Senate debates

Tuesday, 12 November 2019


Treasury Laws Amendment (Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct) Bill 2019; Second Reading

12:01 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In the time that's left to me—last evening I had some things to say about both the Treasury Laws Amendment (Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct) Bill 2019, and the character of the government's failed approach to energy policy. I'd just say this afternoon that Labor's support for the bill is conditional on the improvements that will be the subject of amendments in this place to prevent the partial privatisation of energy assets. We know from decades of experience that public services and assets don't get better after privatisation, they get worse. One of the principal drivers of the sustained rises in energy prices over the course of the last couple of decades has been a failed approach to energy privatisation. It hurts communities and families and it spells job losses—particularly in regional communities and in good, quality jobs—a decline in the quality of services, higher prices and knock-on effects for local economies.

The Senate inquiry into this bill heard evidence that, unless a government owned corporation is in genuine competition with another government owned corporation, the country risks privatisation occurring in the event of divestment. The Queensland government raised similar concerns to the inquiry, with their submission setting out three different ways that the bill in its current form allows possible privatisation to occur. The first one is the situation set out by Dr Emerson, where a divestiture order could force a government owned electricity generator to be divested to a private corporation due to government entities not being in direct competition with one another. The second pathway allows for state governments to elect to proceed with privatisation in the case of a divestiture order. Thirdly, organisations that are not state authorities but which hold public assets would be able to divest to private companies. In the case of Queensland, Energex and Ergon Energy are both subsidiaries of government owned corporations that currently hold public assets.

It's unacceptable to Labor for this bill to contain any provision that clears a pathway to privatisation of government owned electricity generators. Our amendments to the bill remove those loopholes and protect against the privatisation of national or state assets in electricity. This is the only way that Labor will support the passage of the bill. There needs to be zero prospect of any state owned asset being privatised if it's forcibly divested.

Secondly, Labor has moved additional amendments because we're concerned that the bill in its current form puts workers at risk, in the event of divestment, of losing their protections and entitlements under the Fair Work Act. The transfer-of-business provisions under the Fair Work Act are designed to protect workers when a business changes hands from one company to another. This acknowledges that, when an employer buys or sells a business, the sale may affect the employment and entitlements of the employees already working for the business and seeks to make this transfer as fair as possible.

Under the transfer-of-business provisions, workplace instruments that covered employees of the old employer continue to cover those employees employed by the new employer, which means that workers can transfer across on their existing award or collective agreement entitlements and be assured that their pay and conditions and, critically, their redundancy pay that they rely upon for security and to live and feed their families will be the same when the business changes hands. This transfer of entitlements and protections only comes into effect if a connection exists between the two employers.

That's why we're moving this amendment—to ensure that workers affected by divestment have all the protections they deserve under the Fair Work Act. We will always act in the interests of workers' rights, workers' wages and workers' job security, and we will only proceed with this bill on that basis. Labor will support the bill on the basis that the privatisation amendment and the workers' rights amendment are adopted. We're pleased to see that the government has adopted these provisions.

I will take the opportunity to say that we're very sceptical about the broader benefits of this legislation. What really needs to occur in this country is for the people in decision-making positions in the government to approach the issue of energy policy with some moral seriousness. They are responsible for the administration of energy policy at the Commonwealth level and through the COAG mechanisms. They have a responsibility to ensure a future for the energy sector, with more renewable energy, not less, with more energy security, not less, and with lower prices for consumers and businesses. That means government need to adopt a serious energy policy for the future of the country, something that this gang over here has so far refused to do.

12:07 pm

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

In contributing to this legislation debate this morning on the Treasury Laws Amendment (Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct) Bill 2019, I cannot escape the context of our collective communities suffering across the nation today. We have, as we sit here, over 100 fires burning across New South Wales and Queensland, as well as fires burning on fronts in South Australia and in my home state of Western Australia. There have been more than 200 homes destroyed so far by these blazes, and many more buildings, including schools, have been affected in some of the worst-hit communities on the mid North Coast. More than 600 educational institutions, including TAFEs, will be closed for the rest of the week. We have an entire state which has been placed under a state of emergency. More than 20,000 people have been evacuated, and ADF personnel are on stand-by to assist in evacuations across the states of New South Wales and Queensland. Just as I entered the chamber, a catastrophic fire warning had broken out in the New South Wales region of Thunderbolts Way. And we have tragically seen three lives lost and many more injured.

