Wednesday, 6 September 2017
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Regional Development (Senator Nash) to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today.
We have had a decade of obstructionism and stupidity from this rabble of a government when they were in opposition under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott—when they were run by Tony Abbott—and now under the current Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull. Such a disappointment to everyone in the country. This is the guy who stood up and said he wouldn't lead a government that wasn't serious about dealing with climate change. This is a man who just ran away from every value and every principle he ever had.
Senator Nash, who begged to be questioned on a policy issue and actually said, 'Ask me a question about what we're doing to improve energy affordability,' couldn't even answer the question after begging us to ask her a question on that very issue. She wasn't even prepared to come in here and deal with it. Yet this is a minister who is here under false pretences. She should do the same as her colleague in the National Party and stand down from the ministry until her capacity to sit here as a minister is determined by the High Court. This is a nonsense. This is a government in absolute crisis. This is a government just going from one crisis to another.
I can tell Senator Nash that the question I actually asked her was whether it was true that wholesale prices had doubled under this government, and the answer is yes. I also asked her about the Finkel review. There was one overarching position in the Finkel review, which was that the Finkel review proposed a clean energy target. Yet all the troglodytes on the other side of the parliament, all these people who just don't believe in climate change—all the climate change deniers—will not allow the current Prime Minister to actually put a clean energy target in to do something about electricity prices in this country. I couldn't believe it when Senator Fawcett actually got up and asked the question and spoke about filthy polluting diesel generators. Obviously Senator Fawcett's never been in a power station. Well, I worked at Liddell power station for seven years, as a maintenance fitter, and I can tell you that if you ever want to see a dirty, polluting place, go to Liddell power station. It's filthy. Coal-fired power stations are absolutely filthy. Maybe, Senator Fawcett, AGL will let you go in and have a look at the power stations up there and see how dirty they are. They are full of dirt. They are full of coal dust. They are full of pollutants.
And Liddell power station, a coal-fired power station—if you're talking about pollution coming out of a diesel generator, have a look at what 1,200 tonnes of coal an hour being burnt in an old-fashioned power station like Liddell power station looks like. I went to work at Liddell in 1974, when it was only two years old, and it was dirty, polluting and filthy then. You can imagine what it's like now. In 1972 the Holden Torana was the best-selling car in Australia, followed by the Datsun 180B. Well, that's what Liddell power station is: it's the equivalent of a Holden Torana or a Datsun 180B, with the technology that's in there. It is dirty, it is old, it is polluting, and we need to get jobs for people out of the power stations and into renewable energy and actually make a difference. This government does not have a clue about the real issues facing ordinary workers, ordinary Australians. You would have seen that if you were here during question time. They simply want to attack the union movement because they've got no policies, no way forward. (Time expired)
The Senate has, regrettably, just been subjected to five minutes of personal denigration by a Labor senator—nothing positive to provide to the discussion of policy matters in this country. It was an unedifying display of ugly, destructive language. There was tearing down of everybody and everything that Senator Cameron could turn his mind to. Well, I want to say to the Australian people that we on this side of the chamber, the Liberal-Nationals coalition, in fact don't want to tear down, don't want to destroy, don't want to denigrate. We are actually about building the nation, building opportunities, and that is what Senator Nash has been doing in her portfolio area and in the regional areas of this country. I refer to my home state of Tasmania, where just three or four short years ago we had the highest unemployment rate in the country: 8.1 per cent. Today it is below six per cent, bearing testament to the wonderful economic and social transition that has occurred courtesy of the policies of the Liberal-National parties at both federal and state levels.
Getting people into jobs is not only an economic good. Sure, they become contributors to our economy; sure, they are no longer reliant on welfare. But there is also a great social good when you see thousands of your fellow Tasmanians going from welfare into employment, becoming self-reliant and being part of the economic mainstream. All the social data tells us that if people are given a job and have the opportunity of a job their mental health, their physical health, their self-esteem and their social interaction are all enhanced. This has been the task for this government over the past three plus years: to seek to grow the economy and to provide job opportunities for our fellow Australians so that they can become self-reliant and can become part of the economic and social mainstream of our nation.
In stark contrast to the denigration, the personal vitriol, the nastiness that we had to endure from Senator Cameron's contribution, I want to talk about the positives, such as in my home state of Tasmania. We go to the very north of Australia—Senator Macdonald may well talk about this—the great northern development policies that we have for this country. These are the sorts of things that the Australian people want us as a government and as a parliament to get on with. But no, the Australian Labor Party cannot help itself. Devoid of any policy, having a cupboard that is completely barren of any policy ideas, it comes into this place and the other place simply to denigrate ministers who may have an issue in relation to a constitutional provision relating to dual citizenship, and then making mischief about that. Whilst the Labor Party concentrate on these political games, on this political gamesmanship, we as a government are getting on with the task of delivering to the people of Australia. That is what we're elected to do. That's what we're paid to do. That is what we are sworn to do. That is what we on this side are actually doing, actually achieving for the people of Australia.
