Monday, 13 August 2018
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Education and Training (Senator Birmingham) to questions without notice asked by Senators Marshall and Gallacher today relating to the National Energy Guarantee.
What a mess! What a mess energy policy is! We are five years into this government, and consumers are feeling the pain because the government has been completely unable, for the entire time that it has been in office, to settle upon an energy policy that will provide for the needs of Australian families and Australian businesses. And it's no good, really, coming in here and seeking to put the blame elsewhere—to blame it on the opposition, to blame it on previous governments, to blame it on unspecified dark forces operating in the community or to blame it on energy businesses—because there is only one group of people who should be taking responsibility for the current turn of events, and that is the government.
The reason they have been unable to settle on a policy was in full display here in question time. At one end of the chamber, we had Senator Birmingham prattling on—reasonably sensibly, I suppose—with some of the information provided to him by the actual policy analysts who are supporting the government in their energy policy. At the other end, we've got Senator Canavan, whose relentless support for coal in the face of all of the evidence—in the face of all of the advice from the business community, in the face of all of the advice from energy companies—that coal is not financeable, that new coal generation is not the way of the future, persists. And he's not alone. Both Mr Pasin and Mr Craig Kelly have been out, in recent weeks, casting doubt on the National Energy Guarantee.
And what do we see today? We see the Prime Minister, yet again dancing to the tune of this group of people who refuse to engage with reality, placing a drop to a couple of journos that they are going to possibly, at some point in time, contemplate underwriting new generation capacity. It's a funny way to do it, isn't it? It's a weird kind of broadcasting to get it onto the front page of a major newspaper. It would have been much more efficient to just pick up the phone, surely. They have a lovely directory over there for the House of Representatives. You can find the telephone number for Mr Pasin and for Mr Craig Kelly. You can pick it up and telephone them. But it seems to be beyond the reach of the Prime Minister to gain support from his backbench for a rational approach to energy policy. It's long past time that the government adopted one. It's time to come to grips with reality. It's time to come to grips with the advice that's been provided by organisations like the ACCC, the AEMO and the Australian Energy Market Commission. It is time to get a grip on what is happening in the energy system.
There's been a lot of talk about the reports that were put out by some of those organisations and how they support new coal-fired generation. I can tell you they do no such thing. In fact, the AEMO report could not be clearer about what the future mix of energy supply in this country will be. They say:
When existing thermal generation reaches the end of its technical life and retires, the most cost-effective replacement of its energy production, based on current cost projections, is a portfolio of utility-scale renewable generation, energy storage, distributed energy resources (DER), flexible thermal capacity including gas-powered generation (GPG), and transmission.
There's no mention of coal, because coal is not the cheapest form of generation when we need to replace our existing assets. And that was quietly, just now, confirmed by Senator Birmingham. He ran through the new projects that show up in the modelling, that are assumed when the modelling is undertaken. There was not a new coal-fired power station among them. And it's absolutely consistent with what the government has been told by others. The Energy Council has said that new coal-fired power stations are uninvestable. The Energy Security Board, these hand-picked advisors, has said:
… there would be absolutely no way that anybody would be financing a new coal-fired generation plant.
The ACCC has made it very clear that its recommendation that government underwrite some of the risk associated with investment in new generation is not in any way targeted at coal. It is time for the government to come to grips with the technological and market reality about new generation and to stop pandering to its backbench, because it comes at the cost of Australian consumers.
I'm amazed that the opposition wants to raise this discussion on electricity. If we turn the clock back a few years to when there was no carbon tax, what happened? Along came a carbon tax, and up went the prices. Of course, Mr Abbott and the coalition promised to abolish it if we won the election in 2013, and we did. And down went prices, the biggest drop in many years. I find it amazing. We have Senator Keneally here in the chamber at the moment. Just before she was kicked out of government in New South Wales, what did she do? Her government put in the gross feed-in tariff. What a circus! Sixty cents a kilowatt hour. How did it work? Wealthy people could—
We're getting a reaction now! The wealthy people could afford to put the solar panels on, and they paid them 60 cents a kilowatt hour. This is after they privatised most of the generators. Sixty cents a kilowatt hour, and who paid for it? It was the poor people. Even members of your Labor government told friends of mine what a crazy policy it was. And so I look forward to Senator Keneally telling us about bringing power prices down.
