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Thursday, 25 September 2008
Page: 5706


Senator McEWEN (5:00 PM) —It is always good to have an opportunity to compare the environmental credentials of the government and the opposition. However, I am disappointed that we are here once again discussing the Save Our Solar (Solar Rebate Protection) Bill 2008 [No. 2]. This bill has been debated many times in the chamber before. The fact that it is back here again during general business time indicates the paucity of the opposition’s environmental credentials. You would think that, having had this opportunity to put forward what they wanted to discuss in the chamber, they might have for once addressed some significant environmental issues. Perhaps they could articulate their position on an emissions trading scheme instead of continually saying, ‘That is going to be an apocalyptic event and undermine the Australian economy.’ Instead of sensibly addressing the government’s proposals for a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, they just throw their hands up in the air. You would think that, if they wanted to talk about environmental issues, instead of rehashing the old debate about the solar rebate they might actually use this time to talk about what they would do to address the issue of water security in my state of South Australia. Instead they continually lambast whatever measures the government puts in place to try and address that terrible situation for communities along the Murray-Darling Basin system. You would think that they might even use the opportunity that they have here this afternoon to confront once and for all the climate change sceptics in their party and silence them so that they can move on with some constructive ideas about how to deal with the environment in Australia.

Before I go to some more comments about the bill that is, lamentably, still before us today, I have to say, Senator Williams, that I acknowledge your comments about managed investment schemes and I do share your concerns about the explosion of those schemes and the damage that they potentially have done to the environment. But I would remind you that the tax legislation that enabled those schemes to develop and to get out of control was introduced by your party when the coalition was in government.

Returning to the bill that is the subject of debate this afternoon, I was, as Senator Williams kindly acknowledged, the Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts that conducted the inquiry into this bill. So I do have some knowledge of its contents and implications. The government oppose this bill because we see it as, I would have to say, a stunt by the coalition after the budget announcement with respect to the means test for the solar rebate. The bill was in response to that. The actual detail of the bill is not often discussed by the opposition, because they just like to use it as a tool to terrorise the solar industry and to make false promises to that industry. The actual bill requires new rebate guidelines to be determined by a legislative instrument subject to parliamentary scrutiny and potential disallowance by either house of parliament. So it is a kind of technical bill. It actually does nothing to address the means test or the level of the rebate, but you would be hard-pressed to detect that in the contributions from opposition senators on this bill.

In fact the mechanism that the bill uses introduces no certainty at all for the industry that the opposition claims it is trying to protect. It introduces no certainty because in fact if it were agreed to by the parliament then it would put in place a mechanism whereby every amendment to the scheme would be at the behest of a minister and therefore at the behest of the Senate chamber. What would happen is that the industry would still be hostage to the vagaries of the Senate. So the rebate could change or the means-test level could change and there would be no certainty given to the industry. One thing that the industry talked to us about during the Senate inquiry into this bill—and this was always mentioned by the many submitters who took the time to contribute to this inquiry—was that they wanted certainty. Of course, as we heard throughout the inquiry, as Senator Williams well knows, the one thing that the industry said they really wanted to get away from was a rebate system. They would prefer feed-in tariff legislation that gave long-term certainty to the industry, and that is what the Council of Australian Governments will be discussing next month.

The same committee that inquired into this bill is inquiring into the feed-in tariff legislation, another private member’s bill in the Senate. A number of the same submitters presented to both inquiries. There was a strong recommendation that the feed-in tariff legislation should be something that the government looks at in terms of working with the states to ensure nationally consistent feed-in tariff legislation. That is precisely what the solar rebate industry wanted from the government and is a strong recommendation in the report of our inquiry.

While the bill is subtitled the ‘solar rebate protection’ bill, it does nothing to protect the rebates; it merely says that the scheme for administering the Solar Homes and Communities Plan should be subject to parliamentary disallowance. Passing the bill will do nothing to ‘protect’ rebates in any form. It is mischievous language from the opposition and it caused considerable confusion during the committee process because people believe that if this bill were passed it would automatically get rid of the rebate. I wish that opposition senators would address themselves to the actual terms of the bill instead of pretending that if it were passed all would be hunky-dory in the solar industry. The manipulative way in which the opposition behaved during the inquiry was very disappointing. I think they led a number of submitters up the garden path as they painted themselves as some kind of environmental warriors. That was pretty laughable, as we know the only kind of fighting they have done has usually been against the environment. The exception was perhaps in the infamous orange bellied parrot case, when the opposition, then in government, decided they had better act to protect a bird, but in fact what they were trying to protect was a Liberal Party candidate in the Victorian state election who was under some pressure over the establishment of a wind farm in his electorate. However, that environment minister has moved on and the parrot has survived.

The opposition’s bill is also financially irresponsible. Senator Pratt went to some trouble in her contribution in this debate to demonstrate that, so I will not go over that. But it would be good if the opposition came clean on whether they think that all rebates offered by government should be unlimited, uncapped and infinite. I could not think of a more irresponsible way for government to manage the economy than to propose that there should be unlimited rebates of any kind. That is irresponsible economic management—but then this is a two-week sitting period when we have had the opposition attempt to blow a hole in the government’s budget. They clearly demonstrated their fiscal irresponsibility by attempting to vote down the government’s condensate tax legislation, they did vote down the luxury car tax legislation so that they could protect people who drive luxury cars and they also voted down the Medicare levy legislation which would have returned money to the pockets of Australians who deserve it. So I guess this bill could be seen in that context of economic irresponsibility.

