SECOND READING: BILLS - Petroleum and Other Fuels Reporting Bill 2017, Petroleum and Other Fuels Reporting (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2017

August 16, 2017

Mr BUTLER (Port Adelaide) (12:38): I rise to speak on the Petroleum and Other Fuels Reporting Bill 2017 and also the Petroleum and Other Fuels Reporting (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2017 that have been joined in cognate debate. Energy is the lifeblood of modern economies, and, if anything, is likely to continue to be the lifeblood in an accentuated form in the 21st century as we move from an industrial society to an industrial and information based society, as we see the electrification of transport and a range of other very exciting technological transformations sweep across the globe and sweep across Australia. It is critically important that the parliament, business, non-government organisations and the community more broadly have a very clear understanding of how those raw materials that go to drive our energy system are operating in the Australian economy.

It is, most obviously, critically important that everyone have a clear line of sight of our energy materials to ensure that we have energy security. Particularly in an island continent, removed from significant parts of the globe, it is critically important that at any point in time the Australian parliament and other players in the Australian economy have a clear line of sight of Australia's energy security. Connected to that, it is also important that we have an understanding about energy supply to ensure our compliance with international energy reporting, particularly under the auspices of the International Energy Agency—and I'll have a few more words to say about that because there are clear reporting and stockholding obligations to which Australia is a signatory under the auspices of the IEA and also matters that are of clear interest to our allies and partners across the world.

It is also important that the Australian government, the Australian parliament, be able to publish detailed statistics and data about our energy supply to ensure that business and investors, most importantly, are able to make wise investment decisions, with the fullest information available to them that is possible, but also that academics and other levels of government be able to make considered decisions about communications to their constituencies about the state of the energy market in Australia. I think it is fair to say that the transparency of some of Australia's energy resource markets does significantly lag behind comparator nations, and that has become most obvious in the gas market, as we've had a furious debate around the gas market in the eastern part of Australia—all of those parts other than the Northern Territory and Western Australia. It has been made clear by a number of expert independent commentators that the transparency of the eastern Australian gas market, frankly, leaves a lot to be desired, and it does lag behind a number of our competitor and comparator nations very significantly. That is causing a great deal of unease in the investment market, both in the market investing in gas per se and downstream in hampering investment decisions for those that are big gas users. Frankly, we need to do better than that.

For some decades, 40 years, the Australian government on both sides of the political divide has produced statistics on fuel through a voluntary survey of business, and for a good part of our history that has served the country and served the economy very well. The statistics derived from the information that was reported by businesses have been released in a range of longstanding government publications, the most notable of which probably is the Australian Petroleum Statistics, or the APS. But this bill really flows from the clear fact that in recent years the proportion of the fuels market that has been participating in that voluntary survey unfortunately has declined, reducing the reliability of the statistics that the Australian government is able to publish, particularly through the APS but otherwise as well. So the Turnbull government has taken the decision to introduce a system of mandatory reporting which will enable the development of more accurate, reliable and informative statistics on petroleum, other fuels and fuel related products. The Shorten opposition supports the government's decision in that respect, for the important reasons that I outlined earlier. Having good information is critical to the Australian economy by enabling us to ensure we have energy security but make the right investment decisions.

Importantly, mandatory reporting of petroleum and other fuels will also facilitate a return to compliance with the International Energy Agency, or the obligation of IEA signatories to hold oil stocks that are equivalent to 90 days of the previous year's average daily net oil imports. The capturing of all IEA-relevant stock under mandatory reporting will ensure that a much more accurate picture of Australia's stockholdings can be determined and can be published. The introduction of mandatory reporting also implements a major recommendation of the Senate References Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport inquiry that dealt with this matter in a report published in 2015. That is an important development—to implement the recommendations that were made two years ago by that Senate committee, which explored a whole range of the matters that I and the minister, when he introduced the bill, have dealt with.

The bill empowers the Minister for the Environment and Energy to require persons who are specified in the rules to report prescribed information to the secretary of the department, which incorporates the mandatory element of this bill. The bill then empowers the secretary to collect, record, use and disclose this information, or statistics that are developed from the information, in certain circumstances. Importantly, the bill provides a range of safeguards to ensure that personal and commercial in-confidence information, obviously, is able to be protected in that collection and publication process. The bill also provides the minister with wide-ranging powers to designate certain activities, fuels and fuel related products as reportable. It is important, in a fast-moving and fast-developing sector such as energy, that there is the scope to add additional activities and products to ensure that the statistics that are published by the Australian government remain relevant and remain critical to those investment decisions as consumer preferences change and as technology continues to advance, as it is doing so quickly in so many different sectors of our economy, whether that's the development of hydrogen fuelled cars, electric battery-powered cars or the like.

The minister also has the power to relax the reporting requirements—for example, where data-sharing between different government agencies removes the need to collect information directly. That is an important efficiency measure that the Shorten opposition supports as well. The Petroleum and Other Fuels Reporting (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill that we're debating cognately also enables the ACCC and the Australian Taxation Office to share information with the department, which might obviate the need for separate reporting and is, as I said, an important efficiency measure.

