BILLS;Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2015;Second Reading – 15 Jun 2015

I am pleased to speak on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2015 because it gives me an opportunity to talk about the enormous opportunities for Australia in renewable energy, and about how Labor believes in, and has supported, a strong renewable energy industry. It also gives me a chance to talk about how the Abbott government has carelessly sabotaged the industry, which has led us to the situation we are in today and to this bill now before the Senate.

Australia should be a world leader in renewable energy. With a huge land mass surrounded by water, we have access to an abundance of wind, wave, hydro, solar and geothermal energy. We also have world-leading expertise in renewable energy, and during Labor’s time in government jobs in the renewable energy sector tripled. More than $18 billion was invested in the sector, and the number of homes with rooftop solar grew from 7,000 to over 1.2 million. There is no doubt that Labor has a strong commitment to renewable energy. Renewable energy, inevitably, must play a strong part of our future. It is an interesting fact that the amount of energy delivered by the sun to the earth in one hour is almost enough to meet the world’s energy consumption needs for one year. The energy from sunlight is then transferred to other natural sources such as wind. I think this fact demonstrates the enormous potential there is to harness this energy, rather than rely on the finite energy source that fossil fuels provide.

If our planet is going to survive and be habitable, the world has no choice but to reduce carbon pollution. Climate science tells us that the current worldwide pledges to reduce carbon emissions may not be enough to prevent two degrees of warming, which is considered the threshold for catastrophic climate change. Renewable energy is undoubtedly the way of the future. Even if Australia does not aggressively pursue renewable energy, circumstances will eventually force the entire world to adapt to relying mostly, if not entirely, on renewable sources for our energy needs. Those countries that invest heavily in renewable energy will be the ones that are able to take advantage of the economic opportunities of selling their skills, experience and technology to others. This critically important industry employs more than 21,000 Australians, including almost 1,000 people in my home state of Tasmania.

I am particularly excited about the opportunities a strong investment in renewable energy has for Tasmania, because Tasmania has long been at the forefront of renewable energy in Australia. Our hydro-electricity scheme was established as early as 1914, and the company once known as the Hydro-Electric Commission—now Hydro Tasmania—is one of the oldest power companies in Australia, having celebrated its centenary only last year. The Tasmanian hydro-electric scheme is ingrained in our state’s history. It goes back to 1895, with the opening of the Duck Reach Power Station only seven years after the first power station was built in the Southern Hemisphere. A post-Second World War boom in dam construction led to thousands of migrants, mostly European, coming to Tasmania. This has had a permanent positive impact on the social fabric of the state. There are generations of Tasmanians descended from migrant Hydro workers of English, German, Polish, and Italian origins. My home state has also been at the forefront of wind energy in Australia. The first Tasmanian wind farm, Huxley Hill, was built on King Island in Bass Strait in 1988, and was the second commercial wind farm in Australia. Tasmania has since developed the Woolnorth and Musselroe Wind Farms with a generating capacity of 140 and 168 megawatts respectively. These wind farms were developed by a joint venture between Hydro Tasmania and the Chinese company, Shenhua Clean Energy, an entity known as Woolnorth Wind Farm Holdings.

Hydro Tasmania has now become a leader in the research and development of other forms of renewable energy, such as geothermal, tide and wave energy. Tasmanian sources an average of 87 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources every year, and Tasmania has the potential to become the first state in Australia that sources 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable resources. Renewable energy is vital to the economy of my home state, especially as we export electricity from renewable sources via Basslink. So not only does renewable energy policy have an impact on the economy of my home state; it also impacts on public services, since Hydro Tasmania returns dividends to the Tasmanian government. To illustrate the impact this has, the Abbott government’s decision to abolish Labor’s clean energy future legislation impacts on the Tasmanian government’s budget by $70 million per year. I support renewable energy, not just for the sake of Australian jobs and the economy but because of the unique implications it has for the state I represent.

The future of renewables in Australia is a risk because we now have a government that does not believe in renewable energy. It is of little surprise that we get this kind of approach from a government whose treasurer describes wind farms as ‘utterly offensive’ and whose Prime Minister who says they are ‘visually awful’. Mr Abbott also said last week that he wished the Howard government—in which he was a minister—had never implemented the Renewable Energy Target policy. Bizarrely, in an interview with Alan Jones Mr Abbott claimed that changes to the RET—the changes we are debating right now—were designed to reduce the number of wind farms in Australia. Mr Abbott also said that he would have liked to have reduced them a lot further. When Mr Jones raised the potential health impacts of wind farms on people living nearby, Mr Abbott responded, ‘I do take your point’. Yet the link has been examined by the National Health and Medical Research Council, who have found that there is no consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse health effects. Coming from a former health minister, Mr Abbott’s denial of medical research is breathtaking. The Prime Minister also nailed his colours to the mast in 2013 by proclaiming that the Renewable Energy Target is driving up power prices. Yet his own hand-picked review panel found that not only is the RET putting downward pressure on electricity prices, it is also driving investment in renewable energy, creating jobs and cutting carbon pollution. It is utterly bizarre that the review could find that the RET is playing such a positive role in Australia’s economy and environment—and yet go on to recommend that the RET be either significantly cut or abolished. At the same time, it is hardly surprising, given that a known climate change sceptic was appointed to the review panel. This is exactly the recommendation the government wanted—because they do not really believe in renewable energy anyway.

