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Thursday, 25 September 2008
Page: 5699


Senator PRATT (4:25 PM) —I have to say that being lectured by those on the other side of the Senate about climate change is about as convincing as being lectured by them about pensions. Just as those on the opposite side were not prepared to do the serious public policy work required to solve the problems faced by pensioners, they are not prepared to even take the first step required to face up to the challenge of climate change and ratify the Kyoto protocol.

But, as with pensions, it seems that the opposition’s electoral defeat last year has precipitated a sudden conversion. They have seen the light. Apparently they just cannot do enough on these issues now—except, as with pensions, their conversion is not a conversion of the heart; it is just skin deep. It is a conversion based on political expediency. We can see that by the fact that there is no evidence that the opposition have done, or are even willing to engage in, the serious public policy work that is necessary to deliver real outcomes in this area. They do not want to debate the hard questions about how limited resources can best be directed to achieve the most gains while protecting the most vulnerable as we work towards the transition to a truly environmentally sustainable economy. No, they are just after some cheap, quick and dirty political points.

Unlike those opposite, we on this side of the Senate are committed to assisting Australian households to take practical action on climate change. The solar panel rebate is one initiative among many in a comprehensive suite of Rudd government programs aimed at assisting households and communities to increase their use of renewable energy and to improve their water and energy efficiency.

Self-interest would dictate that I should be on the other side of the chamber for this debate. I was indeed in the process of applying for a grant to install solar panels at my home. My partner and I were a fair way down the path. I even had a solar company come around and have a look at the house and the roof. However, such was the level of interest in this rebate in about March last year that, as I was taking an interest, so too were many thousands of other Australians. And, yes, that is a great thing—you would be mad not to; it was too good to be true, as the cost of systems was coming down to such an extent that the $8,000 rebate covered anywhere between 50 and 90 per cent of the household’s costs.

Since its introduction, the demand for household solar rebates has continued to increase to record levels. In the six weeks leading up to the introduction of the means test, the department was receiving an average of 365 rebate applications a weak.


Senator Birmingham —Have you had one installed since the means test?


Senator PRATT —No, I am in the process of looking at the loans. Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, I do need to look at my finances, but so I should—this is not free for all. Senator Birmingham quoted the former Prime Minister regarding there being an unlimited number of rebates.


Senator Bernardi —What is wrong with that?


Senator PRATT —What is wrong with that?


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Forshaw)—Order, Senator Bernardi! It is disorderly to inject and it is disorderly to talk while I am speaking. I draw senators’ attention to the fact that the debate has been reasonably free of interjections and certainly we should not be having questions and answers across the chamber.


Senator PRATT —I apologise, Mr Acting Deputy President; although, in taking that interjection, I would like to highlight that we have had considerable debate about the need to maintain our surplus in the current economic climate and to be prudent in our budget measures. We have had some debate already in the last couple of weeks in this place about the Senate taking actions which blow out budgets across the board in ways that the government has no control of and how unconscionable those acts are. The idea that we could just lift the means test is a pretty ridiculous notion, particularly in the context that there is a limited pot of money for this program. It is a very substantial pot of money, but expenditure does need to be limited.

I would like to highlight to the Senate that in the six weeks leading up to the introduction of the means test the department was receiving an average of 365 rebate applications per week and that this increased to an average of 522 applications weekly since the budget, with 794 in one week alone. To put this in perspective, the current weekly average is higher than in any single week prior to the budget throughout the program’s history, 150 applications per week higher than the average in the four weeks prior to the budget and far beyond the average of 30 weekly applications at the time of the last coalition budget. In other words, despite the scaremongering of those opposite, we have seen continued high demand for this program since the budget. There can be no doubt about the high level of our commitment to this program and our willingness to direct substantial resources toward it. This continued growth in the program has been supported by the Labor government’s budget, with the bringing forward of further funds to enable the program to continue to meet growing demand. Demand is growing and growing, and it is clear from these figures that an un-means-tested rebate was just not going to be sustainable.

As a consumer and as someone interested in lowering my own household emissions, I can understand that. I support the introduction of a means test of $100,000 for household rebates under the Solar Homes and Communities Plan. This ensures that funding is targeted towards those Australian families who need assistance with the high upfront costs of photovoltaic systems. With the ongoing strong demand since the means test was introduced, the government has further increased funding to continue providing rebates to those households that most need assistance with the upfront costs of photovoltaic systems. Frankly, with such a strong level of interest in the program, how would you propose that we fund an unlimited level of demand? With units now available for little more than the cost of the rebate, it makes no sense at all.

