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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 2547

Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (11:02): I rise also to speak in relation to the government-scrapped Solar Hot Water Rebate program and to support the Solar Hot Water Rebate Bill 2012 presented to the Senate today by Senator Birmingham, which we are considering. The bill itself is very succinct and very simple. If I could sum it up in four words, it is simply about sticking to the plan. The bill seeks the government to continue the program till the end of the financial year and that the remainder of the budgeted amount for the solar hot water rebate for the 2011-12 financial year be available to Australians for them to put solar hot water in their homes.

Right across the nation, small businesses, farmers, communities and families are concerned about the uncertainty generated by the government's policy backflips. Why? Once again, it indicates to us so clearly just how out of touch this government is. In the real world people plan. In the real world businesses plan. We look ahead, we assess our risks, we plan a course of action and then we resource it and deliver on it. This process is the same for businesses assessing where they are going to place their scarce resources, where they are going to invest. Families ask questions: where are we going to send our kids to school? How do we need to spend our hard-earned dollars? This government has again failed to provide an environment where both these pillars of our society—small business and families—can proceed with confidence to plan and invest and to move forward. The basic tenet of any government is to do no harm to your citizenry, but the scrapping of this rebate, whatever you think about renewable energy, creates a climate of uncertainty and it absolutely does harm.

Today I want to commend those drafting the bill in finding a policy outcome that not only provides certainty for the businesses producing the solar panels and those installing them but also assists the govern­ment to honour its budgetary commitments for 2011 and 2012 and assists Australians prepare for the coming rise of electricity costs under the carbon tax.

What a debacle! But, again, it is not a surprise. I heard a senator mention last week that this government reeks of systemic mismanagement, and I would have to agree. It seems inherently contradictory behaviour that on one hand we would be implementing a carbon tax that is going to see families' electricity costs rise, and on the other hand we are actually stripping away families' capacity and, indeed, our skills and training capacity in the workforce, in the manufact­uring sector, to assist people to deal with the cost of electricity.

I think the essence of my issue goes to the uncertainty it creates. Certainty is exactly what is required. Certainty is needed by business. I need only to use the example of the pink batts scheme and how the govern­ment handled that to see the implications for small business. Certainty is needed by individuals, particularly job certainty around our manufacturing sector significantly at this present time, and it is also needed by our communities. This government is intent on creating a climate of uncertainty—and I mention the Murray-Darling Basin commu­nities that are, right now, dealing with the uncertainty created by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

But why would this program and the scrapping of it be any different?

This government is uncertain: it is uncertain about its leadership; it is uncertain about its direction and its own agenda; it is sending mixed messages. The Australian people have woken up and they are on to it. And Queenslanders—the lucky ones—will have their say about Labor governments this weekend.

But let us look at the issue at hand. In Victoria, around 20 per cent of household greenhouse gas emissions come from conventional hot water systems. Right across Victoria and the nation, households are making efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions. A switch to solar hot water can actually assist households in reducing their energy use. I again say that, come 1 July, there will not be a household in Australia that is not seeking to reduce carbon emiss­ions. And, of course, installation of solar hot water also helps the hip pocket by ultimately resulting in lower water heating costs, which can drop by as much as 75 per cent.

On 28 February 2012 the government announced the immediate closure of their solar hot water rebate. They may try and make out that the closure is to take place only from 30 June, but this is misleading. Senator Milne in her contribution to this debate outlined some of the confusion around the lodging of documents and the announcement relating to 30 June. The fact is that all of the purchasing and the commit­ments by households to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions must have been made prior to the government's announce­ment, otherwise they cannot access this rebate.

Communicating with the public unless it is by 'media release, project announcement, photo op, let's move on' is nothing new for this government. There is no better example than the bike path—or, might I say, up the garden path—debacle that is on the front page of the Australian today. As the ANAO report released this week attests, this government cannot manage the simplest of projects through to outcomes, let alone the budget. There was $40 million wasted in that bike path program alone.

To return to the discussion at hand, families want to do their best to help the environment but miss out on the opportunity to get some support for their endeavours from this government. Families of the workers who manufacture the solar hot water systems are affected, as are the families of those who own the small businesses that supply and install the solar hot water systems who have lost a core chunk of their business and now face an uncertain future. I would like to note Senator Faulkner's comment that it is 'all okay because, come 1 July, we've got this whole suite of programs that are going to be there for solar rebates and the businesses will have certainty and the families will have certainty'. That shows a complete misunder­standing of how small businesses operate. At the end of the day, those small businesses have to keep their workers in work; they have to pay the wages of those workers until those programs come online. It is a significant impact and a risk for those small businesses.