I can indicate that the opposition does support this bill, but can I also foreshadow that I will be moving, at the end of my remarks, a second reading amendment to this bill to highlight the fact that, although we think this is a laudable and important contribution to sensible energy policy in this country, every debate in this chamber on energy policy just serves to highlight the gaping vacuum in serious energy policy—investment policy—that has endured under this government for the past four years, frankly, whether it was under Prime Minister Abbott or now under Prime Minister Turnbull. The opposition is deeply concerned, as are most players in the Australian economy and Australian society, about the ongoing paralysis in energy policy more broadly that continues under this government. Australia, undeniably, is in the throes of a very deep energy crisis, and, unlike so many energy crises that we've experienced over the decades previously, since World War II, this is not a crisis that has been engendered by an external shock. This is largely self-inflicted because of a range of factors—most importantly, the absence of a clear, stable and enduring national energy policy with investments, to be frank, that can be taken to the bank.

This energy crisis is manifesting in so many different ways, but, perhaps most importantly and most obviously, it has manifested in the doubling of wholesale power prices. Wholesale prices in the electricity market, in the four years that this government has been in power, are feeding through to power bills for households and for businesses that are just going up and up and up. We know the reason for that. We know the principal reason for that because, alongside all of those business groups that have called upon this government to finally put in place an enduring energy policy—the Business Council; the electricity industry; the National Farmers' Federation; and the Finkel panel, most recently, chaired by the Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel—the Reserve Bank Governor added his voice only last Friday to the cacophony of voices calling for this parliament, this government, to finally adopt a national energy policy. The Reserve Bank Governor was giving evidence on Friday to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, I think it was.

Mr Keogh interjecting

Mr BUTLER: Yes, it was the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, as the member for Burt reminds me. He is a hardworking member of that committee, among many others of my colleagues. The Reserve Bank Governor echoed the plaintive calls from so many business organisations for this parliament to get its act together under the leadership, obviously, of the Australian government and put in place an energy policy.

It is worth quoting from a couple of the Reserve Bank Governor's remarks. The Reserve Bank Governor was asked about the energy crisis, and he particularly said, first of all, that the most important factor driving that crisis was 'uncertainty in the policy environment'. He said that this is delaying investment not just in the electricity sector—which is leading to supply starting to get to a position where it falls short of demand because of investment paralysis. That is very different from the position that we had for most of the last decade, where we had a surplus of wholesale power supply. He didn't just point to that, which many other organisations have pointed to; he also said that, because of the skyrocketing power prices that households and businesses are experiencing under this government, investment decisions more downstream in the economy are starting to be delayed as well, because businesses don't know when they are going to get price relief. They don't know when they're going to get price relief in their power bills and their gas bills, because this government just cannot seem to get its act together and respond to the key central recommendations that business groups and, more recently, the Finkel panel, have made.

In relation to households, the Reserve Bank Governor made these remarks—these incredibly important remarks. He said: 'The higher prices of electricity are also affecting household budgets, particularly for lower income households, who spend a disproportionately high share of their income on electricity. It's crippling their budgets and having an effect on consumption.' Although I know that my friend the member for Hughes and I disagree about the causes of this, we agree on the symptoms. We agree that this is crippling, particularly, low-income household budgets. When asked by the deputy chair of that committee, the member for Kingsford Smith, 'So it would help if the Australian parliament sorted out this issue on a clean energy target and provided some policy certainty?', the Governor said, 'I couldn't disagree with the proposition that providing some certainty about the future structure of the electricity generation industry would be useful for the country, for investment, on prices and on household budgets. Yes.' That is a critical contribution to economic policy by the Reserve Bank Governor.

While the Prime Minister professes to cry crocodile tears and have concern for the position, particularly, of low-income households, we also learnt some very precise data about something that we've been seeking to draw the parliament's attention to for some time. We learnt precise data on Sunday, when the Sydney newspaper the Sunday Telegraph published clear data on the impact of the Prime Minister's insistence on stripping the energy supplement from hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pensioners, carers and other benefit recipients in the Australian economy. Just to remind the House, at a time of spiralling power prices, this Prime Minister intends to rip from the hands of hundreds of thousands of low-income households the energy supplement that provides them, if they are single, with $365 per year, and, if they're a couple, with $550 a year, to help with the cost of power—to help with the cost of energy. That is why it's called an energy supplement. Why you would do that at a time when power bills are out of control and wholesale prices have doubled under this government beggars belief, particularly when the Prime Minister tries to profess his deep concern for the predicament of low-income households with their power bills. The Sunday Telegraph pointed out on the weekend that more than 400,000 age pensioners will lose the energy supplement. More than 109,000 Australians on the disability support pension will lose the energy supplement; 105,000 informal carers, caring for their loved ones in their home, will lose the energy supplement; and many, many other benefit recipients will lose it as well.

