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Monday, 15 June 2009
Page: 5955

Mr TUCKEY (7:44 PM) —On the face of it, the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Australian Apprentices) Bill 2009 is of a fairly minor nature but is of an administrative type and consequently brings together certain payments. As frequently occurs over time, governments make a variety of initiatives and it becomes obvious that they should be amalgamated into a single grant or whatever. It also, I am pleased to say, makes sure that such grants as are given in these circumstances are not subject to the income tax that would otherwise apply to the income of young people, apprentices and others. I should not use the words ‘young people’. An apprenticeship now is not only a project for the young; it is a project for mature persons who seek to improve themselves from having basic employment skills in areas of declining employment. I think all congratulations are due to those who do make that choice, because it is quite difficult.

Nevertheless, whilst it is just a trial program, the Skills for Sustainability for Australian Apprentices is of great interest to me. I think it is a great idea. I think it is a pity that, in the second reading speech, the minister did not bother to tell us where these sorts of opportunities might exist in the future. What you have to be to participate in the government’s program of carbon pollution reduction is of course a screen jockey. You have to be an employee of a hedge fund or a bank, or someone else who is going to try and re-establish your respectability, having destroyed the world economy on your last attempt. And you are going to be given the opportunity to gamble on certificates to pollute. I thought that was a pretty bad place to start in addressing a problem that appears to be universal, throughout the globe, where Australia could be a contributor in providing the world with the technology that might work. The technology that the world has provided to date will not work in any significant fashion, be it wind generation, solar power or any of those things, simply because they lack the substance or, if you like, the capacity to work.

But there are opportunities within the present technology, and one might wonder if the minister, in coming up with this particular program, might have thought it a good idea to have a special class in the management of high-voltage DC transmission systems. HVDC, as we know it, is most notable, but not recognised by many, as the means of transmitting electricity across Bass Strait. It had to be chosen on that occasion simply because you could not have a series of posts along the way with a transformer, which is a necessary energy-consuming component of high-voltage AC transmission, on which the Australian system relies with only a couple of exceptions. And the great advantage of high-voltage DC transmission is that you can shift electrical energy over huge distances.

The Chinese are presently building a 2,000-kilometre transmission line—being constructed, I might add, by people with whom I have significant contact in this arena because I believe I have to learn, as other parliamentarians in this place do not. The fact is that ABB, as it is now known—it was once Asea Brown Boveri—is building that line for the Chinese. The Europeans are flat out utilising this technology because it saves emissions just by being in existence. It does not require a great deal of inventiveness. It does not require hundreds of billions of dollars, as might be required in proving up carbon capture and sequestration, which I have never seen as a logical response to the problem because it just says, ‘We’ll make the problem go away’.

In the utilisation of high-voltage DC transmission, however, you reduce the amount of energy lost, particularly over long distances. And it can compete with gas pipelines. Gas pipelines are very energy inefficient. The one that delivers gas from the Pilbara to the City of Perth uses in its compressors the power equivalent to one of the coal-fired power stations that service the state—250 megawatts. Yet, if the electricity that is generated from that pipeline when it gets to Perth was in fact generated at the well-head end—on the beach, if you like, in the case of offshore gas reserves—and sent down on HVDC, you would lose significantly less energy and you would have consequent improvement in emissions.

I wonder how many apprentices are doing their time in that technology. It is a pity that there was not some sort of list in the explanatory memorandum or somewhere else which tells us where this smart alec idea is going to work. There are huge opportunities in the reform of energy generation—and the evidence is all there. It is not new technology; we do not have to invent it, although we could leverage off, from a technological basis, some of the generating opportunities that would follow an adequate HVDC system, which in my mind ought to be now under construction as the appropriate stimulus package instead of wasting money as is being done at the moment on school facilities that are unnecessary in many cases, in building passenger railways that will lose money forever and—I will get the minister at the table, the Minister for Housing, to put her head up when I say this—in public housing that will cost money for ever and ever thereafter. I noted the other day that the Western Australian parliament has had to budget $8 million simply to fix up the houses that have been trashed under their responsibility at the moment.

But the reality is that, if apprentices are going to be given $1,000, as this act provides, for the purpose of gaining skills in sustainability, I think it would be a good idea if the parliament gave it some privileges. But, as I said, this government has stepped out to build public housing, passenger railways and of course spread a mere $24 billion in cash around, but if it had chosen to invest that sort of money in sustainable energy initiatives that are available and would easily fit within those costs, they would not have this procession of industry groups coming along and saying, ‘Please don’t drive us out of the country with an emissions trading scheme,’ which at the end will give no guarantee of reducing emissions. It is in fact a process of selling certificates to pollute. The question as to how much your business or your consumers can bear of that cost will decide what reductions might follow.

