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Wednesday, 9 November 2011
Page: 8659


Senator MILNE (TasmaniaDeputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (12:01): I rise today to support the legislation to set up the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. This is something that I announced on 8 July 2011 as a result of the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee negotiations. It is something that the Greens have long argued for and I am delighted that we are now seeing the legislation that will set up ARENA. It will be a statutory authority with an independent board. The reason for that is that we have seen many problems with a disparate array of various government schemes over a long period of time. I will get to all the problems with those in a moment. But what is really interesting is that the coalition have said—with an oath in blood, I believe—that all of the bills that deliver the clean energy package will be repealed under any Abbott government should one occur. But not only are they not going to repeal the legislation that creates the Australian Renewable Energy Agency; they do not even oppose this, because they recognise it as good and sound policy.

What is more interesting is that one of the reasons that Senator Brandis just cited for supporting ARENA was its structure and the fact that it would have experts in investing money on the board and be independent. It is the structure of ARENA that gave the coalition the confidence to think that it might disburse the funds in a proper manner, which is precisely why the Greens have argued for independence and a statutory authority.

But exactly the same thing applies to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. It has an independent board and is a statutory authority. And yet in that case we have Mr Robb and no doubt Senator Brandis as well running around saying that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation will be a honey pot for the white shoe brigade. How can it be that you have two independent statutory authorities with independent, professional, expertise based boards with the coalition supporting one and not supporting the other because it is going to be politicised? That shows the complete nonsense and drivel that comes from the coalition when it comes to policy on renewable energy.

Everybody knows that what we need in Australia is to advance a renewable energy revolution. We need to get 100 per cent renewable energy as quickly as possible in this country. Not only will that be a great thing for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and seriously addressing the climate crisis but it is a recipe for sophistication in the Australian economy, greater diversity and a rollout of investment in the bush in particular. It will mean new jobs. As we have just heard in the debate on the steel transformation plan, it is where Australian steel needs to be directed. It is needed to build the towers for the wind turbines and the support for the solar arrays. Solar thermal needs steel; renewable energy needs steel. The advancement of renewables has so many advantages for Australia in terms of our future economy, our jobs growth and our whole manufacturing mix.

I wanted to put on the record at the start that this absolutely puts paid to the coalition's suggestion that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation cannot be supported. If they can support ARENA because they recognise that it has the right structure, that puts a great big bucket of water over the top of the coalition leader's oath in blood, which is getting more watery and anaemic by the moment. It also shows how absolutely bereft of any policy rigour the coalition's response is. However, I am diverted.

It is important to point out that under ARENA all the existing Commonwealth government renewable energy programs—except the renewable energy target—will be administered by the new independent statutory authority. It will be the first time that we will have a systemic whole-of-government approach to renewable energy at arm's length from government. With ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation we are covering the whole spectrum of innovation, which is very exciting.

The first half will be covered by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which will look at early stage research, development and rollout and possibly up to pilot stage. The programs that are being rolled into the Australian Renewable Energy Agency are the Solar Flagships Program, the Australian Solar Institute, the Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund (Solar), Renewable Energy Demonstration Program, the ACRE Solar Projects, the Renewable Energy Venture Capital Fund, the Australian Biofuels Research Institute, the Emerging Renewables Program, the Second Generation Biofuels Research and Development Program and any uncommitted funding from the Connecting Renewables Initiative. I think you can see, Mr Acting Deputy President, why it is so sensible to pull together all of those different strands of funding and put them into one agency—a one-stop shop, if you like—for people out there in the sector wanting to know how they can get support from government for their particular project and get an expert board who oversees this whole thing.

What we are also going to see is that the independent board will immediately manage the $1.5 billion in funding that is already committed under some of those programs, plus it will manage the $1.7 billion in uncommitted funds that already exist as a result of all these programs out there. That $1.7 billion has not been disbursed to date, and now we will be able to get it out there into renewable energy research, develop­ment, commercialisation and demonstration. By bringing all these programs under an independent authority we can finally deliver consistent, systemic support for the industry.

