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Monday, 19 October 2015
Page: 11725


Mr BUTLER (Port Adelaide) (17:20): I rise to speak on the state of national debate at the moment in my portfolio areas, the areas for which I have responsibility in the opposition—namely climate change, the environment and water policy. I think it is now open to say, given the change of leadership in the coalition, there can be no doubt that there was a general sense of despair in the nation about the state of national policy around climate change, around renewable energy, around environmental protection and around water policy. That deep sense of despair was on solid foundations. There had been a substantial attack by the former Prime Minister on the renewable energy target and on the renewable energy industry in general, including financing bodies like the renewable energy agency ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Now, five or six years after the first announcement of the Direct Action Policy, the nation, the business community and environmental stakeholders have had some lived experience of that policy of the former Prime Minister, the member for Warringah. They very reasonably had a great sense of despair about the ability of that policy to achieve any meaningful reductions at all in carbon pollution levels. We also saw the former Prime Minister hell-bent on handing over Commonwealth environmental protection powers, powers that were first put in place under the Whitlam prime ministership but nurtured under every single Prime Minister who followed Gough Whitlam—Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd and Gillard. He was hell-bent on handing over those powers to state governments and, in some areas, to also hand them over to local councils, giving them responsibility for the stewardship of World Heritage areas and a range of other very precious national environmental icons.

We saw the attack by the former member for Warringah, the continuing Attorney-General and a number of others on the ability of farmer groups and environmental groups to take their own government to court in the event of an allegation that their own government has not complied with the law. And we saw over the last couple of years the trashing of the Tasmanian forests agreement, the marine reserves network and so much more in this portfolio area.

I think it is fair to say that many Australians held out a very deep hope that, in the event of a leadership change—particularly a leadership change that saw the leadership move to the member for Wentworth—there would be substantive change in these areas, that the member for Wentworth, on assuming the prime ministership, would drag his party back to the sensible centre in these policy areas. The past several weeks have seen it become increasingly clear that the member for Wentworth was willing to pay a very high price indeed in terms of policy credibility in order to achieve his personal ambition of assuming the prime ministership.

There has been a real opportunity over the last five or six weeks to inject confidence back into the renewable energy industry, but this is an opportunity that the member for Wentworth has simply missed. He has missed it deliberately because he had to pay the price to the right wing of his own party, and to the National Party, to continue in substance the policy direction set by the member for Warringah in this area. The past 18 months under the member for Warringah was a period of utter devastation in the renewable energy industry. Large-scale investment in renewables collapsed by almost 90 per cent in 2014. We went from being the 11th largest investor in renewables in the world to the 39th in just 12 months.

When we left government, we were the fourth most attractive country on the face of the earth in which to invest in renewable energy—after China, Germany and the United States. We have since plummeted to 13th and are now seen as a very, very bleak area in which to invest. This was not academic. We lost billions of dollars of potential investment during that period and lost hundreds of thousands of jobs directly in the renewable energy industry, as I think you are aware Madam Deputy Speaker Henderson, being from that part of Victoria, and in many of the supply parts of the industry as well. Even after a deal was finally struck between the government—led then by the member for Warringah—and the opposition, still the member for Warringah and the then Treasurer, the member for North Sydney, and so many other members of the government did everything they could to talk the industry down.

By contrast, the Labor Party have staked out a bold ambition. After that deal, we talked to the industry and the broader community about how we would move forward as a nation and build on a foundation that we had achieved in that agreement to have real ambition in the 2020s. We staked out an ambition to have 50 per cent renewables, that we would put in place policies to ensure that 50 per cent of our electricity, at least, was sourced from renewable sources by 2030.

When the member for Wentworth became Prime Minister—I think, in his first week—the Leader of the Opposition asked him squarely in question time in the parliament whether he would join Labor in that policy. He did not do what he has done recently in relation to a number of other policy areas like superannuation, tax and some others and say that he would consider it, that it was on the table and open to a mature discussion. Instead, he completely dismissed it and described our policy as 'reckless'. He stated that he would be looking at achieving carbon abatement through clean coal and more gas-fired generation instead of what he described as a 'reckless' policy around expanding renewable energy.

We have also seen two very different messages projected by the same government over the financing bodies to which I referred—the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. We saw front-page in The Australian only a couple of weeks ago where the Minister for the Environment talked about a new dawn in renewable energy because ARENA and the CEFC had been placed under the umbrella of his department. Yet, on the same front page, we also saw a report from the Minister for Finance about a speech he was giving that evening that confirmed the government's intention to continue its prosecution of legislation to abolish ARENA entirely.

We have also had it confirmed by the Minister for the Environment himself and others that it is still government policy to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, in spite of some new dawn, resulting from it being brought into the Department of the Environment. The Minister for the Environment himself confirmed that the directive that was issued under the member for Warringah's stewardship of this nation—the directive that the CEFC, in the meantime, could continue but was not allowed to invest in rooftop solar or in wind power—would also continue. Though, apparently, under the new Prime Minister, the CEFC will be able to consider offshore wind projects—not that I have heard in my number of years in this portfolio anyone actually propose an offshore wind project. Again, there was so much hope that this new Prime Minister we would lead a change in policy around renewable energy. We have seen nothing but a change in the veneer, a change in the language; certainly no substance behind it.

We have also seen exactly the same thing happen in relation to water policy. Prime Ministers from John Howard right through to Tony Abbott understood that the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was primarily a matter of environmental policy—without healthy rivers there will be no sustainable communities, there will be no sustainable industries. That is why from John Howard right through to Tony Abbott, all of our recent have Prime Ministers, have understood that the implementation of that plan should be overseen by scientists and officials from the Department of the Environment. Instead, as the member for Wentworth tried to scrabble together the numbers to become Prime Minister, we saw the Murray-Darling Basin Plan become a plaything of the new Prime Minister to get support not only from members of his own party but also from the National Party. As in the infrastructure area, we now have an utter dog's breakfast in water policy, where any number of ministers, we understand, have some level of responsibility for one of the outstanding achievements of the last 10 to 15 years.

The Prime Minister, of all people, should understand the importance of this. He was the water minister at the start of putting together this plan under the Water Act.

It is important also, in the very short time I have left, to mention climate policy more broadly. Very few people have nailed Mr Abbott's policy on climate change more forcefully than the member for Wentworth did back in 2009 when he called it 'a fig leaf to cover a determination to do nothing' and 'a recipe for fiscal recklessness on a grand scale.' Yet this Prime Minister now appears committed to continuing with a policy that he himself, very rightly, called out six years ago. The lived experience of this policy has confirmed that it has been as bad as the member for Wentworth predicted six years ago.