Senate debates

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Regulations and Determinations

Australian Renewable Energy Agency Amendment (2020-21 Budget Programs) Regulations 2021; Disallowance

5:53 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I, and on behalf of Senator McAllister, move business of the Senate notices of motion Nos 1 and 2 together:

That the Australian Renewable Energy Agency Amendment (2020-21 Budget Programs) Regulations 2021, made under the Australian Renewable Energy Agency Act 2011, be disallowed [F2021L00590].

That the Australian Renewable Energy Agency Amendment (2020-21 Budget Programs) Regulations 2021, made under the Australian Renewable Energy Agency Act 2011, be disallowed [F2021L00590].

For anyone who may be listening outside of this godforsaken building, the government is seeking to spend yet more public money to prop up fossil fuels. Sadly, we're sensing a bit of a theme with this government, which loves to splash around taxpayer money to its big donors who make those generous contributions and exact policy outcomes that suit their corporate bottom lines and now exact yet more public support. So tonight we're seeking to disallow the government from giving yet more money to the fossil fuel sector.

It gets more laughable because the vehicle through which the government is seeking to dish out yet more taxpayer money to their big corporate mates in the oil and gas sectors is the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. They want it to fund this new dirty energy. The clue is in the name, guys: Australian Renewable Energy Agency. But, no, this government doesn't mind so much about renewable energy; it wants to allow the Renewable Energy Agency to instead fund what it calls low-emissions technology but, when you look at the fine print, is carbon capture and storage and hydrogen powered not by clean energy, which the Greens support, but by dirty energy. It's yet more support for the fossil fuel sector.

This government has already spent about $1 billion trying to make carbon capture and storage a thing. It hasn't gotten anywhere yet. The private sector have been trying to make carbon capture and storage work somewhere for more than a decade. They haven't succeeded yet, either. This mythical creature of carbon capture and storage has not yet been shown to work anywhere. It is a unicorn. It is a myth. Yet this government wants to spend precious taxpayer dollars on it and has the hide to want the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to dish out those dollars to big oil, big gas and big coal for this carbon capture and storage and dirty hydrogen. What an absolute affront this is to anyone who wants a safe climate and all those tens of thousands of renewable energy jobs and investment. The hide of this government never ceases to amaze me. They are so desperate to give public money to their gas donors that they're even willing to break the law to do it.

That's why we are moving to disallow this instrument today. It's because the government want to hand over the money of the Australian people to their coal and gas donors through a renewable energy agency which, by legal definition, cannot fund coal or gas projects. The Greens were in the room when the original legislation to set up ARENA was first discussed and negotiated back in 2011. Martin Ferguson was the responsible minister at the time. That was before he left parliament to become the chair of the gas industry lobby. The Greens weren't going to give him an inch, so we made sure that the legislation was tightly drafted. That's why the government are back here today, and that's why this regulation that they're seeking to put through, and that we are seeking to disallow, is a textbook example of what's known as ultra vires—beyond power. They're trying to make a renewable energy agency set up by a renewable energy act invest in dirty energy. It's not going to fly. A regulation, as the procedure nerds would know, can't operate on a subject matter that's beyond the scope of its parent act. You learn that in the first year of law school. I would think that people intuitively understand that the Renewable Energy Agency probably should just be funding renewable energy. Spoiler alert: this government wants it to do all of those dirty projects and fund the nonsense that is carbon capture and storage and dirty hydrogen.

Sections 3 and 8 of ARENA's act list the objects and functions of ARENA. As I said before, it's confined to supporting renewable energy technologies. Only in the coalition's alternate reality can carbon capture and storage and hydrogen made from gas or coal be considered renewable. This is why the regulation stretches the bounds of legality and, frankly, stretches the bounds of credulity. The government's own scrutiny of delegated legislation committee has said that this regulation appears beyond power. The Parliamentary Library can also not see any way in which this regulation is within power. If this disallowance fails, this regulation will be taken to court, because you cannot fund dirty energy through a piece of legislation that limits your money to renewable energy. It's a pretty straightforward concept, and the lawyers think it will be a slam dunk. Barristers are briefed and the litigation is ready to go to strike down this regulation.

If our disallowance is not successful—and we will wait to see whether One Nation will once again vote with the government, as they so often do—and One Nation do the government's bidding and facilitate this public money going to dirty energy rather than renewable energy then perhaps they will be held responsible for the needless legal costs of the government, who will seek to argue the indefensible in court. So this vote on the disallowance really determines whether further taxpayer money will be wasted on lawyers' bills.

