Senate debates

Monday, 9 November 2020

Answers to Questions on Notice

Question No. 48

3:07 pm

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

Mr President, under standing order 74(5)(a) I seek an explanation from Senator Birmingham, the Minister representing the Prime Minister, as to why question No. 48, which I placed on notice on 2 March 2002, remains unanswered. The question was in relation to the announcement of the Collinsville feasibility study.

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

You haven't been here that long, Senator Ayres.

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

I approach the technical aspects of the standing orders with some trepidation! But I'm very comfortable with the subject matter.

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

Convention certainly is that, if a question on these matters is to be raised at the conclusion of question time, notice is usually given. I am not aware that notice has been given to my office in relation to following up on this question. I am happy, outside of the chamber, to seek to follow up for the senator, but I regret that I am not in a position to give him an explanation at that time.

3:08 pm

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

Under standing order 74(5)(b), I move:

That the Senate take note of the explanation provided, to the extent that it was provided.

The question on notice that I provided earlier this year was in relation to the Collinsville coal catastrophe—the announcement that the government made in early 2019. You couldn't conceive of a plan that could take more than a decade, be very, very expensive, push up the price of power, increase Australia's emissions, give an enormous subsidy of billions of borrowed taxpayer dollars and that will more effectively hold back Australian industry and energy providers. How could the party of free enterprise sink so low? Senator Canavan was the principal advocate of this hopeless boondoggle. He was very active last year around Queensland, and very active this year in this place, making the case for an enormous expenditure of taxpayers' money on an inefficient energy provider—an inefficient generator.

How have the Liberal and National parties sunk so low that they are investing taxpayer dollars in even a feasibility study? How has Senator Canavan wandered so far away from the principles of the Liberal and National parties? How has he got so lost? Senator Canavan came in here with such promise. He got good marks at university. While he might have been a teenage Trotskyite, he reformed over time. He got a job at KPMG and then at the Productivity Commission. He then worked as a political staffer year after year. It's the perfect pedigree for a Liberal Party or National Party politician: school, university, corporate sector, public service—ideally in a job promoting far Right neoliberal ideology—political staffer and then parliament. Senator Canavan had a privileged rails run into this place. How did it all go so wrong?

Senator Canavan is here in Canberra advocating for state socialism for inefficient high-emissions coal-fired power but is all Margaret Thatcher when it comes to casually employed coalminers. He's for big taxpayer funds and subsidies for our big energy companies, but he has got nothing to say to those thousands of Queensland coalminers who are on labour hire contracts or are casually employed and can't get a decent job and secure a mortgage. When it comes to labour hire, Senator Canavan is on the side of big industry and the bosses. He's nowhere to be seen when it is working people's interests, but when it comes to big government subsidies he's up at the board table sucking up to the big energy companies and providing support for some of the dopiest policy prescriptions in energy policy that you can imagine.

He has got it so wrong. It's a policy position that would ultimately hurt the people of regional Australia more than anybody else. The problem is that he has had the ear of the Prime Minister, as Senator Canavan repeatedly tells us, on this mad set of propositions. We know that Senator Canavan had the Prime Minister's ear on these subjects because he told everybody in the building that he did. He told every journalist he could that this great Collinsville coal-fired power station was going to be built. This giant boondoggle would employ almost nobody and will never in fact be built. He was storming around the corridors of Parliament House with a giant imaginary boondoggle. You might as well shovel $8 billion of borrowed money into the sea as build this imaginary power station.

If you did build this imaginary power station, this hoax on the people of regional Queensland, the product of that would be prices going up, emissions going up and debt going up. Even President Donald Trump wouldn't back a project as silly as this one. That's why it's vital that, when questions on notice are provided, they are answered. Of course we know the real reason why Senator Cormann, as the Leader of the Government in the Senate, and now Senator Birmingham haven't provided an answer to that question. The real reason is that it is a deeply embarrassing sequence of events for a government that's supposed to be responsible, that's supposed to be acting in the interests of all Australians and that's supposed to have a plan for our energy future.

Despite everything that we've heard and despite all of the soft words and despite all of the attempts at characterising the position, we know what's really going on: emissions are continuing to increase and prices are continuing to increase. We are nowhere near on track for an energy plan that can credibly reduce Australia's emissions, we're nowhere near on track for a plan that's going to secure jobs in our regions and we are in the position of having a government that is now an outlier in international affairs on emissions policy. The government are unable to move because of this rabble on their back bench who lack all credibility in the rest of Australia. They are in an incredibly influential position—bullying Senator Birmingham, bullying the Prime Minister, getting their way in the caucus and driving Australia to a less and less credible position around the world.

It is absolutely in Australia's interests and the interests of Australian industry and Australian jobs that we have a credible pathway on energy policy. Instead, we've had 22 energy policies from a government that can't deliver a coherent approach. One day it's pointing in the direction of Bolsonaro in Brazil. One day it's sucking up the approach to climate policy from President Trump. Every day is a new day when it comes to coalition energy policy. By contrast, we've seen quite some development in industry and quite some development around the country in the states and territories. I look forward to learning a little bit more about what the Berejiklian government announced in New South Wales—$32 billion worth of investment, they say, to replace the coal-fired power generators in New South Wales, which will drive down costs and drive down emissions. If it's done properly, it will deliver lower priced power, more manufacturing and more jobs for regional New South Wales. As I say, I look forward to seeing the detail of that set of policy propositions.

It fits very neatly with what the Leader of the Opposition announced in his budget reply speech just some weeks ago in this place. The $10 billion rewiring the nation program, announced by the member for Grayndler, Anthony Albanese, is a clear signal of where the Labor Party is pointed, where future policymaking in this area is pointed, where the technologies are that reduce price and reduce emissions and don't hold Australian industry and the Australia energy sector back.

Senator Canavan and his mates over there on the coalition back bench—remember, he used to be quite influential in the show as a minister—are for dragging the country backwards, for lifting energy prices, for lifting Australian emissions, for making it harder for clean energy investments that would lower prices and lower emissions and provide jobs for ordinary Australians, everyday Australians, in regional towns, in suburbs across Australia, in manufacturing businesses. That is the main game, but the coalition government has gone entirely missing on these questions. It is high time Senator Birmingham signalled a change in approach, in terms of accountability and ministerial accountability in this place, from what we've seen in the course of the last few years and what I've seen over the course of the last 18 months—that is, a stoic refusal to answer questions, a stoic refusal to provide timely responses to questions on notice and a stoic refusal to effectively discharge the responsibilities of ministers in this parliament.

Question agreed to.