All week we have heard about this government's commitment to small business, and here is a perfect example to demonstrate the strength of that commitment. The Clean Energy Council, on notice of the government's announcement, claimed that 1,200 manufacturing jobs are at risk as well as 6,000 installation, sales and administration jobs. If you are in this industry at this point of time I would imagine your livelihood could certainly be starting to look a little shaky, a little uncertain. Has the minister responsible visited the Rheem factory, spoken to the workers, assured them that this government's policy will not directly impact the certainty of their jobs? I back up these comments by a reference to the industry itself. Simon Terry, the General Manager of Dux, was quoted in the Age on 1 March:

This government makes investment decisions very risky.

He continued:

The ones I am worried about are the small mums and dads, the little guys … who are going to have to sell their factories and close down.

Those are telling words, I think, from the industry itself. I have heard that the worst part about this decision is that it comes so close to the implementation of the carbon tax.

Ahead of the carbon tax, many households across the nation are looking to find ways they can cut their energy use, ways they can achieve the twin aims to reduce carbon emissions and their energy bills at the same time. The rebate would have been thought to be a policy solution for them, but its cancellation reeks of this government's previ­ous mistakes—policy areas where Prime Minister Gillard and her colleagues have consistently overpromised and underperfor­med. It has the same whiff about it as the scrapped 'cash for clunkers' and the pink batts debacle and I do not want to discuss here the issues of fires and the dodgy installations but simply to mention the toll of that particular program on the small businesses and the installation people who were left in the lurch and had to lay off workers and still have installation batts in sheds. There are numerous other programs scrapped by Labor without warning, policy decisions made on the run and about-faces in the blink of an eye impacting the lives of ordinary Australians without thought by Labor as to what it would mean to them—not that in many instances the policy change was not the right move but that the rapid pace was astounding.

I would like to touch on Senator Urquhart's contribution to this debate today with her critique of John Howard, of climate change policy and of black holes when what should be being debated is why the ALP is not supporting working families in Australia's manufacturing sector, and that is simply because they have to fix their own black holes, their big budgetary blow-out. Over the last four years they have taken us from a nation with no debt and $70 billion in net assets to one where we are now on track to rack up a record debt of over $136 billion in the middle of the mining boom. We have been dealing in this fortnight with their scrambled attempts to fix this, but the increasing uncertainty in this present climate for families and small businesses is not the way to fix it. It is not the solution.

The ALP does not have the economic credibility that government senators have been crowing about during this debate, and I find it particularly offensive. I want to mention the argument provided earlier around the issue of this bill in the context of it being a demand driven program. It was argued that, in order to be a fiscally responsible government, around demand driven programs when you are setting the budget figure you need to slightly overestimate demand. I think this is the direct quote: 'You need to slightly overestimate the demand when you are setting the budgetary figure.' Well, this must be a new insight from this government on constructing a budget because it does not seem to be a whole-of-government approach. Let us look at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and the example of the government's farm exit grants. Many farmers in western Victoria were left in the lurch, teetering on the edge of financial ruin, when the government, in a demand driven program, clearly did not assess first what the demand would be, let alone build in a bit of a buffer, and the program was then cut incred­ibly short only two or three months after its instigation. How is this an example of appropriate planning and budgeting by this government? What confidence can we have?

But let me return again to the bill at hand. The axing of the solar hot water rebate program with no consultation is reminiscent of so much of ALP policy development: it's a problem, let's panic about it, let's have a press release, let's move on to the next problem. Senator Faulkner's reason for scrapping it early was that the new programs were coming on. But what about the workers? What about those businesses that are having to pay wages so that their workers can pay their mortgages and contribute to the economy? This government assume Austra­lian businesses and families have the same approach to financial management that they do—that is, that they do not plan and that they do not have an idea because the government have no plan and no idea. As I said earlier, Australian families are very conscientious in their planning. Australian small businesses are very diligent in the way they invest their money and plan for the future so that they can continue to innovate and provide employment for so many Australian workers.

Labor are panicked about their budget black hole and they cannot be trusted with money. Each day we learn more about government waste, tax increases, more pain from the carbon tax, and a manufacturing sector under pressure. The government's decision to scrap this rebate does nothing to assist that. With this in mind, I am fully supportive of Senator Birmingham's private member's bill and for three reasons: governments should stick to the plan, they should be financially responsible and they should be looking out for manufacturing jobs.

I call on the Greens to support this bill. The Greens have long been advocates for alternative energy sources, with Senator Brown even at one stage proposing large-scale solar power plants. Their overall support for solar power is clear and well established. I wonder why they are not running to support Senator Birmingham's bill when they have a chance to show their very real and tangible support for small businesses in this area. They should be supporting this bill and calling upon the government to not rest on their laurels, to not just move onto the next policy mistake, but to support people whose livelihoods rely on the increasing popularity of solar energy and households set to benefit from reduced energy bills in the face of the cost of the new carbon tax. I encourage the Greens to support Senator Birmingham's bill and to provide certainty for Australian families, workers and small business. I commend the bill to the Senate.