Senate debates

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers


3:04 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Innovation) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Finance and the Public Service (Senator Cormann) to questions without notice asked by Senators Singh and Brown today relating to energy policy.

Those questions went to the matter of the government's latest version of an energy policy. There have been so many it's hard to keep track. Perhaps they wanted to get away from three-letter slogans, so they called this one something more colloquial: 'the big-stick energy policy'. We were actually supposed to buy that there was some integrity with this. What a con it was from the very beginning—the government and their big stick.

As things have developed with this policy, just like the other ones—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O'Neill, please resume your seat. Senator McKenzie.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Minister for Regional Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry, but point of order. The senator continually refers to the big stick, and we all know it's a giant stick.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator McKenzie. That's not a point of order; it's a debating point. Senator O'Neill.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Innovation) Share this | | Hansard source

I invite Senator McKenzie to remain, because I will make some comments about Senator Cormann's determination to enlarge the stick in question time. But, before we get to the reshaping of the big stick according to Senator Cormann, let's just see what Elizabeth Knight in The Canberra Times had to say. The headline was 'Government's big stick energy policy now small twig'. The government has lost its big stick it was threatening to bludgeon energy companies with if they misbehaved on the power pricing. And why did they lose their big stick, which is trying to reappear as a giant stick now? Because the same thing happened to this energy policy as has happened to all the others. They didn't get it sorted out, they didn't get it agreed in the party and the party has basically rioted on them and said, 'The big stick doesn't work for us anymore'.

This is how the big stick policy was eloquently described by the man who I hope will be the next Treasurer of the nation, one of my fellow New South Welsh parliamentarians, Mr Bowen:

This ridiculous policy, this Venezuelan-style intervention, this intervention in the economy which would chill investment, has collapsed under its own weight.

It was poor policy and has been shown to be poor policy. The Treasurer and the energy minister have been humiliated by their own Liberal backbench. That's what happened to the big stick: it got shaved down to size. And, as much as Senator Cormann might come in here and declare that it's an enormous stick, I put it to you that, in fact, it's a splinter. It's a splinter that has come off their big stick. It's fallen apart. It's rested itself in the heart of the Liberal Party. It's another splinter not only in the sense of being yet another division between the members of this chaotic government; it is a festering sore, a self-inflicted wound—yet another one on energy policy, which this government is unable to manage in any shape or form—that is now lodged with a piece of the wood that didn't work from their big stick. They are going to have a very, very big problem with removing it before the next election.

We know that last week the government was delivering an energy policy in one shape or form. Today they tried to convey that the changes that were forced upon the energy minister and the Prime Minister by the backbench in their party room were refinements. What we saw, in fact, was that there was no refining. It was another about-face that was required because they simply don't know what they're doing. In fact, all the serious commentary about this very serious matter indicates that investment into energy in this country is fragile and very vulnerable right now because of the ongoing failure of this government to act with integrity.

There is a lack of policy vision and a lack of adequate consultation, and yet they have the temerity to come into this place and pretend, continuing to repeat platitudes to the Australian people. They make comments such as, 'We really care about the price of electricity'. They've had five years to care, and in the course of those five years that they've been here every one of us who opens an electricity bill knows that the price of electricity has gone through the roof. It's because of their constantly failing iterations of energy policy. I find it hard to describe what they do even as 'policy'. They have 'energy statements' or 'energy intents' but certainly not anything powerful that's driving down the cost of energy. I just remind Australians that we're still waiting for the $550 that they promised us all a couple of elections ago when they were going to sort out energy policy then. This government cannot be trusted on energy policy any day. (Time expired)

3:10 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As tempting as it is to get into the stick debate, I will avoid it. The Labor Party, as per usual, just wants to play the insider political games. Senator Cormann was very, very generous when he described the first question as a policy question. As usual from the Labor Party, it was an insider political question. That's all we've heard from the Labor Party in this place for the year I've been here. Policy questions from the other side have been as rare as a needle in a haystack.

