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Wednesday, 9 November 2011
Page: 8726

Senator BOYCE (Queensland) (16:55): There has been some concern amongst government members that the coalition is supporting the establishment of the agency ARENA. I cannot imagine why. We will always support good policy. The reason that we are constantly not supporting policy around here is that there is very little good policy to support. Before I discuss the Australian Renewable Energy Agency Bill 2011 and the related bill further, I would like to reflect a little on some of the comments from the government's partner in their coalition, the Greens. I noticed with interest that Senator Milne, when this bill was first being debated in the very short debate that has been allowed today, said, 'I announced the Australian Renewable Energy Agency earlier this year.' Because of some of the behaviour yesterday by Senator Milne—who, as I understood it, was the Deputy Leader of the Greens but who spent more time, it would seem, in answering questions and queries relating to the package of clean energy bills than the responsible government minister—you would be forgiven for thinking that Senator Milne is no longer just a member of the Greens but is also a member of the government that is pushing through this legislation.

I was somewhat amused to read in today's press that one of the Labor senators made the point that the Labor government senators had quietly accepted the result of the clean energy package yesterday because they had learnt their lesson from what happened with kisses and hugs in the government benches in the House of Representatives. This Labor senator went on to say, 'We didn't want to look like we were married to the Greens.'

Senator Williams: Too late!

Senator BOYCE: As Senator Williams points out, it is too late.

Senator Boswell: Like a shotgun!

Senator BOYCE: Senator Boswell says it looks like a shotgun, and that is my point: if it is not a marriage already, they are living in very serious sin, according to any context that my grandmother would have put around the relationship that they have. I do not think there would be a Federal Magistrates Court or a Family Court in the country that would not think that the Greens were entitled to their pound of flesh should the relationship break up. But they do not even have to get out of the relationship to get their pound of flesh; they have got their pound of flesh inside the relationship. And it is amusing to note that yet again Senator Milne is taking the lead on what is theoretically some government legislation.

As I pointed out, the opposition is not going to oppose this legislation. When we become the government it will be a useful piece of legislation to put some good governance structures around renewable energy. Renewable energy has been a hallmark of the coalition government. Development and encouragement for innovation and research in the area of renewable energy has been a hallmark of the coalition government for many years. It was a coalition government that introduced the first renewable energy targets, having recognised that there must be action on climate change but that the way to do it was through efficient, sensible, practical and commercially viable action—not through a plethora of dreams and schemes such as we have seen from the current government. So I am very pleased that this legislation has been proposed. I have less hope, as does the coalition in general, that it will actually achieve its aims. But we shall see.

The Australian Centre for Renewable Energy and the Australian Solar Institute are being brought together under the regulatory framework of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, ARENA. The money currently held by the Australian Solar Institute will become available to ARENA from 2012-13. The amount of money involved is not chickenfeed. ARENA's first maximum yearly payment, made in 2012-13, will be $292.5 million. The amounts vary over time. In 2014-15, it will be $436.6 million and in 2019-20, the last year for which this budget has been worked out, it will be $368 million. We are told this is to be paid out of consolidated revenue. The bill is designed to curtail how ARENA spends that money. So we can have some hope that with good governance this could work.

We do not have the same faith in the workings of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which was set up under the legislation passed yesterday. That involves scarier numbers and has been referred to as 'Bob Brown's $40 million slush fund'. We will have to wait and see whether Senator Milne can control that one as well. Senator Milne, I note that one of the directors of the fund who is also a Reserve Bank governor suggests that there will be due diligence done on Clean Energy Finance Corporation projects. Let us hope that that is the case because we still have the very fresh memory of ZeroGen—allegedly one of the Labor government's blue-chip investments. The ZeroGen clean coal project in Queensland came to absolutely nothing.

Senator Milne interjecting

Senator BOYCE: The company fell over, Senator Milne, with $40 million of taxpayers' money having been invested by the Labor government. I think Senator Milne would have to agree that $40 million of taxpayers' money down the drain is a serious problem. One hopes that we will not see the same situation that has bedevilled Labor governments over and over in Western Australia, in South Australia and in Victoria. Every time a Labor government tries to pick winners, all they manage to do is create a great gaping hole and a bonanza for administrators. Let us hope that this will develop far better than what we have seen in the past.

Of course there is very little reason for the coalition to think that under a Labor government ARENA will actually be able to implement good policy. We only have to look at some of their attempts in the area of energy efficiency. Pink batts was a debacle which not only cost a fortune but cost lives. It was a situation where the government refused to listen to warnings given to them over and over again and claimed: 'There is nothing we can do. Industry should be fixing it. We've had reports but it is all okay.'

