Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2023


Productivity Commission Amendment (Electricity Reporting) Bill 2023; Second Reading

9:02 am

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Environment, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

It's great to be able to make a contribution on what I think is a very important piece of legislation, the Productivity Commission Amendment (Electricity Reporting) Bill 2023, given the current context of last night's budget and the fact that something we know all Australian households and businesses are struggling with is the cost of power. Lower power prices were indeed a central part of the last election campaign. Every single elected representative in this parliament knows that it's something everyone is struggling with.

Indeed, in the last election campaign we saw the Australian Labor Party promise 97 times that they would bring power prices down by $275. It was a very clear and unequivocal promise. There were no terms and conditions applying. There was just a dollar figure put out there amongst other rhetoric around the cost of living going up. But 97 times was this promise made that power prices would go down by $275. I am absolutely confident that many Australians out there, whether they be small-business people or just people who are struggling to pay their household power bills, took that to the bank. They figured: 'That's great. I need power price relief. The Australian Labor Party have promised me that power prices are going to go down by $275.' Now, granted, they said 'by 2025', and we'll come back to that—the trajectory of power prices at this point in time. But it's a promise that, funnily enough, has disappeared from the public debate. Not a single member of the government has, since the election, repeated that promise—not once. It featured pretty heavily in the debate prior to the election just a year ago. But since then it's like it never happened. Not once was that promise made again—instead they are saying, 'Look over here; we'll distract you from the pain you're having, and we will not revisit that promise.'

That's why this bill is important. It's important because, if it's passed, it's going to provide a number of benefits to Australians, Australian households and Australian businesses. The chief benefit to Australians is increased transparency and accountability in relation to the energy policies of this government and any future government of the Commonwealth. It's going to place increased scrutiny on the impact of energy policy and what that does to energy prices. And it will allow Australians a more comprehensive ability to fully understand the true extent of the cost-of-living crisis they've been enduring throughout much of their lives to date as a result, sadly, of the hapless policies of this government. I think it's important to allow us to give Australians the ability to see how this government is performing.

This bill, in short, is aimed at legislating for new and easily accessible nationally consolidated and regularly updated reports on retail electricity prices across the country. It would require the Productivity Commission, a trusted entity, to compile, on a quarterly basis, a report containing statistics on retail electricity prices and generation in each state and territory. It would also then require the Commonwealth government of the day to table these reports within a period of time after production. That, of course, then puts it on centre stage for consideration by this parliament and by the public—through the media—without any filter or interference.

Over recent years, there have been a number of steps to improve the range of information and the detailed statistics available around energy reporting, and there has been some success around exactly what those reports have been able to do. A variety of tools and products have been developed relating to energy prices in Australia, and that is an improvement on what was available previously, which was nothing, other than your own individual power bill. But it doesn't go far enough, and that's why I'm tabling this bill, and that's why I'm hoping that the government and crossbench senators will see their way to supporting this bill, which is a very sensible bill and one that only provides further transparency. It doesn't interfere. It doesn't change the issues we are facing; it just provides a clear, concise report on where things are at.

The most similar type of report that exists today is the Australian Energy Market Commission's Residential electricity price trends document. The AEMO maintains an online dashboard which brings together various sets of information around electricity prices around the country, and energy companies sometimes do provide data to that dashboard around their retail prices. The Australian Energy Regulator, or AER, has the Energy Made Easy site. There is also the Victorian government's Energy Compare site, and there are a range of other non-government entities that provide information, but none of these tools bridge that gap. None of these tools that are available now provide exactly what it is we are hoping Australians will be able to benefit from if this legislation passes.

For instance, the AEMC's Residential electricity price trends document uses a number of projections for future years, rather than reporting purely on actual past and, importantly, current prices. Also, it's not a mandated publication, so, if it is so desired, you can skip over tabling the information. That was exactly what happened on 1 December 2022, when it was reported that this entity—the AEMC—would not be producing an annual edition for that year and would defer the release of the next report to sometime around the middle of this year, 2023. That is a problem if we are seeking transparency and clarity around exactly where retail electricity prices are in Australia. Online comparison services have limitations too, including that none of them display comprehensive data for every retailer across every state and territory.

So there are some tools available, but they don't go far enough, and anyone who points to what's currently in the marketplace as a reason not to support this legislation is fibbing to the Australian public. There is no good reason not to support this legislation. There remains a need for relatively straightforward overall national breakdowns of data to be brought together all in one place and for reporting of that data to be mandated. The need for it has been made more urgent and more pressing by what we've seen over the last nearly 12 months. As I've said already, this government promised to reduce power bills by $275 a pop annually. Instead, it has presided over increases in energy prices, aided by others in the chamber, through misguided policies which will have detrimental impacts to energy prices. As I said before, not once since the election has the government mentioned that promise it made, that Australians took to the bank saying, 'This is great. My power bill will go down by $275. The future prime minister promised me so.' But instead of that we are seeing power prices going up.