Well, if it wasn't the Keneally government, she was certainly part of it because it was a Labor government before March 2011, when in came the gross feed-in tariff—and what a circus it was!
Senator Keneally interjecting—
And then you sold the generators. You didn't sell Adele. That went for $1.
It's good to get a bite. I will tell you why Senator Keneally is on her feet. She used to drive the bus in New South Wales and now she is here sitting down the back of the bus. But she won't be at the back of the bus for long. She'll want to be up the front of the bus. In fact, she'll want to be driving the bus. I've said to Senator Wong, 'Don't worry about us on this side of the chamber; get a mirror mounted in front of the chamber and look at those behind you, because that's where your enemies are.' And the one that used to drive the bus in New South Wales is the one who wants to drive the bus here again, for sure—and, of course, the same old, same old will happen. But for Labor to talk about electricity prices just amazes me.
Senator Keneally interjecting—
Hello; the bus driver, Senator Keneally, is trying to take a point of order over there. We're talking about electricity prices. Here we are in a country wallowing in energy. Those over there simply despise coal. I can't believe that the CFMEU—the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union—donate money to the Labor Party and the Greens. What do the Greens hate? They hate construction; they hate forestry; they certainly have it in for the miners; and, when it comes to energy, all the Greens want is renewables—and don't go near coal, mining and iron ore. I can't believe the CFMEU donates so much money to those opposite. The Labor Party run down the Green road just to keep their Green competitors off-road and protect their political grass. It's just amazing that that union donates money to those people.
The only friends that union has in here when it comes to mining are the coalition, who support mining and coal-fired generation. It's amazing how many plants have been built all around the world. There are 10 new plants in Japan and there are many, many more in China. But I'm sure we'll get on to that with the MPI today moved by the Greens about how we are going to prevent droughts. The Greens are going to prevent droughts by reducing our CO2 levels. Apparently if we have all renewable energy, we won't have a drought in the future. What a fallacy! It's quite amazing that those opposite want to go down the road of expensive electricity. All they talk about is expensive electricity, which will drive our industries overseas—shut the cement industry down here and move it over to China, where they put out more emissions.
Those opposite are very much against the Adani coalmine. Well, Mr Shorten is against it when he's in Melbourne but he supports it when he's in Queensland. So it just depends which part of Australia he is in. Instead of these new coal-fired generators that are being constructed around the world, with hundreds of units of them in places like China, India, Japan, Indonesia, India and even Vietnam—with 34 units being constructed there—those opposite don't want them to burn the more efficient, Australian coal with fewer emissions and less environmental damage, they want to shut ours down and not open new coalmines and burn less efficient coal, brown coal, produced by countries, such as Indonesia and China, that have the worst effect on the whole globe.
We're not living under a tent. When are people going to learn that we're not living under a tent in Australia? As Dr Finkel said, no matter what we do, we're going to make little or no change to the environment; just put the costs up. This NEG is about stability and bringing electricity costs down. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.
That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked today.
Firstly, Senator Wong asked a question in relation to the coalition's $80 billion corporate tax cut. She asked: 'Will the minister keep his word to take the Enterprise Tax Plan to the next election?' The Minister for Finance, understandably, reiterated his commitment to delivering this handout, be it at the demise of his government and his party. We saw the government had yet another slip in the polls this morning, suffering a humiliating defeat in the Super Saturday by-elections. The results are in: this government is living in a fantasy land. The Australian people want investment in schools and hospitals and they want their Medicare card, not their credit card, to determine their level of health care.
Let's go to the NEG. Obviously, there is a question here in relation to some of the answers from the ministers opposite. How's the party room meeting shaping up, Minister Birmingham? I see the Prime Minister's latest attempt to appease the anti-renewable ideologues in his party room misrepresents an ACCC recommendation to support new generators by using it as a coal fund.
