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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12620

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (BatmanMinister for Resources and Energy and Minister for Tourism) (12:26): I thank the member for Kingston for that very concise, objective, constructive contribution to this key debate. As many members who have participated in the debate have indicated, this bill establishes ARENA, the members of its board and its chief executive officer and sets out how ARENA will operate and be funded. The bill delivers on the Australian government's commitment to establish ARENA as part of its clean energy future plan announced on 10 July this year. ARENA has been very much the ambition of my department and my office and finally consolidates in a rational approach the existing renewable energy grant funding currently managed by the Australian government and by Australian government funded renewable energy agencies. I extend my appreciation to the Australian Solar Institute and ACRE for the constructive manner in which they have approached the government's objective to establish ARENA. They have made a fine contribution to our endeavours on clean energy over recent times.

ARENA will provide a robust framework to deliver funding for new clean energy technologies, providing the certainty of funding and long-term policy settings and a renewed focus on innovation in renewable energy and related technologies essential to keeping Australia at the forefront of technology change in what is already becoming a major growth industry. I look forward to seeing how ARENA will support the renewable energy sector to innovate, prosper and assist Australia in meeting a huge challenge—climate change—while maintaining a secure, efficient and affordable energy supply.

I would also like to respond to a couple of comments made during the course of this debate. I first indicate that I appreciate the contribution from all those who have spoken in these bills, but I particularly welcome the constructive approach and support for this bill by the coalition in not opposing ARENA's establishment. That is very important because it says to the renewables sector that there is some certainty in the operation and funding of ARENA in the future. I especially note the contribution of my shadow minister, the member for Groom, Mr Macfarlane, and the understanding of the renewables sector by the member for Flinders. With regard to the contribution of the member for Groom, particularly reminding us of the achievements of the Howard government in terms of the MRET, I wonder if he has had discussions with Senator Boswell of the National Party and whether he shares his enthusiasm in being reminded that the MRET was a coalition achievement. I think not. Putting that aside, both the member for Groom and I understand the challenges of technology, as do the member for Flinders and, I might say, the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Mr Greg Combet. There are huge challenges in developing clean energy technologies, and this is clearly seen in the progress of a legacy program I inherited from the coalition, the LETDF projects, which to date have been far more difficult than would have been envisaged when these projects were announced by the Howard government. I say this because it is easy to sit on the sidelines and say that progress is not being made, but in terms of the clean energy debate and the issues around innovation, it is not easy.

We as a government will not seek to pick winners but to contribute generous taxpayers' dollars to working with industry, both domestically and internationally; our research institutions, including our universities and CSIRO; and our CRCs to try and do whatever we can to make the necessary breakthroughs to achieve clean energy on a reliable low-cost base for Australian consumers in both industry and households. For those reasons, recognising these challenges, ARENA is a very sensible policy development and therefore has the support of virtually all members of the House.

I note Senator Milne's contribution to this debate yesterday, when she saw fit—for whatever reason, I do not know—to put out a press release talking about avoiding political interference in particular projects. Let me be very clear about this. In my time as a minister as I have always taken expert advice and relied heavily on my department and expert committees to ensure proper merit based assessment in spending Commonwealth money on clean energy technologies. I therefore take exception to Senator Milne's comments and to her reflection on my department and its professionalism and those people who gave freely of their own time and made a huge contribution in serving on the expert committees, which have seen a huge amount of work done and enabled us to get to this point in terms of trying to test clean energy technologies.

I also say, given the member for Melbourne's contributions, that perhaps Senator Milne needs to have a discussion with him. I specifically refer to his comments regarding Solar Systems. His comments without a doubt suggest that the government should have waived requirements around milestones to get taxpayers' money out the door to Solar Systems. I simply suggest that this seems to be at odds with comments from the Greens, principally Senator Milne, about the need for proper process. Before talking about the politicising of the administration of grants, they want to have a look at themselves in the mirror. At the time of Solar Systems, I acted on the advice of my department, and that is key to how you handle the integrity of selection processes. The money was allocated to a particular project, not to running the Solar Systems business, and I am concerned by suggestions from the member for Melbourne that we should have waived project milestones just to suit his pet project in his seat of Melbourne.

Again, I simply note for the House that this just shows that the Greens really do not care about proper process and integrity in projection selection. They are more about picking their pet winners with no regard for due process and proper accountability of taxpayers' money and agreed milestones, for proper and prudent expenditure of finite taxpayers' moneys for which we have responsibility as a government to allocate to clean energy technology. Any suggestion otherwise is wrong, and criticism of projects reflects on the integrity of my department, our now expert advisers, who have done a good job to date.

Furthermore, this is often the Australian Greens' and Green NGOs' approach to life: lobbying for outcomes that do not follow proper process, whether it be seeking to block economic development if they object to a particular project, irrespective of the integrity of necessary regulatory processes, be they of an Indigenous or environmental nature. We have seen this on a range of project issues around Australia at the moment. In essence, the rule of law is set aside by the Greens and NGOs for environmental and Indigenous approvals because of a dozen short-term political objectives with respect to membership or raising financial assistance from the broader community. It is not the role of government to select particular companies or technologies. Due process, separate from political considerations, should be the determinant of these complex issues. Having said that, I simply say as the minister that there is a proper assessment on the merits of supporting different technologies and I want to see that the projects are assessed on merit. That is the approach I have adopted and that is the approach I will take with the establishment of ARENA. That is why one of ARENA's first tasks will be to develop a funding strategy to guide ARENA's support for renewable energy technologies. Likewise, the ARENA board and the CEO will be appointed free of political interference in accordance with a skills matrix to ensure that the best advice is provided to government. There is no use lobbying government about friends or political mates to be appointed to boards in terms of my ministerial responsibilities. They will be based on a skills matrix, integrity and what they can contribute to a process and not on the basis that a particular minor party or an environmental NGO wants to sponsor their nomination.

In conclusion, I welcome the contributions of all the members who have participated in this debate. I extend my appreciation to the departmental team led by Nicola Morris for all their hard work. This is a complex bill put together over a very short period. In doing so, they ensured that they consulted with a range of organisations, both government and non-government, to ensure that we got it right. I think the fact that effectively the whole of the House of Representatives, as a result of this debate, has indicated support indicates that they have got it right and they are to be commended for a job well done. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.