MPI - “The importance of long-term policy certainty, including on renewable energy and climate change.”

February 27, 2018

It's hard to think of a policy area that has been more dogged by uncertainty over the last decade than climate change and energy policy. It's also hard to imagine more serious consequences than those that are facing our nation today largely because of that uncertainty. As we've spoken about many times in this chamber, the nation finds itself deep in the throes of an energy crisis. It is an energy crisis that has emerged under this government, particularly under this Prime Minister, and is causing power prices to go up and up for households and for businesses. It is causing gas prices to go up and up, particularly for manufacturing businesses, placing tens of thousands of jobs in jeopardy for Australian workers.

Over the last two years we have also been regularly reminded by electricity sector agencies of increasing concerns about the reliability of our energy system across the whole of the national electricity market, no matter what the levels of penetration of renewable energy or coal fired generation or anything in between in all of those regions. After coming down by some 10 per cent during our last term in government, carbon pollution and greenhouse gases have again started to rise under this government and, according to the government's own data that was released just before Christmas, those pollution levels are projected to keep rising between now and 2030. Australia is now pretty much the only major advanced economy in the world where greenhouse gases are going up rather than coming down.

It could all have been so different. Only a decade ago there was an emerging consensus on this devilishly complex area of policy in climate change and energy. It was an area of consensus where the Liberal Party and the Labor Party had both taken an emissions trading scheme to the 2007 elections. Through the course of 2008 and 2009, Liberal Party MP after Liberal Party MP continued to protest their support for an emissions trading scheme. Indeed, the member for Warringah—who was not then the Leader of the Opposition—said famously that he thought maybe a carbon tax, rather than emissions trading scheme, would be a more efficient way to deal with climate change policy.

But that all changed in late 2009 when, in the dead of night, a coup emerged from the member for Warringah to dethrone and defenestrate the then Leader of the Opposition, the member of Wentworth. And then, to quote The Economist magazine in their description of Newt Gingrich, the member for Warringah 'turned politics into war'. Since then, that side of the House has devoted years to vandalism and to wrecking any chance of bipartisan policy in climate change and energy.

But the crossbench has been important in this as well, and I want to talk a bit about the role of the crossbench over the last decade. I and many on this side have spoken about the role of the Greens in trashing the carbon pollution reduction scheme in 2009. Of course, they will never admit that they made a mistake. They will always pretend to be pure than anyone else in this chamber. But we know that that decision was a platform for the decade of vandalism that has happened since by those opposite on sensible climate change and energy policy.

But I want to talk today about the role of Nick Xenophon—a former senator in this place and now challenging for a seat in the House of Assembly in South Australia. Nick Xenophon, as some of us from South Australia know, is a very clever politician, a very cunning politician—pitching at the moment to lead a conservative coalition between SA-BEST and the Liberal Party after the next election. He regularly polls as the second preferred premier, the second-rated preferred premier, in South Australia, substantially behind Jay Weatherill but even more substantially ahead of Steven Marshall from the Liberal Party.

So it is a bit overdue that we have a bit of focus on Nick Xenophon's policies in this area, because, as in so many policy areas, it's important to look at what they do rather than what they say—how they vote rather than what they say. We've talked about schools policy, and that's been a bit ambiguous from Nick Xenophon. But, on climate change and energy, there has been no equivocation whatsoever. On every occasion that has counted, going back to 2009, Nick Xenophon has lined up with the member for Warringah to trash sensible climate change and energy policy. Back in 2009 he described Labor's emissions trading scheme—which we were negotiating with the Liberal Party—as a 'dog that should be put down'. On the first day of the member for Warringah's leadership after defenestrating the member for Wentworth, Nick Xenophon delivered Tony Abbott the most extraordinary tactical victory by voting down the emissions trading scheme in the other place and setting the platform for a decade of vandalism and wrecking on sensible climate change and energy policy. More than any other, that vote, that level of support that Nick Xenophon gave to the member for Warringah that day, sowed the seeds for today's energy crisis and the challenges we have in good climate change and energy policy.

In 2011, Nick Xenophon again backed the member for Warringah in voting against the Gillard Labor government's clean energy futures package, a package negotiated with sensible crossbenchers like Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. Again, Nick Xenophon lined up with the extreme right of those opposite in trashing sensible climate change and energy policy. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Nick Xenophon then loyally voted again with the member for Warringah to repeal the clean energy package, to dismantle entirely the carbon price mechanism, after Tony Abbott, the member for Warringah, became Prime Minister, making Australia the first nation in the world to entirely dismantle a climate change framework—and the member for Warringah did so with Nick Xenophon's support.

Six months later, again unsurprisingly, Nick Xenophon voted with the member for Warringah to install the direct action policy—a policy that had been ridiculed for five years by expert after expert. And 3½ years later what do we see? Carbon pollution levels have continued to rise. Billions of dollars of taxpayer funds have been handed over by those opposite to businesses with no impact on the government's carbon footprint whatsoever. And the review that Nick Xenophon negotiated with the member for Warringah as his price for supporting direct action into legislation—a review that was delivered in December—recommended making it even easier, not harder, for large polluters to increase their carbon pollution levels.

On renewable energy, Nick Xenophon has again been a strong supporter of some of the most extreme, discredited anti-renewables rubbish seen in this country. In 2012, famously, Nick Xenophon said about wind power:

People are being driven out of their own homes. How can you have people turned into wind turbine refugees because the noise, the infrasound, that low frequency sound that actually affects brain activity is actually ruining their lives?

That is a claim that has been utterly debunked by the National Health and Medical Research Council and all of their equivalent agencies across the world. When the government, under the member for Warringah's prime ministership, launched their attacks on the Renewable Energy Target in 2014, again Nick Xenophon stood shoulder to shoulder, right beside them. He told a conference that year, 'I don't like wind, and I think that's an issue for a lot of other coalition MPs.' He famously arranged to attend, on the same day, a rally in favour of the Renewable Energy Target and a rally against the Renewable Energy Target—classic Nick Xenophon, walking both sides of the road.

Over the course of this campaign you often hear Nick Xenophon talk a lot about affordability. But again we saw the true colour of Nick Xenophon's commitment on this last year when he waved through $24 billion of company tax cuts supported by those on the other side. When he had the government over a barrel and said he'd deliver something on affordability, do you think he got the government to drop the energy supplement cut, which would have meant $365 per year every year for age pensioners and disability support pensioners? No. He gave in for one one-off payment of $75. I'd love to negotiate with this guy when he's in a position of strength.

Nick Xenophon has made a career out of presenting himself as an honest broker. You don't look at what he says, though; you've to look at what he does and how he votes. On climate change policy, on every single occasion when it counted, Nick Xenophon voted with the member for Warringah to wreck sensible climate change policy and to usher in reckless Direct Action nonsense. On renewable energy, he has parroted some of the silliest, most discredited rubbish you'll hear in this building or even outside it. He gave moral support to the member for Warringah's constant attacks against renewables. If you care about action on climate change and energy transition, don't vote for Nick Xenophon.