MPI - "The government’s chaos and division on energy policy, which is forcing Australians to pay higher power prices."

August 21, 2018

Mr BUTLER (Port Adelaide) (15:28): I think that at the beginning of this sitting fortnight, most observers of national politics thought that the matter of extreme and grave public importance they expected this parliament to deal with was the deep energy crisis that has emerged under this government. Instead, what we've seen from the other side is an obsession with personal ambition, petty hatreds and the weird, conspiracy-based hobby horses that dominate the ideology of this coalition's party room. For those that remember the events of late 2009, at first blush, as Yogi Berra would say, there's a lot of deja vu all over again this week. The member for Wentworth is again being stalked over climate change policy. We have the same characters playing the same roles: the member for Warringah obviously; the redoubtable member for Menzies; Senator Abetz, who we see on television quite regularly. We have the same ballot result: 48 to 35, with all that that entails for predictions about the next couple of weeks. And we see the same anti-science claptrap and conspiracy theories being spouted on TV, through the newspapers and on blogs.

But there are some important differences between the events of 2009 and the slow-motion car crash we are seeing unfold on the other side of politics. The first is the background condition of our energy system. In 2009, it's fair to say, our energy system was in rude health. It was in rude health. Gas prices were low. Gas was plentiful. Wholesale power was plentiful. Wholesale power prices were low as well. There were no supply concerns. There were no wholesale power price spikes of the type we've seen under this Prime Minister. We also saw at least some bipartisanship around the Renewable Energy Target, so there was still a floor under investor certainty, even given the wars within the coalition party room on climate change.

Today could not be more different. Australia is deep in the throes of the most severe energy crisis in living memory, which has emerged under this Prime Minister. Confidence in our energy system is plummeting. Power prices and gas prices are skyrocketing and continuing to go up in spite of all protestations from the Prime Minister and the energy minister that households and businesses have never had it better and that power prices are coming down.

The second difference, which has not escaped the attention of anyone who watches this, is that back in 2009 the member for Wentworth stood firm on a point of principle. He stood firm on a point of principle. That is perhaps the most significant thing the Australian people remember about the member for Wentworth. He was willing to lose his job because he said he was not willing to lead a party not committed to effective action on climate change.

What have we seen over the past two years? A starker contrast is not possible. What we've seen, particularly over the past two weeks, is a humiliating series of weak, abject surrenders to the hard Right of the coalition party room, which continues to exercise a veto over sensible climate and energy policy in this country. The Prime Minister announced seven days ago an energy policy that would not see a single renewable energy project built in a decade, would halve the rate of solar installation on people's roofs and would channel billions of taxpayer funds into coal-fired power plants that the industry says are uninvestable and are inconsistent with the viability of Snowy Hydro, but that still wasn't enough for the member for Warringah. He still forced the Prime Minister to back down on that pathetic, weak policy.

Of course, the member for Warringah was very grateful for the backdown. As he said last night, he was extraordinarily grateful for the backdown. He questioned whether this Prime Minister has any convictions—a question being spoken about in front bars and cricket clubs and across dining tables across the country. He accused the Prime Minister simply of having a 'conversion of convenience'. What did that conversion of convenience involve? I don't think anyone really knows. We've had the third, fourth and fifth of this Prime Minister's energy policies announced in just seven days. No-one knows what the fifth policy is. The chair of the backbench energy committee confessed on Sky News that he had no idea what the fifth energy policy was. Apparently it didn't even get presented to the joint party room today. It certainly wasn't subject to any endorsement.

This reoccurring nightmare in Australian politics—of climate and energy policy being held hostage by the member for Warringah and his co-conspiracy theorists—is actually not about the member for Warringah, the member for Wentworth, the minister or the new entrant, the member for Dickson. It actually reflects much more than personality. As the Leader of the Opposition said in his speech, there is a deep, irreconcilable fissure that runs right through the soul of the Liberal Party today. It runs right through the soul of this party on a range of important policy areas—policies important to the Australian people—and there is no clearer fissure in that party than that over climate and energy policy. This is a party incapable of recognising the challenges and the opportunities involved in tackling climate change. These challenges and opportunities have only become clearer over the decade since 2009. This is a party incapable of coming to grips with the profound transition that is happening in energy systems not just here in Australia but across the globe, because they are obsessed with some leftist conspiracy involving the spread of renewable energy.

This government's energy crisis—this deep energy crisis, the likes of which people haven't seen for decades in this country—presents a range of challenges. Labor is focused on all of them. We announced we would accept the ACCC recommendation to put in place a default price on Sunday. We were very happy to see the energy minister follow our lead only 24 hours later. But, without doubt, the most important challenge in this energy crisis is investor certainty. As the parent of this energy crisis, and as the authors of the experiment of privatising this essential service over the last 20 years, no-one has a greater responsibility to deliver investor certainty than the Liberal Party. And yesterday, this minister and this Prime Minister walked away from that. They utterly walked away from that.

We know there is a deep need to replace ageing generators in our system, but there are no rules for investment after the end of this year. Be clear: this will crash investment in the sector. Businesses across the board, including those on the front page of the Financial Review today, have made it clear that, immediately, $3 billion to $5 billion of investment in new energy systems will basically be crashed by the weakness of this Prime Minister yesterday. That will have implications for jobs. This is a party that has already crashed one in three renewable energy jobs, according to the ABS, through its term. It will have implications for reliability and, most clearly, it will have the clearest of implications for prices.

You might remember that last week they were talking a fair bit about $550. What happened to that? Well, $400 of that is from all of the new investment that they killed yesterday, and the other $150 was from the reduction in the risk premium from investor certainty. Kiss that goodbye. If you ever believed that in their second attempt to promise and deliver $550, not having delivered it six years ago, they were going to deliver it this time, that has gone. In its place, all we get is a grab bag of vapid headlines—cooked together over the last 24 hours, trying to look like they're being tough on big energy companies, wielding, as the member for Grayndler said, the big stick but mostly hitting themselves in the head on the way—and a surrender to the new coal ideologues, mainly up there but also on the backbench.

It is a surrender to those new coal ideologues pretending that taxpayers can fund a technology the industry itself has said is uninvestable. The academy of engineers has said it would be a mistake. The Prime Minister likes to refer to engineering a lot. The Snowy Hydro and 'Battery of the Nation' projects have said they are completely incompatible with the investments that those boards have decided upon and we thought were supported by this government.

Households are under enormous pressure with this energy crisis. Businesses are threatened with their viability and thousands of jobs where they provide employment. There have been five attempts in two years by this government to put in place a policy that would help resolve the energy crisis they have presided over, and all have fallen victim to the parlour games of this coalition party room. This minister has tried his guts out. He has worked as hard as any minister. He cannot deliver his backbench, because he has a Prime Minister in charge of this government who has completely lost authority.