We don't have to go far to see some examples of this. There are a range of businesses across Australia that are struggling. I look at my local newspaper, the Mercury, which in February reported on a business in southern Tasmania, Oceana Aquatic and Fitness. The owner said he was shocked at his monthly power bill. Last year, in January 2022, his bill was $6,479. Fast forward 12 months, to January 2023, and his power bill had doubled; it was $12,326. That's a shocking increase and something that any legislator, anyone who is concerned about power prices, would be worried about. We've seen other businesses too. Jeff Sadler, the owner and operator of the Quilt and Pillow Factory says electricity is a fundamental part of his business. He hasn't disclosed how much more he's paying, but he says it's significant. He made the point that he's got three options: put up prices, increase sales or lay off staff. So retailers—the people who provide employment to individuals across this country—are struggling just as households are and that will have flow-on impacts for the economy.

It would be a helpful tool for legislators too. We did see, in recent times, members of the government unable to tell us what was happening with electricity power prices. I expect Senator Farrell—I'm pleased he's here—would be very keen to support this legislation because it will make our jobs much easier, when we're asked questions in question time about how power prices are going in South Australia, Tasmania, New South Wales, Western Australia or Queensland. It will make it a very simple task for us to be able to report on these things and make decisions on that basis. I would hate for anyone to be perceived as not caring about these things, so this tool will enable all of us to be directly in touch with these issues that are impacting on Australian households and businesses.

I'm sure many Australians will welcome whatever help they can get, and there was some help provided in last night's budget. But there's a problem with what was provided. Aside from the obvious inflationary impact of Labor's support for households and businesses when it comes to power bills, that measure to help pay power bills out of the taxpayers' coffers is a concession that the government's policies around energy prices are failing. Power prices aren't going down. If they were, the government wouldn't have to provide this support.

This is why reporting on this information is so incredibly important, to understand where power prices are at, not after a rebate but what we're actually paying, because taxpayers paying part of your power bills isn't prices going down. That is not good policy. But we understand the need for support in the aftermath of failed policies from this government. Even after this handout is provided to Australian households and businesses—some of them—on average power prices are going to go up $500 this year alone. That's on top of things like the disastrous safeguard mechanism legislation, which is going to drive up the cost of so many inputs, adding other cost-of-living pressures.

To suggest that things are great, or going in the right direction, or that people can breathe a sigh of relief, is totally mischaracterising the situation we have out there. This bill will shine light on exactly what is happening in a consolidated, concise, regular and mandated way. It's something that will help Australians understand exactly what policies of government are doing for the things that hit them at home, in their hip pocket: their power bills, at a time when mortgage repayments are going up, and fuel, food and other life costs are becoming more expensive. Having that front and centre of debate in this place once every quarter—clear, accurate information provided by an entity as well-respected as the Productivity Commission—will be very hard to argue against, with minimal cost and an important contribution to the public debate on this issue.

Additionally, it's not just about costs. It's about the sources of energy generation. We will equally ask the Productivity Commission to tell us where energy is being generated from. There is a lot of talk about the need to transition. Let's see exactly how that is going. Let's see how much fossil fuel is being used in energy generation, how much hydro, how much wind and how much solar. It's important to be able to accurately measure the government's progress against their promises and, indeed, for other parties in this place to hold the government to account over their promises.

Again, the Productivity Commission would do this in an objective way. They would go out and seek the information from each jurisdiction and they would then go and publish it in the same fashion I have already mentioned—tabled quarterly in this parliament and available for debate. That is something I think we would all benefit from as much as the rest of the Australian population that we represent here.

There is nothing wrong with transparency. It was a hallmark of Labor's election pledges. I'm sure they'll welcome this legislation. Maybe today the government speaker on this bill will tell us they are going to vote for it. Maybe, in line with all of the promises they made around lowering power prices and providing transparency on all areas of government, they will tell us they are going to support this. I can assure them there is no sting in the tail. There is no ulterior motive and no hidden agenda in this legislation. It is very straightforward. It is a way of holding governments, plural, to account in the future—this government, which made its promise nearly 100 times before the election, but eerily hasn't said it since, to reduce power prices by $275 a year, but also future governments. When we win the next election we will be held to account for the promises we make and how those impact on power prices. I look forward to being held to account, because we are in the business of solving problems. This is a solution to one of those problems.

So I commend this bill to the Senate. I am hopeful that my friends over here in government and I am certainly hopeful that the Greens will find their way to supporting this bill given it provides further transparency around sources of generation and energy cost. The only benefit felt here is going to be by Australian households. It's about transparency, accountability and making sure the government stick to their promises.

9:17 am

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

Transparency—honestly? The only thing that is transparent about the Productivity Commission Amendment (Electricity Reporting) Bill 2023 is that you can see straight through it. Last May, the member for Hume, the joker who now pretends to be the opposition Treasury spokesperson, changed the law in order to obscure from Australians in the lead-up to the election the massive price hikes for electricity that they knew were coming down the line and that they were required to disclose. He fiddled the books to make sure that in the lead-up to the election Australians didn't get to see the consequence of a decade of policy failure from the Liberal and National parties, from Mr Morrison, Mr Turnbull and Mr Abbott. It is the law of diminishing returns right there, really. A consequence of a decade of complete failure was rising electricity prices, and what was the response of Mr Taylor, who presided over much of this energy sector catastrophe? He fiddled the books and hid it from people.

