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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 915

Senator STORER (South Australia) (15:58): If any more evidence were needed of this government's insensitivity to the need to enhance fairness our society, it came with the Treasurer's overnight backflip on the energy assistance payment. Like many others, I was appalled that it was denied to people on Newstart. As if it's not bad enough that the value of Newstart and associated payments has not increased in real terms in a quarter of a century, some of the poorest people in the community were to be denied help to keep themselves warm and to cook their food. Overnight, the government thought better of its stinginess. It was not because it genuinely cares about the most unfortunate in our society but because there is an election around the corner.

Something is better than nothing, but a one-off payment of $75 is tantamount to an insult to the less well-off in our community, who have been struggling with rises of much, much more than that in their energy bills in recent years. Australians are paying a high price, literally, for the failure of this government to get its act together on energy and climate change. The $365 million for one-off energy assistance payments is not evidence based policy. If the government were really taking the problem of energy bills seriously, it would spend that money on energy efficiency. Improving energy efficiency tackles an underlying cause of high energy bills, whereas the benefits of the one-off energy assistance payment will be short lived.

My bill, the Treasury Laws Amendment (Improving the Energy Efficiency of Rental Properties) Bill 2018, would only cost $21 million to $29 million in total, in contrast to the $365 million. Importantly, my bill would offer not simply temporary stimulus but long-lasting benefits, despite its modest costs. It not only cuts power bills for some of the most needy but cuts consumption as well—win-win. The bill was designed to help those worse off in our society, those who have been left behind by successive energy policies. It is narrowly targeted at renters, who could benefit most from energy efficiency but have been forgotten.

The energy debate in Australia is stubbornly focused on the supply side, on prices, but the demand side, energy efficiency, lacks sufficient scrutiny despite overwhelming evidence of its benefits to reduce energy bills. Energy efficiency offers the single greatest, simplest mechanism to cut energy bills not just over one quarter but over decades.

According to a report released earlier this year by Green Energy Markets, energy efficiency investment could slash $7.7 billion per year from energy bills and create the equivalent of 120,000 new full-time jobs. Taking the problem of energy bills seriously requires careful policy development, not a desperate, last-minute cash splash. Taking the problem of energy bills seriously must involve a national energy efficiency strategy. The scale of the problem is too large and important for energy efficiency to be an afterthought.

Policies that promote sustainability and give relief and hope to those who need it most should be supported. While I support this bill, I do so reservedly, noting that there are better policy options available that would do far more in much better ways. Evidence based policies that would have lasting impacts on reducing energy bills have been put aside in favour of simplistic, insulting policies like this bill. How fair is that? Hardly fair.