The Abbott government’s record speaks for itself. They slashed the budget and reduced a $600 million commitment to the solar roofs and towns and schools programs to just $2 million. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency had its budget severely cut in the 2013 MYEFO, and it was then targeted for abolition in the 2014 budget. And this government has adamantly refused to either accept an emissions trading scheme or implement one of its own, despite most economic and environmental experts agreeing that it is the most efficient and effective way to cut carbon emissions—and despite the fact that an emissions trading scheme was bipartisan policy until Mr Abbott rolled Mr Turnbull for the leadership of the Liberal Party. The government’s broken promise on the Renewable Energy Target is the latest in a series of policy backflips that reflect the climate change denial and lack of commitment to renewable energy by those opposite.

The Abbott government has overturned over a decade of bipartisanship on renewable energy by breaking its promise to retain Labor’s Renewable Energy Target of 41,000 gigawatt hours by 2020. In fact, the government proposed to cut the RET by over 40 per cent. Since the government announced this backflip, investment in renewable energy has fallen by 88 per cent, while it has increased by 16 per cent in the rest of the world. Over that same period, China’s investment in renewable energy has increased by 33 per cent. In 2013, Australia was ranked in the top four most attractive places to invest in renewable energy, along with Germany, China and the United States. Now we have fallen to tenth place on the list. Despite the fact that the government cannot universally cut the RET, they have effectively hobbled the industry anyway.

Those of us who have been in business understand that you cannot make long-term investments in an uncertain investment environment. That is what this government has done with their departure from a decade of bipartisanship on the RET. Either the government do not understand the importance of certainty to the renewable energy industry, or they do understand it but simply do not care. I am assuming they either do not understand or do not care, because the only possibility—one which is almost too shocking to contemplate—is that the government’s backflip on the RET was a deliberate attempt to sabotage the industry. What makes the government’s attitude especially perplexing is that renewable energy and the RET are quite popular with the Australian public. Australians overwhelmingly support renewable energy because they recognise the incredible economic and environmental benefits it delivers.

While Labor was keen to support the previous bipartisan commitment to a RET of 41,000 gigawatt hours by 2020, we have had to negotiate a reduced RET with the government in order to return certainty to the industry. This brings us to the bill we are debating today. It is clear that this is not the bill that the government would rather be introducing. They would rather be introducing legislation that would further substantially reduce the renewable energy target. If we consider the words of the Prime Minister last week, he would probably rather be introducing legislation to completely abolish the RET.

Labor has had to negotiate a compromise to make sure that we can give certainty to the renewable energy industry. The elements of the agreement include a large-scale renewable energy target of 33,000 gigawatt hours by 2020; no change to the small-scale solar scheme; a full exemption for emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industries; and removal of the two-yearly reviews of the RET. I am pleased that the following outcomes have been achieved through the negotiations: no change to the small-scale solar scheme, which includes rooftop solar and solar panels for small businesses such as nursing homes; full exemption for emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industries, which relieves some pressure on those industries that are enduring downturns and job cuts; and the removal of two-yearly reviews, which provides the long-term certainty the industry needs.

Throughout the negotiations, Labor has listened to advice from the industry on what its needs are. The revised renewable energy target of 33,000 gigawatt hours will see 25 percent of Australia’s energy generated from renewable sources by 2020. The Clean Energy Council, which proposed the compromise target, predicts that it will drive over $40 billion in investment and create more than 15,000 jobs. This bill reflects the outcome of our negotiations with the government. By passing this bill, we can look forward to a strong and certain future for Australia’s renewable energy industry. But it is a great shame that the Prime Minister, in the interview with Alan Jones I mentioned earlier, said he was disappointed with the deal the government struck with Labor and that he would prefer to cut the RET further. In other words, this Prime Minister, who promised to create a million jobs in five years and two million jobs in 10 years, was actually expressing a desire to do more damage to an industry which creates thousands of jobs and drives billions of dollars in investment.

I am pleased, though, that through this bill the renewable energy industry can continue to move forward with certainty, attracting billions of dollars in investment and creating thousands of jobs. Labor will use the revised target as a floor to build on. We will work with the sector to increase the renewable energy target out to 2020 to bolster investment, specifically in large-scale solar. Before the next election, we will be making announcements about our genuine goals for the industry beyond 2020. In the meantime, we will be consulting with industry and the experts about the detail of those announcements.

There is doubt that the renewable energy industry has a bright future under Labor. As I said earlier in my contribution, it makes sense for Australia, with our skills, knowledge and natural resources, to have a thriving renewable energy industry. Labor wants to see Australia return to its previous position as a global leader in renewable energy generation, research and development. We can only hope that, for the sake of the industry, jobs and the environment, the Abbott government will abandon its attacks on the industry and we can return to the bipartisanship on the renewable energy target that we previously enjoyed. However, I fear that, if the recent comments of the Treasurer and the Prime Minister are anything to go by, it will probably be a long, long time before the coalition is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. I am in no doubt that, despite the intransigence of those opposite, a strong renewable energy target continues to enjoy the overwhelming support of the public. Renewable energy is the way of the future, and Labor believes it has a big part to play in Australia’s future.