Senate debates

Thursday, 4 July 2019


Centre Alliance: Gas Prices; Order for the Production of Documents

3:00 pm

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

I seek leave to move a motion requiring a minister to table a document.

Leave not granted.

Pursuant to contingent notice, I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent Senator Wong moving a motion to provide for the consideration of a matter—namely, a motion to give precedence to a motion requiring a minister to table a document, the document in question being the document that sets out the deal with Centre Alliance on gas prices, about which questions have been asked in this chamber today.

Let us be very clear: both in the House of Representatives, where Mr Taylor was asked questions, and today in the Senate, when the Leader of the Government in the Senate was asked questions, there was an utter refusal by the government to give any details of this special deal with Centre Alliance—that is, a deal that Senator Patrick has been very clear and up-front with the newspapers that he has achieved in return for his vote on the tax cuts. I just would remind the government that Senator Patrick has said to newspapers that his party has received a written guarantee outlining the Morrison government's gas policy, which the key minor party demanded in exchange for its support for the $158 billion personal income tax cut package. The draft gas policy, signed by the government, was given to Centre Alliance senators last night ahead of a crucial vote in the Senate today on tax cuts. Well, I think the Australian people and the Senate are entitled to see a copy of a gas policy that, as Senator Patrick asserts, is supposed to deliver $7 per gigajoule, that is supposed to deliver lower prices to consumers, that is supposed to deliver lower gas prices in South Australia, and that the government is keeping secret. I think the Australian people, and this chamber, are entitled to see the details of this secret deal. Senator Patrick is out there spruiking it to the newspapers. Minister Taylor and Minister Cormann, in the House of Representatives and the Senate respectively, are dancing around the answers and refusing to provide answers on this question.

I also want to make this point to Centre Alliance: Senator Rex Patrick and Senator Griff, I hope you come in here and, consistent with your party platform around transparency and accountable, vote for this suspension of standing orders so as to enable the document to be tabled, because Centre Alliance's public platform is that they believe in transparent and accountable government. I think it's pretty reasonable for a party that believes in transparent and accountable government to require a government to tell the Australian people what their policy is. I think that's pretty reasonable. That's pretty transparent and pretty accountable.

I would make a second point about this, and this is about the ethics of it. Centre Alliance has made an agreement with the government over the tax package, and they are entitled to do this. We don't agree with stage 3, and we have explained why. We agree with stages 1 and 2 but not with stage 3, and we have explained our position. But if Centre Alliance has traded their votes for a policy, I think it is incumbent upon them to outline what that policy is. So, I look forward to Senator Patrick and Senator Griff coming in here and voting with the Australian Labor Party, and I hope other parties in this place, to require the government to table the document that Centre Alliance is talking to the media about. This is the extraordinary thing about the document that Senator Cormann doesn't want to acknowledge the existence of, that he doesn't want to ask questions about, that he has ducked and weaved on throughout the entirety of question time today: Senator Patrick has been out there chatting to the media about it. So it's fine. We have the media saying, 'This is what's in the document,' but the Senate can't see it and the Australian people can't see it. We just get Senator Patrick spruiking his deal. If it's such a great deal, I'm sure Senator Patrick and Senator Griff will vote for this motion to ensure that the government actually tables the document that is government policy.

What has occurred is that a deal has been done about government policy, and you ought to front up to the Senate, Senator Cormann, and tell people what the policy actually is. You ought to front up to the Senate and tell them what you're doing in order to get these votes. You're the one that said 'no special deals'. Well, you've given a special deal. That's fine; it's up to you if you want to do that. But I think it is incumbent upon the government and Centre Alliance to provide to this Senate and, via the Senate, the Australian people the details of the gas policy changes that you have agreed in order to get their votes. This document is out there. This document has been signed by the government. This document is being spruiked by Senator Patrick as a thing he got for his vote. Well, table the document. Front up and table the document. It's the right thing to do.

3:05 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

Firstly, Senator Patrick has advised me that the story that is written by Rosie Lewis is incorrect, and no doubt he will explain that to the chamber at the appropriate time. There's no stone that the Labor Party would leave unturned in order to prevent Australians from getting a tax cut. There is no stone that the Labor Party will leave unturned to prevent working Australians keeping more of their own money in their pocket. Centre Alliance and Senator Lambie have made a decision to support good policy—policy which was endorsed by the Australian people, policy which is important to strengthen our economy, and policy, of course, which the Senate should support.