The mantra of Minister Birmingham quite often throughout question time this afternoon was, 'Every single member of the coalition wants to see lower power prices and greater reliability. Yes, the coalition is working together. Yes, it's working as a team.' But we're certainly not seeing that from this side of the House. We also see that it's a clear attempt by the Prime Minister to mislead his backbench and sneak the National Energy Guarantee through the coalition party room. The ACCC recommendation is not about supporting new coal power; it's about supporting hybrid renewable storage and gas projects. ACCC Chair, Rod Sims, had been clear about that, saying the recommendation is 'not targeted at baseload power, and it's not targeted at coal'. Mr Sims has also said, when asked about how he came to his generator underwriting recommendation, 'Nobody has mentioned coal to us'. The chair of the Energy Security Board, Kerry Schott, has said there would be 'absolutely no way' anybody would be financing a new coal-fired generation plant. That is why the industry has labelled new coal power 'uninvestable', and it is why AEMO and all serious stakeholders understand that new coal power plants in Australia are a fantasy.
Federal Labor has been consistently clear there should be no taxpayers' money for new coal-fired power stations in Australia. If the Prime Minister wants to deliver a new coal fund to his party room, he should not be using the ACCC as cover for such a misguided, wasteful and irresponsible policy. The Prime Minister's inability to stand up to the new coal power obsession within his government reminds us that the biggest barrier to lower power prices for Australians is the chaos and division within the coalition party room. Indeed, Minister Birmingham continued to advocate for public investment in coal-fired power during question time today. Can you not see the cost of doing nothing? Look at the situation our farmers are in right now. Look at the drought and the suffering as a result of climate change. Look at the rising cost in power and the impact it's having on manufacturing in this country. Businesses are struggling because of this energy shambles created by the coalition.
And, again, I reiterate, as of 2 pm this afternoon, Fairfax Media reported Mr Sims made it clear to the Nationals' party room that one of the 56 recommendations in the regulator's pricing report in June should not be described as 'underwriting coal' or 'favouring coal-fired power stations'. Federal Labor has been consistently supportive and constructive over energy policy, offering bipartisan support for an investment framework that would deliver investor certainty and start to bring an end to the energy crisis that has emerged under Prime Minister Turnbull—and absolutely seen power bills skyrocket for Australian households and businesses right across the country.
I too rise to take note of answers from question time and, in particular, I note the answers that were given by Senator Cormann in relation to questions about the government's approach to company tax cuts. The Enterprise Tax Plan is absolutely important to ensuring Australia's competitiveness, and the coalition makes no apologies for fighting for lower taxes for business. The reason for that is that every time we do all we can to help businesses big and small succeed we create opportunities to help workers, big and small, in their incomes to get ahead.
We make no apologies, not today and not ever, for our efforts to make sure there are more and more jobs being created for more and more Australians. As we have accomplished that objective in relation to small- and medium-sized businesses, we have seen the dividends paid in the form of record employment in this country. We now have workforce participation at its highest level ever and, to top it off, we have full-time jobs at their highest level ever. If that was not enough, the number of people who now require welfare in order to survive is at its lowest rate ever. It is a terribly good sign that the policies of this government that are driving economic growth, that are driving investment, are working. And we shouldn't stop here. We should continue to do all that we can to make it easy for businesses to get ahead. When they do, all Australians get ahead. When we create more jobs, when we invest more in Australian opportunities, the dividend is paid many times over.
We heard much in question time today about the topic of energy. But it seems that those opposite have awfully short memories. I clearly recall that, during six years of Labor government, things happened to energy prices. But what were they? Prices didn't go up once or twice. They didn't triple. No, during that time electricity prices went up six times over. It's just not good enough. Australians deserve better.
Let's remind those opposite of the failings of the previous federal and state Labor governments. They continued over and over to increase pressure on prices, and they did that by imposing job-destroying gas bans and moratoriums. They imposed unrealistic renewable energy targets and they expressed open hostility to investment in baseload power. What that has done is spook the market so badly that even the ACCC, in its recent report, has indicated how important it is that the government show support to investment in baseload energy, because of the mess that has been made by successive governments in this field.