I know it is poor old Senator Duniam's job. He knows that what they are saying and doing now is indefensible. I know that most of the show over there understand that what they did in government was indefensible and that what is going on now is just blowing so much smoke in an effort to try and distract ordinary Australians from the utter catastrophe that they left the Australian energy market in and that the government is now dealing with.

I was pleased that Senator Duniam said some things about the budget, and there are some measures in the budget that go to some of these questions. It is a responsible, carefully balanced budget. It is a budget that puts downward pressure on inflation in the economy, particularly in terms of household and business energy prices. It is a budget that provides carefully targeted cost-of-living relief without putting upward pressure on inflation, something that the last government singularly failed to do. And, when we look at what is the biggest opportunity to reindustrialise the Australian economy after a decade of abject failure in industry policy, this budget, with its opportunity to rebuild investment in manufacturing and jobs, really builds on the government's ambition of making Australia a renewable energy superpower.

What is the response of the other side to the budget? It's two things really. There's a negative Nigel approach over there. If there's a sensible measure in the budget, they say the sky is falling in. They catastrophise about these issues. They talk Australia down. They diminish and underestimate the capacity of the Australian people. They are always talking the country down. They are always talking down the capacity of the Australian people and Australian institutions to work together to deal with these questions, claiming that measures that are patently deflationary are inflationary. They say it over and over again, in the hope that our putting downward pressure on inflation—

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

What's deflationary?

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

I may have used the wrong term, Senator Brockman; I think you're right. We are putting downward pressure on inflation, making sure that the small surplus contributes to a lower cost of living, something that those on the other side over there were singularly unable to do, despite nine opportunities to deliver.

Then what do they do? They walk in here with this joke: talking about transparency. Honestly, after the patent dishonesty of the last decade, particularly the last three years, do these guys want to talk about transparency? Now, in yesterday's budget there was a small surplus, a modest surplus, carefully delivered by this government working through the excesses of the last government's spending, working through the terminating measures and making sure that the ones that are required to continue are properly funded, not falling off the cliff that was left in the shadow budget run by Mr Morrison and his colleagues.

Why is a modest surplus important at this stage? It's important in fiscal terms. It reduces the scale of future deficits. It puts downward pressure on interest payments for Commonwealth debt. It creates a sense of the discipline in government and across the Public Service that the former government were never able to engender. There's a point of order. Sorry, you may have drifted off, Mr Deputy President.

Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

No, I haven't drifted off.

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

A point of order on relevance. We actually have a bill here and it would be nice if Senator Ayres would come back to what we're actually here to discuss.

Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The custom is that relevance is not necessarily strictly enforced in the second reading debate, and I do note that the proponent of the bill did himself wander. But, Senator Ayres, bear in mind that counsel of Senator Hughes.

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

Thank you for your advice, Deputy President, and, no doubt, Senator Hughes's advice. In addition to its fiscal importance, it sends a message about discipline—that is, that every dollar counts; that it's the public's money, not the Liberal and National parties' money; that it's not for rorting for partisan political purposes; that it's for working through, carefully, in the public interest; and, finally, that it's about putting downward pressure on interest rates. It's the largest investment ever made in bulk-billing incentives. It reduces the cost of medicines by up to half for at least six million people. It provides $3 billion of electricity price relief—and I will come back to that question in a moment—by taking up to $500 off their bills. It's going to have a big impact on retail electricity prices. There's an increase in payments for JobSeeker and Youth Allowance by $40 a fortnight. There's $2.7 billion to increase the maximum rates of Commonwealth rent assistance, and, of course, there's a big investment in the single-parent payment. The maximum rate of Commonwealth rent assistance will increase by 15 per cent. People talk about the cost of housing, and they're right to raise it and to advocate for it, but, in terms of actual action, this is the biggest rise.

This is a budget that delivers for people who need it. It delivers for the Australian community at large. It delivers targeted relief for low-income households, and some of that relief puts direct downward pressure on inflation because of what the government is doing in energy price relief. There are two components of that. The first one was in November last year. The AER predicted that energy price rises were going to be in the order of 51 per cent, and the government acted. Price caps, coal and gas, and working with the states and territories delivered downward pressure, particularly on gas prices, for east-coast households and businesses. The second component, announced by the Treasurer last night, is up to $500 for eligible households—$500.

All we hear from this lot during question time is heckling about the government's commitments in 2021 on energy price relief. This is $500 delivered through the budget for eligible households. Of course, the policy delivery mechanism for the states and the Commonwealth is complicated, because the jurisdictions have different energy markets in them. But the outcome for eligible households will be very simple: your bill will be up to $500 less than it would have been. What is the position of Mr Dutton and Mr Taylor and the Liberal and National parties on both of these measures? They're against them. They're all for the slogans, but they're against policy substance. These are policies that work. These are policies that put downward pressure on energy prices. And where are those opposite? They're opposed to them. Then there's this newfound enthusiasm for transparency.