ARENA is an absolute success story; the Renewable Energy Agency has worked. This is what happens when the Greens are in shared power. ARENA has driven down the cost of renewables in this country—in particular, through its solar auctions. It has funded the research and the jobs for how Australia is going to succeed in this world where there is no place for coal or oil or gas. It has worked hand in glove with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to drive investment in renewables and innovation that has led to emissions coming down despite the awful and non-existent policies of this government, who will do everything they can to boost their fossil fuel donors. So perhaps the greatest example and the greatest indicator of ARENA's importance and success is the unrelenting attacks that this government keeps throwing at it. This government has cut the ARENA budget twice—first with the help of Mr Clive Palmer and then, sadly, with the help of the Labor Party, who, to their eternal shame, voted to cut ARENA's funding in half.

We welcome that Labor appear to be standing firm on backing in the remit of the Renewable Energy Agency just to renewables; that's a very welcome stance by them. But it comes down to the fact that this government will just do everything it can to hand out public money to the fossil fuel sector. They're fiscal conservatives when it comes to funding Medicare, when it comes to making sure that people can get dental health treatment. They're absolutely stingy people when it comes to increasing JobSeeker. They're suddenly broke when it comes to funding social housing so we can end homelessness in this nation. But when it comes to fossil fuels, they are awash with taxpayers' dollars to dole out to the very same folk who both donate to their political election campaigns and very often give them jobs when they leave this place. It's a very cosy arrangement by big oil, big coal and big gas. They once again have their hand out for yet more public money to spend on carbon capture and storage—which is totally unproven and which has not been shown to work anywhere—despite $1 billion of public money already being pumped into it and probably many dollars by the private sector, who are so desperate to make this work in fear of a possible carbon policy from this government. I imagine they're not so keen to move on that one—and nor will The Nationals let them now that the new guy is in charge.

So the government now want to retrofit the Renewable Energy Agency to fund their fossil fuel donors, with dirty hydrogen, not clean hydrogen, which would be great, and carbon capture and storage. I'm pleased that on this issue we have the Labor Party's support. It remains to be seen what One Nation's position will be on whether workers deserve support and transition out of fossil fuel sectors—retraining where that's required and new long-term sustainable jobs that will last, where they won't be replaced by a robot, as our coalminers are if they are injured at work, as so many of them are. I note that there have been so many unacceptable deaths on coalmine sites in Queensland already.

So the government won't be spending that money on transitioning those workers out of fossil fuels and won't be spending public money on bolstering Medicare and extending it to dental and mental health like the Greens will do. If we hold the balance of power after the next election we will push the next government to go further and faster on protecting Medicare, on delivering housing for people, on investing in renewable energy. No, this government doesn't want to fix the level of poverty in this nation. It doesn't want to fix homelessness. It doesn't want to boost Medicare. It doesn't want to invest in renewables; it wants to invest in dirty coal, oil and gas. The Greens are seeking to disallow the government from using the Renewable Energy Agency to do that tonight. Whether we have the numbers remains to be seen.

The balance of power is really important in the Senate. It's not just on this issue that One Nation has had the deciding vote; it has been on so many other issues that affect so many people's lives. They inevitably back in the government and vote to boost the big corporations and the billionaires. Never mind what ordinary Australians need or deserve. So much for backing in the battlers! Well, they're just backing in the billionaires and their mates in the government. Budgets are about choices. This government is spending money on coal, oil and gas rather than on ordinary Australians. The Greens are seeking to disallow them. If One Nation again votes with the government, we'll see you in court—and I think we're going to win.

6:05 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

We're debating motions Nos. 1 and 2 together. Of course, the Labor Party also has sought to disallow these regulations. The Prime Minister says that he supports a 'technology, not taxes' approach to reducing Australia's carbon emissions. The problem with that, of course, is that large swathes of this government are completely opposed to, and are attacking, the technology which the market is telling us is required to deal with Australia's carbon emissions. I'm talking about renewables. As a result, the government has not invested in electric vehicles, in battery storage or in green hydrogen. These things are all off the table. Instead, we have a relentless campaign to, in fact, undermine those parts of Australia's architecture that support the development of renewable technologies.

Back when he was trying to win over voters in his electorate, Mr Dave Sharma in the other place said:

We've allowed something that should really be a conventional policy challenge to become a kind of culture and values issue. It shouldn't be the third rail of Australian politics.

And yet here we are again, with a Deputy Prime Minister who is on the record criticising what he described as an 'insane lemming-like desire to go to renewables'. The simple truth is this: Australia would have cheaper energy and lower emissions if this government showed half as much enthusiasm for funding renewables as it does for funding unsustainable fossil fuel generation that the market believes is unnecessary, uneconomical and unwanted. The only way to fix this is to vote this government out. This parliament has passed motions, introduced private members' bills and held press conferences, but the best efforts of opposition and crossbenchers are not enough. As this regulation shows, there are some things you can only do from government.