I would refer Senator Wong to what I've said consistently on the record for some time. I refer you, in particular, to a Sky interview on 14 June, which sums up our approach. I said:

We will continue to engage in good faith and constructively with all non-government senators. A range of issues have been raised, ranging from a desire to lower energy prices, which we share and we are pursuing, and various other issues. It is very important for your viewers to understand our government is absolutely committed to lower energy prices. We have a very ambitious agenda already to bring down energy prices, including by boosting the supply of gas into the domestic market. Of course, we are prepared to engage with non-government senators in relation to these matters. In the end, you have to make judgements on these matters on their own merit.

That is the important point. We are here today pursuing a policy to reduce income taxes for all working Australians. That is a policy that we commend to the Senate on its own merits, because it's an important economic policy, it's economically necessary, it's fiscally responsible and it is what the Australian people voted for. Furthermore, though, we have a longstanding commitment to bring electricity prices down. We have a longstanding track record of pursuing policy measures to drive down the cost of electricity, to drive down the cost of gas and to boost the supply of gas into the domestic market, in particular on the east coast. That is not a secret.

Of course, we have been engaging with Centre Alliance in relation to these matters, and we have committed to continue to work with them in good faith. As positions are finalised and as processes are put in place, we will of course announce all of these matters, as is appropriate. But here is the important point: we are working with all senators who are prepared to work with us on finding consensus and alignment with the government's policy agenda. We already have a longstanding policy agenda to drive down energy prices. That is well and truly understood. It's well and truly on the public record. When we're in a position the make further announcements about further policy initiatives in the future, of course, we will do that at the appropriate time.

This is nothing but the Labor Party trying to prevent the Senate from dealing with important legislation to deliver income tax relief to all working Australians. I think that everyone can see through what this is about. I think that senators should just get on with it, should deal with the legislation that's in front of us, should deal with the amendments and should make sure that, by the end of next week, millions of working Australians can keep more of their own money in their own pockets.

3:09 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

The story about what kind of deal has been done between the government and Centre Alliance continues unravelling by the minute. The latest comment, which we've just heard from Senator Cormann, is that Senator Patrick has now retracted his claims that he has a written guarantee from the government.

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

Did you tell him to retract it?

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Exactly. Senator Cormann has clearly been on the phone or had his people on the phone to Senator Patrick, saying: 'You'd better get out there, Rex, and retract that story. You remember to hush-hush. We've got no written guarantee.' If Senator Cormann is now to be believed and, in fact, there isn't a written guarantee from the government about gas prices, are we to believe that Centre Alliance actually hasn't got any kind of deal for their support for these tax cuts? They either have a deal or they don't. It's either in writing or it's not. But what we're hearing from Senator Cormann is that there is no written guarantee; there is no deal. So what is Centre Alliance actually doing here? We can't ask them, because they've been hiding for the entirety of question time, too ashamed to come to this chamber as their hopeless deal is being exposed. And now we learn that it appears—according to Senator Cormann—that there's no deal whatsoever. I have to say I am thoroughly confused about what Centre Alliance are up to and what they are going to get out of this deal for the Australian people.

One of the reasons I'm confused is that I heard Senator Patrick on AM this morning being interviewed by Sabra Lane. He was dodging and weaving her questions about what effect this would have on gas prices, but she finally managed to pin him down when she asked, 'So people on the east coast, including South Australia, can expect that their prices will be $4 cheaper in twelve months or so?' Senator Patrick answered:

I think probably a realistic measure is something of the order of about $7 per gigajoules. Currently we're paying about $9 per gigajoule.