What is their position here? We have delivered price caps on gas. We have delivered downward pressure on coal. We have delivered $500 for eligible households, downward pressure on electricity, and what are the Liberal and National parties' offering? More reports. Perhaps for Senator Duniam the hope is that Tasmanian households, cold this winter, can collect the Productivity Commission reports and set fire to them. Maybe that is the only way that Mr Dutton and Mr Taylor will contribute to downward pressure on household electricity and gas prices—with more reports. And maybe people can set fire to them to get a short-term, temporary warm glow, because that is all you get from the other side.

What is their record? A decade of policy failure in energy—22 policies, and they never landed one—and dishonesty. When push came to shove, when the result of a decade of policy failure should have been there for all Australians to see, what did they do? They covered it up. It was a sordid, sleazy, political, partisan cover-up from the cover-up artists themselves. The Australian people have never seen a shonkier period of government. Mr Morrison made poor old Billy McMahon look good. So patently dishonest and partisan was that government that nobody on the other side ever says Mr Morrison's name again. They don't want to be seen with him.

You talk, Senator Hughes, about $275. The figure you should use is $500, because that's what this government has delivered.

We go out there, we say what we're going to do and then we deliver more. Perhaps the other side would like us to lower our ambitions. Perhaps the other side would like more cynicism, but, after a decade of policy failure, we have a government here that is determined to deliver for the Australian people. In the big opportunities for lower energy prices, investing in the cheapest form of energy—renewables and storage—what do we hear from the backbench over there? It's more nonsense about nuclear to push prices up, more slogans, no substance, more meaningless rhetoric and more press releases, but the Australian government and people have made a choice.

9:33 am

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

I rise, too, to speak on the Productivity Commission Amendment (Electricity Reporting) Bill 2023. It's always a pleasure to follow Senator Ayres. There's always a bit of colour and light and movement in his speeches. Sadly, that was an insipid defence of what is a pretty insipid budget, particularly when it comes to taxing Australians and then sending a small part of that tax back to them in energy relief. At least Senator Ayres had the guts to actually say the words '$275', because we haven't heard that from the other side pretty much since the election. They promised electricity price reductions of $275, and, instead, we have seen absolutely skyrocketing energy prices right across Australia, particularly on the eastern states. I'll get to my home state of WA in a moment, but particularly on the eastern states those price rises are extraordinary. In Victoria, there was a 31 per cent increase in the new default market offer put out earlier this year. That represents an increase for residential customers of $426 in the next year alone. That's not including the price rises of last year, the first year of this Labor government, which everybody knows were absolutely extraordinary. In regional Queensland, there will be a $432 increase over the next year; in New South Wales, $463; in South Australia, $400; in South-East Queensland, $321. I remind those listening: this is not for the past year; this is for the year coming up. So the 'relief' that this Labor government has put into the budget is, quite frankly, a drop in the bucket when compared to those electricity price hikes that Australians have already seen and know are coming down the train tracks at them, at a very rapid rate. That is on top of the fastest, highest increase in interest rates in Australia's history, to the point where you are seeing average households' mortgages of $500,000 requiring an extra $1,000 extra a month. That is simply extraordinary. As I said in this place a number of times, there are other cost pressures, particularly in regional Australia, where you see the price of petrol and diesel regularly up around and exceeding $2 a litre right across the bush in Western Australia, so the pressure that families are under is simply extraordinary, and not just families but small businesses as well.

Those default market offers I was talking about for the 2023-24 year are worse for small business. Victorian small businesses are looking at a 33 per cent increase in the default market offer coming down the pipeline. For an average small business, that will mean an increase of over $1,700 when they are struggling with massive increases in the borrowings they face. Most small businesses are carrying debt, so they will have a massive increase in their cost of energy to keep that small business going. They will have increases, fuelled by inflation, in the cost of labour. They will have increases in all their input costs for their business; all their inputs have gone up. On top of that, we saw a government that did nothing, absolutely nothing, in the budget last night, to put any downward pressure on inflation. They have left all the heavy lifting to the Reserve Bank. In fact, they are pushing money into the economy, which Chris Richardson said late last night is potentially going to drive future interest rate rises.

So not only have the government done absolutely nothing to put downward pressure on inflation but they've also put upward pressure on inflation according to senior and respected economists in this country. That will, of course, flow into energy price rises, which is why transparency—sunlight—is the ultimate disinfectant. Transparency of the sort put forward in this bill by Senator Duniam is so important.

Information needs to be accessible. It needs to be consolidated in one place where people can understand electricity pricing and the amounts being generated across Australia. This bill would require the Productivity Commission to compile quarterly reports on retail electricity prices as well as the sources from which the electricity is being generated for each state and territory. The relevant minister would then be required to table these reports in parliament. Currently, there is no central repository of energy pricing in Australia. I know that, as Western Australians, we sit outside the national energy market and, as such, all the reporting we see from the national energy market, which I think is slightly ironically named. I have some in front of me and I read them out: Victoria, regional Queensland, New South Wales, South-East Queensland. Well, guess what part of Australia is not covered in that reporting? My home state, Western Australia. Western Australia has its own energy market. And I thank my lucky stars that we do, when I see what's been happening in the eastern states, because we have actually been lucky enough, through our development of a significant gas industry in the 1970s under Sir Charles Court, to provide long-term, low-cost energy to the industries, families and small businesses of Western Australia. That's something to be very proud of.