This side cares about families' energy prices. We care about businesses' energy costs. I was at a meeting representing Minister Cash a few months ago and I met with a particular small-business person, the sort of enterprising individual who is at the core of the Australian economy—a small supermarket owner from South Australia. In the previous 12 months, he had seen his energy bill go up by $80,000 a year. Those opposite want to make jokes about energy prices, but $80,000 a year to a small business, a small IGA, means a very simple thing: it means laying off staff. It means less take-home pay for the owners of that business. It means fewer opportunities for young Australians to get a job in that economy. That is what we see as the outcome from the kinds of policies that are being touted by those opposite. They are job-destroying policies. That is what the business community is saying and that is what we and the Australian people know is the truth.

Labor's policy on energy will destroy jobs. The government's policy on energy is designed to do one thing—to drive down the cost for consumers. Families and small businesses are all energy consumers. We have already seen significant progress in that area. We've already seen significant announcements from the energy companies. The plans that this government has on energy are already working. Five hundred thousand Australians are already getting a better deal, with Origin, Energy Australia, AGL and other companies lowering their prices by up to 15 per cent from 1 January. This is what this government is achieving for the people of Australia.

Those opposite want to play politics and they want to make jokes, but they do not want to do the hard work in driving down energy costs for Australian families and Australian businesses. Their policies will do a very simple thing to the economy: they will destroy jobs. Jobs growth is so essential and it is one of the towering achievements of this government. We committed, on coming into government, to creating a million jobs—and that is just what we have done. We have put the settings in place to allow Australian businesses to create those million new jobs. The vast majority of them are full-time jobs. This gives people hope, this gives people opportunities and this gives people a chance to improve their lives.

We see the unemployment rate is down to five per cent. We see youth unemployment is at its lowest level in over six years. These are the important statistics that say whether a government is on track and whether a government is delivering for the Australian people. This government is delivering for the Australian people. Female full-time employment rose strongly by 29,000 in the latest figures. It has increased by 3.7 per cent in the past year. It stands at a record high. These are the kinds of achievements that this government will take to the next election. The Australian people will understand that this is what matters to the economy: this is what will enable the economy to continue to grow as we return to surplus, as we pay down the debt we inherited from Labor and as we continue to put in place the preconditions necessary for Australians to have a full and secure economic future.

3:15 pm

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers given by Senator Cormann to questions today. Senator Cormann's evasions and non-answers in question time today revealed the complete shipwreck that is the Morrison government's energy policy. As Senator Cameron so frequently reminds us, the Morrison government is a total rabble.

We've never seen that more starkly revealed than it was today when we looked at the next iteration of their energy policy—whether it's a big stick, a twig or a branch. Who knows what they're up to at the moment! I think we have to remember that, of course, Mr Morrison is only Prime Minister because the Liberal Party's climate-denialist wing, led by Mr Abbott, the member for Warringah, rebelled against the energy policy of the Turnbull government. It was that rebellion that led to the leadership spill which has made Mr Morrison Prime Minister.

But, of course, we've seen all this before, because, of course, when Mr Turnbull—if I can call him 'Turnbull 1.0'—was first the leader of the Liberal Party, he was undone on climate policy by Mr Abbott. He, of course, took the Liberal Party to the election and he was then himself replaced by Mr Turnbull, who was then himself replaced by Mr Morrison—again, on climate policy.

I know the current Prime Minister likes to compare the Liberal Party to the muppets, but I have another analogy that might be appropriate, and that is that when Mr Turnbull was Turnbull 1.0, he was the strongman at circus. But Turnbull 2.0 was the boneless wonder. But they are none of the things that Menzies wrote about. I happen to know from some of those opposite that they love it when I quote Sir Robert Menzies back to them. I'm actually going to quote the member for Goldstein, Tim Wilson—someone I know well. He quoted Menzies today on Twitter, saying:

… we have won because we have been the party of innovations. Not the party of the past, not the conservative party dying hard on the last barricade, but the party of innovations.

He went on to say:

These were innovations, these were evidences of a lively mind and a forward-looking heart.

I'm not sure we could say that this is the party of Menzies!