So Senator Patrick has been in the media this morning making a promise that gas prices on the east coast are going to fall by $2 per gigajoule, which means that households using their gas appliances in South Australia, Queensland, north New South Wales, Victoria and other states and territories on the east coast will get a gas price reduction. But now we're starting to find out that in fact there is no such deal. Can someone tell us what Centre Alliance is getting out of this? They're signing up to tax cuts from this government which are going to remove $158 billion in revenue from the federal budget over the next few years. They're about to give away $158 billion of public money, which is needed to fund all sorts of other services in their home state of South Australia. While I would disagree with them doing a deal that might do something about gas prices, we're now finding out that they don't even have a deal. So I'm very much looking forward to hearing Centre Alliance, over the course of the day, try to explain to us and to the South Australians who voted for them what on earth they have managed to get out of the government in return for rolling over and backing in $158 billion of tax cuts.

The article that we're referring to is crystal clear. It was published around question time:

Centre Alliance has received a written guarantee outlining the Morrison government's gas policy, which the key minor party demanded in exchange for its support for the … tax cuts …

The copy of the draft gas policy, which has been signed by the government, was given to Centre Alliance senators last night ahead of a crucial vote in the Senate today …

That's not something you can make up. There's clearly a draft gas policy. Senator Canavan's here. He can probably illuminate this. He was probably involved in drafting this gas policy. He's also party to this deal and, by forming this deal, he is also promising the people in his home state of Queensland that their gas prices are going to fall, $9 a gigajoule down to $7 gigajoule. I look forward to all those people in Rockhampton thanking Senator Canavan for the gas price reductions that he's promised them.

Here's Senator Patrick. Maybe now he can tell us. Senator Patrick, have you done a deal or haven't you? Have you done a written deal or have you not? Have you done a verbal deal or have you not? We were told that you had and now we're being told that you haven't, so we'd quite like to know what you've done. You're about to give away $158 billion in tax cuts.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

So you're against tax cuts now?

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

No. What I'm interested in knowing is what anyone is getting for this. There are no guarantees about gas prices. You should think about that. (Time expired)

3:14 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I have heard what's been said in the chamber over the last 10 or 15 minutes. I'll explain to you what has happened. Senator Cormann came down to Adelaide a few weeks ago and had a bit of a chat to us about things that were of concern to us. We raised a number of issues, one of which was energy prices. That won't be surprising to Senator Wong; she knows that electricity prices in South Australia are the highest in the country. Senator Cormann then invited me to come across to Western Australia to sit down with Senator Canavan, which I did. We started talking about ways in which gas prices in this country could be brought down. Senator Canavan brought to the table a whole range of things that he was already working on. We talked about a number of things that we thought would be useful. We've had a dialogue backwards and forwards. It turns out some of the things that we thought might be useful can't be implemented because it wouldn't be lawful to do so, and some of the things that we have suggested be done can't technically be achieved; they don't actually give you the outcome that you want.

We've had a running dialogue with the government over the last three or four weeks, going backwards and forwards, having conversations about the details. At the moment—and I'm sure Senator Cormann will confirm this—they have a draft outline of how they want to approach things. It's not fully developed. As Senator Wong would know, having been a minister in government, tabling something or producing something that is not completed can actually be harmful. The government is still working through a whole range of options, and it needs to do a whole bunch of checking-off on those options. We have an understanding of where they want to go, and we also have an invitation—

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Patrick! Please stop the clock. Resume your seat, Senator Patrick. Point of order, Senator Wong.

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

Point of order: I'd ask that Senator Patrick advise the Senate whether or not he has received the written guarantee.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

That's not a point of order, Senator Wong.

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Cormann has given—

Senator Wong interjecting

I'll come to that. If you stop interjecting, I'll come to it. Senator Cormann has invited us to continue talking with him on this policy issue and, indeed, on other policy issues. That's how the crossbench can work well with government. I can tell you that I do not have a document that links anything to tax cuts or sets a price. The price that I mentioned this morning on the ABC—

Senator Watt interjecting

No. What I mentioned as an aim point is the price that ACCC chairman Rod Sims has suggested we can get to in terms of gas pricing. There is no agreement that says, 'If you vote for the tax cuts, we will do this.' We are now quite satisfied that the government is moving in a really good direction in relation to gas prices. That's the status of things. There is no written agreement that says, 'You do this, and we will support tax cuts'; I can absolutely assure you of that. There is a dialogue that's taken place, and there have been emails exchanged. There's a draft policy document but, once again, it would be irresponsible to table something that is a draft and is not fully considered.