However, we have not been immune from the price rises in the energy sector. Through decisions by this government, such as the increase in the tax on gas out of Western Australia—Western Australia is the gas exporting state—and the increase in tax on gas producers in Western Australia, there will be a flow-on impact to increase prices in that state. We also saw that the policy decisions of late last year in the gas sector put a lot of uncertainty and volatility into that market, which, again, forced up costs and made future investment much more uncertain, which obviously also forces up the price of gas. Major energy buyers, our overseas markets, have been talking about the volatility that this government has put into not only the gas market but the energy sector overall through its heavy-handed regulatory approach.

So, in Western Australia we have been relatively lucky in terms of the sheer scale of energy price rises, because we are coming off a lower base, but it certainly hasn't protected us entirely. Again, when you talk to those families and small businesses in Western Australia—and my good friend Senator O'Sullivan would know this as well as I do—those families and small businesses in Western Australia say they are facing a massive increase in the cost of their borrowing, facing a massive increase in the cost of everything they have to buy to keep their businesses running and to keep their families going and are also facing massive increases in the cost of keeping the lights turned on.

The trouble for Labor is that they're really out of touch on this issue. They do not know the pressure that this is putting on those families. I'll give you a case in point.

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Trade and Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

Read the budget!

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

Senator Farrell, I will give you a case in point from one of your state Labor colleagues.

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Trade and Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

Downward pressure—read it.

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

The Labor Minister for Energy in Western Australia, Bill Johnston, when describing the cost of charging up his EV, said, 'Yes, but remember: electricity is almost free.' The Labor Party is very much out of touch on this; this is a Labor minister for energy saying this—electricity is almost free! Minister Johnston is very out of touch, and this Labor government in Canberra is out of touch about the sheer budget pressure that Australian households and families are under when it comes to increasing costs.

Electricity is one of those key items. The mortgage cost increases are much more significant—I understand that—and there is also the pressure of rising interest rates, which, again, this government has done nothing about. They've done nothing about putting any downward pressure on inflation. In his speech, Senator Ayres started talking about deflation—there's not even any downward pressure on inflation, not that we want to get anywhere near deflation—but this budget did nothing to put any downward pressure on inflation. In fact, as I have said and according to Chris Richardson—one of the most respected economists in this country—it actually puts upward pressure on interest rates through the increase in spending that's contained within it.

To get back to the bill, we do need to see more transparency and a consolidated place where all Australians can see and understand what is happening in the energy markets. There is great change happening in the energy markets—there's no doubt about that—and a lot of those changes have been a factor in the massive energy costs that we have seen. This bill is only fair to the people of Australia and to the small businesses of Australia, particularly the small businesses of Australia that do have high energy needs. There are small IGAs and supermarkets in my home state of Western Australia and right across Australia that, because of their freezers and because they stay open 24/7, have extraordinarily high energy costs—in the tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those are the businesses that are under extraordinary pressure, and in shedding light on the situation as we move forward with the further changes to the energy grid that are foreshadowed we need to provide as much transparency and openness to the market as we possibly can. Why anyone would oppose this bill is beyond me, and I commend it to the chamber.

9:45 am

Photo of Penny Allman-PaynePenny Allman-Payne (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Productivity Commission Amendment (Electricity Reporting) Bill 2023. The Greens won't be supporting this bill. The purported purpose of this bill has merit, and publishing more information on electricity prices and generation on a more regular basis would be a good thing. But in our view the Productivity Commission is simply the wrong agency for this task. As the Productivity Commission states on its website, it is 'an advisory body. It does not administer government programs or exercise executive power.' It contributes by providing quality, independent advice and information to governments, and the communication of ideas and analysis. We could have a long discussion about the quality and even the independence of the Productivity Commission's work. It's questionable, but that is another matter and I'm not going to go into that today. The point is, what the Productivity Commission does is long-form analysis in preparing in-depth reports. What it doesn't do is provide information to consumers. That is not its job.

You would think that the Liberals and Nationals, having been in government for nearly a decade, would have worked out that the Productivity Commission is not the right agency for this task, and if they really cared about transparency around electricity prices they would have made this reform themselves. Of course, instead, they did the exact opposite. They deliberately buried the Australian Energy Regulator's report recommending an increase in power prices before the last election. It is utterly shameless for them to be serving up this bill but, unfortunately, it is what we have come to expect from the climate-denying dinosaurs in the Liberals and Nationals.

9:47 am

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

What else would we expect? It's just extraordinary. There is nothing controversial about the Productivity Commission Amendment (Electricity Reporting) Bill 2023. We have claims from those opposite, all across the chamber, that they are all about transparency. But they also claim regularly that renewables are cheap—well, they're free, apparently, like electricity in WA, according to Senator Brockman's contribution. They're cheap and they're going to be so reliable and they're going to power us forward and the whole economy is going to thrive under this great, free, renewable energy. Of course, the transition to it is also going to be cheap, according to those opposite, which is just a fantasy.

