Senate debates

Thursday, 23 August 2018



4:45 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources) Share this | Hansard source

It gives me great pleasure to stand here today to put on the record the very strong energy policy of this government. I acknowledge the kind words of the senator opposite about the work that has been done by those on this side today. We appreciate her kind words. Unfortunately, when it comes to energy policy, I come from the state of South Australia, and there is no state in Australia that has experienced the impact of reckless renewable policy, such as not considering renewable policy in terms of its transition, like South Australia.

I don't think there's anybody who has a problem with moving to a clean energy future. There are many, many wonderful innovations that have taken place in the Australian marketplace over recent years through an absolute, committed desire for us to have a clean energy future. Like when you want to change any substantial policy—such as going from one where we've been almost entirely reliant on fossil fuels for many, many years into a renewable energy future—there is a transition that needs to take place. Part of that transition sometimes is going to require certain mechanisms in the marketplace that will enable that transition to take place without having significant consequences and impacts on the people who rely every day on power.

The fundamental bottom line here has been that our hell-bent pursuit of renewables, without actually taking into consideration the need for dispatchability, saw South Australia suffer the inevitable consequences of this reckless ideology over the past couple of years. I suppose the only saving grace when our major blackout occurred in South Australia was that it didn't occur either in the absolute coldest days of winter or in the height of summer. It actually happened in September, so some small grace or intervention of God probably prevented what was a very, very serious issue and event in South Australia from being a whole heap worse than it actually was.

Some of our communities in South Australia were without power for four days. When you consider not just the economic impact but the inconvenience of that, we dodged an extraordinary bullet in terms of the energy services and the human impact. That could have been quite serious had we had an accident, because our telecommunications towers were down. We had no way of being able to communicate with an ambulance that was required to go out to an incident or to somebody who was in a serious or critical condition. We had no way of being able to communicate, because we rely so heavily on mobile phones these days, particularly in rural and regional areas. We were very, very lucky to have escaped, by the skin of our teeth, from something that could have been much, much worse than it was.

The absolute pursuit of an ideological renewable policy, without thinking about the transition and the necessity of storage and dispatchability through the transition process, has seen a number of things occur. Obviously, as I said, there is the reliability of the generation of the power that we have seen in South Australia. The fact is that, because we now have more than 50 per cent of our energy generated in South Australia through renewables, during very hot or high-demand periods, if the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing, we find ourselves in South Australia with no power. This is unacceptable in the 21st century in a First World country.

Only a few years ago, Australia would brag that we had entirely reliable power. You didn't have to have three gin and tonics before you opened your power bill. I have to say, these days, when the envelope turns up with the little blue square in the corner that says 'AGL', it puts the fear of God into most of us, because when you open that bill you know it's going to have an impact. I'm one of the lucky people in that I have a salary that allows me to be able to pay those bills, but there are a lot of people in our community who can't. What we have as a result of the recklessness of this pursuit of renewables without considering how we are going to get there is a community in Australia, particularly in my home state of South Australia, who can no longer rely on affordability and reliability of power.

I like to think the power market or the power situation in Australia is a bit like a tripod. You've got three legs: you've got the leg of affordability, you've got the leg of reliability, and, I will admit and concede, we have an international obligation to make sure that we look after the planet into the future and leave it in at least as good a condition as we found it for the next generation and those that follow. But you can't have one leg without the others, because, for all of us who have ever seen a tripod with one of its legs cut off, you can be absolutely guaranteed it will fall over. That's exactly what we saw in South Australia. We saw a tripod that was completely reliant on standing on the leg of meeting some renewable energy target without considering the two other legs of affordability and reliability of power.

We've now ended up in a situation in Australia where the people of Australia have become so impacted by the price and the cost of their energy that they are no longer focusing on the ideological pursuit of renewables; they're looking at being able to afford to pay their power bills. For this reason it is absolutely essential that we, as a government, focus on reducing people's power bills. I have heard the contributions from those opposite who, for some reason, seem to think that an increase in the amount of renewables is somehow going to decrease the price of power. I'm not quite sure which scientist you got to give you that piece of information, given that so far the pursuit of renewables has seen nothing but increases in the price of power. One would suggest that any move to increase the renewable energy targets in this country, based on absolutely empirical evidence and experience, would see the price of power go up. What we need to do is put a circuit breaker—pardon the pun—into energy policy. We have to focus on the people who are being impacted by higher prices for their energy.

The Turnbull government have put a series of measures in place. We saw this government intervene in the gas market to make sure that there was sufficient gas available in the Australian market so that we would see a reduction in the price of energy, and that's exactly what happened. We're already starting to see a slight decrease in people's energy prices in Australia. But, equally, we had to look at a suite of other measures. There was a report from the ACCC, and they put forward a series of recommendations. It is a matter of public record that we were unable to get the full support of all of those on this side, in the coalition government, but equally, despite the fact that we had an energy policy that was going to deliver, we never at any time received support from the opposition to get the energy policy through and address all of the matters that were before us in terms of reliability and affordability, and working towards delivering an energy policy that would see our responsibility, in terms of emissions, being achieved.