Senator Brandis seemed to imply that the only problems that have occurred with renewable energy funding and rollout have occurred under a Labor government. That of course is quite wrong. These problems in supporting the renewable energy sector have been there since the Howard government, because government departments simply do not seem to be able to talk to the industry and work out how to support them in a way that is both rigorous and actually gives them what they need. The reason there is all this undisbursed funding is that the rules that have been set just do not suit the industry.

I want to quote from a paper that was written by Wayne Smith, a director of Clean Economy Services, in July last year. He wrote:

The only thing certain about Australia’s solar policy is uncertainty. That’s the key lesson from the last five years of solar policy at a national level. Whether it’s residential solar or large-scale solar, the ground has constantly shifted for the solar industry.

…   …   …

The Photovoltaic Rebate Program began in 2000, offering rebates of up to $4000 for solar panels on homes. This resulted in some 7000 homes installing solar panels … In May 2007, the then Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced a doubling of the rebate to $8000—

and, whilst that got attention—

the Rudd/Gillard Government argued it drove a massive budget overrun of more than $850 million. In May 2008, the Rudd Government restricted the $8000 rebates to households earning less than $100,000 and in June 2009, the Rudd Government’s Solar Homes and Communities Plan was abruptly stopped and replaced by a new Solar Credits Scheme.

So you can see there, all the way through, just as industry gears up for the rules that are set, suddenly, because the community is so keen to actually embrace renewable energy, particularly solar, the rules change—and that undermines business and sets up a boom-bust scenario. As has been indicated from the paper I was reading from, the problems started from the initiation in 2000 of changes that then Minister Turnbull made, then from the changes introduced under the Rudd government, through to then Minister Garrett getting rid of it altogether.

The same thing happened with the sudden decision to end the Rural and Remote Power Generation Program, and the suspension of the popular Solar Schools Program, before it was reopened later, on the eve of the federal election last year. In terms of the Rural and Remote Power Generation Program, I stood in this Senate endlessly saying to the minister: 'You simply can't do this.' However, it was done—Minister Wong did get rid of it. But I am glad to say that, as part of the negotiation over the carbon pricing legislation, we now have an investment to go back into conversion to renewables, particularly in remote Indigenous com­munities. I think around $40 million has been allocated for that, and I am very pleased to see it back there.

You see a similar story with solar hot water. In July 2007 the Howard government was providing a $1,000 rebate for solar hot water systems and heat pumps, and that was a practice continued by the Rudd government. In February 2009 the Rudd government increased the rebate to $1,600 without means-testing, through a new Renewable Energy Bonus Scheme, as part of its response to the global financial crisis. In September 2009 the rebate for heat pumps was reduced to $1,000 and in June 2010 the system was changed again, under the Enhanced Renewable Energy Target. In July 2010 there were yet more changes, with a commitment by the government and the coalition to take $150 million from the Renewable Energy Bonus Scheme to fund other election promises—and on and on and on it goes. The industry is totally fed up.

The Solar Flagships Program is a classic case in point. In that case the rules were badly set up in the first place, and it was very difficult for industry to actually apply; and then, under the rules of the second round of the Solar Flagships Program, it is hard to see how it could ever have been delivered or rolled out—because, in May 2009, after the government had announced the $1.5 billion Solar Flagships Program, it was redesigned, it was split into two funding rounds, with the first round delayed for more than a year; and then in the course of the election campaign suddenly it was all changed. In July 2010, in the lead-up to the federal election last year, both the Labor Party and the coalition announced a $220 million cut to the Solar Flagships Program. Then over the summer we had the Prime Minister say that she would take money from the program to fund the flood levy. It was the Greens who said: no, we will not stand for the idea that you take money from the renewable energy sector, which is a solution to climate change, to fund the cost of the damage caused by climate change, which was the flooding in Queensland and the extreme weather event, in terms of the level of intensity of both the flooding and Cyclone Yasi, which are climate related. We managed to stop the bleeding of the finance out of the Solar Flagships program. We organised a roundtable in the process of that.