It is just extraordinary that those opposite, who purport that renewables are going to be such a great contributor, don't actually want the Australian people to see at all—at any stage or at any opportunity—how it is actually coal that keeps the lights on. It's actually coal that keeps Australia's economy powering ahead. In fact, this surplus that we were hearing about from Senator Ayres earlier—the very slim surplus—is off the back of the resources sector, that sector that you guys want to tear down at every opportunity and that the Greens want to remove from the Australian economy as fast as possible. We see different resource taxes being put in place to ensure that there are fewer coal and gas projects going forward to appease the Greens and some of the crossbench. But they don't want anyone to know that their beloved renewables actually contribute very little to the energy grid and that the power for the lights, air-conditioning and heating in the businesses that require energy to function, in our schools and in our hospitals, is actually generated by coal—and in fact all of their little pet projects are also funded by coal. It's the resource sector that funds them. It's the resource sector that provided a surplus, yet those opposite are absolutely determined to ensure that that isn't available to a future Australian economy.

I don't understand why there's anything controversial here at all about this bill. It's just about allowing Australians to have more clarity, uniformity and transparency. Do you remember when that was the big word? No, they don't want transparency, because then people would know how much power comes from coal. That's what they're worried about—that Australians will actually see through these claims that renewable energy is cheap, that the transition's going to be cheap and that it's actually going to provide reliable, affordable base-load power. Anyone who has any sense, understanding or intellectual capability can see that that is all not true. All Senator Duniam is trying to ensure—we know productivity is actually the greatest way to ensure that inflation comes down. Inflation will come down as productivity increases. We know that if Australians are able to make affordable choices when it comes to their power then we will see productivity improve, because they'll be able to make informed decisions.

But over there, on the other side, the government's not interested in productivity; it's interested in handouts. I thought it was interesting this morning, listening to 2GB—one of the biggest radio stations in Sydney and the highest-rating talkback show across the country—and to what some of the punters, some of the everyday Australians, who listened to the budget last night had to say. Of course, we won't hear it from any of those opposite, but this was a typical Labor budget—take money from hard workers and give it to lazy bludgers. So, once again then, the workers who carry this country get screwed over. There is nothing in this budget for the workers, and I think that's what we could see. It's all about little handouts. But I'll say to those opposite: it's not your money; it's taxpayers' money, and it's taxpayers' money that actually comes from the resources sector. But I feel like we're on a loop at this point in time.

We know that the parliament was recalled last year because the government were going to do such great stuff to ensure that energy power bills would come down. But they didn't come down. They've continued to increase, and they're continuing to increase at a much higher rate than anyone expected. The thing is that a $500 handout—temporary bill relief—is going to be welcomed by those families that are eligible. But not all families are eligible. It's not everyone that's going to get this; it's only some. And congratulations to Senator Ayres, who could actually say the figure $275. It's the first time we've heard it from a Labor member since the election. All Australians were promised $275, but it's not all Australians who are eligible for this, because those opposite never govern for all Australians. They only govern for people that vote for them. We know that not all Australians are going to receive $500 in assistance to pay their bills; only some Australians will, and in fact it'll be those Australians who are the working poor, the people that are working, that will miss out. The people that are actually struggling to work and pay their own way, put the roof over their head and feed their family are the ones who won't be eligible for this government assistance, because those opposite don't like the people that work to make this economy better. Those opposite don't like people who work hard to pay for their own retirement. They don't like people who contribute and take personal responsibility and individual responsibility for their family. Those over there don't like those people. They only like those who do what they're told. They only like those who vote for them, and they've certainly never governed for all Australians.

There was maybe a little bit of a digression there, but I thought it was important, after Senator Ayres's contribution, to ensure that we discussed the fact that the energy bill relief isn't going to all Australians. It's going to some Australians, and it's going to be in conjunction with states. So we don't even know what it's really going to look like. It's a maximum of $500, but not everyone is going to get $500. It'll depend on what state you live in and what your state government decides to do. And that's where we'll see the rubber hit the road.

We know that over the last 12 months, since those opposite came to government, the typical Australian family is $25,000 worse off. We hear from those over there about child care, but there are a lot of families who don't have kids in child care. That might be surprising to those opposite, but there are a lot of Australian families with teenagers, kids who've moved beyond the early learning stage, kids that have moved beyond child care and kids that are actually eating families out of house and home. I've got a couple of boys, and trying to keep up with food for them is absolutely impossible. Not everyone with families uses child care. Some have teenagers. Some have big kids. But the average family is $25,000 worse off under this government, thanks to increased mortgage payments, increased power bills and the increased cost of groceries.

And those opposite seem to think some sort of magic pudding exists, that you can hand out all this money, give it to people, increase welfare payments, put all this money out there, but somehow it's not going to have an inflationary impact. Every economist is saying that you have now put it onto the RBA to continue to lift rates. Guess who's going to be paying for that: homeowners—mortgage holders. Mortgage holders are going to be paying more. Small businesses with loans are going to be paying more.

