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Monday, 1 September 2014
Page: 9171

Mr GILES (Scullin) (15:32): It was very interesting that the member for Hughes talked about the debate we must have because, having listened to his contribution for the last 12 minutes, I am entirely in the dark as to how it related to the legislation that is before us. It was, however, an interesting and wide-ranging contribution. As ever, the member for Hughes is hard to follow. He talked about fairness but that was a fairness narrowly fiscally defined that had very little regard, if any, for our environmental future or for the prospects of our children and their children. He also gave us an economic history lesson which I did find interesting. And I would be interested to hear how he might expand upon how it would be applied, for example, to the government's Direct Action scheme, which seemed to fit very poorly within the frame of principles the member for Hughes very eloquently expressed.

This is a government that is bereft of vision. It is a government that seems solely concerned with dismantling the work of previous governments. It shows in this debate, as at large, the narrowest of ideological agendas, which denies any positive role for government and, in the context of the bill before us, denies us a clean-energy future. This is also sadly another broken promise—described by another contributor in this debate as one of many seeming acts of random meanness.

The minister came out before the election in support of ARENA but I will come back to that later—suffice to say another broken promise. I note, as the previous speaker did, that it is difficult to separate this bill from its context in the release of the Warburton review into the renewable energy target that was handed down at about the time I thought I was about to make my contribution to this debate on Thursday of last week.

In the context of the ARENA bill, the findings of the Warburton review seem somewhat ironic, to say the very least. The RET review handed down by Mr Warburton offers the very real prospect of the destruction of the renewable energy industry. It backs in very strong vested interest and is involved in acts of redistribution just as profound as those referred to by the member for Hughes but in the opposite direction. But what is really interesting about this is the review concedes that the RET is working, that it is exerting downward pressure on wholesale electricity process as well as reducing emissions.

While it is no surprise that this government of all governments would want to destroy the renewable energy target, especially when a self confessed climate change sceptic has been appointed to conduct the review, this is a real Alice in Wonderland moment here, a real Alice in Wonderland topsy-turvy moment. Acknowledging that the RET is working, the government proposes to scrap it anyway. It really is surreal. What it shows is two things: a deep commitment to undoing the work of the previous government, as I touched on earlier; and, seemingly and sadly—for all the high rhetoric before the election about increasing public trust in politics—an equally deep commitment to breaking election promises.

The bill before us seeks the closure of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency through the repeal of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency Act 2011. That act sets out the legislation framework for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and its objectives, essentially to improve the competitiveness of renewable energy and related technologies and increase supply—pressing challenges most of us would agree. The act also details governance arrangements and funding available. Since 2012 ARENA had been operating as an independent agency, something this government is not terribly fond of, designed to improve the competitiveness of renewable energy technologies. In essence, ARENA has had the mandate of reducing the cost of renewable energy technology development and increasing its use—a critical objective to a sustainable future. How is this being done?

ARENA provides financial assistance for research, development, demonstration and, importantly, commercialisation of renewable energy and related technologies. Its role indeed goes beyond this to develop skills in the renewable energy industry. It has been promoting renewable energy project innovation nationally and also internationally. As previous Labor speakers noted, ARENA currently supports more than 190 projects to earn more than $1.5 billion in private sector investment. This is just a foundation and it ought to be a solid foundation. There are nearly another 200 projects in the pipeline with the potential of drawing more than $5 billion in private sector funding.

This bill before us risks the investment arrangements already in place and puts a complete freeze on the $5 million for future investment. I note in passing, as I know other speakers have done, that 70 per cent of this funding has gone to projects in rural and regional Australia, creating jobs for the future in these areas. The axing of ARENA puts these projects in jeopardy and puts these vital jobs in jeopardy as well.

I was struck not only by the contribution of the member for Hughes in this debate but also that of the minister in his second reading speech, which, interestingly, did not set out what ARENA needs to be abolished. In fact, I believe—and I think any fair reading of the speech goes along these lines—it made the opposite case: it reads more like a eulogy for a close friend who has left us too soon, which, in a sense I guess, it is. The minister states:

Financial assistance, largely through grants, has been provided to nearly 200 renewable energy developments, including the construction of renewable energy projects, the research and development of various technologies and the development and deployment of renewable energy, along with activities to capture and share knowledge gained through all of these projects, to advance the sector towards full commerciality.

ARENA has made significant progress towards achieving its objectives.

So the government is not seeking to abolish ARENA because it is not working; it is getting rid of ARENA because it is working—just like the RET. We only need observe the extreme comments from government members when it comes to renewables—indeed, anything to do with the environment—to gain an understanding of this reflexive hostility towards renewable energy. There is no rationality to this. Why on earth would anyone be against clean energy that does not wreck the environment? Consumers are certainly on side. Operators of nearly 200 renewable energy developments across the country are as well. I can see two reasons, though: one is the dominance of climate change deniers within the ranks of this government; and the other, the power of vested interests concerned with their commercial prospects, not Australia's future. I suspect the minister, yet again, has been rolled by his own cabinet, as he was with industry assistance for the auto industry. The minister goes on to state in his second reading speech:

ARENA has played an important role of increasing the competitiveness of technologies and the supply of renewable energy in Australia.

