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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 8041


Dr STONE (7:50 PM) —I rise to speak on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2009 and the Renewable Energy (Electricity) (Charge) Amendment Bill 2009. These bills will set a renewable energy target of 20 per cent to be met by the year 2020. Of course the coalition strongly supports the concept of the 20 per cent renewable energy target. After all, it was our government, the John Howard led government, which first introduced into Australian legislation some very serious attempts to make our economy more responsive to renewable energy sources which we knew would not only lower harmful greenhouse gas emissions but also be better for the Australian economy, giving us an alternative to being captured by a complete dependency on fossil fuels.

We in our government understood that stimulating the renewable energy sector and a whole range of new research and development into interesting and unusual new technologies had to be in the context of making sure that that new development always took into consideration job prospects, not beggaring one part of the economy at the expense of another. That is because we are a very vulnerable economy when it comes to our trading partners, such as the European Union and the United States of America, who are more likely to reach for subsidies to support an industry in trouble than to let free competitive forces reign.

I refer in particular to agriculture. We are a nation with an export dependent agricultural sector. Where and if we can reduce our costs by using more efficient energy inputs, fertiliser inputs or any other inputs necessary for good agricultural development and production then we will, and we will do that with great vigour. The difficulty for us is that, even if we reduce our costs, when we compete in international markets we face competition from others who are subsidised—and we have no hope of competing with those industries despite having world’s best practice.

I grew up at a time when you could hear the clanking of the windmills, and as you looked around the great northern Victorian plains you saw windmills on every horizon. We took them for granted as a part of the energy options. If you wanted to pump water out of your dam, you did not have a diesel pump and you did not have a solar panel; you had a windmill. That iconic image of the windmill standing out on the plains has been adopted by many as a symbol of agriculture across the country. Australians are no strangers to alternative energy sources. A lot of us also grew up with wood being burned in stoves to generate heat and hot water. We grew up too with alternative means of transport that did not depend on the consumption of fossil fuels.

But here we are in this House with the government of the day trying to put across the idea that they are the first to imagine or think about renewable energy. And so they have tried to wed this particular set of bills to their CPRS. Their emissions trading scheme is a flawed policy and one which would leave the country devastated in terms of pushing it too far, too fast ahead of international developments. Of course we must address greenhouse emissions problems. Of course we have climate change affecting our country—no more so than in my electorate, which is facing its seventh year of drought and some of the hottest and driest conditions on record. But why would you, except for political mischief and attempts to wedge, link this set of bills, the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2009 and the Renewable Energy (Electricity) (Charge) Amendment Bill 2009, with the deeply flawed CPRS, which is generally spurned by industry. We have of course requested that the two bills be decoupled.

I think the Rudd Labor government are now realising, through the conversations and debates in the media and around the barbecues of the nation, that they have been too smart by half. These two bills need to stand alone so that they can be properly considered, so that the different sets of issues can be properly understood and debated and so resources can be appropriately allocated without any attempt to simply play political games at the expense of the country’s future.

When I was in the environment portfolio—I was parliamentary secretary for some five years—I had the privilege of working with Minister Robert Hill, Minister for the Environment and Heritage. He was an international leader in introducing the business of vegetation consideration into the Kyoto discussions. He chaired what was called the ‘umbrella group’ of other like-minded developed nations, who understood the significance of burning forests and of clearing forests, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, in Indonesia and in South America, and how the devastation of huge forests was leading not only to enormous biodiversity degradation but also to emissions, which were going to mean that we would have more and more difficulty in the future sustaining life as we know it. Robert Hill was a champion internationally, and when he helped introduce the MRET of our Howard government he was one of the first to do that globally.

Let me also say that while I was responsible for the Australian Antarctic Division I had the full support of the John Howard government in introducing wind turbines to the Antarctic. We knew it was a cost but we also understood that if we could replace the diesel-powered generators in our Antarctic stations then we would be making an enormous contribution, both symbolically and in practical terms, with a renewable source of energy that was going to reduce emissions in that sensitive part of the world. We were hugely successful. The world’s biggest wind turbines were installed at our Antarctic bases. We were able to reduce the use of diesel by over 90 per cent almost immediately.