The Prime Minister made a lot of the meeting that he had last week with the retailers. As we've said in our discussions since 2015, and expressly in our election policy last year—we have been saying this for months and months—these energy market rules are not working for consumers. Too often they are working in the interests of the big power companies. Many of those big power companies are operating businesses that were privatised over the past two decades by Liberal state governments, making very big profits off the back of Australian consumers, particularly Australian households.

Finally, the Prime Minister woke up to this, as he did with the gas prices. Even though we'd been talking about this for two years, he finally woke up and decided to pull the retailers into a meeting and jawbone them, to give them a stern talking to, wagging his prime ministerial finger. And at the end of that he said: 'Everything's fixed. There aren't going to be any rip-offs anymore; households are going to get the best possible deal.' But then, on Friday, only two days after the meeting with retailers, we read in the Financial Review an interview with Energy Consumers Australia, an organisation set up particularly to represent the interests of consumers, particularly household consumers, in the national electricity market, and an organisation that's doing very important things to improve the lot of consumers, to improve the information that they receive in order to make the best possible choice in the national electricity market. Well, that interview drew attention to the possibility that there were millions of customers whose position would not be improved one jot, one iota, by the meeting and the stern talking to that the energy retail companies received from the Prime Minister last week.

So all of the Prime Minister's attempts to have a meeting here and a press conference there, professing concern for the predicament of households with their power bills, really comes to very little when you look at what he's doing on the other hand: ripping the energy supplement from hundreds of thousands of low-income households and trying to come up with a solution with the retailers that leaves literally millions of households probably no better off than they were before the retailers got the stern talking to from him.

But at the end of the day we come back to the key problem, and that is that there is no central, stable, enduring energy policy in this country. As with so many things with this government, when they were in opposition, under the member for Warringah, they had a very clear plan to get into government. They had a very clear plan about what they were going to rip up, destroy and dismantle. The problem was that in so many policy areas they had no plan about what they were going to put in their place, and none more so than the area of energy policy. They dismantled all of Labor's climate and energy policies. They tried to dismantle the renewable energy target in its entirety. They weren't able to do that; they just gave it a very significant shave. They tried to dismantle every single element of our climate and energy policy without putting anything in its place.

I gave credit to the minister for cooperating with the state energy ministers and the COAG Energy Council and commissioning the Chief Scientist, a very clever, insightful man, to head a wise panel to look at these issues and start to bring together a range of different strands that had started to develop at the state and federal level around energy policy into a single report to give the country a blueprint about a way forward that would allow us to get back to our legacy, our tradition, of having good, reliable energy provided at an affordable price for households and business but also deal with the challenge of getting our carbon pollution down, dealing with the fact that we have an electricity sector in this country that is twice as polluting, on average, as the American electricity sector and the OECD average and reconciling those challenges that are, as the Chief Scientist calls them, the 'trilemma' of reliability, affordability and sustainability. And while I've publicly disagreed with a whole range of the underlying assumptions of the Finkel panel, it did a great job, pulling together a range of 50 very important recommendations. The critical recommendation, though, is to have a clear energy policy.

On the weekend the minister did an interview with Sky's Agenda, I think it was, on Sunday morning, where he repeated a remark that he's made a couple of times.

Opposition members interjecting

Mr BUTLER: Yes. A few people were watching it. He repeated a remark he's made before, which is: 'Well, the clean energy target's only going to start in 2020, so there's no rush. We'll get back to you in, I don't know, 2018 or maybe 2019. As long as it's all in place by 2020, it'll be fine.' He didn't quite say that, but that was the underlying implication. He said there's no rush. He said before that there's no rush to deal with this. Well, that's not the view of the business sector, I can tell you, because there is an investment freeze. Other than the renewable energy target, which is doing well at the moment, it will start to roll off in terms of investment decisions in the course of the next year. In broad terms, there is an investment freeze. The Reserve Bank governor described this only on Friday. Until the investment community—banks, equity lenders, the electricity industry and downstream investors that are seeking to make decisions about their factories and suchlike—gets a clear signal from this building about what energy policy is going to be in the medium to long term, that investment strike will continue.

I just want to contrast the words of the minister describing this as a no-rush situation with the clear words of the Finkel panel, because in recommendation 3.2 of their report, where the panel dealt with this question of a clean energy target, the words could not be clearer from the Chief Scientist and his panel:

There is an urgent need for a clear and early decision …

There is an urgent need for a clear and early decision on the clean energy target. I urge the government not to think that this is some position they can revisit over the next 12 or 18 months; it needs a clear resolution this year. We need to get to this.

It's all well and good to have this bill and some of the other bills that are being dealt with today and in coming weeks where there are some good decisions being taken by this government, but they will not amount to much if we do not deal with the central recommendation of the Finkel report. The minister knows what needs to be done. I'm pretty sure the Prime Minister knows what needs to be done. He just needs to summon the courage to take it through the coalition party room. With those remarks, I move a second reading amendment:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading the House notes the Government’s:

(1) lack of national energy policy, which is causing an investment strike in new electricity generation; and

(2) failure to ensure an adequate and affordable gas supply for Australian industry while Australia becomes the world’s largest LNG exporter”.