So you can see that this has been nothing other than frustration for people in the industry and it is costing the industry jobs. Now there will be an independent statutory authority with a finance pool that cannot be raided or changed for 'cash for clunkers' or flood levies or anything else that any political party would want. Instead we are saying that this is the money to get it right, to get the early stage right though to the pilot stage and then from there it will go to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to assist in getting funding for technology-ready projects that are unable to secure the commercial financing at that particular time. That will help to leverage private sector finance.

What is also interesting about the coalition's view on all of this are events that have happened in places like the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. Given that we have just debated the Steel Transformation Bill and we are now talking about setting up the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, it is worth noting that the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, went to Whyalla and predicted the area would become a ghost town, an economic wasteland and even be wiped off the map under the carbon tax—so-called—and the Clean Energy Future program. Then the Steel Transformation Plan was announced—$300 million in addition to the compensation for energy-intensive, trade-exposed industry—and the coalition voted against providing this money for OneSteel in South Australia. In fact, OneSteel actually came out and said that the clean energy package was 'appropriate and sensible'.

What is even more interesting is that when my colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young pointed out that the future for Whyalla and the Eyre Peninsula was in renewable energy, in rolling out the massive change that will be delivered through ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the coalition screamed and ran around South Australia laughing saying, 'No, this will not be the future.' But we note today on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald that Mr Mark Cant, a former Liberal candidate—which is quite interesting—who now speaks for the Whyalla and Eyre Peninsula Regional Development Board, has said:

We want to be one of the top 10 clean-energy regions in Australia.

He went on to say:

There's a wave energy pilot project set to begin in December, a rare earth minerals processing plant—providing metals used in modern technologies such as hybrid cars and iPods—also set to begin construction this year, well-advanced plans for a large-scale solar project and a study showing the region has the potential to provide big amounts of wind power.

Mr Cant said companies including Pacific Hydro, Orica and Origin Energy had bought land in the area and put up monitoring systems in preparation for possible wind-power investments and the region intended to apply to the federal govern­ment's clean energy fund for a high-voltage transmission line to connect the proposed projects to the national electricity network.

Imagine that. The coalition are now opposing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which will be the basis for supporting this clean energy plan for Whyalla and the Eyre Peninsula, as my colleague Senator Hanson-Young pointed out some months ago to the screams of ridicule from Liberal and National Party senators. In fact, this week, instead of the coalition leader cutting and running to London, where he did not have to be until 10 November, he should have gone to Whyalla and stood up and told them there that not only did he oppose the $300 million in the Steel Transformation Plan but he also opposes the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which the area has now said it really needs in order to advance the new vision and new future that it sees. That is increasingly what we will find.

Coming out of this debate on the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, I know that it is embraced and welcomed by the industry. They are really looking forward to a board with expertise working out the rules, to being able to access funding and to being able to see a clear path from research and development through to the demonstra­tion pilot stage and then going to ARENA for leveraging private sector finance. For once we in Australia now have a pathway for renewables. I am really proud of the role the Greens have played in negotiating with the government and the Independents to get this as a major part of the Clean Energy Future package. Not only does it do great things for areas like the Eyre Peninsula—and it will do so in Tasmania and lots of other parts of rural and regional Australia, as well—it will also massively increase our capacity to reduce our emissions. I think it was ClimateWorks that said recently that the massive expansion in renewables will lead to a much faster and deeper cut in emissions than that projected and modelled by Treasury, which had very conservative assumptions.

What we have here results from the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee and the negotiations to get an emissions trading scheme to implement the polluter-pays principle. In addition to the carbon price, which will drive some sort of conversion from coal, we now have the additional support for renewables, which is welcomed by the industry.

Those statutory independent authorities are critical and I put back to the coalition: what is the difference between the government's structure of ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation? If the coalition can support ARENA and are now saying it is such a good idea—having suggested that the Greens were holding the country hostage—isn't it time they admitted that they will not repeal the Clean Energy Finance Corporation legislation, just like they will not repeal the rest of the bills?