, including the children, but there were so many who drowned at sea. That's why we've got this stunt. That's why we've had stunts all week—because it's blown up in their faces. Bring your bill back down here. Let's talk about it. Let's debate it. Let's remind every Australian what it is that you did, what it is that you were responsible for. Because if you support and align with the crossbench, if you do that to revert to the policies that you had, the inevitable result is drownings at sea. We will never, ever let that happen again. Do you know what happened when that boat arrived at Geraldton? The member was the minister. The home affairs minister at the time released a press release. Do you know what it said? He said that they would respond to the arrival. Well, thank you very much. Everyone must have been breathing a sigh of relief. They would respond to the arrival of 66 people—the lucky ones who made it; the lucky ones who ended up in detention; the children that ended up in detention, 8,000 of them.

As we have heard today, the cost wasn't just human, although that cost was utterly devastating and tragic. The cost was economic. It cost $16 billion for the taxpayers of Australia to fund that disaster, which they want to run away from, which they never want to talk about again, and which they stupidly put back on the agenda. They put their policy and our discussion of their policy back on the agenda to talk about and for the Australian people to see and remember the disaster and the tragedy. $16 billion—if you don't think that makes a difference, in my portfolio of Attorney-General, we run the entire justice and court system, including legal assistance funding, for $1.2 billion. With the money that you wasted in a policy that lives were lost under you could fund the entire court and justice system in Australia for 16 years. Sixteen years with the money that you wasted propping up a policy that caused the deaths of children. And now, in a stunt, you want to try and unravel the successful response to those years of disaster.

Another thing that you've done today is delay a bill that you agreed would go through the House yesterday and that you agreed the parliamentary joint committee would respond to and report on yesterday morning. You delayed it here, contrary to your agreement. You did that because you thought it gave you some kind of strategic advantage in bringing a bill back to this place which would unravel border protection. So here you are, delaying a bill meant to keep Australians safe from terrorists by allowing our law enforcement agencies to have appropriate powers to get into encrypted systems. You are delaying that national security bill in order to have a tactical win on a bill that would destroy another plank of Australia's national security and border protection. How bad can it get? How dishonest can you be? How much can you rely on using stunts which blow up in your face to try and embarrass a government? The only people you've embarrassed are yourselves. You've shown exactly who you are and what you're made of it, and it doesn't do anything for any man, woman or child.

Australia needs strong border protection. That is what we have given this country for five years. Right now, up there and behind the doors of your offices, you are trying do deals, destroy legislation and undo the protection that we have offered for the Australian people at their borders, for the people who are the victims of people smugglers. What you are doing is an absolute disgrace. It goes to the very core of the way that you conduct politics and the very core of your failure to understand what is necessary to protect Australia's borders. This has been stunt upon stunt upon stunt. It's blown up in your face and you know it. If you want to have an argument about border protection, bring it on. Bring it on every day between now and the election, because the Australian people need to know what you will do if you ever got your hands back on that policy again. It will result in the deaths of children at sea.

3:24 pm

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a rare phenomenon in this parliament where I stand up to defend the ALP and the LNP, but I'm left with no alternative but to go to this ugly scenario. We all greeted the legislation with cynicism. I got calls about it from the trade union movement in Queensland. I hadn't looked at the legislation, and my chief of staff said, 'Divestment?' And I said, 'No, we want nationalisation.' We're all socialists! But if we can't get nationalisation, I suppose we have to go along with it. It suddenly occurred to me, as it did to the ALP: 'Uh, uh, uh, sneaky trick to get all the Queensland electricity industry sold off.' This is where I depart from the ALP. Everyone in Queensland knows, including the trade union movement, that there is nothing the ALP in Queensland would want more than to sell off the electricity industry. They tried to sell it and got themselves annihilated in an election. They were selling the railways and half selling the electricity industry. So they're scared, but they know they can buy their way through the next election if they sell it for $15,000 million.

I would agree with almost everything the ALP have said today, because that was exactly what I was saying to the Treasurer. I'm going to defend the Treasurer here. I said, 'This is a cheap, sneaky trick to sell the Snowy and to sell the Queensland electricity industry.' And he said, 'No, it's not.' I said, 'Well, you prove it by passing a piece of legislation saying that you're preventing it.' He said, 'Yes, I will.' I was quite stunned. I didn't have a plan B. He said, 'You draft the legislation.' So I drafted the legislation. Either the Treasurer is an extremely good actor, for which I congratulate him, or, alternatively, he is quite genuine and honest. In this case, it's my opinion that he was playing a straight bat. If you're not going to nationalise it—this side of the House doesn't want that and that side of the House doesn't want that; this little group over here does want that, but we're a minority—there is divestment.

Everybody knows the story about Theodore Roosevelt and how divestment was forced on the Standard Oil company in New Jersey and Rockefeller was broken up into 20 or 30 parts. Everyone knows that it is one of the great moments in world history. If you can't have nationalisation then you've got to go to divestment. The other side of it was: was it a sneaky trick to force the sale of the assets? So, we moved the amendment that prevents that. There is absolutely no purpose in selling a Stanwell to another government department. It has to be in the same state as well, because you could sell it maybe to another state. So I stand up here on a very rare occasion to defend both sides of the House. I think both sides have approached this issue with the best intent, and I thank them. (Time expired)

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for the debate has expired. The question is that the motion moved by the member for McMahon be agreed to.

3:37 pm

Photo of Scott MorrisonScott Morrison (Cook, Liberal Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Speaker, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.