I cannot think of a clearer definition of a moment of national crisis and emergency than that which we are now in. All across our country, people are fighting to defend their homes and their communities. Over a million hectares of habitat, some of it pristine and virtually irreplaceable, has been lost, burning in regions that have never burned before. The Bureau of Meteorology informed us this morning that this is the first day in Australia's historical record where not a drop of rain has fallen on any section of our ancient continent.

We know that these are not normal events, that this is not a natural disaster that we are in the grip of but is being driven by climate change. We know that climate change is being exacerbated by the burning of carbon emissions, the primary culprit of which is coal. Coal is the villain of the piece, yet what has the government dragged into this chamber this morning? It is nothing less than a friendless brain fart of a piece of legislation which seeks to invest the government with the power to keep open and running clapped-out, aged infrastructure that contributes to this climate disaster. It is driven by the dual factors of their ideological clinging to this old way of doing things, this old way of generating power, and the fact that they are bought, sold and funded by megacorporations which are still seeking to make profits from this industry, even though they know it is coming to the end. These are corporations without a shred of moral fibre, whose compasses long ago were cast overboard. These are organisations who, in the full knowledge that they will not exist in a financial capacity within the decade, are simply positioning themselves to do the equivalent of ripping the copper wire out of the walls before they leave the joint to burn down. That is being facilitated this morning by a so-called opposition.

I was very interested to hear yesterday members of the opposition talk in eloquent terms about how they see themselves now as a constructive opposition. It is an absolutely incredible thing to watch the Albanese Labor opposition metamorphosise from an oppositional political grouping into something more akin to a kind of governmental constructive-feedback working group: 'We won't oppose you on anything, really; we'll just tweak here and tweak there, and as long as you listen to us, ScoMo, and give us a bit of a win, we'll just kind of let you get on with it.'

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

Senator Steele-John, I remind you to refer to others in the other place by their correct title.

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank you for that reminding, Madam Deputy President. I cannot think of a more profound dereliction of duty in this moment of national crisis than to seek actively to make a problem worse. That is what this legislation does. We know that coal is at the core of the climate crisis. We know that these national events are not normal, that we are right now living in the midst of a climate emergency, yet this government brings in legislation that seeks to keep the culprit in business, that seeks to bend the powers of the Australian government to that shameful—shameful!—purpose.

We in this place cannot quite grasp what it is like to be on one of these fire fronts today, what it is like to live in the knowledge that tomorrow your home might not be there. Thousands of members of our community are right now engaged in that fight to defend home and environment against these fires. They are heroes for participating in that practice, but they are being let down this morning by this government and this legislation. It's not enough that fire chiefs couldn't get a meeting with the relevant minister. It's not enough that our Prime Minister has turned down international assistance and ruled it out. It's not enough that he and this government continue to prospect even greater sources of carbon to open up, like those in the Beetaloo Basin, pursuing environmental vandalism with a zeal that borders on perversion. But, on the very day when we are in the grips of this, you bring this legislation in, you propose to make the problem even worse by stopping, you know, not necessarily the most community-minded organisations—I mean, these are privately run power entities; they're hardly going to make the Christmas list of the most charitable organisations, the warmest and cuddliest, but even they know they want to get out of the business of this dying industry.

You've been confronted with the facts and you're trying to get away from them. You're trying to use the powers of the government to bend reality to fit your distortion that you have crafted because of decades of taking corporate donation, corporate donation, corporate donation again and again and again until you can't see the world past the green blindfold you've put on.

Beyond the issue of whether or not it is right, proper or consistent for a Liberal government to be—I mean, really, we do see in this piece of legislation the absolute fallacy of the idea of the hand of the free market and how quickly the Liberal Party is willing to abandon those notions whenever it doesn't fit the narrative. It really is an absolute joke, the amount of times you people come in here and preach the benefit of the free market—ridiculous an idea though it is—and yet here we have a circumstance in which certain markets are clearly trying to transition and you are putting the powers of your Liberal administration in the way. I would laugh, but that type of hypocrisy is par for the course in this place.

The feverish attempts that this government has made in the last two days to escape the reality of climate and the emergency that it has created is a national disgrace. You have written off the legitimate concerns of communities on the fire front, the lived experience that what is happening in these communities is not normal. You have disregarded it as merely—what were the words the Deputy Prime Minister used the other day, the 'woke thinkings of inner city latte-sipping hippies'? What an absolutely disgraceful contribution. What an absolutely petty, small statement to make on a day like that. The man might as well go outside and proclaim the sky is purple as declare that there is no link between climate and fire.