Over the course of this term, this government has tried to slip more and more policy in through regulation. And, in part, that is deliberately to avoid the scrutiny that comes from parliament—to avoid Senate inquiries, parliamentary debate and questions in this chamber. Stakeholders have suggested that might have been the case with this regulation. It smells like a cynical attempt to circumvent the parliament through regulation, and it follows the failure of similar legislation on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the internal coalition divisions. The government knows that these changes would attract legitimate and unavoidable criticism if they were made by legislation—hence the retreat to regulation.

But sometimes regulation is not an attempt to avoid criticism from the opposition. Sometimes this government makes changes through regulation because it's not sure of even getting support for its own policy from its own party room, and that is because of the climate activism of the National Party and parts of the Queensland LNP. Last week, the National Party threatened to vote against superannuation legislation because they were worried it would give a future Treasurer the power to prevent superannuation funds from investing in fossil fuel projects. The government was forced to backflip and withdraw that part of the bill. We happen to think that that was the right decision for a variety of other reasons, but it goes to show the power that is being exerted inside the coalition by the climate reactionaries. We can only imagine what it is going to look like with Deputy Prime Minister Joyce in the ascendancy.

The truth is that moderate Liberals—modern Liberals, as some of them styled themselves in their last campaign—are absolutely nowhere to be seen on this issue.

So many Liberals from progressive areas were elected on the understanding that they would drag their party to do better on climate. Yet here we are with the same paralysis on energy policy and the same insipid targets that they had before. Dr Katie Allen promised to be a strong voice on climate change within the party room. What impact has that had? Mr Sharma said that Australia needs to be acting with a higher level of ambition. Where is it? Mr Trent Zimmerman said that Australians want the government looking at what we can do to reduce our emissions further. Well, why is the government still stuck on the inadequate targets that they agreed to in Paris? The truth is that these moderate Liberals—like Senator Hume, Senator Payne, Senator Paterson, Senator Bragg, Senator Birmingham, Mr Jason Falinski, Mr Tim Wilson, Mr Trevor Evans and Ms Celia Hammond—are nowhere to be seen on climate. The evidence for that lies in this regulation. We oppose this regulation. It is a bad policy done by a bad process.

First, the regulations appear to be in breach of the ARENA Act 2011, because they seek to expand the agency's remit beyond that of the act. The object of the ARENA Act, and therefore of the agency, is only to improve the competitiveness of renewable energy technologies and to increase the supply of renewable energy in Australia. Regardless of the merits of ARENA's expanded functions, they go beyond this object and, therefore, appear to be in breach of the act. The government has provided no credible advice to dispute this.

Second, the regulations expand ARENA's remit to include non-renewable technologies. This could allow the government to force ARENA to fund projects in carbon capture, utilisation and storage as well as in blue hydrogen. These aren't renewable technologies. They may be technologies of interest, but any Commonwealth support for them should not be via ARENA. There may well be room for government to provide further support. It's possible they may have a role in the overall technology mix, and Australia does need to transition to a lower emissions economy over time, but investment in this technology should not come at the expense of renewables, and that is precisely what these regulations would mean. The Prime Minister has said 'technology not taxes' but, at the same time, he is making regulations that defund investments in renewable technologies. That is the practical effect of the regulations before us this evening.

Third, the regulations give the government wide discretion to add other technologies to ARENA's remit over time. The explanatory memorandum says that the regulations are intentionally broad to enable ARENA to provide financial assistance to new and emerging technologies under future low-emission technology statements. Low-emission technologies, you say? It's defined pretty broadly. It's defined to mean:

… technologies that substantially reduce the emission of greenhouse gases relative to a baseline of the average emissions produced by the relevant activity or sector.

You've just got to get marginally below the average of current performance and you're in line for support, under these arrangements.

This government has repeatedly tried to abolish or water down the integrity of agencies such as ARENA—created by Labor in government—and these regulations raise the prospect that the government will use ARENA funds, at whim, far beyond the remit of the act. This government has acted in bad faith on ARENA, on every opportunity that's been presented to them, and they can't be trusted. Each Prime Minister has brought their own unique style to the project of hacking on ARENA. The Abbott government tried to abolish it, and it was only stopped thanks to Labor with the support of the crossbench in the Senate. Then the Turnbull government tried to defund ARENA entirely, only settling in the end for a sizeable reduction to its budget. This is just the latest salvo in the Liberal-National coalition's war and, as befits this particular Prime Minister, it is an attack that involves spin over substance. If they can't defund the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, why not just make it spend money on things that are not renewable?

