It is always a pleasure to follow my great Tasmanian colleague Senator Polley and listen to her contributions to debate. I think that tonight, though, she was reading from the pages of her latest bestseller, Away with the Fairies, which you can find in your local Dymocks bookshop. I do not know that there was much fact. There was a lot of commentary and hyperpartisanship, which is something that I have even heard her own colleagues talk about in this debate and other debates—the need to remove the partisanship from this debate. The last 15 minutes of debate on this particular issue have been about nothing but how bad, in Senator Polley’s eyes, the coalition government is for Tasmania, pensioners and workers, and how good Senator Polley and her colleagues on that side of the chamber are. I recommend that the 17 people listening to this debate across the country head on down to their local bookstores and see if they can pick up this fantastic fictional novel. Senator Polley tells me that she will be doing signings in her electorate office the week after next.
But I do welcome the opportunity to speak on this debate on the motion that has been moved by Senator Xenophon. It is an important topic, it is salient and it has been on the minds of many in this building and across the country for this week and much time leading up to now. The motion reads:
That the Senate notes Australia’s energy crisis, its impact on consumers, businesses and the broader economy, and the need for urgent and effective responses.
The motion sums up everything about the debate we are having now and what we need to do. It is great that we are able to take the time in the Senate to actually talk about those particular issues, the impact on the groups that Senator Xenophon mentions and what needs to follow.
Listening to the contributions that have been made throughout the course of this debate, I come to it with the information that has been provided to me by the people I represent from the state of Tasmania. The biggest issue that they raise, which seems to be an undercurrent in every contribution on this debate, is the need for certainty—certainty around prices and supply in the case of businesses, particularly major industrials. That is the one key theme that keeps being brought up to me in my home state of Tasmania—one that I simply cannot ignore.
One issue that Senator Xenophon did raise in his contribution was around a particular source of power generation, and that was gas. That is something that we do not have a great deal of experience with in Tasmania, although, watching from the beautiful Apple Isle to see what is happening in other states across the country, I think the moratoria on further gas exploration are part of the problem. Where we have state governments who refuse to allow further exploration, it means that we do not have more to inject into our domestic market and it means prices go up. As has been pointed out by Senator Fawcett and others in this debate—although my friend Senator Polley would argue with this, and she did—the high price of gas has had an impact on overall power prices for businesses and households across the country.
So, again, the key point for me from Tasmania, and I think many who have spoken in this debate, and indeed many of those colleagues I have spoken to from my own party room, is about certainty. Certainty for investors—people who want to get into the energy market. They want to know what they are buying into and that what they invest in today is going to be a decent investment in a number of years’ time because decent investments mean that people can provide a more stable and better yield on their product. They want to know that supply is stable and reliable and that it is not going to flicker on and off. Intermittency is something that we do not have to deal with. It is something we have heard talked about with regard to wind and solar—but not so the case with hydro in our great state of Tasmania. The most important thing for the average person on the street, the people who bowl into my main electoral office in Devonport in the north-west of Tasmania, is affordability. It is so incredibly important in trying to make the household budget work and, if you run a small business, in trying to make sure that the books balance at the end of the month.
I think enough has been said, in broad terms, about the Finkel report. We have had a week of discussion on this and I suspect, based on what I hear from my colleagues across the way, that they will want to keep talking about it for some time to come—fair enough; it is an important issue. I think it is a good opportunity to touch on the point that was made by Senator Brandis in his answers to questions over the last three days and that is around the trilemma that the nation faces with regard to energy policy: the need for reliability, affordability and to meet our international obligations. The one thing that seems to be lost on many in the opposition is the need for process around that. What we have had presented, as promised, was a report. A report was provided to the government by the Chief Scientist and that report was released publicly. As you would expect, following on from receipt of such a document, which is weighty in the concepts it canvasses and the issues it covers, there is a discussion. The point has been made by others in this debate that we come to this debate from different backgrounds representing different constituencies and with different preconceptions about how we think the issue ought to be dealt with. Once a discussion has been had, then the government has the opportunity to respond. They are the steps you take.
