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Monday, 19 March 2018
Page: 1332

Senator DI NATALE (VictoriaLeader of the Australian Greens) (10:06): Right now we are witnessing the end of an era. The sun is setting on the coal empire and we are transitioning to a new future powered by renewable energy. It's an exciting future, but it's well past overdue.

The government has been doing everything it can to slow this country's transition to renewable energy, and Australians are bearing the brunt of their failure. In the last few days, we've seen bushfires savage Tathra, Bega and south-west Victoria. We've seen a cyclone hit Darwin. In Tathra, we heard this morning that 70 homes and other buildings have been destroyed. Four people were treated for smoke inhalation and one RFS volunteer was injured. By all accounts, we are very lucky that more people were not hurt.

In my home region of south-west Victoria, 18 homes have been destroyed around the towns of Terang, Garvoc, Camperdown and Gazette; 40,000 hectares have been burnt and farmers have lost their livestock. I know a bit about this part of the world because it's where I live. It's where my family lives and it's where my community is. In our everyday lives we are seeing climate change have an impact on the risk of bushfires to our communities, and we can't any longer be complacent about bushfires once the end of summer comes around. Right now we would normally be talking about the end of the bushfire season, and yet here we are with bushfires ravaging my home state and, indeed, my community.

In Western Australia they are now calling their autumn a 'second summer'. And on the other side of the country, in the Top End, Cyclone Marcus has rolled through Darwin and, according to forecasters, it was the strongest storm to hit Darwin in 30 years. The impact has closed schools, it's shut down the public service and cut off electricity to tens of thousands of people.

Of course, we know that it's not just Australia that is feeling the impact. To pick one of many disturbing recent events, the Arctic has just experienced an unprecedented heatwave, forcing scientists to reconsider even their most pessimistic forecasts of climate change. Temperatures in Siberia were as much as 35 degrees Celsius above historical averages. I'll say that again: 35 degrees above historical averages. Greenland experienced three times as many hours above freezing than usual. We are seeing extremes.

In spite of this overwhelming evidence of the impact of climate change, what we're seeing is a Turnbull government dangerously wedded to coal. It's pushing against the tide of clean energy and all the benefits that brings. As we transition to a renewable energy future, we'll no longer be contributing to dangerous global warming as we generate and use electricity. It is that simple. We can start making this transition now. The good news is it brings so many other benefits to our community. By moving away from coal and taking advantage of clean, green renewable energies, we won't be emitting toxic chemicals like mercury and sulphur dioxide anymore. These are the poisonous gases that our communities inhale when we mine and burn coal. We know that coal has serious health impacts. We know that it leads to respiratory disease, it leads to heart disease, it leads to the development of some cancers and it leads to low birth weight in babies. There are so many good reasons to move away from dirty, polluting coal to clean, renewable energy that are beyond the advantages we get when we move to cleaner sources of energy.

Of course, there is the question of reliability. We won't be relying on unreliable, old coal-fired power stations that don't do the job in extremes of hot weather. Let's look at the facts. We've heard a lot questions about South Australia, but let's look at the facts of what happened this summer. During heatwaves in New South Wales last year, Liddell Power Station was unable to perform because two of its generator units failed to switch on due to unforeseen boiler tube leaks. On New Year's Day, Millmerran Power Station in Queensland stalled. One of the coal-fired power stations there stalled, taking out 156 megawatts from the National Electricity Market. In January, one of the four units of Victoria's Loy Yang A Power Station broke down, taking out another 230 megawatts. We could go on and on, but suffice to say we know that coal-fired power stations can't be relied upon to deliver power in extremes of weather.

These are old stations, well past their use-by date, and we know that it is now cheaper to build a new solar farm or more wind turbines than it is to build a new coal-fired power station. For years we've heard from the Turnbull and Abbott governments about the dangers of so-called intermittent renewable energy. They deceitfully blamed power outages in South Australia on renewables after wild storms, when the real cause of the blackout was downed poles and wires. It was a problem with transmission, not generation. That's just one of the many examples of the Liberal and National parties' denialist anti-renewable energy ideology. It also saw them spend obscene amounts of taxpayer dollars on the National Wind Farm Commissioner, for example, to listen to a range of debunked claims about the medical impacts, amongst other things, of wind farms. Imagine if that money had been spent in more renewable energy generation.

Of course, disappointingly for the government and their cabal of deniers, we know that when coal-fired power stations fail, it's not other coal stations that come to the rescue; it is renewable energy that manages to bridge the gap. When Loy Yang shut down without warning on 14 December last year, taking out 560 megawatts and putting the whole electricity network in danger, it was South Australia's big new Tesla battery that sprang into action to help save the day. It is renewable energy that is meeting the shortfall that occurs when coal-fired power no longer operates.