But he did go on in that speech, a speech he gave on 12 April 1965—one might have thought the Liberal Party might have moved on from the sixties, but apparently not, and not in the way that some people haven't moved on from the sixties!—where he was looking at the history of the Liberal Party, and he said:

Now the first thing we did, the thing that our opponents have not done, was to say, "Well, what do we learn from our vicissitudes?"

…   …   …

We said, "Now, here we are, despised and rejected " and we were, of course, at that time led by a leader whose political life was regarded by most people as finished.

Who does that remind us of today? He went on:

So we had no great assets, either in the front or otherwise, but we made up our minds that we would come back, that we would unify ourselves that we would do the things that had to be done - forget about the past and say to ourselves, "We must have one party, full of unity and fire, and we must have a programme, a platform, which will make people understand that we have been thinking in the future,"

I know that the sixties were a long time ago now, but I really don't feel the Liberal Party has learned from that.

The Victorian Liberal shadow Attorney-General, John Pesutto, today conceded that he had probably lost his seat of Hawthorn. Unless you know the electorates in the inner parts of Melbourne, you wouldn't know that it was a blue-ribbon absolute stronghold for the Liberal Party in Victoria. They have lost that; as he said, short of some miracle, he has lost his seat. He gave the very telling example of why the Liberal Party is suffering electoral defeat. He gave the example at his press conference of his 17-year-old daughter's decision to attend last week's climate change rally to illustrate the challenge the Liberal Party faces in ensuring that it can continue to appeal to a wide range of voters. The Liberal Party is, of course, in such a crisis and such a ramshackle state that, really, it's appealing to no-one. And today's energy policy changes tell us once again— (Time expired)

3:20 pm

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Isn't it fantastic when the opposition quotes Robert Menzies? In fact, I think about two minutes of a five-minute speech was taken up by quoting the great man himself. From a Liberals' perspective, of course, that's a wonderful thing. We love quoting Robert Menzies because we are so proud of the history of our party. We're so proud of everything that our side of politics has achieved in our past but we're also proud of what we're achieving today and what we are going to achieve in the future. And it is good hearts and sound minds, just like those of John Pesutto, the former member for Hawthorn—and I'm very glad to see that you have also quoted him today, Senator Kitching—that will take us forward to that grand future that has a vision as wonderful as does our illustrious past.

Our energy policy, as anybody on the other side would know if they had been listening, has in fact been bringing prices down. It has been bringing prices down for the last—what? Years or months? I'm not entirely sure what it is now. The coalition has said from day one that it is committed to bringing power prices down and has already taken significant actions to do exactly that. You will recall that the first action that we took on coming to government was to abolish the carbon tax—the heinous carbon tax—introduced by the former government.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Was it heinous?

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Heinous! Abolishing the carbon tax has saved each household around $550 per year and reduced electricity bills by up to 10 per cent. We have also reined in the power of the electricity networks by abolishing the limited merits review introduced by, I think, the Gillard part of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government. If Labor had done that sooner, it would have saved Australian energy users over $6 billion. We've also secured better deals for at least 1.6 million households which have seen retail electricity prices come down in Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales on 1 July this year. We secured better deals for those 1.6 million households by negotiating directly with the retailers. And, in 2017, we provided $269 million for a one-off energy assistance payment to age and disability support pensioners, single-parent families and veterans. The payment was $75 for singles and $125 for couples.

But we have not stopped there. We are also now stopping the price gouging by energy companies with the big stick legislation, so lovingly referred to by those opposite, which was introduced to parliament just this week. We're providing customers with a price safety net to put customers back in charge and help those who don't have time to shop around. We're establishing a default price. A default price will provide relief from confusing and often expensive standing offers, and we're backing investment in reliable generation and encouraging more competition in the market. The energy market is no longer competitive. It is a broken market, and big players dominate the sector. We are increasing competition, lowering prices and guaranteeing reliable supply. The government will back new and reliable affordable generation. On top of that, we're supporting reliable power by requiring the energy companies to sign contracts guaranteeing enough energy to meet demand.