It was under our government too that we tried and succeeded in stimulating the infant wind farm sector across Australia. One of our problems of course, and I face this particularly in my electorate, is that while there are places for wind farms which have been selected, there are locals more than keen to rent out their land and there are local governments anxious to see those wind farms established, we have a huge constraint on the capacity of the power grid to take that additional energy. Therefore it is a policy-setting problem. It is not a mindset problem in terms of rural and regional Australians wanting to have alternative sources of energy in their landscape and generating alternative and renewable energy.

I have to say that the Victorian government in particular must hang its head in shame as it sets about introducing yet another use of fossil fuel derived electricity for a white elephant—the north-south pipeline. We know that that pipeline will not have the water to take across the Great Dividing Range to the toilets, gardens and dog-washing clinics of Melbourne and Geelong. The water is to be taken out of the drought-stressed and near-empty Eildon Dam and the Goulburn River system. It is to be pumped over the Great Dividing Range using electricity generated through the burning of coal. It is estimated that 103,680 megawatt hours of power will have to be used in the first year of operation of the north-south pipeline alone to pump the 75 billion litres to be stolen from the Goulburn River—water that is going to be absolutely necessary for food production not only next year but in the years following. This will also take the environmental reserve out of the Eildon Dam. Pumping this, using electricity, across the Great Dividing Range is going to deprive the Goulburn River of its environmental reserve, which was for use in trying to overcome any blue-green algal bloom, which invariably comes when rivers get so low.

I have to say that the north-south pipeline is a white elephant. This pipeline will deplete the Murray-Darling Basin of the last of its precious water in northern Victoria. When we heard that on top of that environmental assault the water was to be pumped over the great divide using 103,680 megawatt hours a year, we were doubly appalled. What environmental vandalism! Minister Garrett, in this government, has made this whole business of the north-south pipeline a controlled action under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. He has not said a word in this place about the taking of water that does not exist from the Murray-Darling Basin. Water does not exist beyond what is finally left in the dam, but there has been not a word, despite the controlled actions which he has in writing, sitting somewhere in his archives. He has not complained that the Victorian government is moving forward ahead of schedule despite his controlled action conditions, which include making sure there is no further environmental degradation. Using fossil fuel at such a rate to pump the last of this water out of the Murray-Darling Basin from northern Victoria to Melbourne and Geelong, leaving this huge carbon footprint, surely is further environmental degradation. I call on Minister Garrett to stand up in this place and condemn the Victorian Labor government for that environmental vandalism.

Our own shadow minister for the environment has done his best to make the Victorian government, much less this federal government, see reason, but we have an election coming up in the state of Victoria next year and all Mr Brumby wants to do is stand up in this pipeline—a pipe so big that he can stand up in it—and refer to the wonders he has performed, rather than have Melbourne recycle its water, harvest stormwater or even use his desalination plant or perhaps build another dam in Gippsland. So we have this double obscenity: taking water that does not exist from food producers using energy generated through burning fossil fuels that should not be used for such a purpose.

Of course, what happens when you beggar the food producers in northern Victoria is that you render inefficient and virtually obsolete a gravity fed irrigation system which does not depend on fossil fuels to push the water around. It is a completely gravity fed system, which requires no energy and which was producing food through what was called the food bowl of Australia. It is an absolutely appalling situation when agriculture in our country is under threat not just from drought caused by climate change but because of policy settings that this government has put in place with absolutely no consideration of the costs which its CPRS legislation will impose and without giving agriculture any chance to use offsets to try and mitigate those additional costs.

We know the food-manufacturing sector is going to face extraordinary hardship if it is not given some special carbon emissions considerations in terms of how it manages the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions into the future. The food-manufacturing sector of Australia is extraordinary in its quality and in its world’s best practice. It has hugely reduced its consumption of energy over time but it is going to be facing, for example, competition from New Zealand, the United States and the EU, where the agribusiness sectors have been given special carbon emissions consideration. They have been given incentives, not simply a hit over the head with a blunt instrument. So we are seeing agriculture facing the onslaught of climate change in the shape of floods, fires and drought but being given no policy settings which will help it continue to feed the country.