One has got to commend the government for being willing to tackle this difficult issue. Australians are depending on this government to take action to reduce energy prices. I'm proud to be part of a government that has a party room process that involves contributions from all of its members, where all can contribute the best of their ideas so that we can once and for all deal with the mess that has been created in the field of energy, so that we can make sure that we deliver what Australians truly want and need. And what is that? It is affordable energy, it is cheap energy and it is reliable energy. We need to know that, when we turn the light switch on, it's going to work. Businesses need to know that, if they depend on refrigeration, they're going to be able to afford the bill. That has not been a sure thing in recent years.
I commend the government for being willing to deal once and for all with the problem of energy in this country by ensuring that we put downward pressure on prices and that there is the investment required to make sure there is reliable energy available for all. And it's working. The government's action has already had positive effects. Wholesale electricity prices are down by around 25 per cent compared to last year—a whole quarter! As of 1 July, retail power bills have been reduced right across New South Wales, South Australia and, importantly, in my home state of Queensland. (Time expired)
I also rise to take note of answers provided by Minister Birmingham to questions from Senator Gallacher and Senator Marshall about the NEG. Last week it was great to have the opportunity to see some of the innovative work being done in the electric and autonomous vehicle space in South Australia with Senator Bushby, Senator Storer and other members of this chamber. On the site visits we had over a couple of days, it was clear that there were opportunities to marry up advanced manufacturing opportunities with renewable energy investment.
Effective policies that address Australia's long-term need to transition to renewable energy have the ability to bring about lower prices, lower pollution and more jobs both in renewable energy and manufacturing. What we heard from the minister in question time today was an impassioned defence of the National Energy Guarantee. But it was a defence that I suspect was aimed more at the minister's own backbench colleagues than at those on this side of the chamber. Indeed, I think the minister appeared to be repeating as a mantra that everyone was singing off the same song sheet, and if he did that often enough that would magically make his colleagues appear on side.
What we still know on this side of the chamber is that the NEG is still inadequate. It only provides for 36 per cent renewables by 2030. That is an increase of little more than 250 megawatts per year through the 2020s. It will strangle the renewable energy industry and do nothing to reduce pollution, lower prices or create jobs in renewable energy across Australia. We know that power prices have gone up under this government. The proof is in everyone's power bills. We know that renewables are the cheapest form of new energy generation. We know that this government's targets will not be met and will not lead to major renewable projects being built before 2030.
But that is still not enough for the minister's colleagues. Just today we've seen reporting again that a number of backbenchers oppose even this weak policy. The member for New England, Barnaby Joyce, is reportedly placing conditions on his support for the NEG, threatening to cross the floor if his demands are not met. The member for Hughes, Craig Kelly, has said it would be no bad thing if the policy didn't get the support of parliament. That is hard to reconcile with the minister's comments about the team all being onside. And the former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, has spoken of the need to keep coal in the system for a long time to come. The minister, if he was back in the chamber, would probably suggest that it's not unusual for the coalition to pretend that they are singing off the same song sheet when they clearly are not. It's not unusual. It's the Tom Jones defence, the defence used by the minister's colleague, the member for Kooyong, to justify handing over half a billion dollars without due process. What he knows, though, is that it's a reference to the wrong Tom Jones song. It's not about it not being unusual; it's about understanding that many of his colleagues are actively trying to burn down the house. The ideological warriors of the Right remain tied to coal and opposed to any form of transition to renewable energy. The government seems determined to appease them rather than produce an effective policy. The energy industry knows that new coal power plants will not be viable. The chair of the Energy Security Board has said, 'There would be absolutely no way that anybody would be financing a new coal-fired power station.' The government is offering to waste taxpayers' money on coal to appease its own backbench, rather than supporting the technologies that will help us transition to a 21st century economy, lower prices and emissions and support jobs now and in the future.
We have already seen splits in the coalition over climate policy cause a change of party leadership, when the current Prime Minister was rolled in 2009. Once again the coalition is all at sea over energy. They are in chaos. They cannot make up their mind whether to accept and support new technologies or to tie themselves to the past. They may say that this is not unusual. We know that they're still trying to burn down the house. Whoever wins the battle within the coalition party room, it's clear that all Australians will be the losers, every day until the next election, when a Shorten Labor government will ensure that we put climate change and jobs back properly on the agenda in a way that is sustainable and delivers outcomes for all Australians.
Question agreed to.