We are talking about a good idea here, which is to get apprentices dealing in new technology. That might be hydrogen fuel cell technology, which would be a great opportunity for young people. It is a technology that will happen, as will the plug-in electric car and the technology associated with lithium ion batteries and all other things that will be associated with that process. The reality is that what the government is doing, notwithstanding the offering of the minister for resources today—I had to watch him on television because you are not allowed to make jokes in this place any more!—when he talked about this massive investment in sustainability, is peanuts. The government cannot make a major contribution of less than $10 billion. An investment of that amount would be a starting point and it could deliver a 10 or 15 per cent long-term, permanent reduction in emissions without sending aluminium smelters et cetera to the wall. Other countries, and particularly China, are taking this option. Their centralised bureaucratic structure will not lead to the sort of market solution that the Rudd government believes will drive Australian business to save the world. They are investing in renewables or non-emitting technology such as nuclear power. They have 25 such projects on the drawing board or under construction as we speak. Even the Iranians, for whatever reason, are building a nuclear power station, presumably so that they can sell more oil!

Australia, with its tidal energy resource, has one of the biggest renewable energy resources in the world, according to the World Energy Council. A body associated with Oxford University can come out here and tell us what we have on a world table and you never hear a bleep from this government, which says that it wants to go to Copenhagen and lead the world in a response to the issues of carbon emissions and climate change.

We have two choices as a nation. I can tell you that we will be giving apprentices $1,000 to get sustainability skills, but if in fact the whole system is going to be driven by screen jockeys—apparently they will all live in Sydney, because New South Wales government ministers are salivating over the profits that will accrue to Sydney arising from an emissions trading scheme. If someone takes a profit out of the trading concept, that is an extra cost that somebody else has to pay. Yet we are talking here today of what apprentices might do. We will not have electric cars or hydrogen fuel cell cars, which in fact still require an electricity input to electrolyse the water to produce hydrogen, unless we produce more electricity. So apprentices need to learn how better to produce renewable electricity at the gigawatt level, as could occur in the Kimberleys. The technology associated with the conversions for high-voltage DC transmission—and these things only cost $250 million a pop—is the sort of opportunity that the minister should have talked about in his second reading speech. The speech should have referred to directing young people to these opportunities and giving them the opportunity to earn $1,000 or more.

But of course those projects are not on the drawing board. There is no opportunity for young apprentices to learn about that because this government does not believe in it. The government’s ETS provides more opportunities for repairers of desktop computers, because that is what the scheme is all about. It is not about creating opportunities in technology. And the lousy few hundred million dollars that the minister boasted about today will simply not deliver anything like that needed from government. If the money that was put into public housing was put into an initiative like that a lot of people would not need public housing because their jobs would not be at risk, as is patently obvious they will be when you start to jack up the competitive costs of local industries such as iron, steel and aluminium, where the workforce is often filled with loyal Labor votes—but that does not seem to worry this government. Maybe the intelligentsia will re-elect them.

Concerning sustainability for apprentices learning, while there are no projects and while projects are not necessarily going to come from industry because they have been taxed to a point where they have no money left—and that is the theory behind ETS; you make things so costly that people will make different expenditure choices. They will have no money and, as things stand, they will in fact be competing with the government to borrow money. We touched on this in question time today but I did not think the Treasurer had much of an idea of what he was talking about and nor did the Prime Minister when quoting the interest rate spreads—you cannot borrow the money in Australia, so what is the point. Anyway, coming back to the issue, the Skills for Sustainability Australian apprentices grant is a sensible initiative. Outside some technical adjustments, the Skills for Sustainability Australian apprentices grant is the thing that should be pointing the way for young people in terms of opportunity but it is lacking in that it does not tell the kids what it happens to be.

As I said, at the moment the only proposition before this parliament is a screen jockey’s opportunity because that is what an ETS is. An ETS is a process of licensing people to pollute and trying to drive them into some sort of reduced emissions position by making it too expensive to stay where they are. But it ignores the option of leaving Australia completely or passing the cost on downstream, as can occur in electricity generation where there is a captive consumer market. So what are the kids going to learn there? You should say to them, ‘Here are the opportunities.’ One of the reasons for the lack of opportunities is that the government are not investing in saws or planing units or anything like that. Instead, they have taken all the basic investments of sustainability—none of them have a technological peak—when that same money could have been put into achieving up to a 40 per cent reduction in emissions trading for Australia and would have led the way for apprentices to have genuine sustainability skills.