You have been told that this would happen, that this link existed. The major parties in this country have been told since 2006 that their continued addiction to fossil fuel donations, that their continued advocacy for these industries, would lead to exactly the natural disaster that we are now in the grips of. You have been told again and again and again and again, and you have utterly failed to act.

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

You had your chance and you blew it.

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I will take the interjection—

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

Senator Steele-John, stop. Senator Watt. Senator Watt, I'm calling you to order. Please continue, Senator Steele-John.

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I take the interjection, through you, Madam Deputy President, from the rather excitable senator from Queensland, Mr Watt. Now he is carping, as the Labor Party are so prone to do, in relation to their much-vaunted 2007 proposal of an emissions trading scheme. Let me tell you, Senator Watt, via you, Madam Acting Deputy President: the reality of the proposal that you put forward was that it did absolutely bloody nothing to address climate change. It was crafted by the very corporate interests who have taken control of both sides of this parliament for the last two decades. It was thoroughly—

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

Senator Steele-John, thank you. Senator Smith?

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I just remind the senators who are busy interjecting with each other that, while on one level they're trying to bring attention to the seriousness of the challenges that face our country at the moment, their actions and their commentary in the Senate betray them on that. Perhaps they might want to reflect a little bit more broadly—

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

Thank you, Senator Smith. Interjections are disorderly. I have called the senator concerned to order. I would ask all senators to be respectful. The senator has the right to be heard in silence. Senator Steele-John, some of your language is a bit borderline. I haven't pulled you up, because it's not unparliamentary according to the code, but I think you can probably do better. Thank you.

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Deputy President. I will take Senator Smith's point and I will return with razor-sharp focus to the piece of legislation which he has put before this parliament today. There is not a scientist in this country—there is not a qualified individual on the face of the earth—that would say anything other than that there is a direct causal link between the burning of coal and the creation of dangerous climate change. And there is not an individual—a scientist or any other qualified person—who would deny the link between climate change and the disasters which we are experiencing today. It is hypocrisy in the extreme—it is inappropriate beyond words—for this government to propose that, in this moment of national crisis, we should be using the powers of the federal government to maintain a system of burning coal for energy generation. That is what this bill seeks to facilitate. You, funded by your corporate backers, interested only in your continued political survival, have played a role in driving our country to the edge of an ecological abyss from which we may never recover. Your selfishness and your ignorance have known no bounds for decades, and now our communities are paying the price, just as your spinelessness—your contemptible inability to formulate yourselves into anything like an opposition, anything vaguely approaching an organisation capable of countering the bunch of self-obsessed corporate elites that is the Liberal Party—has let this community down again and again. We heard your feeble mutterings in the chamber yesterday about the idea that, at some other point in the future, it might be the appropriate time to raise the issue of climate change. Now! Now! Now!

In the past, when we as a community have confronted issues of national tragedy and crisis, such as we did after Port Arthur, we have come together as a nation and acted. We had a national firearms agreement within 11 days. How dare you suggest that our country is beyond the ability of rising to a similar challenge. How dare any of you suggest that, in this moment, at this time, it is appropriate to be prosecuting a piece of legislation with the aim of propping up coal. You are no better than a bunch of arsonists—borderline arsonists—and you should be ashamed—

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

Senator Steele-John, I've got a point of order. Senator Watt.

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

We are used to Senator Steele-John's lectures—

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

Senator, what's your point of order?

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

but it is highly offensive for him to refer to members of this chamber, regardless of their political party, as arsonists.

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

He hasn't—

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

It is an indication of the lengths that the Greens will go to to make their political point and I ask him to withdraw.

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

Senator Watt, you are now getting into a debating point.

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I will not withdraw.

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

He will not withdraw.

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

Senator Watt, please resume your seat. Senator Steele-John was not making a direct reference to any senator in particular. Please continue, Senator Steele-John. There is no point of order.

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

There will come a time, Senator Watt—

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

If you're seriously going to call senators arsonists—

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

Senator Watt, order. Senator Faruqi, a point of order.

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Deputy President, despite your ruling that interjections are disorderly, Senator Watt continues to interrupt Senator Steele-John. I would please ask you to call him to order.

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

I am calling people to order, Senator Faruqi. I'm asking senators to allow Senator Steele-John to continue his contribution. He has the right to be heard in silence.