What concerns me is that we have had yet another example of this in Queensland recently with regard to a company called Cleaner Energy, which has gone into administration owing millions, we suspect, to companies that had installed solar systems and were due to receive renewable energy certificates for having done so. Cleaner Energy was allegedly buying and selling renewable energy certificates. They were a trader. When they fell over, they owed one small Queensland business $1.2 million. We still do not have the full details of how this happened. Queries were made by the shadow minister for climate action, Mr Greg Hunt, and others, including the member for Brisbane, Ms Teresa Gambaro, and we got the typical story from the minister, Mr Combet: 'It really had nothing to do with me. I am just there overseeing the installation program and the administration program, not the certificates program. It is way outside my field of interest.' In fact, Mr Hunt had to write to the Auditor-General to try to get some sense out of this. In my view, what the Auditor-General told us was that once again we have a very poorly structured system and no serious idea of how the real world operates or how to implement commercially acceptable proposals. The Auditor-General pointed out that the regulatory powers relating to the renewable energy certificates under the Solar Credits initiative primarily relate to the creation, transfer and surrender of certificates. The Auditor-General's information indicated that the regulator 'has no power to intervene in the commercial arrangements between buyers and sellers of certificates'.

The Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency had in fact publicly stated—and isn't this a lovely easy out—that issues regarding the marketing of or payment for certificates are referred to the relevant authority in each state and territory. Thank God for the states and territories, because otherwise the government might have to take some responsibility. Does it remind you in any way, Madam Acting Deputy President, of the debacle with the pink batts when initially the then minister, Mr Garrett, tried to suggest that it was somehow the states' fault when buildings were burning down because of poor installation?

Not only do we have the problem where solar systems have been installed and the installers have been left with no money—in fact, in danger of going broke themselves—but we have the dangers that have been created by the importation of hundreds and hundreds of systems from China that do not meet the Australian standard and have broken down in a very short time, leaving Australian taxpayers out of pocket and less than favourably disposed towards solar energy, which was not the point of the exercise. Let us hope that we will get somewhere with the establishment of this agency in terms of real due diligence.

I would like to put on the record at this stage the coalition's intentions regarding solar energy. We have a target of 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020, and this is in keeping with the work we have been doing in the area of renewable energy, the impetus we have been trying to build in the area, since we were elected to government in 1996. A coalition government will invest $100 million every year so that we can have an extra one million solar energy homes by 2020. We will be setting up a $75 million solar cities program and we will have five solar cities projects. They will be in Adelaide, Townsville, Blacktown, Alice Springs and central Victoria. They will use well-established technology; they will not suffer the fate of Cloncurry, which the Bligh government in Queensland trumpeted and then went very quiet about when they realised their cutting edge technology actually did not work.

There will be practical benefits for all these solar city communities. There will be over 3½ thousand photovoltaic panel installations on private and public housing and commercial buildings, over 4,000 solar hot water installations in private and public housing and over 15,000 smart meters—and I would counsel this government to have another look at the way they are handling that issue right now—to give customers real-time information. We will also be funding 125 midscale solar projects in schools and communities and we will be working with the Productivity Commission on how to genuinely and effectively introduce proper feed-in tariffs for solar power. Energex, in my home town of Brisbane and throughout South-East Queensland, are currently at the stage where they are having to say: 'Sorry, we can't take your solar energy. We've got too much solar energy feeding into the system now. The current system will only take 30 per cent. We need an upgrade. Would you like to pay for the upgrade of your grid so you can feed in your solar power to the sector of Australia with the fastest growing population?'

The other point on which we need to be very careful is that we back sensible and efficient programs. Unlike the record of this government so far in so many areas related to energy efficiency and renewable energy, we need to look at programs that actually work. I was interested to see a report produced by KPMG in Britain this week which says that the cheapest, most effective way for Britain to reach their 2020 target is to use new gas powered stations and nuclear reactors. They could save more than £34 billion if they cut back on their use of wind energy and others and just do what is possible by using gas powered stations and nuclear reactors. Neither of these would suit the Greens and, in the case of nuclear, would not suit this government. I personally do not know why we do not have another look at the most reliable form of energy in the world.

Senator Milne: Does Fukushima mean anything to you?

Senator BOYCE: We do not have to accept that older style installations in other countries are somehow the big problem they are made out to be, as though something which happened 30 or 40 years ago, or even 12 months ago, is somehow going to affect us now. Let us look also at the number of people who die in car accidents every year. The number is 1,000 times the number of people who are affected by nuclear accidents. Of course nuclear accidents are a problem but not having any energy to run our world would be a bigger problem and we cannot afford to join some of the airy-fairy ideas of Europe and others. We must remain practical and focused on efficient, sensible solutions.

The coalition supports the development of this agency, which I am proud and pleased that the Greens could announce for as. We will certainly be using it to best effect when we resume government.