3:19 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I just comment on some of the other contributions to this debate on the need to suspend standing orders. I note that Senator Watt used the word 'confused' a number of times; he was confused about where things are at and how things are going. I think I can understand Senator Watt's confusion. My understanding of where the Australian Labor Party are with the tax cuts legislation is that their position on how they're going to vote this evening on tax cuts is going to be determined by wherever Centre Alliance and the other crossbenchers come to.

You would think that the once-proud Australian Labor Party maybe would have a position themselves on something as important as large income tax cuts to help stimulate the economy and return wealth to the Australian people. You'd think they might have their own policy position on that given the nature of their party and their dreams one day to be in government. But instead, you have this absurd situation where apparently they're going to hold a shadow cabinet meeting this afternoon after Senator Patrick, Senator Griff, Senator Lambie and others come to a position. Then they'll determine what their position is. I have great respect for Senator Patrick and Centre Alliance, and other senators in this place, but I cannot understand why the once-proud Australian Labor Party is outsourcing their policy development to a couple of senators in South Australia. How low has the Australian Labor Party dropped to that that is the state of affairs that we are now seeing?

This suspension motion has nothing to do with policy. It has nothing to do with transparency. It has nothing to do with good government. This motion is just a way for the Australian Labor Party to prevent Australians having tax cuts. That's what they are trying to do this afternoon. They are trying to delay. They haven't come to a position themselves. They are trying to delay Australians getting the benefit of a tax cut. That's why this suspension motion should be rejected. We should deal with these matters that are important and that were central to the recent federal election campaign. We should get back to the job of dealing with those and those substantive matters right now.

As I have said in the last couple of weeks, the Australian government takes seriously the need to have competitive gas prices in this country and to do so in a way which continues to track investment in gas supply. In my view, in the last couple of years we have approached this important matter in a considered and diligent fashion. We have also done so in a collaborative way with all stakeholders—with the users of gas in this country. We've had many conversations and meetings with gas users, the manufacturing users of Australia, the Energy Users Association of Australia and the gas producers as well. In the last two years wholesale gas prices have fallen by 20 per cent. We have gone from a situation two years ago where the Queensland coal seam gas industry was barely supplying gas for a few months to the rest of Australia, in net terms, to today Queensland coal seam gas supplying 25 per cent of the east coast market—over 100 petajoules a year. It's been a very good outcome for our gas markets. It's provided a lot of gas into the system, albeit I recognise that our prices are still much higher than they were before.

On that front, six years ago, when the trains in Gladstone started to be built and constructed, when the Australian Labor Party were in government, no-one looked at what effect building six trains in Gladstone, and establishing a massive gas export industry, would have on the domestic market. No-one looked at this. The shadow energy minister of the Labor Party, Mark Butler, has since said, 'Everybody knew at the time that gas prices would go up,' yet they still did nothing back in 2012 when they approved these projects. We don't want to see that happen again. That's why we have been the first government to put export gas controls in place. We have done so in a methodical way, as I've said. We've done so in a way that will continue to make any developments in this area in that fashion. What we won't do is the kind of ad hoc response the Australian Labor Party is adopting.

In the last two weeks the Australian Labor Party has had three different positions on gas. Two weeks ago their shadow minister for resources, Joel Fitzgibbon, told Fran Kelly, on Radio National:

We want a bipartisan approach to this. It's too important for politics. We want to be part of the solution not part of the problem. I have already had a discussion with Matt Canavan on this issue. We need to work together to get this right.

I agree with and support those sentiments. Then today I came into the chamber and Senator Pratt moved a motion to trigger gas export controls today. Do it today! That's not exactly bipartisan. That's completely inconsistent with your own shadow minister. You're a complete and utter rabble.

Then also today Matt Keogh, your member for Burt, when he was asked on Sky News about gas triggers and gas reservation, said: 'I think it's a concern. We want to see the detail of this, because I don't want to see the government do anything that creates a sovereign risk.' Then his own senator, from Western Australia, comes in here and moves a motion to create sovereign risk. The Australian Labor Party is absolute rabble and that is why we should deny this motion.