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

There will come a time when the Australian community shall look back on this moment and ask what we were doing to help as they were fighting fires on the front, as they were defending their homes—

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

I beg your pardon, Senator Steele-John. Yes, Senator Gallacher.

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Standing order 193(3):

A senator shall not use offensive words against either House of Parliament or of a House of a state or territory parliament, or any member of such House, or against a judicial officer, and all imputations of improper motives and all personal reflections on those Houses, members or officers shall be considered highly disorderly.

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

Thank you, Senator Gallacher. I have made a ruling. I am, however, willing to review the tape. I will do that and if I have erred I will come back and advise the Senate. Please continue, Senator Steele-John.

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

There will come a time when the Australian community will look back and ask itself a simple question: what were we doing when they were defending their homes, when they were protecting their communities, when they were defending precious natural habitat? What were we here doing? The answer this day, as has been the answer on so many occasions since I have entered this place, is making the problem worse, because it was too difficult to do otherwise or because somebody was paying us to do it. That is the only answer that they will discover in this place and they, like me, will be disgusted and ashamed at the weakness, at the cowardice, at the self-interest and at the ignorance that led us to this moment. They will condemn you, as you should rightly be condemned, and hold you accountable at the ballot box and beyond. I thank the chamber for its time.

12:28 pm

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

I am extremely disappointed by the tone of the contribution we just heard from Senator Steele-John. I'm extremely disappointed, but I'm not entirely surprised, because we are used to contributions like that from Senator Steele-John and his colleagues in the Greens party to take the opportunity in moments of national crisis for political pointscoring and using highly inflammatory language that does no credit to them or to anyone in this chamber.

We're pretty keen to get on with this debate, so I won't spend a lot of time on this, but for Senator Steele-John to refer to members of this chamber as arsonists, on the very day that we are told by fire chiefs that we are seeing conditions that this country has never seen before, is beyond offensive and beyond the pale. I would encourage Senator Steele-John and every member of the Greens to reflect on the way they are carrying on, the political pointscoring they are engaging in around bushfires and in referring to other members of this chamber as arsonists. I would never—

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

But I'm telling the truth.

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

I take the interjection. Senator Steele-John is saying that it is telling the truth. He has now had multiple opportunities to resile from those disgusting comments that he has made—

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Truthful comments.

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

Comments that he continues, through interjections, to say are truthful—that members of this chamber are arsonists. It might be a good idea for someone who has been here a little bit longer, like Senator McKim, to have a bit of a chat to Senator Steele-John about whether it is appropriate on the day that this country is facing bushfires—if we're not lucky, people may die and people may lose their properties—to be referring to anyone in this chamber, regardless of their political party, as an arsonist. As I say, it is beyond offensive and beyond the pale.

Labor has already made its contribution, through Senator Wong, on the bushfires. We have already flagged that we have serious concerns about the way this government manages the issue of climate change, and we will take up those matters. We have many differences of opinion on many matters with members of this government, with members of the Greens and with members of One Nation, but the idea that we would come into this chamber—or go outside the chamber—and call another member of parliament who we disagree with an arsonist, a murderer, an armed robber or any other form of criminal is something that I would never contemplate. I play politics pretty hard—I will be honest about that—but I will never liken another member of this chamber to an arsonist, a murderer or any other criminal. I would encourage Senator Steele-John after this debate is over to think about what he said and maybe issue a public apology for what he has said, for the slight that he has cast upon everyone in this chamber, on the day when this nation is facing a great challenge.

Moving to this bill, I rise to make a short contribution on the Treasury Laws Amendment (Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct) Bill 2019. I note, as Senator McAllister has outlined on behalf of the opposition, that there are a few matters outstanding, particularly in relation to the safeguarding of workers' entitlements, that we do hope to resolve with the government at the committee stage. Australia is suffering through the worst energy crisis it has experienced in decades. It is not good enough that the Liberals and Nationals in this Morrison government do not have a real energy policy after six years. Since 2015, under this government gas prices have tripled and wholesale power prices across the National Electricity Market have skyrocketed by 158 per cent, smashing household budgets and jeopardising tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs. The Liberal-National government have made 16 attempts to come up with a national energy policy and have been unable to agree with each other the whole way along. That is why we continue to find ourselves in this utter mess where we don't have an energy policy from the government, and, meanwhile, prices rise and reliability goes down.