As I said in the contribution to the take note debate a day or two back, those opposite seemed aghast at the fact that we were having a discussion, that we were even canvassing various elements of the debate and various options on what some people think might work and what others think might not work. But I think that is an important part of what we have in this country: a healthy democracy, the right to speak your mind and the right to stand up for your constituents, and not just to be told what you are going to say and do. We on this side of the chamber are not a homogenous blob of mindless individuals but people who come to this debate with different backgrounds, experiences and views on what is right and what is the best way to go.
Senator Paterson, as I referred to before, has talked about the different communities we represent. In my state of Tasmania, particularly in the north-west, we have a much lower average household income in that part of the state than in many other parts of the country—so much more than people in eastern Sydney or downtown Melbourne or even parts of Hobart. People in the north-west of Tasmania, where my main electorate office is in the city of Devonport, struggle with the cost of power. Senator Polley’s point about pensioners and people on fixed incomes who have been forced to turn the heater down or to hop into bed just to stay warm rather than get cold on a winter’s night, the cost of power is a chief concern. That is what is driving my contributions to this debate and the debate more generally. It is about ensuring that whatever we do moving forward means that we do have affordable power for Australians and for Tasmanians alike, that no-one misses out and that everyone has the ability to purchase power and fund whatever activities they undertake. That impacts on families and also businesses. Businesses need to know how much they are going to be able to allocate towards power so that they do not get a shock power bill in a month’s time, find that the books do not balance and have to add to their overdraft or similar. There was the case in Tasmania where a number of major industrials were reaching the end of long-term contracts that they had signed with the power generator Hydro Tasmania and prices were going to increase significantly. Thankfully, the Tasmanian government intervened and did what it could to restrain the cost of power, but it demonstrates the point that cost is very important in this debate.
As I said in some comments I provided to the Hobart Mercury newspaper yesterday—it was reported today; and Senator Fawcett touched on this point as well—the minute you start talking about something like affordability of electricity as a chief concern as opposed to some of the other elements of this debate, you are written off as a ‘climate denier’ or, as Senator Carr would like to say, a ‘knuckle-dragger’. I think that is an insult to people who complain—
Senator Williams: Who said that?
Senator Duniam: Senator Kim Carr made that comment.
Senator Williams: A knuckle-dragger?
Senator Duniam: A knuckle-dragger is how people who are concerned about the price of power are referred to. As I was about to say, those people who are worried about paying their power bill—and I have my own power bill here, which is quite significant; I was just about to pay it—
Senator Williams: How much was it?
Senator Duniam: It was over $3,000 for a quarter.
Senator Williams: What!
Senator Duniam: That is correct. The heaters were on high. The point is that anyone who complains about the cost of power and is therefore labelled as a knuckle-dragger. I do not think that is right. I think the people of Australia who are struggling to pay their power bills deserve respect; they deserve to have their concerns heard. This government, that opposition and the crossbenchers should all understand how important their budgets are to us and help them pay their power bills.
On Tasmania, as Senator Polley mentioned, we do have a very proud history of being a renewable electricity generator through our tremendous hydro scheme. We have a great history down there. Many communities were settled as a result of the hydro scheme. Many immigrants came to our state and have been a great part of the tapestry of the Tasmanian community. As Senator Polley said, we are a world leader—and I would like to think in some cases over the course of history we have been certainly a trendsetter—when it comes to new and innovative ways to generate energy. South Australia is not the only state to have had a power crisis. In recent times, the Tasmanian community faced a perfect storm of low rainfall—
Senator Williams: A drought.
Senator Duniam: a drought—that is right, Senator Williams—and a broken Basslink Interconnector, which is the extension cord that effectively connects Tasmania to mainland Australia. As Hydro was trying to keep up with demand for electricity, we were running down the dams to dangerous levels. We had to ship in containerised diesel generators to keep up with demand and to ensure that we did not empty the dams. We are not immune to a power crisis, so we need to make sure that we have in place plans to increase capacity to keep up with growing demand and trends in power consumption. This is why I am excited about the announcement that the Prime Minister made with regard to the future of Tasmania’s hydro power scheme. There is the pump storage proposal that is being examined by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and also a number of other schemes and projects, including the refurbishment of the very successful and historic Tarraleah Power Station, which will generate in excess of 2,000 megawatts. As ARENA pointed out at Senate estimates, those projects will necessitate the establishment of increased interconnectivity with mainland Australia—be that a second or third cable, I do not know, but I am excited by the prospect of Tasmania becoming the nation’s battery and providing base load renewables in the form of hydro.