3:24 pm

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

What a performance we had there from Senator Patrick. He likes to have two middle names that he's built his reputation on: transparency and accountability. That has completely gone out the window here today. His performance, how he's come in here to try to justify this, was absolutely lacklustre. Never again will the Labor Party be lectured to by Senator Patrick on transparency and accountability. He's the one who's done the deal, he's the one who's refusing to explain it, and we will absolutely hold him to account, because there are bigger things at stake here. There are the tax cuts which we're expected to vote on today. We know that they are worth $158 billion. Senators are expected to vote on that today, and we don't know what deal you've done. This is about more than just the tax cuts, because whatever deal you've done will have an impact on policy across Australia, particularly in my home state of Queensland. It is absolutely unacceptable that you do some sort of deal and then you don't actually come in here and explain it.

It's absolutely reprehensible that Senator Canavan hasn't explained it to the people of Queensland, because we in Queensland know that these sorts of things around gas have a significant impact. The only state that has actually done anything about gas prices over the last couple of years has been Queensland. None of what Senator Canavan has talked about has actually had an impact. It's been the Queensland government that's been delivering, and ensuring that producers in Queensland have the gas that they need. There is no better example of that than Incitec Pivot. Senator Canavan didn't have a role in that. It was the Queensland government that was making sure that there was new gas being provided so that those workers could be looked after at Incitec Pivot. It was the Queensland Labor government. Canavan was absolutely missing when it came to that.

When it comes to Senator Cormann: when I got into work today, I was in a bit of a bad mood, so, to get some cheering up, I put on Sky News, which always gives me a bit of a boost, and there I heard Senator Cormann talking about his arrangement with the crossbenchers, saying he had no deals, and I heard him talk about it in relation to Senator Lambie and in relation to the Centre Alliance. But, as we know from previous experience—and former Prime Minister Turnbull learnt this the hard way—Senator Cormann is always doing things behind the scenes. There's no doubt that he's come to an arrangement here with Senator Griff. We know that there's a pretty cosy relationship between their offices. But they are not being up-front with the Australian people, and that is of particular concern for me in Queensland because I know this does have an impact in that area.

We need to know what impact this will have on Queensland, what sort of arrangement they've come to and what that will do for jobs in Queensland. I know that manufacturers across the country are crying out for a solution around gas. Yet we have seen no details and no evidence about what impact this will have for those workers and for those businesses—let alone for future investment. We know how important gas is for feedstock and also for the jobs that go with that. But we've got no sense from the government—or from Senator Patrick, who came in here and did not explain what was going to be done.

Overall this is completely unsatisfactory—that tonight we are expected to vote on these tax cuts, we're expected to just let this go, when Senator Patrick won't outline what deals have been done with the government. Senator Cormann is saying that there is no arrangement in place. The Australian people are being hoodwinked. It is not good enough. The Australian people absolutely deserve better. We will continue to hold this government to account and we'll continue to hold Senator Patrick to account, and never again will we be lectured by him on accountability or transparency.

3:28 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

Look at this Labor Party! Talk about being so committed to a high-taxing, high-spending agenda that they will do absolutely anything to try to stand in the way of the Australian people getting the tax relief that the Australian people voted for at the election just on 18 May! Here we have a Labor Party who come in to this Senate chamber and will try to twist and contort and take points of order—

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Wong, on a point of order.

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

I'm happy to withdraw my motion if you table the deal, and we can get on with the debate.

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

These answers have been well addressed, indeed, by Senator Patrick himself, and by Senator Cormann. But you've got a Labor Party who just want to find any justification for their hopeless inability to support tax cuts for hardworking Australians. That's what this is about—they're running around, looking under rocks, desperately hoping to find some reason that justifies the fact that they can't bring themselves to vote for tax cuts for hardworking Australians! All of this could've been avoided if they'd just listened to the verdict of the Australian people on 18 May. All of this could've been avoided if they'd just heard that the Australian people were supporting lower taxes, not higher taxes. And the reason that they got their lowest primary vote in 100 years is because of their high-taxing agenda, because you walked around places around the country and misled people. In your home state, Senator Watt, Mr Shorten stood there in front of workers and said, 'Well, I'll think about giving you a tax cut,' but his plan was to actually increase the taxes on those workers.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for this debate has expired. Pursuant to the motion adopted by the Senate earlier today, we will be returning to the tax bills.