This bill, sadly, will not end this energy crisis, which is the making of the Liberal-National government. If this government were serious about ending the energy crisis, it would come back with an actual energy policy, maybe one like the National Energy Guarantee, the NEG, which Prime Minister Morrison and Treasurer Frydenberg both said would bring down power prices by an average of $550 according to the government's own modelling. But instead we have a jumble of policies with no vision, no guiding principle and no policy coherence. Now, as another example of that, we have this bill, the so-called 'big stick'. Labor was critical of this bill in the last parliament. It risked doing harm and it seriously risks the privatisation of state owned electricity generators, something that we are very conscious of in Queensland.

We have seen the damage that privatisation of energy assets—in particular, electricity generators—causes in other states. In other states, Liberal and National state governments have privatised generators, transmission lines and distribution networks, and that has led to job losses, higher prices and less power reliability. In Queensland, this has been a very big topic of debate over the last couple of state elections. First off, we saw former Premier Campbell Newman from the LNP go to an election promising to sell off Queensland's power generators, transmission lines and distribution networks. Fortunately, he was defeated with that proposal by the Palaszczuk Labor government, and that's why our power assets remain in public hands in Queensland.

Not content with that, Premier Newman's former Treasurer, Tim Nicholls, as leader of the LNP went to the recent state election, again, seeking to privatise Queensland's power assets. Again, fortunately, due to the efforts of unions, the Palaszczuk government, Labor members and concerned communities, we managed to prevent the LNP from privatising our power assets. As a result, in my home state of Queensland we have some of the lowest power prices in the country, due to the fact that our energy assets remain in public hands.

Queenslanders and Australians as a whole do not want to see their essential services, like power, privatised. They do not want to see their power prices increase and they do not want to see the reliability of their power systems decline as a result of privatisation. That's why, over the course of this debate, Labor has pressured the government to stiffen the protections in this bill against future power privatisation. Our concern is simply this: by allowing for divestment and the breaking up and selling off of power assets, that is inevitably going to lead to privatisation. I'm very pleased that the government has taken on board our suggestions and will strengthen this bill to prevent privatisation. I'll leave my contribution at that, but we are pleased that the government has backed down on this matter.

12:37 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Treasury Laws Amendment (Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct) Bill 2019. We know that this government will use the power in this bill to keep coal-fired power stations operating for longer. This is all about funnelling taxpayer money to coal-fired power stations. We also know that the future is in renewable energy—the future of our country, the future of our planet and all those who live on it, the future of our young people and the future of those who need a just transition from coal into long-term sustainable jobs.

Just last week I was in Newcastle listening to the community around the Hunter, the experts and local government. Everyone there understands the need to transform our energy systems from dirty polluting ones to clean renewable ones. Everyone is talking about transitioning out of coal. But all of the energy of this government is directed towards keeping clunky, old, outdated and polluting coal-fired power stations open. They are so beholden to coal and coal barons that they have shut their eyes to what's coming. The future is renewable, and the time is now to grab this opportunity and run with it. We could be leading from the front on renewables in this country, but here we are debating legislation that will keep us firmly stuck in the past.

Liddell, in my home state of New South Wales, is the eighth most polluting coal-fired power station in the country, emitting 7.8 million tonnes of pollution per year. It is an environmental catastrophe, a health disaster and a complete failure of policy by this government to look to the future. When I visited Liddell, more than two years ago now, the workers and the company were already saying that they wanted to see that station shut down. They told me that this power station is 1960s design and technology. It was a battle to keep it going every single day. They recognised then what the government still cannot: Liddell and other coal-fired power stations must close to move to clean, green renewable energy.

The federal government's inability—or unwillingness, rather—to stick with any semblance or skerrick of a climate policy is truly astounding. Coal-fired power stations, such as Liddell, have been operating without modern pollution control technologies and they have been allowed to get away with it for years and years. Nowhere else would this kind of destructive technology be allowed to operate, given its immense cost to the planet and its disastrous consequences for the people who have no choice but to breathe in the pollution it creates. By extending a lifeline to coal-fired power, this bill takes away from the lives of thousands of people who will suffer health problems from pollution in the Sydney Basin if these coal-fired power stations are allowed to continue to operate for decades to come. It also takes away from the millions who are already facing the consequences of the climate crisis.