This government needs to be stopped. The moderates in the Liberal Party have proven themselves entirely ineffectual. Either they don't care enough to stop the nonsense that emanates from their party room or they are too weak to make a difference. Either way, it doesn't really matter, does it? How can Senator Hume or Senator Payne or Senator Paterson or Senator Bragg or any of the others I mentioned go back and look their electors in the eye, after voting time and time again for climate change apathy?

The great tragedy is that Australia's economic and environmental interests are aligned. Investment in clean technology will create good, well-paying jobs. It will drive growth in key national industries and reduce our emissions. That's why Labor announced our policy to support the take-up of electric vehicles in Australia and to fund battery storage and solar. It's why we're committed to real action on climate change. It's why we've moved to disallow these regulations. But Australia should not have to rely on the opposition or the crossbench. It is time for the moderates in the Liberal Party room to come down here to Canberra and do in their party room what they promised back in their electorates. If not, what are they here for?

6:15 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services) Share this | | Hansard source

If successful, this motion will rip funding out of ARENA for next-generation clean technologies that will drive emissions reductions without costing jobs or damaging Australian industries. This is additional funding that will support projects such as EV charging infrastructure, healthier soils, energy efficiency, energy storage, green aluminium and steel production, carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen. ARENA has welcomed this funding, and there has been extensive support from industry and climate organisations, including Ai Group, the Business Council of Australia, the National Farmers Federation, the National Irrigators Council, the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, the Investor Group on Climate Change, the Minerals Council, the Energy Users Association of Australia, Santos, the Australian Hydrogen Council, ClimateWorks, the Carbon Market Institute, APPEA, the Clean Energy Council, the Citizens' Climate Lobby and the Australian Council of Social Service. A move to strip ARENA of this funding is bad for jobs and bad for emissions reduction, and it's bad policy.

6:17 pm

Photo of Ben SmallBen Small (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This disallowance is yet another attack on jobs, another attack on energy security and another attack on emissions reduction from those opposite. It's the latest demonstration of the Labor and Greens hypocrisy when it comes to both energy and emissions reduction policy. This is about deciding whether or not the Labor Party's climate policy—not just their party room policy but that which they adopted at their national conference on 31 March this year—combined with that of the Australian Greens, represents a retreat from Australian jobs, a retreat from energy efficiency, a retreat from hydrogen and a retreat from electric vehicles. By voting for this disallowance, every member of the Labor Party will have voted against their own national policy platform and, in the process, chosen to threaten $192 million of funding for ARENA and the almost 1,400 jobs that will flow from the programs that the agency will undertake. This new funding includes nearly $72 million to support electric-vehicle and hydrogen-vehicle infrastructure in Australia, some $52 million for microgrids in regional Australia and more than $20 million to look at how we can make heavy vehicles more fuel efficient and adopt new technologies, with $47 million to help heavy industry become more competitive and reduce energy consumption in Australia. Any senator who votes for this disallowance is voting for higher emissions, less funding for ARENA and fewer Australian jobs.

Positive stakeholder feedback on this policy has come from the Business Council of Australia, the National Farmers Federation, Ai Group, ClimateWorks, the Investor Group on Climate Change, the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, the IPCC and the IEA. Labor themselves have previously advocated for this position. Whether it's short-sightedness or sleepwalking, the Labor Party certainly don't know where they are going on technology or on jobs, and they certainly don't know where the interests of Australian workers lie. Make no mistake: if this motion succeeds it means fewer jobs for Australians and higher emissions. By contrast, our approach is driven by technology, not taxes, and an expanded mandate for ARENA, and these investments in new technologies are essential to that.

But, instead, Labor and the Greens have decided to back environmental activists over those Australian workers when it comes to their jobs and the taxes that they pay. Senator Waters referred to, I guess, the fact that she might like to see the government in court over this. But, with the greatest of respect, the department has provided hours of answers over the legality of this regulation at Senate estimates. I remind Senator Waters of Senate estimates from 25 May:

Senator WATERS: Are you confident that the regs would survive a legal challenge?

Ms Evans: Yes.

Senator WATERS: Is there an estimate of how much it would cost the department to defend the case if it did go to court?

Ms Evans: No, we haven't made an estimate of that because we're very confident that the regulation is quite proper.

Let's call this what it is: it's the Labor Party lining up with the Greens. For all their talk about supporting coal, supporting gas, supporting jobs in our resources industry and supporting carbon capture and storage, it's just that: talk. When it comes to action, they are lining up with the Greens to vote against all of those things.

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

The question is that business of the Senate notices of motion Nos 1 and 2 in the names of Senators Waters and McAllister be agreed to.

6:27 pm

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

Pursuant to the order adopted earlier today, we will now be moving to the consideration of certain bills.