As I pointed out during my speech on the committee’s inquiry report, the government’s changes to the Solar Homes and Communities Plan that came about in the budget earlier this year brought it into line with the Solar Hot Water Rebate Program. Senator Williams might be interested to know, because he made some points about the rebate level of $100,000, that it was actually the then environment minister and now Leader of the Opposition, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, who implemented a $100,000 means test on the solar panel rebate program, just in July last year. In a press release on 17 July 2007, Mr Turnbull stated:

The rebate is available to eligible applicants who are replacing existing electric storage hot water systems with eligible solar or heat pump systems purchased and installed after today and verified by a registered agent. The home must be a principal place of residence and the applicant’s taxable family income must be less than $100,000.

Well, there you go—$100,000. The Rudd government’s means test for the solar panel rebate is a reflection of the previous government’s policy, yet the opposition stand here today, accuse us of arbitrarily setting a figure and reject that figure. Of course, they reject everything we say. The opposition seem to think it is their role in opposition to simply oppose every measure introduced by the government, without any consideration for what is best for our nation, for the economy and for its citizens. We are getting used to that. Maybe one day in the not too distant future they will grow up and realise that unfortunately, yes, they are in opposition and that being in opposition carries with it some responsibility because they are the alternative government. You cannot carry on by just knocking back our bills and saying no, no, no. Just accept that you are in opposition, and work with the government to do what is in the best interests of Australia.

Let me shift those opposite back to some kind of reality with regard to this rebate scheme. The plan of the opposition when it was in government was to give $150 million over five years for 15,000 rebates. Now, of course, they are not in government, they do not have to be economically responsible and can say whatever they like—so they say they would lift that cap on the number of rebates. Labor, on the other hand, have dedicated $150 million over three years for 15,000 rebates. We brought forward $45 million from the last two years of the program into the first three years of this budget. We also doubled the number of rebates available, from 3,000 to 6,000, for the current financial year, 2008-09. That doubled our election commitment, in fact, and doubled what the previous government had budgeted for this year.

Another thing that came out during the inquiry, and in the subsequent discussions about this bill that we have had ad nauseam in this chamber, was that the opposition tried to put fear into the solar panel industry by saying that the rebate is going to run out and the sun will stop shining on the industry. In fact, the government has continued to meet demand for rebates while bringing forward other measures to help households take practical action to reduce their energy usage, noting that some programs, including solar rebates, may change in the transition to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

I would have liked to have spent some time on the CPRS, because of course it is the cornerstone of the government’s environmental agenda. It is a very exciting and daring initiative on the part of the government. It is something that the opposition could not possibly contemplate, and because they are frightened of it they are very negative about it and will not engage properly with the community about why it is important to have an emissions trading scheme.

I go back to the domestic initiatives that the government has put in place to assist Australians to be more environmentally responsible—and the inquiry into this bill left no doubt that Australians want to be environmentally responsible. The government has invested—and this is a government that has been in office less than a year—almost $1 billion to help Australians overcome barriers to making their homes more environmentally sustainable. That is far more than the opposition could even contemplate when they were in government.

One of the measures that we have implemented is green loans. Senator Pratt mentioned green loans in her speech. The government has allocated $300 million over five years for low-interest green loans of up to $10,000 to assist families to install solar water and energy efficient products. The green loan will provide participating households with a green renovation pack, a sustainability assessment for identifying potential energy and water efficient actions and a system to estimate savings for electricity and water bills and environmental benefits.

This measure will deliver cost-effective greenhouse gas emissions reductions in up to 200,000 existing households. That is a lot more households than we are ever going to be able to address under the solar panel rebate scheme. It is an immediate benefit to Australian families who want to and who are striving to do the right thing. They are taking advantage of the numerous initiatives that the Labor government has put in place to assist them.

There are other environmental initiatives as well. We have the National Rainwater and Greywater Initiative, which provides $250 million over six years for rebates of up to $500 to help Australian householders install rainwater tanks and greywater facilities. We are providing $10,000 to 300 lifesaving clubs, for example, to assist them to install rainwater tanks. We are working closely with community organisations such as those to enable them to implement measures to assist them to be more environmentally responsible.

Our Solar Homes and Communities Plan is just another one of the many initiatives that the government is continuing to fund, to promote and to support. That plan ensures that rebates get to the households that need them most. We did that through the introduction of a means test, and we are shameless about saying that we did that to ensure that those households who most needed assistance to do something would get that assistance. We maintained the maximum rebate at $8,000 and, let us not forget, it was the previous government that introduced the $8,000 rebate program. The comment was made in the inquiry into this bill that the government should look—and I agree—at the size of the systems that are being installed at the moment. But let us be clear about that: that change started to happen when the previous government increased the rebate to $8,000.

Included in the other initiatives that the government is implementing is the National Solar Schools Program, which offers grants of up to $50,000 to schools to install solar and other renewable power systems. I can tell you from my travels around schools in my constituency that it is an extremely welcome and well-regarded program. It has the benefit of not just assisting schools to reduce their energy bills but also providing an educative input at the school level so children can see clearly how important solar energy is going to be to the future of Australia.

It has annoyed me immensely during this debate that the opposition has continued to claim, ad nauseum, that somehow the Rudd Labor government is anti the solar industry. We have in fact invested more money in the solar industry and supported the solar industry through our many initiatives, not just with the Solar Homes and Communities Plan but also with other initiatives, much more than the previous government ever did, and we will continue to do so.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Mr Garrett, continues to work with the industry to ensure that what government does with the industry is in the best interests of the industry and the people of Australia, who are desperate to do whatever they can to improve their environmental responsibility, particularly at the domestic level. We are very proud of what we have done in this regard and we will continue to work with the industry to ensure that it is viable, secure and growing into the future.