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Wednesday, 9 November 2011
Page: 8655


Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (11:49): The coalition does not oppose the Australian Renewable Energy Agency Bill 2011 or the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency Bill establishes the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, known as ARENA. ARENA is designed to centralise the administration of $3.2 billion in existing federal government support to the renewable energy industry currently managed by the Australian government and by Australian government funded bodies such as the Australian Centre for Renewable Energy, ACRE, and the Australian Solar Institute, the ASI.

ARENA will also assume the work of ACRE in establishing and maintaining links with state and territory governments and, with the ASI, in fostering and developing collaborative research partnerships inter­nationally. ARENA will also be responsible for the policy advice to the Minister for Resources and Energy and Minister for Tourism, and will take over and expand the activities of ACRE in this regard. The bill also establishes the members of the ARENA board, its chief executive officer and its chief financial officer, and sets out how ARENA will operate and be funded. Funding to be provided to ARENA each year is prescribed in the bill until 2020 and will be held by the government until required by ARENA. Around $1.7 billion of the funding allocations to be made by ARENA is currently uncommitted and will be available to ARENA to provide financial assistance for the research, development, demonstration and commercialisation of renewable energy and related technologies, the development of skills in the renewable energy industry and the sharing of non-confidential knowledge and information from the projects it funds.

The Energy Agency (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill complements the main ARENA Bill by providing the transitional and consequential activities that need to occur in order for ARENA to take over funding and adminis­tration from the existing programs and projects transferring from the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism to the ASI and ARENA.

The coalition believes these bills create a better vehicle for the delivery of renewable energy technology project funding and support, and the coalition's position with respect to these bills is an entirely separate matter from the position the coalition may adopt on any particular project that ARENA may inherit or later consider or support. While the coalition does not oppose the establishment of ARENA, as it will allow for the streamlining of procedures and for appropriate corporate governance in the sector, it should not be taken as carte blanche approval of specific programs to be administered by the proposed ARENA. It is a matter of public record that the government has not covered itself in glory when it comes to the implementation and operation of energy projects, including renewable energy projects. There is a long and chequered history of failure, as there is on most things in the performance of the current Gillard and prior Rudd governments, on a whole range of programs they have attempted to administer.

We need look no further than the establishment of the carbon tax to again see a program and a policy that have been all over the place. We now see of course, as a result of a breach of promise, a carbon tax that will be introduced into Australia and will be far deeper, far broader and far more econom­ically damaging than any other tax of its type in the world. It is a tax which will drive up the cost of living, put more pressure on electricity prices and make Australia's energy and resources industries less competitive than their global counterparts. This is a hallmark of this government, as is the incompetent management of a whole range of programs, including its renewable energy programs, to which I will come back in a moment.

There are reams of economic modelling that show that the carbon tax will put a significant burden on the Australian energy and resources sector and expose it to disadvantage in terms of competitiveness. Yet the members of the government have shown us, on the passage of that legislation through the parliament, that they would rather celebrate than think about the damage that it is going to cause to our competitiveness and to our economy. The carbon tax is designed, they say, to try and lower carbon emissions. In reality, of course, it does nothing to drive the fuel switches and energy efficiencies that we need. At least with the bill we have before us today there is a structure, corporate governance and an outcome. You do not see the same thing in the carbon tax legislation.

We have also seen in recent times this government, through its renewable energy and carbon reduction programs, demonstrate the incompetence that we have grown used to across the board. We saw it in the last fortnight in the announcement by ZeroGen that it was in receivership and would soon disappear from the face of the earth. Hundreds of millions of dollars, a good proportion of which have been contributed by this Labor government, will disappear with it for no outcome. With it goes taxpayers' dollars that this government so unwisely invested in it.

That investment is part of the Labor government's whole smoke-and-mirrors approach to clean energy, where it promises the world but delivers absolutely nothing. Given that ZeroGen is now in receivership and $40 million of federal taxpayers' money—and a substantial amount, perhaps double that, of Queensland taxpayers' money—has disappeared and gone down the drain, we need to ensure that, as much as is possible when you have a Labor government in power, these sorts of things do not happen again. That is why the coalition will not be opposing this legislation. We hold out some hope, through the structure of ARENA, that they will not appoint only Labor apparatchiks to the board of ARENA but will get the expertise they need to ensure that the board is constituted of men and women who understand the importance of renewable energy projects and who understand how to invest money. We hold out some hope, although it is perhaps a faint one.