Delivering on these projects will allow Australia to take a pragmatic approach, focusing on our capabilities to ensure that Australia is well positioned to take up technologies that work as they become commercial.

I could not agree more with the minister. That is what makes this government's decapitation of ARENA so deeply frustrating.

As I alluded to before, the context of this bill is the government's broader attack on clean energy in its concept and in practice. It is not unlike the governments irrational hatred of public transport. It is little other than something which is reflexive, prejudicial and unthinking. There is no logical or rational reason behind the decisions; it just starts from its prejudice and works backwards, taking all of us backwards with it. And, so, here we are, debating whether to tear down something the government acknowledges works well for no apparent reason. Here with ARENA; tomorrow or some time very, very soon, with the Renewable Energy Target.

The government has conceded that there is no emergency, so it is unclear why there is any need to proceed with this act of economic as well as environmental vandalism in terms of the act that is before us—the abolition of ARENA. As with this bill, I note—as I have had the opportunity to contribute in this place—the government also sought to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. In recent days The Australian Financial Review reported, in advance of the Warburton report, that the coalition is on the verge of scrapping the Renewable Energy Target—desperately finding a way through to achieve that ideological goal in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I have been contacted by many constituents who are furious with the government about scrapping of the RET and other measures designed to tackle climate change. I was reminded of this during the break when a full house came to an event Mark Butler conducted in Lalor—a full house of people deeply concerned about where this government is taking us in climate change; a room full of ideas, full of energy, full of frustration that an architecture which is working to address a fundamental concern they have for themselves, for their children and for their grandchildren is being torn down with nothing being put in place to replace it. The people who attended that meeting and my constituents more generally know the RET keeps their bills down, they know it helps environment. What they cannot understand is why the government opposes the RET and why the government proposes to get rid of ARENA.

The unanswered question of 'Why?' can be asked about a lot of this government's policies. Where is the evidence base? It is a bit like this government's climate change denialism writ large, where all the evidence points in one direction but the government goes the opposite way instead, preferring prejudice to evidence. I remember being in this place asking the same question not so long ago about the government's attempt to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Of course, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation works. It is making money for the Australian people, and yet this government is seeking its abolition. No evidence then, no evidence today. I think in the very near future, no evidence supporting an attack on the RET.

On the other hand, on this side of the chamber, we can and do point to an evidence base of successful renewable energy policies. I remind the House that during our time in government wind power tripled; jobs in the renewable energy industry also tripled to more than 24,000; and Australian households with solar panels on their rooves increased from around 7,000 to more than a million—many of these in new estates in the electorate of Scullin.

Outside of the electorate of Scullin some of the biggest wind and solar farms in the Southern Hemisphere are in Australia. Investment in most of these projects is being driven by the Renewable Energy Target. When Labor was in government, Australia ranked in the top four most attractive places in the world to invest in renewable energy projects. Since the election of this government—the Abbott government—and this Prime Minister began his latest scare campaign against renewables, aided and abetted in defiance of the energy by Mr Warburton, Australian has fallen to ninth on the global index. I fear we have much further to fall.

According to the Clean Energy Council's 2013 report, nearly 15 per cent—14.76 per cent—of Australians electricity came from renewable sources in 2013, enough to power the equivalent of almost five million homes. Nearly $5.2 billion was invested in Australian clean energy in that year, much of it, as I noted earlier, in regional areas. 2013 marked the third successive year that clean energy investment was over $5 billion. And 705 megawatts worth of large-scale renewable energy projects came online during that year. As I said earlier, more than 24,000 people were employed in the industry by the end of that year. Wind turbines alone provided enough energy to power 1.3 million homes. Not enough to deny a scare campaign, but enough to make a real difference to meeting Australia's clean energy future. Total demand for power from the grid fell for the fifth straight year. And I note, for all the concern about cost, that Australians will pay up to nearly $1.5 billion more a year extra for their electricity bills after 2020 should the RET be scrapped.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, the nearly 24,000 solar jobs are expected to fall to 12,300 should subsidy cuts be introduced. What does the coalition say to the nearly 11,000 unemployed Australians and their families who would be affected by this; most of these in rural and regional Australia, an area for whom this government speaks a lot about with rhetoric but does so very little for in practice? These are uncomfortable facts for the coalition, facts that they do not want to acknowledge, and for obvious reasons because if they did, they could no longer sustain this extreme position on renewable energy.

All of the progress that was made under the previous government is being undone by this reckless government. It is reckless on its own terms, as Mr Warburton has said, as the bill before us demonstrates, as the success of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation demonstrates and, indeed, as the member for Hughes's lecture on economic history also demonstrates. All this progress is being undone by this reckless government, which is so adept at tearing things down and so ill-equipped at meeting the challenges of Australia's future.

I note that this bill has been referred to the Senate Economics Legislation Committee, which is due to report this week. I look forward to its report and the prospect through it of a more considered debate. I hope that these debates will draw the attention of members of this House to the amendment moved by the member for Port Adelaide. I am reminded of the comments the Prime Minister made this week and last week when he spoke of the fundamental responsibilities of government. Here, we also turn to the fundamental responsibilities of government: when we talk of clean energy, we talk of the chance to safeguard our future. It is not a chance we can pass up.