I think we need our consumers, Australian men and women who go shopping, to start to ask themselves: do you really want to scan the shelves in the fresh food market section or the processed food section and find nothing that has been home grown? Today we met with representatives of the horticulture industry. They are in despair. They have tried to meet with the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Minister Julia Gillard, to explain that the new conditions that they are supposed to work under with workforce agreements or the new settings for penalty rates, weekend rates and so on are going to double their costs for employing labour. People from the food manufacturing sector have also been trying to meet Senator Penny Wong, the Minister for Climate Change and Water, to say, ‘Please, will you understand the impacts of not giving us certainty about our policy settings, not taking into consideration our export exposure and our energy intensive characteristics? Give us a chance to survive in the new world.’

As the dairy-manufacturing sector in particular reel under the impacts of prices below the cost of production brought about by global economic circumstances, and while they try to deal with the seventh year of drought in northern Victoria, it is just obscene to think that they cannot get time with the minister, Senator Penny Wong, to get her to focus on food manufacturing as needing special consideration and understanding. Food manufacturers need to be able to adopt alternative energy strategies. They need to be included in the future thinking and the short-term thinking about how they manage their emissions, but instead they are being told, ‘Wait around—by 2015 we might have come up with a good idea.’ That is not good enough. Let me tell you that the dairy industry alone employs 40,000 people and it is worth some $4 billion a year. How is it that the retail sector, the automotive sector and the textile and footwear sectors get a hearing? They can knock on the door and be admitted to the ministerial suites, but not agribusiness.

I find it quite extraordinary that people are so cynical about rural and regional populations. Today for the first time Minister Julia Gillard agreed to see face-to-face young rural people who have a serious problem with the independent youth allowance. They are the same people who are tomorrow’s food producers. They are the ones who will have to deal with the climate impacts of more heat in the north of Australia, more storms and more fires throughout Australia and they are being treated with contempt.

When we were in government, we in the coalition understood very well that there is not one renewable energy solution. We knew about solar and wind; they are fairly commonplace understandings. But we were also most keen to stimulate other, less common ways to generate alternative energy. They include things like tidal and geothermal energy and potentially some use of biofuels and algae. There are a whole range of these technologies and some of them are well advanced in our country. But the legislation that is being proposed by the Rudd Labor government does not have the breadth and intellectual rigour behind it that would stimulate a whole range of responses to our need to have different types of renewable energy in the future.

We have seen the debacle where some people thought that they were going to have some solar powered energy relief. In my electorate in particular they put up their hands. They thought they were all going to get grants to help them to get new solar panels installed. They wrote up their applications and went to their accountants. They were committed to solar energy. Then they were left in the lurch because they trusted the cut-off date for the applications that the government gave them. They thought they had so many days or weeks to get their applications in, but this government simply closed the date of application for the solar energy grants without warning. That has left a lot of people very cynical about this government’s real intentions. The axing of the solar rebate of $8,000 before the due date of 30 June has been a huge loss for individuals, as it had the potential to replace their fossil fuel derived energy costs. It has also enormously damaged this government’s reputation. They are not now taken seriously in the community because the community has been bitten too often. The solar panel industry itself has been caught out too often in trusting this government and imagining that it actually was credible—that it had some integrity when it came to using taxpayer funds to try and stimulate a particular type of technology response.

So I repeat: we, the coalition in government, understood renewables. We have grown up with them. We have grown up with windmills and with gravity fed irrigation systems that produce the food of the world and can keep on doing that. We know what to do. We are deeply concerned that in trying to couple this bill with the CPRS, political games are being played. But we do support an MRET. We particularly strongly support the concept of a 20 per cent renewable energy target. We will therefore continue to do our best to get an outcome which helps save this country and which ultimately contributes to the global response to reducing carbon emissions. We can do it if we work together. We just ask that you take this problem seriously, not as a political game.