I'd also like to put on the record that, whilst Australia has, over a very long time, had a very responsible approach towards energy policy, we are, to a large extent, a bit player in this market. So there has to be some support for the argument that we probably should be putting a bit of a break, perhaps, on our ideological pursuit of a renewable energy future, when the rest of the carbon emitting world is not pursuing that. We cannot drive Australia out of the world market by driving up energy prices to such an extent that we become totally and utterly overexposed in energy and non-competitive in the global marketplace.

We already saw those opposite throw out our corporate tax cuts that were going to allow our companies with over $50 million in turnover to be globally competitive. It is quite ironical that there seems to be a complete disconnect in the minds of those opposite when they come up with policy. They say that the fact that a company happens to be big means that it's somehow bad. I have to say bigger companies actually employ people. I don't know too many companies with turnovers over $50 million that don't have a significant workforce, and those people actually have jobs. They have pay packets that are paid by these companies so that they can live the lifestyle that we like to live in Australia. So you should not penalise our large companies and put them at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace simply because ideologically you don't want to support something that the government is putting forward.

The hypocrisy and the irony is that so much of the policy that was put forward by the coalition in relation to corporate tax cuts was actually the very same policy position that was espoused by those opposite in previous times. The Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, the shadow Treasurer and so many of those opposite have actually said that the best way to move the economy along, to stimulate the economy, to drive people's wages up and to make sure that there are more jobs available is to reduce the tax burden on our corporate sector so that they will have the money and the incentive to employ more people. But once again we saw that those opposite would rather blow up the bus. The government put through a sensible policy that was going to have a major impact on the Australian economy for the better. Those opposite would rather throw that out.

It is interesting also when you sit down and have a look at some companies in Australia who turn over more than $50 million. It's not just the big banks. There are an awful lot of companies that turn over more than $50 million. Take Qantas for an example. We all know where Qantas started. It started as a company in Longreach a long, long time ago, and look at what it is today. When you look at Qantas, they have 3,000 suppliers that supply them with all sorts of things to get their aircraft in the air and to look after the passengers once they're on board, whether it be the person that provides some of the food, the person who provides the cleaning products or the person who provides some of the maintenance activities. There are so many companies. Three thousand companies support Qantas getting its planes in the air, and those 3,000 businesses are largely small businesses. They're certainly all small and medium sized businesses, and every single one of those will be put at a disadvantage simply because those opposite would rather throw out a good policy than see the coalition government actually be able to deliver for the people of Australia. So once again this really is a case of: shame on you.

In terms of energy policy, we had the opportunity to work together to deliver good energy policy, but it was decided that we were going to have this ideological pursuit at renewables at all costs and that we would put false information out into the marketplace in support of this alternative policy of reducing emissions by 45 per cent and having a 50 per cent renewable energy target. If that is not putting a wrecking ball through our economy, I don't know what is.

We need to sit down as a parliament and decide that we need to pass policies that are in the best interests of the people of Australia. We should put politicking aside because of the people who stand to suffer from us not being able to move forward with sensible policies when it comes to energy, corporate tax cuts, managing the economy and keeping the budget in check. There are so many things that we could do and that the people of Australia elected us to this place to do that we aren't doing. If we sat down and put the people of Australia before our own petty political self-interest, I'm sure that we could make a huge amount of difference.

In concluding my remarks today on energy policy, I say: just spare a thought today for the hundreds and possibly thousands of farmers who have been impacted massively by the drought that is affecting much of Australia. These people have run the country for so many years. The agricultural sector has been the backbone of the Australian economy for so many years. Things come and things go, but the agricultural sector is still there. And we have been very keen in working with our agricultural sector to make sure that they are in the best possible place to be able to provide the economic benefits that they can generate for the rest of Australia. But they are under so much pressure at the moment because of drought and the impact of drought. Don't forget what the impact of their energy bills is on them at a time when they can least afford or cope with it.

There are so many impacts of bad energy policy that are negative and so many good impacts of good energy policy. I would call on this chamber to not play politics with something as serious as the price and reliability of Australian power. Let's sensibly, systematically and methodically work our way towards being able to deliver a clean energy future that all Australians can afford, a clean energy future that's not going to mean that pensioners are too scared to turn their heating on in winter and that they have to crawl underneath a blanket to keep warm. Let's make sure that we don't expose the weak and vulnerable in our communities, who can't afford to turn their air conditioners on in summer, and make them swelter in their houses and put them at great risk because we don't have energy policy that is primarily focused on reducing the price of power. Let's not be so ideologically obsessed with talking about having to have renewables as the only source of power. Some amazing technologies have been delivered that can use clean coal. You should remain agnostic to the source of your energy. If you want to focus on emissions, that's just fine, but don't then demand that somehow you can also put in place a ruling about where the generation of those emissions is coming from.

I think the Turnbull coalition government has got a very proud record when it comes to energy policy. Obviously, we would have liked to have seen energy policy passed in recent times so that we could have given certainty and comfort to the millions of Australians who are currently struggling under high energy bills. But, when those opposite come in here and spout the fact that a renewable energy target of 50 per cent is going to reduce energy bills, I'd like to say, 'Show us your evidence,' because, if history is anything to go by, the pursuit of even higher renewable energy targets and even higher emissions targets can only do one thing to the price of power—that is, make it go up.

In conclusion, during the six years of the Labor government, electricity prices doubled. We are doing everything we can possibly do to bring electricity prices down. I call on those opposite to work with us as a government to make sure that we continue to do so for the sake of all Australians.


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