Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2023


Productivity Commission Amendment (Electricity Reporting) Bill 2023; Second Reading

10:01 am

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Productivity Commission Amendment (Electricity Reporting) Bill 2023. I want to start by commending my good friend and colleague Senator Duniam for crafting this excellent bill and presenting it before us as a Senate to consider. I commend the bill to this chamber, and I ask that senators take this bill seriously. It's an opportunity for us to get some transparency in an area where we are—excuse the pun—often in the dark when it comes to keeping electricity flowing at a rate that Australians can afford. What we're seeing right now across this country is that Australians are feeling the pinch of increased costs of living, and it's being felt acutely every time they get their electricity bill in the mail.

There are different prices across the country. In my home state of Western Australia, our energy prices are among the lowest. I commend governments over there for the work that they have done in addressing that over a long period of time. We used to have the lowest energy prices in the world in Western Australia. Many years ago, Western Australia had the lowest unit price anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, we've fallen a long way back in that regard. Nonetheless, we do have lower electricity costs in WA. But it is still hitting Western Australians particularly hard. As my good friend Senator Brockman was saying, businesses in particular are feeling the pinch because businesses are the highest users of energy—in particular, those that are running things like fridges and freezers, like grocery stores. If you're a big chain—Woolies or Coles, or something like that—you can probably absorb that a little bit more, but, if you're a small retailer, particularly in regional areas, the costs of keeping fridges and freezers running all night is extraordinary. I was up in the flood-ravaged community of Fitzroy Crossing. Big floods went through that area in January. For the small IGA that's operating there, a big part of the cost of delivering their services to that community is their refrigeration and their air conditioning, particularly in a hot place like Fitzroy Crossing. Electricity prices are up and that means that those prices have to be passed on to consumers. This is why people are feeling the significant cost-of-living pressure.

This bill is an important bill, and I really wish we would proceed to a decision on it because it would be great if the Productivity Commission were compelled to provide a report to be tabled by the minister in this place, so that Australians could see exactly what those inputs are into the unit prices that Australians are paying. So I commend Senator Duniam for bringing the attention of this chamber to this very thoughtful and sensible private senators' bill.

The rationale behind its introduction is straight forward and is aimed purely at creating more accessible, better consolidated public information and reporting on electricity prices and generation in Australia. The bill would require the Productivity Commission to compile quarterly reports on retail electricity prices, as well as the sources from which electricity is being generated for each state and territory. Being able to understand the energy mix—and the cost of that mix—by providing that transparency would shed some light on a situation that is otherwise very opaque. We hear a lot about renewables and how they're the lowest-cost source of energy, and that might be true at a particular time of the day. Solar panels, for example, particularly when the sun is at its apex and shining bright at midday in the middle of summer, lose their efficiency because it's really hot. They don't operate as efficiently as they do during those shoulder periods right in the peak of summer. Of course, in winter, when it's cloudy and the sun is down lower on the horizon, solar panels also don't operate as efficiently as they do in the peak periods around November or March—which is when you've got peak efficiency. At those times, yes, solar is a cheaper form of electricity. But at other times of the year, when the sun's not at that optimum point in the sky, or when there are clouds, it's clearly not efficient because it's not producing electricity. Then you're having to rely on other baseloads sources of power, which is derived from coal, particularly on the east coast.

In Western Australia, one of the reasons we've got lower prices is because a big part of our energy mix over there is gas. We've been doing that for a long, long time. The pipeline runs from Dampier, up near Karratha—a long way from Perth—all the way down to Bunbury, south of Perth. There are generators along that pipeline that are able to produce low-cost energy that is obviously fed across the south-west electricity grid. This means that those sources of electricity are relied upon. Having transparency in this place so that Australians, legislators and businesses can see the energy mix and the cost of each of those components would really help us make more informed decisions about the future in this country. It would drive investment into areas of improvement. There's no doubt that storage of renewable energy is going to be a big part of our energy mix. If we wanted to get investment in those areas then, of course, having that transparency and accountability will help drive investment.

This bill is aimed at bridging the divide to accountability and transparency that would represent a significant advance on what we currently have. It would also ensure that not just the Albanese government but any future government will be accountable. As Senator Hughes was saying—this lot over here are in their heyday at the moment—they won't be in power forever. They might think they're immortal, but it's not the reality. At some point, we'll gather a bit of steam and we'll be back in power again. There's no doubt about that. So any future government will be accountable in the same measure. This is an important bit of legislation that I really wish the Senate would take a hold of.

I'll cut to the chase. This is an important bill. What we need to see is a greater level of transparency. Unfortunately, this government talked a lot about transparency ahead of the election. They talked a lot about it. They crowed about it and said it was necessary. I agree: we need governments that are accountable and we need governments that are transparent in how they operate. But we just know that that's not the pattern that they're actually setting. I'll give you a good point: for example, right now industry and businesses are being 'consulted' on industrial relations. There's this very limited-in-detail consulting paper that's gone out to industry, and they've been asked to provide feedback on it, yet there's no detail. So employers and businesses are being asked to provide feedback on something that they don't have any detail on.

I know that, come later this year, when we are debating the bills that will come as a result of that so-called consultation, we're going to hear, 'Oh, they consulted with industry,' and, 'They consulted with business.' We just know it's far from the reality of what has actually gone on. The point that I am making is that there is a lot of smoke and mirrors when it comes to the so-called transparency and accountability of this government.

Energy is a key part of our economy. It's a key part of addressing the cost-of-living pressures that Australians are facing. Providing some transparency and some light on this issue would be critical, so I encourage senators to think about this bill and support it. We need to see cost-of-living pressures reduced. We need to see energy prices reduced. Granted, there was some funding as a bit of a sugar hit in the budget last night that's going to provide some relief, but let's remember that Australians are actually going to be paying an additional $500 a year even with that support that's been provided to Australians through the budget last night. They are still going to be paying $500 a year more than they were last year. This is impacting Australians. Australians are finding it difficult to pay their bills. Every time they open that envelope and they see the bill and the cost of that, it's a significant issue. So this is a way to reduce that and to provide support to Australians.


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