These are the families that are going to be the hardest hit, but those opposite don't care; they just don't care about those Australian families. It's only neat little groups that are going to be targeted by their assistance that are going to get any benefit at all, and it will be temporary; it will be a sugar hit, because we know that this will be inflationary. And this is now your budget. You own it. You claim inflation will be down to under four per cent by next year. That's a big drop, real quick, as you inject more money into the economy. We know that's not going to happen, and you will own it.

But going to Senator Duniam's bill, I actually don't even know, from Senator Ayres's contribution, whether or not you're supporting it. I mean, it was just bizarre. It's a yes or no, really. That could have helped. It was really just a speech that went around in circles on a whole range of issues but not one about the actual bill. Why would you not give Australians access to transparency? Why would you not give Australians the opportunity to see where their power is coming from? And by putting these sorts of things in place, every government going forward—we know the hubris of Senator Farrell that apparently this Labor government is never going to lose ever, but we know that's not the case; that will happen one day, Senator Farrell—is going to have to table something from the Productivity Commission showing where Australia's energy mix is coming from so that we and the Australian public can see: is this talk about cheaper renewables powering our economy forward, and that we're apparently going to be some renewable energy superpower in a minute and a half—all overnight, according to Senator Ayres, all easy, all coming quick—really true? Australians will be able to see whether you're telling them the truth.

And you have this confidence in technology that does not yet exist—that it's all coming down the pipeline and woo-hoo! It's all going to be renewables! It's all going to be cheap, businesses aren't going to suffer, and we're going to have the Tomago smelter in the Hunter kicking along all good, with no problems at all, because wind will be blowing somewhere, or there'll be battery technology that hasn't even been generated yet, that doesn't exist—not possible. But somehow or other it's coming down the pipeline, and those businesses are going to be able to continue.

The Australian people deserve to know whether what you're telling them is the truth. They deserve to know that what every government is telling them is the truth and to see where their power's coming from. They're told: 'Don't worry. We're going to close Eraring in 2025. We're going to take 25 per cent of the power out of the New South Wales market that comes from a coal-fired power station. We don't need to worry about it, because coal-fired power stations are not contributing that much to the grid anymore!' But they are. They are the only things that keep the lights on. We're talking about over 70 per cent of power that comes from coal. But those opposite seem to think Australians are just going to go along and not worry about massive coal-fired power generators coming out of the market, to think that somehow they're not going to get rolling blackouts.

You see, when you get less supply, you get prices going up. That's the whole supply-and-demand thing that they pretty much covered in Economics 101, on day one. When we have less supply and the same demand, prices are going to go up, and they're going to keep going up, and that little sugar hit of $500 that some families will get—some families, not all—will be long gone. It has already been absorbed. It's not really going to make any difference to the bottom line in anyone's household budget. It's going to be a little sugar hit that's going to contribute to the pressure on inflation. It's going to mean that mortgages go up and, where there are investors in the market—the Greens might be interested in this—that means rents are going to keep going up. That's because, when investors buy houses that renters then rent, if their mortgage payments go up, so do rents. It's just how it works. Then, if that's not allowed to happen or if it just gets too hard for that investor, they sell it. Then it's not in the rental pool anymore either. They put it on the market and they take it out of the rental pool, and that also reduces supply. That means—again, this is day one, economics 101, supply and demand—if there is reduced supply but demand stays the same or goes up, prices go up. That's what happens.

Somehow, those opposite were dozing during that first day. Economics can be a bit dry sometimes, but it's important. It's what we look after here. When you take out supply but demand is either the same or going up, prices are going to go up. That's what's happening with power, and that's what Senator Duniam's bill is about—so that Australians can see what's happening and how they can best manage their own family budget at a time when they are under increasing pressure and will continue to be under increasing pressure because this budget is just going to create more inflationary problems. What we know now is that those opposite own it. You own it. You have to tell the Australian people why you are putting pressure on their mortgages, why you're going to put the price of everything up and why inflation is just going to continue to head north.

10:01 am

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Productivity Commission Amendment (Electricity Reporting) Bill 2023. I want to start by commending my good friend and colleague Senator Duniam for crafting this excellent bill and presenting it before us as a Senate to consider. I commend the bill to this chamber, and I ask that senators take this bill seriously. It's an opportunity for us to get some transparency in an area where we are—excuse the pun—often in the dark when it comes to keeping electricity flowing at a rate that Australians can afford. What we're seeing right now across this country is that Australians are feeling the pinch of increased costs of living, and it's being felt acutely every time they get their electricity bill in the mail.

