Senate debates

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Regulations and Determinations

Australian Renewable Energy Agency Amendment (2020-21 Budget Programs) Regulations 2021; Disallowance

6:05 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | Hansard source

We're debating motions Nos. 1 and 2 together. Of course, the Labor Party also has sought to disallow these regulations. The Prime Minister says that he supports a 'technology, not taxes' approach to reducing Australia's carbon emissions. The problem with that, of course, is that large swathes of this government are completely opposed to, and are attacking, the technology which the market is telling us is required to deal with Australia's carbon emissions. I'm talking about renewables. As a result, the government has not invested in electric vehicles, in battery storage or in green hydrogen. These things are all off the table. Instead, we have a relentless campaign to, in fact, undermine those parts of Australia's architecture that support the development of renewable technologies.

Back when he was trying to win over voters in his electorate, Mr Dave Sharma in the other place said:

We've allowed something that should really be a conventional policy challenge to become a kind of culture and values issue. It shouldn't be the third rail of Australian politics.

And yet here we are again, with a Deputy Prime Minister who is on the record criticising what he described as an 'insane lemming-like desire to go to renewables'. The simple truth is this: Australia would have cheaper energy and lower emissions if this government showed half as much enthusiasm for funding renewables as it does for funding unsustainable fossil fuel generation that the market believes is unnecessary, uneconomical and unwanted. The only way to fix this is to vote this government out. This parliament has passed motions, introduced private members' bills and held press conferences, but the best efforts of opposition and crossbenchers are not enough. As this regulation shows, there are some things you can only do from government.

Over the course of this term, this government has tried to slip more and more policy in through regulation. And, in part, that is deliberately to avoid the scrutiny that comes from parliament—to avoid Senate inquiries, parliamentary debate and questions in this chamber. Stakeholders have suggested that might have been the case with this regulation. It smells like a cynical attempt to circumvent the parliament through regulation, and it follows the failure of similar legislation on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the internal coalition divisions. The government knows that these changes would attract legitimate and unavoidable criticism if they were made by legislation—hence the retreat to regulation.

But sometimes regulation is not an attempt to avoid criticism from the opposition. Sometimes this government makes changes through regulation because it's not sure of even getting support for its own policy from its own party room, and that is because of the climate activism of the National Party and parts of the Queensland LNP. Last week, the National Party threatened to vote against superannuation legislation because they were worried it would give a future Treasurer the power to prevent superannuation funds from investing in fossil fuel projects. The government was forced to backflip and withdraw that part of the bill. We happen to think that that was the right decision for a variety of other reasons, but it goes to show the power that is being exerted inside the coalition by the climate reactionaries. We can only imagine what it is going to look like with Deputy Prime Minister Joyce in the ascendancy.

The truth is that moderate Liberals—modern Liberals, as some of them styled themselves in their last campaign—are absolutely nowhere to be seen on this issue.

So many Liberals from progressive areas were elected on the understanding that they would drag their party to do better on climate. Yet here we are with the same paralysis on energy policy and the same insipid targets that they had before. Dr Katie Allen promised to be a strong voice on climate change within the party room. What impact has that had? Mr Sharma said that Australia needs to be acting with a higher level of ambition. Where is it? Mr Trent Zimmerman said that Australians want the government looking at what we can do to reduce our emissions further. Well, why is the government still stuck on the inadequate targets that they agreed to in Paris? The truth is that these moderate Liberals—like Senator Hume, Senator Payne, Senator Paterson, Senator Bragg, Senator Birmingham, Mr Jason Falinski, Mr Tim Wilson, Mr Trevor Evans and Ms Celia Hammond—are nowhere to be seen on climate. The evidence for that lies in this regulation. We oppose this regulation. It is a bad policy done by a bad process.

First, the regulations appear to be in breach of the ARENA Act 2011, because they seek to expand the agency's remit beyond that of the act. The object of the ARENA Act, and therefore of the agency, is only to improve the competitiveness of renewable energy technologies and to increase the supply of renewable energy in Australia. Regardless of the merits of ARENA's expanded functions, they go beyond this object and, therefore, appear to be in breach of the act. The government has provided no credible advice to dispute this.

Second, the regulations expand ARENA's remit to include non-renewable technologies. This could allow the government to force ARENA to fund projects in carbon capture, utilisation and storage as well as in blue hydrogen. These aren't renewable technologies. They may be technologies of interest, but any Commonwealth support for them should not be via ARENA. There may well be room for government to provide further support. It's possible they may have a role in the overall technology mix, and Australia does need to transition to a lower emissions economy over time, but investment in this technology should not come at the expense of renewables, and that is precisely what these regulations would mean. The Prime Minister has said 'technology not taxes' but, at the same time, he is making regulations that defund investments in renewable technologies. That is the practical effect of the regulations before us this evening.

Third, the regulations give the government wide discretion to add other technologies to ARENA's remit over time. The explanatory memorandum says that the regulations are intentionally broad to enable ARENA to provide financial assistance to new and emerging technologies under future low-emission technology statements. Low-emission technologies, you say? It's defined pretty broadly. It's defined to mean:

… technologies that substantially reduce the emission of greenhouse gases relative to a baseline of the average emissions produced by the relevant activity or sector.

You've just got to get marginally below the average of current performance and you're in line for support, under these arrangements.

This government has repeatedly tried to abolish or water down the integrity of agencies such as ARENA—created by Labor in government—and these regulations raise the prospect that the government will use ARENA funds, at whim, far beyond the remit of the act. This government has acted in bad faith on ARENA, on every opportunity that's been presented to them, and they can't be trusted. Each Prime Minister has brought their own unique style to the project of hacking on ARENA. The Abbott government tried to abolish it, and it was only stopped thanks to Labor with the support of the crossbench in the Senate. Then the Turnbull government tried to defund ARENA entirely, only settling in the end for a sizeable reduction to its budget. This is just the latest salvo in the Liberal-National coalition's war and, as befits this particular Prime Minister, it is an attack that involves spin over substance. If they can't defund the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, why not just make it spend money on things that are not renewable?

This government needs to be stopped. The moderates in the Liberal Party have proven themselves entirely ineffectual. Either they don't care enough to stop the nonsense that emanates from their party room or they are too weak to make a difference. Either way, it doesn't really matter, does it? How can Senator Hume or Senator Payne or Senator Paterson or Senator Bragg or any of the others I mentioned go back and look their electors in the eye, after voting time and time again for climate change apathy?

The great tragedy is that Australia's economic and environmental interests are aligned. Investment in clean technology will create good, well-paying jobs. It will drive growth in key national industries and reduce our emissions. That's why Labor announced our policy to support the take-up of electric vehicles in Australia and to fund battery storage and solar. It's why we're committed to real action on climate change. It's why we've moved to disallow these regulations. But Australia should not have to rely on the opposition or the crossbench. It is time for the moderates in the Liberal Party room to come down here to Canberra and do in their party room what they promised back in their electorates. If not, what are they here for?


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