Back to my home state: not only has the unemployment rate gone down but the tourism numbers are burgeoning. Hobart Airport is being extended. The Midland Highway is being duplicated in many areas and upgraded. We are having new irrigation schemes put in. We are having a freight equalisation scheme for our exports, allowing us to hit the world market. The list goes on. I would invite those who especially bring the news to the Australian people to do a bit of a juxtaposition, a bit of a compare and contrast, and put the nastiness of Senator Cameron's contribution next to the actual achievements of the Liberal National Party government over the past three or four years. If they were to do that, the Australian people would see a government getting on with the task and not playing politics such as Senator Cameron and the Labor Party do.
I also rise to discuss the real problems that regional Australia is suffering as a result of the paralysed government that we are seeing here, led by Malcolm Turnbull and distracted ministers, whose job it is to be sponsoring projects and economic activity in regional Queensland and across regional Australia but who are far too distracted by their own problems to do so. We know very well that Senator Nash, as the minister for regional Australia, is responsible, more than anyone in this entire parliament, for ensuring that projects are happening in regional Australia and that services are being delivered. But we know, unfortunately, that Senator Nash is so distracted by her own citizenship problems that she is incapable of turning attention to the real needs of regional Australia that are out there right now. Senator Nash, of course, is a member of a famous new party in Australian politics: the 'Dual Nationals'!
You look at them every single day over there, and they're disappearing one by one. We've had Senator Canavan actually do the right thing and stand down from his role as minister, but neither Senator Nash nor her leader, Mr Joyce, have the decency to stand down from cabinet to allow the business of government to go on without this permanent cloud that remains over their heads while their citizenship is in doubt.
This is more than just a political bunfight. The problem with Senator Nash and Mr Joyce not standing down from their ministries is that they are so distracted by their own personal citizenship queries that they can't get on with the business of their portfolios and deliver the services, infrastructure and jobs that regional Queensland and regional Australia so desperately need. We saw yet another embarrassing performance from Senator Nash here in question time today, where not only was she incapable of answering any question that was asked of her related to her portfolio but she was even incapable of answering questions that yesterday she wanted to be asked. Yesterday she came in here, attacked us for asking questions about her citizenship and listed a series of topics that we, in her view, should be asking her about. We did the right thing today. We turned up ready to ask those questions, and we asked those questions of her, but when we did so, she was completely unable to answer and said that she'd have to get back to us.
Every single day we listen to this government moan about energy prices, and they are a real issue in much of Australia. The government ignores the fact that wholesale electricity prices have doubled under their watch over the last few years. Senator Nash is not even aware of this basic fact, but she's happy to stand up every day and criticise the Labor Party about energy prices. For every single region of Australia that we asked about today—whether it be the Bowen Basin, Far North Queensland, particularly around Cairns, the Hunter Valley in New South Wales—we were asking, 'What is the government doing to get projects and services happening in those parts of Australia?' and, remarkably, Senator Nash was incapable of answering, didn't know the answers, doesn't know what's going on in her portfolio and clearly doesn't know what's going on in regional Australia. That's not to mention the woeful answers that she was giving in relation to the concerns about Senator O'Sullivan's mixing of his business and his official duties.
There is a reason that Senator Nash is incapable of answering these questions. She, like so many of her ministerial colleagues, is so distracted by the citizenship fiasco in which we're seeing this government engulfed that they are paralysed by inaction, when regional Australia has never needed a government more active in getting projects, services and infrastructure happening so that we get jobs moving again in regional Australia, which is the absolute top priority for so much of our country. As I get around regional Queensland, as I very often do, the things that people are constantly telling me they want this government focused on are getting jobs, particularly for young people, and getting new projects up and running. But no ideas are coming forward from this government, no money is being spent out of its programs, and the minister doesn't have the capacity to make decisions to get the projects and spending happening.
People in regional Queensland want better health care, particularly mental health care. I was in Rockhampton only last week, talking to young people about their need for better mental health care. It's not happening under this government. They're not getting training and apprenticeship opportunities. These are the things that regional Australia wants; these are the things which Labor is coming forward on a regular basis with policies for. We need a minister who is not distracted. She should step down and let someone take on the job.