The Labor government is committed to assisting Australian households take practical action on climate change in the transition to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. I would hope that in the future the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme will start to have a meaningful impact on price and also contribute to making photovoltaic systems more affordable for householders. This is clearly an intention of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme to assist in lowering our emissions. The Labor government has conducted a series of roundtables with key stakeholders to discuss practical action householders can take to save on energy bills and reduce their impact on the environment. Under Labor, the Australian solar industry is growing in a very healthy way. It can continue to grow and we are planning for this growth. In this year alone there is more federal funding for solar power and there have been more installations of solar power systems than in any year in Australia’s history.

I feel the coalition are irresponsibly pursuing this issue for narrow political ends, not because their position has any integrity. They have arrived very late to the climate change debate. Removing the rebate will see the number of places in the program oversubscribed to a ridiculous extent. Solar businesses have been growing at a great rate. This is all fantastic, but the coalition did not factor into their policies the fact that the number of rebates available just did not allow for this rate of growth. None of these issues were addressed by the former government, other than this whimsical notion that we will just lift the limit on the number of places in the program. It is not good public policy.

The introduction of a means test of $100,000 for household rebates under the Solar Homes and Communities Plan was aimed at ensuring that funding is targeted towards those Australian families who most need assistance with the high upfront costs of photovoltaic systems. The Labor government has committed $160 million towards the program and in the 2008-09 budget brought forward an additional $25.6 million because it foresaw the high level of demand for this program. More than $56 million in funding is available for an estimated 6,000 rebates this financial year.

Those rebates are very quickly being fully subscribed. With the ongoing demand since the means test was introduced, the government has increased funding to continue providing the rebate to those households who most need assistance. The Rudd government is committed to ensuring a strong and sure pathway for the solar industry. We recognise the importance of renewable energy in Australia’s future energy mix, particularly for households. Through the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme green paper, we have undertaken to provide additional support for Australian households to reduce energy use and save on energy bills. It is not just about providing subsidies and investments for photovoltaic systems and solar energy; there are a very wide range of subsidies that the government needs to provide and actions it needs to take in partnership with householders to ensure that they can adjust their consumer behaviour at home and adjust their houses to reduce energy use and save on energy bills.

Solar systems are great for getting the solar industry up and running, and that is very important, but there are a wide range of new frontiers here in relation to reducing our carbon footprint that we can engage in and assist householders to invest in. To that end, Minister Garrett has recently undertaken a series of roundtables with key stakeholders about practical action they can take to save on energy bills and reduce their impact on the environment. I am pleased to say that these roundtables have included participants from the community, NGOs, business groups, industry and indeed the solar industry. These discussions are helping inform the Rudd Labor government’s decisions as we bring forward a framework to really help households adjust to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and to ensure that a strong and sustainable solar industry is able to play its part in our response to the challenge of climate change.

There is no doubt we need to continue to grow solar energy industries and generation in Australia. They represent a great opportunity to lower emissions and to create new jobs. Doing it at a household level I think also has a strong educative effect so that we can all work in our own homes to reduce our emissions. It is my view—and it is a view reinforced by the work of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts—that rebates are not the key to the long-term public policy commitments promoting solar energy. There are ongoing complexities with this style of scheme. For example, it is clear that communities are now bulk-buying systems for little more than the cost of the systems.


Senator Bernardi —You were preaching that as a virtue just a moment ago.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Just proceed, Senator Pratt.


Senator PRATT —This seems to indicate that the rebates may if anything be too generous, in my view, especially for a one-kilowatt system. I think we need to have some real policy debates about these issues in the future. I note that COAG is currently examining feed-in tariff schemes, and it is my hope that these will provide an important part of the way forward.

There is no doubt as we move into a time of carbon constraint, as we make efforts to reduce climate change impacts, that these issues will remain at the forefront of public policy debates. They need to remain at the forefront of public policy debates because we have real issues before us in terms of coming to grips with the need to constrain the carbon that Australia generates and puts out into the atmosphere. It is going to mean big changes for industry, households and communities, but if we do not take serious and meaningful action we will really be betraying our environment.

Australia is highly vulnerable to climate change. I know in the south-west of my own state of Western Australia we have already experienced significant declines in rainfall as a result of climate change. The impact of climate change is already being felt on biodiversity in the south-west of WA. In the south-west, the lowered rainfall has meant much less water for the environment, let alone for farmers and community use. We have seen changing weather patterns already having a substantial impact, and climate change scientists tell us that this is just going to get worse. It is going to escalate in ways that we cannot yet imagine. So we need to take real action in this time of carbon constraint, as we make efforts to reduce climate change impacts, and we are going to need to make some really hard decisions in the future—but we need real policies to do this and not cheap political shots like those before us. As a matter of public policy, it is clear that Labor has made the right decision to means-test this rebate, and therefore Labor opposes this bill.