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Thursday, 13 November 2008
Page: 75


Senator LUNDY (4:22 PM) —I am very pleased to be given the opportunity to speak to the Renewable Energy Amendment (Feed-in-Tariff for Electricity) Bill 2008. As I think we are all aware, this government takes very seriously its responsibilities to the Australian people in the area of the environment. This is quite unlike the previous coalition government, who had a history of burying their heads in the sand and even denied the existence of climate change predominantly caused by rapacious burning of fossil fuels. This Labor government knows, in contrast, that we cannot go on using scarce resources on our planet and in our country in the unsustainable manner that we have done in our past.

In an attempt to make headway against the growing use of scarce resources, this government has begun a number of initiatives to curb their use. Just one example of how this government is working on the threats to our environment is in the area of solar energy. In 2008-09, there will be more installations of solar power systems and more Commonwealth funding than in any year of Australia’s history, in line with the record response we have had to our initiatives. This is a government which is determined to meet its promises to the Australian people. As a consequence, our support for the solar power industry is now at record levels.

I remind all those in the chamber that, in the last budget, the government brought forward an additional $25.6 million in funding for this initiative, doubling our original commitment to rebates available to ordinary Australians. Under the Solar Homes and Communities Plan, the number of rebates will rise from 3,000 to 6,000 in this year alone. Also, as part of this plan, funding increases for the fitting of photovoltaic devices have been announced. It puts in place a scheme where households in Australia who need them most will get them, by the introduction of a means test, with households with an annual taxable income of less than $100,000 being eligible for the rebate, while keeping the maximum rebate at $8,000.

This government has also taken major steps to reduce energy use in schools. It allows the schools to take practical and effective action in combating climate change by providing grants of up to $50,000 each to schools to install a wide variety of solar energy and water-saving activities. It invests over $480 million over a period of eight years to ensure that all our schools are able to become solar schools. This will have the added bonus of raising awareness of clean energy technology in our children and more generally in our community, as well as creating sustainable jobs and careers in a very important industry of now and of the future.

Unlike the previous coalition government, who were climate change sceptics, and some of whom continue to refuse to accept climate change as an issue, this government, the Rudd Labor government, is continuing to work to meet its promises to the Australian people to do something before it is all too late. We are committed to making sure that at least 20 per cent of Australia’s electricity supply comes from renewable energy by the year 2020. To deliver on that target, the government will produce a national renewable energy target scheme in cooperation with the states and territories, using COAG. The feed-in tariff is in fact an alternative to the scheme we are debating today, an alternative which has proven to be very expensive in Germany, for example. This government considers that the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the renewable energy target and other initiatives being taken give the right mix to move Australia to a low-carbon economy.

On the question of renewable energy feed-in tariffs, this government will be working closely with the states and territories through the medium of COAG to adopt a harmonised approach with which all can be satisfied. This option was agreed at COAG back in March and is expected to be considered by them shortly. It is an important point, so it does bear repeating: this government will be working closely with the states and territories in COAG to adopt a harmonised approach. We need to give this cooperative approach a chance to function.

Allied to this, as I am sure senators are aware, many of our states and territories already have, or are planning to introduce, feed-in tariffs which provide current owners of small renewable energy systems with guaranteed fixed rates for the sale of electricity fed into the grid. Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and, of course, the ACT already have feed-in tariff legislation or are to consider feed-in tariff legislation very soon.

It is with double happiness that I can report that I have the honour to represent one of those territories, the ACT, which was one of the first to legislate a feed-in tariff. This was done when the Labor government was in majority in the Australian Capital Territory. Then Labor MLA Mr Mick Gentleman drove the legislation and the introduction of the scheme. It was truly legislation which involved a huge amount of community consultation, and I am proud to say it was very much a product of the will and enthusiasm of the people of Canberra. Feedback on the proposal was sought from interest groups, experts and the community generally. Throughout this process of consultation, Mr Gentleman was overwhelmed by the high level of public support generally and the individual enthusiasm that came from people who had done their own research and looked at the numbers themselves and who saw precisely how this legislation was going to benefit not only the environment but indeed their capacity as individuals to contribute to reducing our carbon footprint. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Mr Mick Gentleman for his leadership on the issue of the ACT feed-in tariff bill. It certainly attracted a great deal of attention through the course of the Senate committee inquiry, as it was in place and carries some attributes that I think serve well to inspire our future deliberations.

I would like to talk a little more about the consultation process, because the point is well made that federal Labor are part of a movement that reflects the mood of the people of Australia as well as the impending responsibility and priorities we have in place as a new government for this country. Over 300 people attended the public forums. Mr Gentleman’s office received 26 formal submissions, none of which were opposed to the idea of the feed-in tariff. One hundred per cent is not bad. Adding to this feedback, over 40 submissions were presented directly to the ACT Chief Minister. It should be noted that supportive submissions were received from, among others, organisations such as Greenpeace, the Conservation Council, ACTCOSS, the Alternative Technology Association, the Australian and New Zealand Solar Energy Society and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This clearly displays a diverse range of interest groups, again reinforcing the overwhelming support for this initiative.

During consultation with ACTCOSS and the Conservation Council, the need to ensure that members of the community who are eligible for concession discounts would not be disadvantaged over other consumers became clear, and it was addressed. One element of the legislation asks that all electricity users in the ACT contribute to the scheme. So, while some other jurisdictions have a tariff that is applied as a flat rate across all areas, the ACT legislation requires the cost of the tariff to be passed on to electricity consumers in proportion to the electricity that they consume. What is important is that one main purpose of the ACT legislation is to raise awareness of electricity consumption, with the aim of reducing it. It was designed to enact a social change in the way that we use electricity and for that change to bring about further action on reducing our carbon footprint. The ACT Labor government showed the leadership required to ensure that an effective, well-designed feed-in law was enacted within the ACT.

I think that the experience of the ACT makes it clear that these kinds of schemes are desirable. I think federal Labor is showing the utmost responsibility by wanting to take a coordinated approach. COAG has already made a decision to proceed down this path, and that is why we have formed the view that this bill should not proceed and that we should provide the opportunity for that course of action to fully develop.

The Senate committee made a series of recommendations, noting the strong industry, consumer and government support for feed-in tariff schemes. The committee did of course recommend that the Commonwealth government, through COAG, proceed as quickly as practicable to implement a feed-in tariff framework that, as far as is possible, is nationally uniform and consistent.

Further recommendations were made regarding metering and assessing the track record of existing schemes overseas. It was also recommended that a more regular system of payments to generators be considered than the annual payments proposed in the current bill. Recommendation 4 went on to say that tariff digression rates forming part of the nationally consistent framework should also have the capacity for digression rate pauses to be instituted, following a rate review procedure, and that tariff digression rates should be technology specific.

Finally, the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts recommended:

While strongly supporting a nationally consistent feed-in tariff framework, the committee recommends the current bill not proceed.

As a member of the committee, I support that recommendation. I support what the federal government has planned with respect to adopting a harmonised approach through the COAG process. We need to give that cooperative approach a chance to work before we legislate in this place.