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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 8008


Mr HAWKE (5:25 PM) —I rise today to speak on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2009 and the Renewable Energy (Electricity) (Charge) Amendment Bill 2009 I think in the same way that all members of this House are rising to praise the idea that we need to be looking at alternative sources of energy, and particularly renewables. I think the search for a source of energy that is renewable and that has as little impact on the environment as possible is an objective which all members of this House would have no trouble supporting and indeed taking steps towards. This is a very noble objective, and that is why I think it is regrettable that we have seen in the last week important legislation such as this before us being coupled to other legislation unnecessarily in a way that delayed the ultimate success of this very important piece of legislation on renewables.

The primary aim of the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2009 is to set in place a renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020. I think that is a wonderful thing. I think the alliteration of ‘20 per cent by 2020’ is a wonderful success for the highly paid political adviser who no doubt came up with it. But, on a serious note, of course we ought to be seeking an objective, and 20 per cent by 2020 is not a bad place to start. I think this government ought to think very seriously about the steps it is taking in terms of supporting our renewable industries, because we have seen a lot of confusion and lack of serious focus on how to get the renewable market up and running. In the mechanisms of this bill we see another attempt by the Rudd government to set up a renewable energy industry. The story of the last year, since the election of the Rudd government, has been a series of measures which have led to a lot of confusion in the industry. One of the themes that we have seen over the last week in terms of responses to climate change and the emissions trading scheme has been about providing industry with certainty and providing business with certainty.

Of course, if you have been in the solar industry since the election of the Rudd government then the last thing you would have had over the past 18 months is any certainty. That lack of certainty has been to the great detriment of the solar industry in Australia. When the Rudd government, suddenly and without warning, scrapped the $8,000 rebate, there was a mad rush of applications to get in before the last day of the deadline. Many people missed that deadline, and I had a number of them make representations to me. I had a number of representatives of the solar industry in New South Wales contact me about that. I lament with them the fact that these decisions were taken without warning and without notice.

Certainly I thought that the attitude of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts here in this place, when he said that the problem he was trying to solve was that the solar industry was overheating, sort of revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of what the government is trying to do with all of its settings that it puts into place. Governments are not there to subsidise continually the behaviour of every person in every sense; we are attempting to create a viable market, something which can sustain itself, ultimately—and as quickly as possible, I might add. So the fact that there was a great demand for solar panels—and the proposition was that it was overheating; that there was too much demand and that the system had gotten to a point where demand was very simulated—is something I think we ought to really celebrate and rejoice about.

However, this is an attempt to rejig the solar industry. Hopefully, this will lead to a situation where there is more certainty in the solar market, because in the last 18 months there has been a litany of decisions that have not provided certainty. I do not think you would find a genuine solar industry representative who would come forward and say, ‘We’ve had a very certain 18 months.’ Indeed, one of the successes of the Howard government was the solar panel rebate in creating the foundations of a market for a sustainable renewable like solar power. If you look at some of the comments, I think that is backed up by many people. Some of the managing directors of different solar companies made comments like, ‘This is the third setback for the solar industry in as many weeks,’ when the rebates were scrapped. There were other comments, such as that they were promised smooth transitions from the $8,000 rebate to the new solar credit scheme, which was pulled with only hours of notice. I think the retrospectivity of it in terms of the renewable energy targets policy was to be regretted.

There is an elephant in the room in relation to energy policy. Certainly renewable energies are to be lauded, but there is also something else that we as a place ought to consider, and that is the viability of nuclear power. Though not specifically addressed in this bill, I think it is important, because while we search for renewable energies—and this legislation before us is an attempt to set the foundations for a market—there is no contention that renewables will be able to provide us with our baseload power into the future. We need to look at options for baseload power generation that will enable us to meet our emissions targets and deal with the problems that we are facing with climate change.

Australia has one of the highest per capita rates of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, primarily because of our reliance on fossil fuels. So, given that undesirable outcome for Australia that we have one of the highest per capita emissions in the world, if we are serious about tackling this then we ought to seriously consider alternative energies that will be sustainable, and there is no proposition that renewables will provide our baseload power into the future. So, while I am a very strong supporter of the renewable energy industry—whether it be geothermal, solar or more power from hydro plants and all of the wonderful things that come with that and the clean energies that can be provided—I believe it is not the case that this is a serious option at this point in time for baseload power generation. Therefore, as a parliament looking forward into the future of this country, we need to consider very seriously that with our uranium reserves and our ability to develop a nuclear industry we can generate the power we need in a cleaner way, with a substantial supplement from renewables and a viable renewable market.

This legislation replaces the solar rebates with a solar credit scheme which issues renewable energy credits to the installers of solar panel systems of 1.5 kilowatts per hour or less. These credits can be traded on a market for a return of between $4,000 and $4,500 for a common solar panel system. This is a mechanism which I endorse. Market based mechanisms are something which we know works and something which can provide a platform for future arrangements.

It is interesting to note that this government seems to lurch from policy to policy in relation to markets. When they are running for election they love markets; when they get into government they hate them. When we are dealing with climate change they seem to discover their enjoyment of market based mechanisms again. But never mind the inconsistency and the inconsistent signals we get out of this government in relation to market mechanisms. Market mechanisms, without any doubt, work. If we are unable to use them as part of our arsenal in dealing with climate change, then we are not serious about handling the challenges that we face as a country. I 100 per cent endorse the concept of creating viable markets as a powerful mechanism for dealing with climate change or the problems caused by the pollutants created by industry.

I think it is regrettable that this legislation is before us after the last week. We have heard a lot of derision from the government but not a lot of openness to negotiating about what is a very important matter. Finally, the government has relented, decoupled this bill and sought to bring it here as its own individual bill, which it always should have been, because I believe that renewables will enjoy the support of members in this place and enjoy the support of the community in terms of what government action will be taken.

The opposition is proposing amendments, and those amendments are very important, especially given the fact that we are looking at the coverage of the aluminium sector for both its existing targets and expanded renewable energy target liabilities to the 90 per cent already offered by the government for the latter. I think those amendments are worth while. I think the government ought to consider them. If they are serious about renewables, if they are serious about making this the best possible scheme that they can, then they ought to be negotiating on these very important matters.

Many of the government backbenchers say they believe that we are in the biggest crisis of our time. We have heard that very dramatic language. I have seen Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister, stand in front of a camera at the Great Barrier Reef and say that, if we do not act, this will no longer be here. That is the Prime Minister of the country standing in front of a television camera and, with quite a high degree of alarmism, warning that a great iconic piece of Australia may not be here if we do not act. If those things are true, then I believe the government ought to be here in this chamber negotiating very seriously with us about this legislation and about the emissions trading scheme legislation and, in particular, accepting the very good ideas that are being put forward by the opposition in the form of amendments to this legislation.

In summary, I think it is easy to say that this House, and I particularly, will almost certainly go on to endorse what is an important step in our energy generation process. Renewables will play an important role in Australia’s future. However, I do not think we should blind ourselves to the fact that we need to be considering very seriously the next step in baseload energy generation into the future. But I endorse this legislation.