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Wednesday, 16 August 2017
Page: 5802

Senator CHISHOLM (Queensland) (13:43): For the second time today, what we've seen is a conspiracy theory wrapped in a smear. That's all we've heard from Senator Abetz opposite. We heard it this morning with the government's attempted effort to censure Senator Wong, and we've seen it again this afternoon. It is just nothing more than a conspiracy wrapped in a smear. It is what we have come to expect from this dysfunctional government. As an Australian Workers' Union member of long standing, including during that period, I have no problem with the union donating to GetUp! because what is important, and what I pick up from union members across the country, is that they're worried about the future. They're worried about what sort of country is going to be left for their kids. That is important. I don't agree with every campaign that GetUp! run, but they have an absolute right to do it and I fully support the role that unions play in supporting their activities, because it is an important part of democracy. We heard from Senator Abetz. He basically disagrees with the campaigns that they run and he encouraged the vendetta against them and against the ABC. We see it across so many issues that Senator Abetz disagrees with.

But what I came in here to talk about—and I think it is really ironic that I would follow on from such a contribution—is energy prices in this country. What we have seen from this government, this week and last week, is not one discussion of or one point made about the Finkel report. The government commissioned the report. It was handed down months ago now. And we're still no closer to progressing this issue that is so important to Australia's future, for families paying more under this government and for people who are losing jobs because of the decisions of this government. Australia clearly deserves so much better than what they are getting from this government.

Recently, as part of my travels throughout Queensland, I visited the Boyne smelter in Gladstone, one of the biggest employers in the Gladstone region with over a thousand workers. Earlier this year they made the unfortunate decision to cut production, which meant that they had to lay off some workers. In an area such as Gladstone, which is already suffering from an economic downturn post the mining boom, this was a significant blow to the community. Unfortunately, one of the reasons they made that decision was around their ability to secure affordable power through their existing contract. The power for the Boyne smelter comes from the NRG plant in Gladstone itself, just down the road from the smelter. This is a coal-fired power station that was built in the late seventies and early eighties—ironically, with some federal money. And I think it might be the last coal-fired power station that was built with some federal money.

For me, this is a real example of how the National Electricity Market isn't working: that this NRG power station in Gladstone is operating with spare capacity—they have spare capacity in the system—but the Boyne smelter cannot get power at an economically affordable rate to boost production and employ those extra people that they had over recent years. It just shows you the dysfunction in this market that this government is overseeing: we've got a coal-fired power station nearby, and a need for that to boost jobs and production at that smelter, yet it is not economically viable for the smelter to maintain production levels and employ more locals and boost the local community.

And what is the response from this government? Just dysfunction and chaos. The only solid policy we have seen from them is cutting the energy supplement. Families are paying more. The wholesale price has doubled under the Abbott-Turnbull government. And Australians are suffering as a result. We know that the Finkel report came down recently, and this government is hopelessly divided. We are waiting for them to declare a winner in the contest between the former Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister so that the country can move forward.

Labor has signalled continually that we are willing to work with the government on a clean energy target. It is not our preferred option but, in the interests of the nation, we are prepared to meet the government halfway. But we've seen no action from the government. We haven't even seen a discussion from them; they have been busy eating themselves up over a costly postal survey and the dysfunction that we've seen this week as a result of section 44 of the Constitution. So the division and confusion around this government's plans for Australia's energy future are adding to the crippling investment uncertainty and driving investment away. Under this government, prices are up, pollution is up and reliability is down.

The National Electricity Market in Australia currently gets 76 per cent of its electricity from coal. We have one of the most coal-intensive electricity systems in the world, and there is nothing in the clean energy target that would seek to expedite the shutting down of these power stations. But the government cannot see this. They continue to be bitterly divided on it, and a long-term policy commitment from them still seems a long way off.

Let's look at the recent differences in the LNP on this issue. Senators O'Sullivan and Macdonald yesterday pushed a ridiculous motion from government senators which just added to the confusion we are seeing from this government on energy policy. The motion sought to misrepresent a recommendation of the Environment and Communications References Committee relating entirely to the retirement of coal-fired power stations. The government itself called out its own senators for jumping the gun when Senator McGrath stated on behalf of the government:

The government is currently considering the Retirement of coal fired power stations report and we will respond in due course.

The fact of the matter is that senators opposite couldn't be bothered contributing constructively to an actual energy policy. Their only goal is to wedge the Labor Party and they have no intention of standing up for electricity users, the industry or communities by actually governing and delivering energy policy outcomes. On their watch the Hazelwood Power Station closed down, with little forward notice, leaving energy reliability at risk in Victoria. The report from Finkel said that we need to give so much more notice when it comes to these generators. We know that some are scheduled to close down over coming decades. But six months notice is not enough to plan for this to happen. It leaves communities devastated and it also hurts the market at the same time. Quite often these generators are in regional or rural areas. They are in places that can least afford a sudden downturn as we saw with Hazelwood.

Again, all the government wants to do is play politics with these issues without solving the important part of this so that those communities can have certainty into the future. They continue to stick their heads in the sand on coal-fired power and they have no transition plan for older plants. The real intervention this week—and I think it's no coincidence that this happened whilst Senator Canavan is out of the cabinet—came from the Treasurer, Scott Morrison. This is a real symptom of the chaos and dysfunction from those opposite. On Monday, in The Financial Review, the Treasurer admitted that the energy policy of the National Party and the Queensland LNP is a joke. The Treasurer said:

… new cheap coal is a bit of a myth.

He went on to say:

… let's not think that there's cheap new coal, there's not. And [HELE] takes seven years to turn up, so if we think that is all of a sudden going to make your power bills cheaper next month, it won't.

So the Treasurer of this federal LNP government has exposed that the Queensland senators and the Queensland LNP state opposition are actively pedalling the hoax that they have a plan to lower power prices, when they don't. It was Treasurer Morrison who belled the cat on this. Once again, the only solid policy we have seen from them is a cut to the energy supplement, which leaves thousands of Australians worse-off. More than 400,000 age pensioners, 109,000 people on the disability support pension and 105,000 carers will suffer from the Turnbull government's decision to scrap the energy supplement, while power prices continue to skyrocket.

We're also aware of another recent example of the hypocrisy from those opposite in regard to renewable energy. What did I see in a report in the South Australian newspaper a couple of days ago? They come in here during question time and lecture us on renewable energy in South Australia. But what did they commit to earlier this week? They committed $110 million for a solar thermal renewable energy plant in South Australia. That's them! That's what the government have done—$110 million. I was actually looking for a quote from the minister responsible, but we didn't see anything. So they seem to be running from that contribution they have made in South Australia. In short, what have we seen from this government? Prices are up, emissions are up, reliability is down and Australians are suffering. This is a sorry legacy from this government on energy policy.