ARENA will be made up of a board of six appointed members plus the secretary. There will be at least one person from the field of renewable energy technology, another from commercialisation, another from business investment and another with expertise in corporate governance. There may be, unfortunately, a cross-membership with the $10 billion Greens slush fund that the Labor Party has set up so that the person who runs this country, Senator Bob Brown, can get what he wants out of the project. It is money poured into projects that will probably end up in the same place as ZeroGen.

We do not oppose this legislation, as I say. We understand the reasons for setting up ARENA and will watch very closely as it is done. Whilst it is reassuring that renewable energy issues—and energy in general—are going to be overseen by this body, it is somewhat disappointing that we have still not seen the framework for Australia's energy in the form of a white paper. We are of the view that it is very difficult to invest in any form of energy, particularly renewable energy, in the complete absence of a policy or structural framework on energy policy going forward. The last energy white paper was delivered by my colleague Mr Macfarlane for the Howard government as long ago as 2004. Seven years is an extraordinarily long time for the sector to have to wait for a comprehensive statement of the government's energy policy, yet seven years is the length of time that the sector has had to wait with no promise of that situation improving any time soon.

Throughout those seven years the world has changed dramatically. We have seen the growth of China and the expansion in emissions that that has caused. We have seen a huge shift in energy demand as countries develop their economies. We have seen in Australia not only a huge focus on only supplying that demand through coal or liquefied natural gas but also an energy shift that has seen an expansion of the wind energy industry. Without an energy white paper it does not matter how good ARENA is, the energy sector will still be staring in the dark as to which direction it should take.

We in the coalition do support renewable energy. We do not support some of the programs that the government has in place, and at an appropriate time we will go into that in detail. The renewable energy industry was started by a coalition government. I know that those who sit opposite like to take full credit for everything to do with renewable energy, but let us get a few facts on the table. The Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, the MRET, was introduced by a coalition government—the Howard government. It was put in place and was up and running. It was the first in the world. It was a coalition government that established the photovoltaic industries in Australia. It was a coalition government that funded the first wind projects in Australia. It was a coalition government that funded the first photovoltaic large-scale generation pro­grams. It was a coalition government that put money into the first solar thermal projects. It was a coalition government that continued to ensure that we had alternative energy projects that worked.

So we in the coalition do have a strong basis on which to support renewable energy. We do have a very strong interest in making sure that we put in place a structure that will be able to administer the programs that the government puts in place to bring about an outcome that actually produces lower emission energy and energy that is renewable. The problem that we have is that this government continually come up with bright ideas and then comprehensively bungle them through bad administration and failure to oversee policy development properly. The coalition will make sure that the onus is put on the government, by the establishment of ARENA, to be effective and efficient in their management of policies and projects as this money is rolled out. Who knows when the next election will be? But between now and then there is going to be a sizeable amount of money put into this sector and if it is managed properly it should have a positive outcome.

I hope that this government uses the establishment of ARENA as another chance and a turning point in its poor planning and policy implementation. I doubt that it will—though we live in hope—because this government has not heeded any of the wide-reaching warnings from the industry or from the coalition to date. The coalition will not object to the introduction of appropriate policies that can assist and not impede the energy resources sector, including the renewable energy sector. But examples of success have been very few and far between in the life of this Labor government. We will not stand in the way of a government that pushes ahead with good policy, but we will stand in the way of policies that are destructive or based on a poorly thought through agenda.

We would in our time, had we had the opportunity, have established—or when we get the opportunity will establish—a structure perhaps similar to this one. But the crux of this bill is that it is a second chance for the government. It will be another chance—perhaps a last chance—for the government to demonstrate not only to the energy industry but also to the people of Australia that it can actually manage money. I live in hope but, as I said before, it is a faint hope indeed for to date we have not seen that competence from this government. ARENA will not only have to administer the renewable energy sector but will also have to be a miracle worker to give the government a lead and show it how to manage money and not waste billions and billions of dollars.