There are different prices across the country. In my home state of Western Australia, our energy prices are among the lowest. I commend governments over there for the work that they have done in addressing that over a long period of time. We used to have the lowest energy prices in the world in Western Australia. Many years ago, Western Australia had the lowest unit price anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, we've fallen a long way back in that regard. Nonetheless, we do have lower electricity costs in WA. But it is still hitting Western Australians particularly hard. As my good friend Senator Brockman was saying, businesses in particular are feeling the pinch because businesses are the highest users of energy—in particular, those that are running things like fridges and freezers, like grocery stores. If you're a big chain—Woolies or Coles, or something like that—you can probably absorb that a little bit more, but, if you're a small retailer, particularly in regional areas, the costs of keeping fridges and freezers running all night is extraordinary. I was up in the flood-ravaged community of Fitzroy Crossing. Big floods went through that area in January. For the small IGA that's operating there, a big part of the cost of delivering their services to that community is their refrigeration and their air conditioning, particularly in a hot place like Fitzroy Crossing. Electricity prices are up and that means that those prices have to be passed on to consumers. This is why people are feeling the significant cost-of-living pressure.

This bill is an important bill, and I really wish we would proceed to a decision on it because it would be great if the Productivity Commission were compelled to provide a report to be tabled by the minister in this place, so that Australians could see exactly what those inputs are into the unit prices that Australians are paying. So I commend Senator Duniam for bringing the attention of this chamber to this very thoughtful and sensible private senators' bill.

The rationale behind its introduction is straight forward and is aimed purely at creating more accessible, better consolidated public information and reporting on electricity prices and generation in Australia. The bill would require the Productivity Commission to compile quarterly reports on retail electricity prices, as well as the sources from which electricity is being generated for each state and territory. Being able to understand the energy mix—and the cost of that mix—by providing that transparency would shed some light on a situation that is otherwise very opaque. We hear a lot about renewables and how they're the lowest-cost source of energy, and that might be true at a particular time of the day. Solar panels, for example, particularly when the sun is at its apex and shining bright at midday in the middle of summer, lose their efficiency because it's really hot. They don't operate as efficiently as they do during those shoulder periods right in the peak of summer. Of course, in winter, when it's cloudy and the sun is down lower on the horizon, solar panels also don't operate as efficiently as they do in the peak periods around November or March—which is when you've got peak efficiency. At those times, yes, solar is a cheaper form of electricity. But at other times of the year, when the sun's not at that optimum point in the sky, or when there are clouds, it's clearly not efficient because it's not producing electricity. Then you're having to rely on other baseloads sources of power, which is derived from coal, particularly on the east coast.

In Western Australia, one of the reasons we've got lower prices is because a big part of our energy mix over there is gas. We've been doing that for a long, long time. The pipeline runs from Dampier, up near Karratha—a long way from Perth—all the way down to Bunbury, south of Perth. There are generators along that pipeline that are able to produce low-cost energy that is obviously fed across the south-west electricity grid. This means that those sources of electricity are relied upon. Having transparency in this place so that Australians, legislators and businesses can see the energy mix and the cost of each of those components would really help us make more informed decisions about the future in this country. It would drive investment into areas of improvement. There's no doubt that storage of renewable energy is going to be a big part of our energy mix. If we wanted to get investment in those areas then, of course, having that transparency and accountability will help drive investment.

This bill is aimed at bridging the divide to accountability and transparency that would represent a significant advance on what we currently have. It would also ensure that not just the Albanese government but any future government will be accountable. As Senator Hughes was saying—this lot over here are in their heyday at the moment—they won't be in power forever. They might think they're immortal, but it's not the reality. At some point, we'll gather a bit of steam and we'll be back in power again. There's no doubt about that. So any future government will be accountable in the same measure. This is an important bit of legislation that I really wish the Senate would take a hold of.

I'll cut to the chase. This is an important bill. What we need to see is a greater level of transparency. Unfortunately, this government talked a lot about transparency ahead of the election. They talked a lot about it. They crowed about it and said it was necessary. I agree: we need governments that are accountable and we need governments that are transparent in how they operate. But we just know that that's not the pattern that they're actually setting. I'll give you a good point: for example, right now industry and businesses are being 'consulted' on industrial relations. There's this very limited-in-detail consulting paper that's gone out to industry, and they've been asked to provide feedback on it, yet there's no detail. So employers and businesses are being asked to provide feedback on something that they don't have any detail on.

I know that, come later this year, when we are debating the bills that will come as a result of that so-called consultation, we're going to hear, 'Oh, they consulted with industry,' and, 'They consulted with business.' We just know it's far from the reality of what has actually gone on. The point that I am making is that there is a lot of smoke and mirrors when it comes to the so-called transparency and accountability of this government.

Energy is a key part of our economy. It's a key part of addressing the cost-of-living pressures that Australians are facing. Providing some transparency and some light on this issue would be critical, so I encourage senators to think about this bill and support it. We need to see cost-of-living pressures reduced. We need to see energy prices reduced. Granted, there was some funding as a bit of a sugar hit in the budget last night that's going to provide some relief, but let's remember that Australians are actually going to be paying an additional $500 a year even with that support that's been provided to Australians through the budget last night. They are still going to be paying $500 a year more than they were last year. This is impacting Australians. Australians are finding it difficult to pay their bills. Every time they open that envelope and they see the bill and the cost of that, it's a significant issue. So this is a way to reduce that and to provide support to Australians.

Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for this debate has expired. Senator O'Sullivan, you will be in continuance.