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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 3210

Mr HUNT (Flinders) (10:49): On 28 February this year the government terminated the Renewable Energy Bonus Scheme, or solar hot water rebate. It did so at one minute to five. For most retailers this represented one minute's notice. In essence, there was no warning to retailers, there was no warning to families and there was no warning to blue-collar workers on the shop floor in firms such as Rheem or Dux. I have previously visited the Dux plant in the Southern Highlands and in recent weeks I have had the opportunity and the pleasure of visiting and meeting with workers at the Rheem plants in Rydalmere in Western Sydney and in Welshpool in Perth. In each of those plants I saw the surprise, the shock and the amazement on the faces of workers from right around the world who have made Australia their home and who had believed that this government supported renewable energy. That belief was shattered by the decision announced on 28 February this year.

In presenting the Solar Hot Water Rebate Bill 2012 I want to present three things: first, the facts; second, the problem; and, third, the solution inherent in this bill. Let me set out the facts. On 28 February 2012 there was no notice given; the rebate was terminated immediately. Yet this came against a background where only two weeks previously, on 10 February 2012, in the budget update the government, through the auspices of Treasury, tabled figures showing that there was $63½ million in this year's budget for the Renewable Energy Bonus Scheme, which is the solar hot water rebate, and $24½ million allocated in next year's budget. What that means in practice is that as of 1 July this year the program was continuing and it was always going to continue. We know that because last year, in the May 2011 budget, the funding was replenished—additional funding was announced. The program was extended. The government's own website reflected that fact. The previous cap on the time period for the Renewable Energy Bonus Scheme was removed from the notice, update and notification issued by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency regarding that scheme.

The facts are very clear. The government extended this program in May 2011. On 10 February this year, it confirmed that the program was still subject to the extension of funding into the current and future financial years. Against that background, workers, retailers, firms and families had all made plans. A government must be reliable. A government must, first and foremost, seek to do no harm. That is the basis upon which it is able to proceed, and that is the basis upon which people are able to make plans in relation to activities which the government encourages.

Let us remember that the government itself was encouraging firms to engage in either the production of solar hot water units or the retail of solar hot water units. In reality, Australians were purchasing solar hot water units not—as I am informed by the industry—at the rate that the government had expected but at something slightly less than the rate the government had expected. That means that the government's claim that the funds were exhausted is clearly untrue. That claim has been made by multiple members of the government on multiple occasions. There is a simple means of testing it: release the figures as to the amount of money expended under the program this year.

If this program is exhausted, why will the government not release the figures under the Solar Hot Water Rebate Bill? Why will the government not release the figures under its own Renewable Energy Bonus Scheme? The answer is very simple: the government has misled the Australian people with its claims that the money was exhausted. The real purpose was to access the $24½ million contained within next year's budget. The real purpose was to try to bolster what is clearly a struggling surplus—off the back of previous deficits of $27 billion, $54 billion, $47 billion and currently $37 billion but projected to rise. Against that background, the government is seeking to access the $24½ million of next year's funds and, in order to do that, it terminated a program with no notice and no warning.

Let us look at the problem with that practice. On 29 February, the Clean Energy Council issued a press release which said:

The clean energy industry says the unexpected cut of a key government solar hot water program late yesterday will put jobs under threat and make it harder for people to save on their electricity bills.

The release went on:

This decision will immediately affect sales and will put more than 1200 manufacturing jobs and 6000 installation, sales and back office jobs in jeopardy.

The release went on:

Cutting this program without warning in the middle of a financial year is yet another example of stop-start policy making that continues to plague the entire clean energy sector. It has given the industry no time to prepare and makes business planning almost impossible.

It could not have been said more clearly or more accurately than in the words of the Clean Energy Council. Unexpected, in the middle of the year, without warning—those are the key elements as to how this program was terminated. That follows the same practice under the Home Insulation Program, the same practice under the Green Loans Program and the same practice under the Green Start program. This is a government which cannot learn from its mistakes.

Against that background, what is it that we seek to do through the Solar Hot Water Rebate Bill 2012? It is very simple: we seek to hold the government to account for its own pledges, its own promises and its own allocations. The bill has a very simple task: it confirms that all moneys appropriated by the government for the purposes of the Renewable Energy Bonus Scheme should be used for those purposes for the current financial year. Sixty-three and a half million dollars was set aside. The full amount of that money should be used. We would like this bill to go further, but constitutional requirements mean that we cannot allocate moneys not yet allocated by budget for the coming financial year. However, the decent thing, the honourable thing, and the right thing for the government to do would be to stick by its commitment in the May 2011 budget and stick by its statement in the forward estimates from 10 February of this year. In an 18-day stretch the government's funding collapsed. Yet the government has not been able to show that there has been any massive surge in demand for solar hot water over and above what was already budgeted and what was already occurring.

This is a simple, clear bill. It simply seeks to hold the government to its own pledge, its own promise and its own commitment. It operates within the bounds of sections 53 and 56 of the Constitution and it ensures that the legislature is giving the executive an instruction to operate according to the legislation passed in this chamber and in the Senate. There can be no excuse if, by the end of this week, the government, the Greens and the Independents have failed to support action to assist the solar hot water sector to continue on the path upon which it was planning. This is not new funding and it is not a change in policy; it is about maintaining the commitment by the government, and the commitment by the Parliament of Australia, to a section of blue-collar workers, to a section of the retail industry and to a significant section of the Australian public that had relied upon those institutions. For these reasons I commend the bill to the House. (Time expired)

Bill read a first time.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Georganas ): In accordance with standing order 41(c), the second reading will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.