Speech in Parliament on ARENA and climate change

1.34pm | September 15, 2016

Speech on Omnibus Bill on ARENA funding

I would like to focus my remarks this evening on measures in this bill that relate to ARENA. But, before I move specifically to that, I want to talk more generally about the challenge of climate change briefly. It does feel ridiculous to have to be saying these things in 2016, because it is nearly 20 years since the famous hockey stick graph showed emissions rapidly escalating. It is more than 25 years since the first ICPP report, but climate change is real and we still have to assert it here in this chamber, here in this place of elected representatives. We still have to assert, unhappily, that the science of climate change is real and the consequences of climate change pose a significant threat to our way of life.

In this chamber, we have heard even more nonsense than usual recently on this question. We have heard very recently that changes in the carbon dioxide level are a result of changes in temperature, not a cause. That is simply not true, and there is no scientific evidence for that. We have heard that we do not and cannot affect the level of carbon dioxide in the air. That is simply not true and cannot be justified in relation to either the scientific data or the historical experience of industrialisation.

We have heard that warming is beneficial, and that is also not true. It is simply not true. What is true is that we have experienced record levels of warming that almost every credible climate scientist in the world thinks is a consequence of human activity. What is also true is that we face an uncertain future, a costly future and a riskier future than we need to face of changing climate, rising sea levels and all of the geopolitical and economic instability that will come with that.

There is a real need for action but, instead of action, the Liberals have gutted Australia's climate change apparatus. What they have left us with is manifestly deficient. They have left us with a target of 26 to 28 per cent reduction on 2005 levels by 2030. That target will see Australia fall well short of the commitments made by any country we might meaningfully seek to compare ourselves with: the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, the other European nations. This is simply not good enough for a wealthy country like Australia.

What is more, we have the targets but we do not have any mechanisms to enable us to reach those targets. We do not have an effective price on carbon, no market based mechanism for generating changed in behaviour by consumers or business. It is to the enduring shame of the Australian Greens, who like to talk endlessly about their great achievements in climate change, that they voted against the CPRS, the mechanism that would have been in place for many, many years by this point in time had they actually had the conviction, stood by their convictions, and been willing to support a progressive government rather than undermining a progressive government when they had the opportunity. Direct action is not going to get us the rest of the way there. The research confirms that direct action is largely just funding projects that would have gone ahead anyway. It is essentially a form of corporate welfare. It is not asking the people who need to be contributing to make the contribution they need to make. With all of this, we need to understand that the government only met its 2020 target because of the reduction in land clearing, the consumer-driven embrace of domestic solar, the decline in manufacturing that occurred through the GFC and afterwards, and the corresponding decline in energy demand.

With this bleak landscape—and it is a bleak landscape—ARENA is the last remaining limb of a credible climate change policy. Developing clean tech is essential. It is essential if we are to reduce our emissions. It should be an important part of any policy under this government for jobs and growth, as it was under Labor because the number of jobs in the renewable energy industry tripled during a period that included the global financial crisis. During that period in 2013, the leading global business index in renewables rated Australia as the fourth most attractive destination for renewables investment in the world, behind only China, the United States and Germany. Sadly, that ranking is falling away.

ARENA has played a critical part in all of this. It plays an essential role in developing clean energy technology by investing at each stage in the R&D cycle. It provides support that commercial parties are unable or unwilling to provide. Some technology—for example, wind—is already cost competitive with other energy sources in the NEM. For this reason, ARENA does not invest in wind but instead concentrates on developing new technology. It looks at things in phase 1, the research and development phase. As an example, we can see world-leading research programs at UNSW and ANU into solar PV and thermal solar. Those things receive significant funding from ARENA and they could not have been funded with loans from the private sector. ARENA funds things in the pilot phase—the phase when we need to show that technology can work out of the lab out in the real world. Again, this is too risky for most commercial players, and public-grant funding is incredibly important here.

Of course ARENA also invests in the demonstration phase, which proves that the technology not only works but also can work at scale. It is in this phase that we help to make these technologies cost competitive. It is these investments that bring technology down the cost curve and encourage the development of viable business models and supply chains. This is where large-scale solar energy is at in Australia. The series of grants that were announced by ARENA in the last week will go a long way to making solar a permanent and cost-competitive component of Australia's clean energy landscape. This work is incredibly important and I am very, very proud to say that Labor has stepped in and saved ARENA from a cut that would have, effectively, left it an empty shell had it gone ahead.

In a 2010 speech on low-carbon energy, the Prime Minister acknowledged the role of government in supporting clean energy innovation. He said that government support for innovation and investment in clean stationary energies is important, particularly at the early stages. Well, that was not what was presented in the budget earlier this year, and that was not what was presented in the omnibus bill when the government first introduced it. The problem is that the Prime Minister is hostage to the right wing of his party room. Under these circumstances, Labor defended ARENA from the government, as we did when it was under attack from the former—and, perhaps, once again—Prime Minister Tony Abbott back in 2014. This bill before us this evening secures an additional $800 million over five years in grants. This is $800 million secured by Labor's intervention and by Labor's negotiation with the government. ARENA has stated that this money will provide it with a budget that allows it to continue a strong work program into the future.

Senator Di Natale, as he so often does, used his time this evening not to attack the government but actually to attack Labor, which of course is the modus operandi for the Greens here in the chamber and for the Greens political party out there on the ground in the election. Where are the seats where they direct their resources? Not the seats held by conservatives; they do not spend their time trying to convince conservatives that they ought to change their vote and pursue a more progressive agenda. They spend their time, resources and energy attacking Labor members and undermining Labor members, and it is getting us no closer to the progressive future that they claim they want.

I have a memo to Senator Richard Di Natale. I say to him: Labor did not win the last election. The Labor Party took a program to that election that would have dramatically reduced inequality in this country through investments in education, health, clean energy and universities, but we did not win and we are not in a position to implement that agenda. We find ourselves negotiating with the government, which is not interested in that agenda. But, nonetheless, negotiate we did. One of the things we have secured is a strong future for ARENA, a strong future for investment in clean energy and a stronger future for the researchers who undertake world-leading research in our institutions, universities and research centres.

I commend the bill to the senators present and later this evening, when the bill comes before the chamber, I hope that people recall that, in fact, securing ARENA's future has been a most important contribution made by Labor.