On Tasmania—if we can go back in time a number of years—a lot has been said about whether coal should be in or whether it should be out. I thought it would be interesting to put on record something that I know is already on the public record.
I refer to an article in The Mercury newspaper, dated 20 October 1981—which, for the record, was before my birth! It is entitled ‘Coal-fired power “best option”‘. It was written by a fellow by the name of Wayne Crawford. The article says:
TASMANIA’S environmental lobby has expressed its preference for coal-fired thermal power generation over the construction of more hydro-power dams.
So, to be clear, that is the Tasmanian Greens and associated entities opting for coal fired power as opposed to renewable energy in the state of Tasmania. The article continues:
The director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society; Dr Bob Brown—
Who would be known to many in this place; he is a former senator—
said yesterday that if there was to’ be a new power station, then coal-fired thermal was “the best centralised option we have.”
He went on to say:
… the conservation movement regarded a coal-tired thermal station as a “manifestly better” option than more dams.
It is there in black and white: for coal fired versus dams they would go with coal back in 1981.
Also in the article, Mr Peter Blackwell, from the Tasmanian Conservation Trust, which exists to this day, talked about coal fired power stations yielding more energy than what was proposed at that time, and that was the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam, which—according to this article—was only going to generate 180 megawatts. Further, he went on to say that pollution levels quoted by the Tasmanian Chamber of Industry’s advertisement, which is what this article was in response to were for a station:
… five times as big as what was proposed in Tasmania, and apparently involved an old-fashioned combustion system and no equipment to control emissions.
So in here I read that the Greens also believed in clean coal technology. It is amazing how things have changed in the course of over 30 years. They have gone from believing in clean coal and opposing renewables to opposing clean coal and only supporting hydro and other forms of renewables. But I suppose that anyone can change their mind over time.
I will return to another point that Senator Paterson made, about the obligation on the opposition in this debate. I think that it is a point that he also made well in his take note address a day or two back. His point was that the Australian opposition needs to be up-front about what its proposal is. Senator Polley said that the opposition will consider the report, look at ways forward and make a decision. Whatever that decision is, I think that it is right to give certainty to the Australian community—to all of the people who we represent in this place—and to tell Australians what they will do and what they will sign up to, and to stick to that.
What did concern me was Senator Moore effectively saying no and reserving the right to move the goalposts after a decision is made. In effect, this was everything that Senator Paterson was warning us about—that the Labor Party will say one thing now for the purposes of a political point before an election and then say something very different afterwards. That could mean new targets and new rules, and therefore no certainty—which is what we are trying to avoid. So I was quite disheartened to hear that from Senator Moore.
The point was also made about the debate being divisive and that we need to move away from the sniping and hyperpartisan nature of this debate. I would have thought that was right, but when you look back at question time over the last three days that is exactly what it has been. The questions have not been serious ones like: ‘What are you going to do? How can we help? What is the best way to advance Australia’s future here?’ They have been all about: ‘Is it true that this was said in the party room? What do you say about this comment in the paper?’ Those are nothing that I think would aid Australians when it comes to this debate in any way, shape or form.
I will touch on just one other issue, that of our obligations to the globe and part of that trilemma that I mentioned at the commencement of my contribution. We are told that we need to adhere to our global obligations when it comes to emissions reduction. I do not think there are that many people who would argue against that. But I suppose that the other end of that is that we need to take into account the global situation—how we stack up as a country against other emitters across the globe. If we are genuinely interested in emissions reduction then we should be genuinely interested in our brothers and sisters overseas committing to emissions reduction too. We cannot go it alone, as it has been said previously. We do have an obligation and we should adhere to that. But if you look at other countries—China and India, for example—they are high emitters. And, yes, I know they are very different countries to ours. We do have to take into account what they do and what they plan to do to meet global obligations that we have been told we need to meet, as well, and we have to look at their challenge relative to our own.
I will conclude on that note. I do thank Senator Xenophon for bringing on this debate. It is good to have the ability to air my personal views on this issue—and from the Tasmanian perspective. I look forward to seeing the debate unfold over months to come.