I will begin by supporting the words of my colleague from Tasmania. Senator Nash is an extraordinary senator and an extraordinary minister. She is a great representative of New South Wales, a fine role model and an honest minister, extraordinarily hardworking and extremely competent. She is genuinely making a difference to people's lives in regional Australia. The personal targeting of Senator Nash by those opposite in the last couple of days, the last couple of question times, is nothing short of scandalous. To discuss the issue of her citizenship over and over again is little more than opportunistic at best and certainly grubby at worst. The only time, Senator Watt, that Senator Nash's citizenship is a distraction is in question time.
In fact, for the last two days we have seen incredible tactics by those opposite. Coincidentally, before today, it seemed that almost all the questions from those opposite came from female senators, which I think was scandalous—a warped schoolyard mentality that those opposite should be ashamed of. At least today, although it was disingenuous in the extreme, you used the shroud of policy to cover up your criticisms of Senator Nash. It is quite amazing that those opposite continue to discuss issues of no interest to ordinary Australians. Senator Watt came in here talking about what's important to his state, yet he continues to talk about section 44. I can assure you section 44 is of no interest to anybody in Townsville or Bundaberg or Mackay. It's of no interest to anybody in Albany or Bunbury, for Senator Sterle. It is of absolutely no interest whatsoever to anybody in Albury or Gosford or Bathurst or Orange, for Senator Cameron. It is of no interest at all to anyone in Ceduna or Whyalla, for Senator Wong. Speaking as a senator for Victoria, it is of no interest whatsoever to anybody in Ballarat or Shepparton or Wangaratta or Geelong or Warrnambool or Hamilton.
It is so frustrating for those of us on this side of the chamber to see Senator Nash, who does an extraordinary job in regional Australia, being attacked so unnecessarily. She was asked a question today on energy policy—how disingenuous was that? She was the wrong minister to ask that question of, and those opposite knew that. Senator Birmingham was the correct minister to ask, yet you pushed Senator Nash, asking her that question as a shroud to criticise her over her citizenship status. That is extraordinary. You know full well that, had you asked that question of Senator Birmingham, the most appropriate minister, you would have heard exactly how the Turnbull government is putting downward pressure on energy prices, with two million households getting better deals, transparency and clarity in comparing deals, intervention in the gas market that ensures domestic supply, abolition of limited merits reviews to stop the networks gaming the system, and of course the announcement of Snowy Hydro 2.0—a game-changing renewable energy policy. Mr Marles said the ALP knew that gas prices would rise when you opened the market to foreign exports. This has been a shameless deflection by Senator Cameron, shrouding Senator Nash's citizenship issue with energy policy questions. What extraordinary behaviour, rather than talking about what's important to Australians.
What is important to Australians? This government is dealing with exactly what is important to Australians. First of all, there is a national security issue that overrides anything else. Quite frankly, we are at a point where North Korea is displaying a level of brinkmanship that we probably haven't seen since the Cuban missile crisis, yet that did not come up even once today from this opposition. No-one asked about the security threats, about the grave danger posed by North Korea and what the Turnbull government is doing about it by committing to a path of diplomatic and economic pressure. No-one asked about the economy—extraordinary. Rather than talking about promoting investment, encouraging entrepreneurship, reducing red tape and the burdensome bureaucracy, lowering taxes and supporting more jobs, you spoke again about Senator Nash. Shame on the opposition. Tomorrow, please talk about something that matters to ordinary Australians. (Time expired)
Senator Nash demands that we ask her questions on issues that, as a National Party senator, we know would be dear to her heart in her own state, such as energy affordability—something that I know is on the minds of many a senator in this place. But when we ask her such questions, as we did here today, she doesn't even know that wholesale prices have doubled under her own government. That is a fairly basic thing that you would think Senator Nash would know. I actually think Senator Nash probably did know that, and in hindsight is thinking, 'That's right—wholesale prices have doubled under this government.' But the problem is that Senator Nash's mind is distracted. Her mind is currently distracted because of this citizenship fiasco that has been taking up a lot of her time, so much so that she had to put on the front page of her website a statement outlining her position in relation to this.
Her position, unfortunately, is very different to that of her colleague Senator Canavan in that she has remained on the front bench. The big concern here is that there are a number of questions about the decisions she is making as minister while this citizenship fiasco hangs over her head. If I were in Senator Nash's position—just thinking about it for a moment—if I were a minister of the Crown and had this hanging over my head, I know what I would do. I would do exactly what Senator Canavan has done. I wouldn't remain on the front bench. I wouldn't remain holding onto ministerial decision-making. I would step down until the issues were resolved. That's my take on it as a matter of integrity and as a matter of what the right thing to do is.