Coal combustion is one of the biggest sources of pollution in New South Wales. The particles emitted can enter the bloodstream and enter the lungs, and winds drag these particles to major pollution centres in the Sydney Basin. It's quite indisputable that coal is also one of the biggest contributors to the climate emergency we are in now at this very moment. As New South Wales burns in catastrophic bushfires and is under a state of emergency, it is reprehensible that this government will take public money and hand it over to coal-fired power stations. It is truly reprehensible. The science is indisputable. Coal is one of the leading causes of warming of our planet. There is a direct link between digging up and burning coal and the climate crisis that is seeing unprecedented bushfires across New South Wales.

Do you, the government, understand that you are actually failing people? You are failing the people who have lost homes, lives and loved ones. The job of the government is to protect people, and you're completely and utterly failing in that responsibility. You have to face the reality that, by propping up coal, by not acting on the climate crisis, you are part of the problem. You are making things worse. By burning coal and through the impact that it's having on the climate emergency, of course we know that there is an increasing risk of frequency and intensity of bushfires. We also know that it's making fire seasons longer and more dangerous. You have to face up to this reality and face up to this truth. Don't blame and vilify people who point out the truth to you.

The Mid North Coast of New South Wales is a place that I called home for many years. It's where I lived and worked. It's where my children grew up. It is being ravaged by raging fires. My friends there tell me that they thought the end of the world was coming. My heart goes out to all those who are again today facing this prospect of a catastrophic fire. Stay safe. We send you solidarity and strength. We also want to send the same solidarity and strength to the fireys, the emergency services and the volunteers who put their own lives at risk to protect us, our environment and our community.

We need real action to move away from fossil fuels so we can protect people and the planet. By doing nothing, you are failing our communities. To be frank, if this doesn't wake up this Prime Minister and this government from the climate stupor that they're in, I'm not sure what is going to. But, then again, it's not really a surprise for anyone, is it? This government is so beholden to the coal lobby. It is a loyal servant of the coal lobby. Even energy companies want to shut down coal-fired power stations, because they know that the future is in renewables. They know this polluting, old, clunky, breaking-down technology is on its way out, and it's only a matter of time before Australia has to reckon with this.

Renewable energy is the cheapest form of electricity. With the right policy New South Wales, and even Australia, could become a renewable energy superpower, but years of bad policy between the New South Wales government—that's my home state; I have to point it out—and the federal government have made sure that we remain stuck in the past. Our grid is still largely a set of wires out of coal mines. The government now needs to build the grid out to where the sun shines and where the wind blows. Renewable energy can unlock the potential, creating clean energy jobs, but this bill will get in the way of the progress that we desperately need. If the government is genuinely concerned about market concentration, as it says it is, then the government should be moving to strengthen the ACCC. The Competition and Consumer Act should be reviewed to introduce divestiture powers across the economy. The ACCC has said that this bill won't lower power prices, and, even if it does, the effect will be so small as to be negligible.

If the bill were just about electricity prices, as some in the government wish to claim, the government would have accepted Greens amendments that made clear that the bill could not be used for the purposes of forcing a company to keep an asset such as Liddell running beyond its accepted life, but they did not. We know this bill has one purpose and one purpose alone, and that is to keep one of Australia's dirtiest power stations open. The Greens will not stand for this. We oppose this bill and will continue to oppose all attempts to keep Australia stuck in the past. The future is renewable and it is coming, whether you like it or not. One day you will run out of roadblocks. We will make sure of that. The only way is to have a plan, just transition to renewable power, with jobs and safety for coal dependent communities and everyone else.

12:46 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As deputy chair of the Senate Economics Legislation Committee, which reviewed the Treasury Laws Amendment (Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct) Bill 2019, I want to talk about this bill, not about climate change or coal or anything else. It is my view, supported by the documentary evidence, that this appears to be another poorly drafted bill which is full of unintended consequences and creates uncertainty rather than certainty. It is the view of the Law Council that it may be subject to legal challenge, which, ultimately, would negate some of the attempts to prohibit energy market misconduct. I'm not going to make a large contribution. I'll just put a couple of things on the record.

On 31 August 2016 I was in this chamber talking about the only entity to have been taken to court by the regulator and fined. That was Snowy Hydro, which was fined $400,000 and asked to pay $100,000 towards the regulator's costs for not meeting the requirements of the regulator. At that time, that entity was owned by the federal government, the New South Wales government and the Victorian government. That is the only proven case of misconduct in this space and is so to this date. The ACCC and other witnesses were questioned recently at the inquiry hearing in Sydney. I asked whether any other entity in the marketplace had been found to have done the wrong thing, and the answer was no. It is only Snowy Hydro, which coincidentally was owned at the time by three governments. The only exception to that is that the ACCC found that a couple of government owned generators and operators in Queensland appeared to be heaving a bit of money into the state government's coffers at the expense of consumers.