We also know that the coal industry is in structural decline. No-one in the private sector is building new coal-fired power stations anymore. It does not stack up economically in this day and age. We know the environment arguments are clear, but so too are the economic arguments. No-one is interested in investing billions of dollars into a giant coal-fired power station that we won't want to switch on in a few years' time. No-one wants to do it. No-one is interested in sinking capital investment into an ageing technology when the cost of renewables is plummeting. Investing in coal is about as sensible as investing in dial-up internet: there is no argument for it and the technology has moved ahead of it. Yet we have this government desperately clinging to the past—to the electricity equivalent of fax machines and typewriters.

We've seen our Treasurer wave coal around in parliament in a desperate bid to try and make it more popular. We've seen the minister for trade and also the then minister for resources, Barnaby Joyce, spruik Adani's dirty, great big coalmine to Chinese financiers. Most recently, we saw the returned minister for resources, Senator Canavan, talking about how Australia's coal is more beautiful than Donald Trump's coal. What sort of competition is that? It's not one we want to be part of. It doesn't get more farcical than what we've seen played out on the floor of this parliament over recent years.

The cost of renewables is plummeting. That's a good news story and something we should be embracing. If the Turnbull government had any vision, it would be positioning Australia to take advantage of this energy revolution that is sweeping across the rest of the world. We have so many natural advantages here. We live in one of the sunniest, windiest places in the world. We have abundant space. We have the technological expertise. We could be leading the charge, but instead we are an international laggard dragging our heels behind so much of the developed world.

Last year I thought we'd hit rock bottom when we saw the Prime Minister pressuring a private company, AGL, into prolonging the life of that decrepit, old coal-clunker Liddell. Liddell is something that's more at home in 1960s Soviet Russia than it is in a modern 21st century economy. Liddell is falling apart. It's hanging together with spit and string. AGL knows that it's a dud investment. It doesn't want to throw good money after bad in keeping it open. The company itself has said that it would have to invest nearly a billion dollars to keep it open for an extra five years, which would push up the cost of its output to around $106 per megawatt hour. This is the market responding to a Prime Minister who wants us to turn the clock back.

AGL now has a plan to replace Liddell with 1.6 gigawatts of renewables, plus storage and a range of other technologies, yet the Turnbull government and its state cronies are talking about dipping into the public purse to help Liddell stay open for another few years. It should be illegal to use public money in this way. Taxpayer dollars—dollars that belong to everybody—should be spent on investing in the things that we know are the foundations of a decent society: public health care and hospitals; public education and schools; and science and research. It should be spent on doing something about the growing gap between the rich and poor—reducing inequality—and ensuring everybody gets access to a social safety net and a decent education. We should be spending our hard-earned dollars on securing a long-term energy future that's based in renewables. We should be investing in the public interest, not on a handout that will burn our planet and make climate change worse. That's why it should be illegal.

The Coal-Fired Power Funding Prohibition Bill 2017 prohibits the Commonwealth from providing financial support to refurbish, or indeed to build, a coal-fired power station. It also prevents the Commonwealth from purchasing or assisting with the purchase or transfer of ownership of a coal-fired power station. The bill does make sure that the government can provide public money to transition affected workers into new industries and that it can use public money to manage the closure of a coal-fired power station. This is a transition that is happening and that will happen, despite this government trying to slow it down.

We have a choice. We can look after those workers in those industries and manage this transition in a way that ensures that their future is looked after as well, or we can leave them to the vagaries of the market, not manage the transition, and see workers left on the scrap heap. It is the Greens that want a just transition.

We know that no major financial institution wants to fund coal. Our experience with the Adani coalmine has made that abundantly clear. They simply can't find the finance.

The Turnbull government needs to listen to the science, listen to what the economics are telling us and listen to what the rest of the world is saying. Coal is obsolete; it has no long-term future, and we need to invest in those things that do.

Of course, we still don't know where the ALP sits on this issue. We certainly know where the Liberal and National parties do; we know that, for them, it's coal all the way. But we know that the Labor Party is also beholden to those vested interests in the fossil fuel industry—it takes major donations from the fossil fuel industry. We know that there's a revolving door between the parliament, for former members—Liberal, National and Labor—and their staffers, and big coal. That revolving door between parliament and the coal industry has never swung faster.

Well, we have a plan. We want Australia to run on 100 per cent renewable energy. We're proud of that fact. We have a plan to transition workers from coal communities into the jobs of the future. We want to ensure that people are looked after. We will re-regulate electricity prices to bring costs down and provide much-needed relief to Australian families.

I urge all members of this place—and, in particular, the ALP and the crossbench—to show some courage in supporting this bill. This is our opportunity to stake what it means to have a long-term future for future generations. This is our opportunity to say: 'The past is the past, and we understand what a 21st-century modern economy looks like. It's one that's powered by renewable energy. It's one that looks after people. It's one that ensures that, in any transition, no matter how difficult, those workers are looked after.' This is an opportunity for the Labor Party and the crossbench to take a stand against the dangerous Turnbull government's obsession with coal, and to ensure that we lay out a clear path for this nation.