That is the coalition's plan for affordable and reliable energy. For too long, power companies have put their own interests ahead of those of consumers. The coalition will no longer allow that to happen. We have a plan for affordable and reliable energy that is keeping prices down. Shall we have a look at Labor's energy policy? When will they learn? They will never learn. An ideological approach will not bring prices down, it will not keep the lights on and it will, in fact, cost jobs. At what point do you learn from South Australia's experience that a 45 per cent emissions reduction target and a 50 per cent renewable target will not only cost jobs; it will prevent prices coming down and it will keep you in the dark. Understand that Labor will tax your growth away, it will cost you your job and it will leave you in the dark. Only the coalition can be relied on to bring energy prices down.

3:25 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think that speech sums up the coalition government. All they have on energy policy is a scare campaign. They have been in government for five years, and all they can come up with, three months before an election, is a scare campaign. Let's look at their record. Under their record, prices are up, emissions are up and reliability is down. That is what they have achieved from five years of LNP government. When they come before an election, they don't come with a policy; all they come with is a scare campaign. That's all they have got for the Australian people. We've had five years of inaction, chaos and dysfunction, and all they come up with now—I think Senator Abetz put it at the start of question time—is a fig leaf of a policy. That's all it is, because they cannot get any sensible policy through their backbench. Even this so-called big stick that they talk about is actually being attacked within the backbench. The ones who were attacking that have come from all cross-sections of the Liberal Party as a result of that.

We know that they've had the National Energy Guarantee. We know that they've had an emissions intensity scheme. We know that on every occasion the backbench have demolished that policy, so much so that they actually cannot settle a policy that they can take to the Australian people. There's a real cost to this, because the people who pay the price are Australian households. The people who pay the price are workers and businesses, because they can't get affordable electricity to run their plants and factories that so many people rely on for employment. This is their record after five years.

We know that the policy that they have put forward is under attack from the Business Council and the Australian Energy Council. The proposal that they have put forward, that they have struggled to get through their own caucus, is already being attacked by those people who are involved and have an interest in this. What they are trying to do is basically sticky tape a policy together to get them through an election and to stop a crossbench revolt. But we know from the experts that all it will do is reduce investment and push up prices. This is the latest iteration of a policy that they have on energy. All that is going to do is reduce investment and push up prices.

What's emerging as the real motive behind this policy, and this is evident, is privatisation by stealth. This is actually the aim of their divestment thought bubble. This will have a real impact on Queensland. It is a Liberal and Nationals obsession. We know that they pursued this in Victoria and we know the dire consequences that we've seen. We know the Liberals pursued this in South Australia and we know the dire consequences that we've seen as a result. We know that they pursued it in New South Wales. They have sold off electricity assets in that state as well. And we know that they've tried previously in Queensland, and it has only been the public and now a Labor government that has been able to stop them.

We know that, when it comes to privatisation of electricity assets, the Liberals and Nationals will pursue every chance that they get. We know that this is actually the aim of the divestment policy that they're putting forward. We know this because only recently, today, have they given a copy of this legislation to the Queensland state government. They have been out there; other organisations have had the ability; but the Queensland government, which owns significant energy assets in our state, would not be given the legislation so they could understand the dire consequences that this would have on our state.

The LNP never give up on attempting to force this policy on Queenslanders, but Queenslanders—the voting public and the Labor government, and this Labor opposition—will absolutely stand up to them. What is really disappointing is that the LNP and the Queensland federal MPs like to position themselves as Team Queensland. They talk a very big game when it comes to Queensland; but on this issue they are silent. We know other backbenchers have talked about the dire consequences of this divestiture bill, but the Queensland LNP have absolutely been silent. We know that, at the end of the day, the Queensland LNP want to use this to pursue their privatisation objectives. The Labor opposition will absolutely stand up to them. We will ensure that Queensland electricity assets remain in the hands of Queenslanders. Queenslanders have voted repeatedly to ensure that that is the case. So we will call the LNP out on this. We will not let them pursue this ideological agenda.

Question agreed to.