Here we have what is called 'big stick' legislation, whose main customers appear to be either a state government or the federal government, because Snowy Hydro when it gets to the upgrade will be one of the largest players in the marketplace, and is, coincidentally, the only one that has ever been caught doing the wrong thing. Red Energy, which is the energy arm of Snowy Hydro, makes more from electricity generation than AGL, which incidentally does a whole lot more supply. If there is any prohibited conduct going on, the minister may be well advised to have a look in his own direction at areas which he can control quite simply and easily. The evidence to the committee was not that there was a significant amount of misconduct going on amongst the retailers generally. What was found was that smaller retailers, with higher cost structures, were being used to set a higher floor price than perhaps those who had a greater ability to set a lower floor price. That's what the ACCC found.

So it's a really interesting piece of legislation. On the balance of the submissions—and I'm not talking about a dissenting report; I'm talking about the Economics Legislation Committee's report—there isn't a lot of support coming from all of the disparate sectors that are involved in this space, and there is not a lot of unanimity about the effect that this bill will have. The minister in his own tabling speech said it was unlikely to be used. When you look at the way it would be used by the Treasurer and the other entities in the legislation and at the legal challenges that any or all of those actions may face, you see it's unlikely to be used on a great number of occasions, because the prohibited misconduct would have to be identified, proved and actioned in quite a discreet way. Once again, I put on the record that the only people that have actually fallen foul of the regulations in this space are Snowy Hydro, and there have been some adverse comments about the conduct of a Queensland government owned generator or two in that space. The industry doesn't appear to have fallen foul of the regulator.

Why this big stick legislation is required is a little unclear to the industry, and that's their submission back to the committee and faithfully captured in the committee report. We will support this legislation because, in opposition, there's not a lot you can do other than try to make things a little better. We have tried to make things better in that, if there is a divestiture of a coal-fired power plant, workers will be protected in that divestiture and communities will be protected in that divestiture. We well know—you and I, Mr Acting Deputy President Fawcett—that the town of Port Augusta went through a closing of a coal-fired plant, and we know the disruption that can cause for a community and the length of time it takes people to get over it. We'll be hoping that those sorts of protections are agreed and in the legislation, and with that I will cease my comments.

12:52 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct) Bill 2019. I wish to make a contribution to this debate because this is an important debate and I'm deeply concerned about where it's going to lead this country in the future. I disagree totally with those that claim that this has nothing to do with climate change. Anybody that thinks that obviously has not been paying attention to the issues around energy generation and its contribution to our worsening climate emergency.

This bill provides the government with new powers to prohibit conduct in relation to energy retail, contract and wholesale markets. It represents the latest round of the government's ideological war on a rational energy transition to renewable energy. It is clear the main motivation for the bill is to enable the government to bully power companies to keep unreliable coal-fired power stations open longer—the first being Liddell. The critical concern for us is the increased uncertainty this bill and the powers contained within the bill create for investors in an already uncertain energy sector.

There were many people and many organisations that presented evidence to the committee to indicate their opposition to the bill and the concerns they had about the uncertainty. A number of legal bodies and policy experts, including the Grattan Institute and the Law Council, have expressed deep concerns. The reality is that pollution is increasing year after year, and electricity prices have continued to rise under this government. I'm particularly concerned about the future of energy production in this country that, if left as is, will continue our climate change emergency.

I'd like to draw the Senate's attention to a report recently released in Western Australia that demonstrates just how much pollution is going up under this government and, particularly, what some people think is a remedy to our climate change crisis—liquefied natural gas, LNG. The Conservation Council of Western Australia report is titled Runaway train: the impact of WA's LNG industry on meeting our Paris targets and national efforts to tackle climate change. This is the first time a report has investigated the full impact of greenhouse gas emissions from WA's LNG, and it's findings are starkly alarming.

The report found that Western Australia's LNG industry is single-handedly cancelling out the entire country's efforts to tackle climate change and carbon pollution. Australia has a commitment, as we know, under the Paris Agreement that requires pollution to be reduced by 26 to 28 per cent from the 2005 baseline year. But the current and proposed LNG projects will threaten this target by adding 41.6 million tonnes of pollution a year. This additional pollution is equivalent to a 61 per cent increase on WA's 2005 emissions baseline and an eight per cent increase on Australia's 2005 baseline.