But if you don't want to take my word for it, take Professor George Williams' word for it. He is, as everyone knows, the dean of a law faculty and a very much acknowledged constitutional expert. He gave an address at the National Press Club recently and explained, in great detail, the problem that hangs over Senator Nash and Senator Canavan. He advised that the wisest course of action for Minister Nash, and also Minister Joyce, was to not only refrain from decision-making but also step down, pending the outcome of the High Court hearing. That, I think, would be the most sensible thing for Senator Nash to do, after the expose that we had today from her and that we've had on subsequent days this week in relation to her efforts in answering some pretty basic questions about things that she should know.
Unfortunately, we have a glass-jaw attitude going on with Senator Nash. She's dug herself into a hole and probably feels that it's too late for her to step down. Well, it's not too late for her to step down. We're only talking about a month or so until the High Court hearing occurs. She needs to reflect that there is an inconsistency at the moment in the National Party with what has occurred in relation to Senator Canavan, who did resign, and Senator Nash and the Deputy Prime Minister, who have not done so. The number of questions that leaves unanswered really makes the government look like a shambles.
I will share the analogy that Senator Kitching used the other day for this whole dual citizenship fiasco. She said that it reminded her of Star Wars, when the emperor was dead, Darth Vader was dying and the Death Star was crashing—that is this government. I think that's quite a fitting analogy. Not that I'm a huge Star Wars goer, but I can see the characters and connection that one could make with such a situation because of what we've ended up with here. What we've had is a huge distraction today from Senator Nash. I'm sure she's embarrassed, and I think— (Time expired)
Question agreed to.
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Education and Training (Senator Birmingham) to a question without notice asked by Senator Di Natale today relating to energy policy.
Senator Birmingham was confronted with a quote from the Prime Minister, who said today that there had been a colossal failure in the planning of our energy system. He was confronted with the fact that we actually agreed with that statement. But the question is: what is the cause of that failure? There is no question, as the Energy Regulator today themselves have said, that that catastrophic failure is a result of a failure in planning and a failure in ensuring that Australia sets up its energy sector for the future.
The catastrophic rise in energy prices, the questions around energy security and the issue around reliability all lie at the feet of the Abbott and Turnbull governments, who are responsible for creating so much uncertainty, which has in itself flowed on to higher wholesale prices. We had, as a result of the 2010 power-sharing agreement between the Greens, the Labor Party and the crossbench, some of the most effective legislation to govern the energy sector anywhere in the world—in fact, they were the words of the International Energy Agency itself. We had a carbon price which provided certainty and a clear pathway to clean energy investment, as did the renewable energy target. But we saw the carbon price abolished and then the renewable energy target slashed, with the support of the Labor Party, turning away clean energy investors and creating much uncertainty in the energy sector. Wholesale prices have actually doubled since the repeal of the carbon price, yet the government blame the opposition for the problems that they themselves have created.
It is true that the government has said that it's not taking an ideological approach. In some ways, that is true, because what we see is a market mechanism which one would think would be the most sensible position and a position ideologically aligned to Liberal values, yet they trashed it. They trashed it. The notion of market certainty is one that one would think would align with Liberal values, but they destroyed that, too. No, their ideology is one where they see cleantech progress as somehow being aligned with progressive politics—that somehow this is the domain of the progressive Left, not the domain of science and evidence. But what we're seeing now is this market ascendance of clean energy and the crashing economics of coal and gas. We're seeing that happen now, with the government refusing to acknowledge reality, and as a result we are seeing a catastrophic failure of the government's own making.
We know, for example, that, when AEMO, the energy regulator, say that there may be a gap in electricity supply as a result of the closure of some coal-fired power stations, they're correct. But that would have been avoided if we had more solar and wind in the system, which would have happened under the previous renewable energy target—something that the government destroyed, taking away 8,000 megawatt hours from solar and wind. That's the reason that we're in the mess that we are confronted with.
Of course, AEMO have given us a clear blueprint for how we should address this issue, and it's a blueprint that aligns perfectly with what the Greens have been saying for many years: if we are to reduce emissions and tackle dangerous climate change, if we are to ensure reliability and affordability for Australians right around the country, what's required is some certainty and a plan—a clear plan. That plan does require a timetable to close down coal-fired power stations before 2030, and, indeed, that's precisely the model that AGL was offering. Renewable businesses could plan around 2022, knowing that, when the 2,000 megawatts come offline, they will have completed a number of projects to supplement that extra demand.
We know that the regulator also talked about options like embracing a modern grid, a smart grid, accelerating the uptake of new technologies like storage, smart software and demand management. We know that the Snowy hydro could be part of the response as well. But the reality is that coal has no long-term future and that the future lies with renewables like solar and wind, with storage and with demand management. That is the pathway for the future. If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change and bring prices down, that's what we need to do.
Question agreed to.