As a result, WA's LNG pollution is single-handedly breaching the Paris Agreement. While there has been progress by some states in achieving emissions reductions, WA's emissions have risen by 23 per cent since 2003. Emissions from current WA LNG facilities make up 36 per cent of WA's total annual emissions. If the proposed Woodside Burrup Hub expansion is approved, opening up the Browse and Scarborough gas fields, emissions from WA's current and proposed LNG facilities will account for 47 per cent of WA's annual emissions. Pollution from WA's current and proposed LNG facilities, combined, will be as high as the total annual emissions from countries such as Ireland, Sweden, Hong Kong and New Zealand. This, quite frankly, is disgraceful.

Part of the problem is that there are no effective controls on carbon pollution on big polluters like Chevron and Woodside. The WA government's measures to control and regulate carbon pollution from LNG remain totally ineffective at constraining pollution growth from the sector. Our big corporations are able to pollute our country and get away with it. WA's LNG pollution is out of control and having a damaging impact on our efforts to reduce emissions. The rapid expansion of LNG pollution in Western Australia is the most significant industrial driver of carbon pollution increases in WA and Australia as a whole.

The most significant finding from the report is that over the next 12 years the total cumulative emissions from WA's five current LNG facilities will cancel out our entire abatement expected to be delivered under the emissions reduction scheme. We were devastated when we saw this report that was released just last week. Gas, for those of you that think it is, is not our savour. This bill is not our savour. We need real action on our climate emergency, and we need it now.

12:59 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Let's be clear about what this legislation aims to do. This legislation, although it is dressed up as a bill to address electricity prices, is a sham. The main purpose of the Treasury Laws Amendment (Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct) Bill 2019, is as a stick to bully power companies, to keep unreliable, old and dirty coal-fired power stations open longer. That's what it is aiming to do. Just think about that today. Today, as we are here in Canberra, the catastrophic fire conditions in New South Wales—the first time that catastrophic fire conditions have been declared in New South Wales—is the sign, if ever we knew one, of the fact that we are in a climate emergency. The fire emergencies that we are facing at the moment in eastern Australia are a direct reflection of our climate emergency.

The timing of this bill could not be starker. What we should be having in this parliament today is legislation to deal with the fact that we are in a climate emergency—legislation that would be keeping people safe rather than legislation that is just going to make our climate emergency worse. It is going to continue the pollution for longer. It is going to prop up coal-fired power stations and allow them to continue for longer. It's the exact reverse direction to what this parliament should be considering today.

We need to get serious about this. We need to get rid of legislation like this. It is all about the government supporting their corporate mates, supporting the people who are deeply invested in coal, gas and oil and who just want business as usual to continue, but we can see what business as usual is creating. The conditions around us are because of our climate emergency. Yes, Australia has had bushfires before, but we have never had catastrophic fire conditions in the places where they have been declared today. We know what needs to happen and that is for us to get out of coal, gas and oil.

As people know, I've just had leave. My wife, Penny, died two months ago. Penny was one of Australia's leading climate scientists. In the aftermath of her death there have been outpourings of the importance of the work that she did as a climate scientist in leading and being part of teams with people saying, 'These are the projections for how Australia's climate is going to change.' Thirty years of work of those climate scientists, which Penny was a critical part of for the last 30 years, to say, 'Wake up, Australia. Here is the science. Here is what's going to happen to our way of life, to our safety.' We need to be taking action, so I've returned to this parliament on a mission. I have a purpose. Penny and I, for the last 30 years, had been a team of her being the scientist and me being the activist and then the politician, of putting the science out front, saying: 'Here it is. Here is what the impact of climate change is going to be.' Whether it's about the extreme fire risk that is putting people at risk; whether it's about the rising sea levels that are putting people at risk; whether it's about the change in the climate of our wheat growing areas, which is going to make them the same as the climate of the central deserts, this is what the science says. This is what this parliament needs to be paying attention to now. Instead, we are here debating legislation that is only going to make our climate emergency worse.

As I said, I am here with a purpose and that is, with the Greens, to continue to work to make sure that we do declare a climate emergency, that we do take action that is going to really be keeping people safe, rather than legislation like this which is just bullying companies to try and keep old, dirty, polluting coal-fired power stations open for longer.

1:03 pm

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

I thank senators for their contributions and commend the bill to the Senate.

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the Treasury Laws Amendment (Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct) Bill 2019 be read a second time.

Bill read a second time.