Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct Bill 2019 - "big stick" legislation

October 22, 2019

I rise to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct) Bill 2019, the so-called big stick legislation. Before I go to some of the detail of the legislation, I think it's important to actually talk about what has occurred in energy policy over the last six years under this government because, quite frankly, I can't think of any greater public policy failing in Canberra than this government's woeful energy policy experience. They've had 16 energy policies in six years—16! In fact, in 2018, they had four energy policies in 14 days in the heady month of August.

The sad fact is: it is Australian consumers and industry that are paying the price for this energy policy fiasco. Since 2015, wholesale electricity prices—the cost of producing electricity—have risen by 158 per cent. In fact, over the last 12 months, future prices for electricity have risen by 29 per cent. We've seen a tripling of gas prices in this country under this hopeless government. We've seen ageing generators facing a long hard summer ahead. Seventy-five per cent of our generators in this country are operating beyond their planned plant life, and that is of huge concern because, unfortunately, that will mean more blackouts in this country unless we get new investment.

I remember a fateful day in February 2018, when we hit 45 degrees in New South Wales, and I spoke to energy plant operators, the actual workers, in the four power stations in my home region of the Hunter Valley, which cumulatively produced 9,000 megawatts of power as their capacity, fully around 30 per cent of Australia's electricity generation. Each of them were struggling very significantly under the high temperatures and the demands that households and industry were placing on them. These power stations were all approaching the end of their natural plant life. That's what all their companies have said. Each of the companies involved, with the exception of Sunset Power, have placed closure dates on those power stations not because of government policy but because they are very old and the cost of maintaining them is skyrocketing. Liddell has a closure date of early 2023 set by the company. Origin has nominated 2032 for the Eraring Power Station, the biggest power station in the country, and 2035 or thereabouts for Bayswater.

These power stations need to be replaced because of their age, but, because of the energy policy fiasco from the government—16 policies in six years; four in 14 days in 2018—investors can't make the hard decisions to invest in plants where the payback is 40 or 50 years. We are also not seeing the necessary rule changes for the energy market to keep up to date with evolving technologies and consumer preferences. These are the real issues facing the energy market, but, sadly, none of them are addressed by the 'big stick' legislation. When this 'big stick' legislation was first submitted by the government, it had some serious issues, principally the fact that it was a backdoor to full privatisation of assets, particularly in Queensland, and also gave far too much power to the minister—a minister who is up there in being the most incompetent minister in this government. That's some competition there, but I think he takes the prize.

We worked on those two issues, and I'm glad to say that government came on board and fixed up both those issues. Labor is proposing to further strengthen this bill, particularly to ensure that there is no risk of partial privatisation, which is another important concern, and Labor will also fight to protect workers' rights by ensuring that their rights under the Fair Work Act are safeguarded in the event of divestment. Labor's support for the bill in this House is the conditional on these improvements that protect basic worker rights and rule out partial privatisation. Labor will continue to scrutinise the bill and is prepared to work with the Senate to address any further unintended consequences.

Labor does remain sceptical that this bill will do what the government claims—that is, lower power prices. The government presented no evidence, no analysis and no modelling to support this claim, and, as I said, power prices have skyrocketed on their watch. That's why Labor is proposing an amendment to review the bill before it sunsets. This review will look at its impact on the electricity sector, including affordability. Labor also calls on the government to work with experts and industry to ensure that there are no unintended consequences of the bill.

Following further consultation, Labor is concerned that, under the current bill, there is a risk that workers could lose protections and entitlements under the Fair Work Act in the event of divestment. Under the current bill it is not clear that the sale of an asset due a divestment order will be considered by courts to constitute a connection between the company subject to divestment and the purchaser of the asset, leaving open the possibility that the Fair Work Act transfer-of-business provisions will not apply. That's why we're moving this amendment to ensure that workers affected by divestment have all the protections they deserve under the Fair Work Act. I'm hopeful that the government will support this necessary amendment.

Let me say yet again why we're supporting this act, even though we don't think the bill will actually do much for the energy market. It is because we have gotten rid of the threat of full privatisation, we have dialled back the ridiculous powers granted to the minister and we're hopeful that two further amendments—around ruling out partial privatisation, and greater worker protection—can be addressed and achieve support from the government.

I want to flag another issue, which goes to the specific arrangement around the mooted closure of the Liddell Power Station. This power station is obviously very old. It is facing real issues around maintenance and reliability. As such, AGL have made the decision to close Liddell and replace it with a suite of other power sources—principally, a new gas-fired power station and Tomago, and a range of renewable energy sources, principally a windfarm and a pumped hydro project.

Importantly, AGL have given plenty of notice to its workforce and the community. They have given five years notice. This stands in stark contrast to the actions of ENGIE, who only gave four months notice for Hazelwood, leaving the workers and the community in the lurch, and the five months notice given by Alinta when they closed the Northern Power Station in South Australia. So AGL have done the right thing and given five years notice so that the workers and the communities close to my electorate can actually plan their future.

Equally as important as the notice, the company and the main trade union representing the workforce, the CFMEU Mining and Energy Division, have negotiated really solid outcomes to look after the workers. Principal amongst that is a commitment from the company and the union that there will be no forced redundancies and that every single worker at Liddell who wants to continue with AGL will either transfer across to the neighbouring Bayswater Power Station or will be accommodated in other parts of AGL. That is really important. There will be some workers who are probably approaching the end of their working life who are happy to take a redundancy package and retire early, but many workers, who might have young families and mortgages to pay, may want to stay in the industry. This is a fabulous initiative—an initiative that is consistent with what other countries have engaged in when they've seen major closures. It is something that I applaud both the trade and the company for engaging in in a very honest and brave manner.

If there is any divestment of Liddell, it is very important that these arrangements are not undermined. Let me repeat that: nothing in this bill should undermine what I think is nation-leading practice around the transition of a closing power station. That is why it is very important that the Senate look at this issue closely when it does its inquiry into this bill. I cannot support any initiative that undermines worker entitlements, and that is why we have moved the amendment around the Fair Work Act entitlements. Equally, we must ensure, as much as we can, that no consequence of this bill undermines the very important arrangements that the Mining and Energy Division of the CFMEU has negotiated for its members with AGL at Liddell—something that gives those workers and the community around Liddell peace of mind that they will still have jobs at the end of this process. I think it is an excellent policy.

Related to the Liddell issue is the Liddell task force that the New South Wales government has formed with the government to look at all possible impacts of the closure of Liddell. Somewhat bizarrely, so far the Commonwealth and the state government are refusing to have worker representation on this task force. They have representation from Muswellbrook Shire Council—which is good thing; they should have the local government representative—and the company is clearly on the task force, but not to include workers is a disgrace. This closure can only be managed through cooperation between the company, the union and the workers it represents, and the local community. So it is essential that there is a representative of the CFMEU Mining and Energy Division on the Liddell task force—not to throw bombs, because that's not the way they operate, but to engage in a cooperative manner to try to arrive at an outcome that benefits the community, that looks after the workers and that ensures energy security going forward. So I call on the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction to engage with and appoint a representative of the CFMEU Mining and Energy Division to the Liddell task force as a sign of goodwill. Quite frankly, it's the best way of maximising the positive outcomes from the Liddell task force, should it actually have any.

This really goes to the heart of the entire energy debate. The government is more intent on ideology than facts. We saw that with their civil wars in their party room around energy policy—with 16 energy policies in six years and knocking off a Prime Minister because he actually tried to do something in this area. This is not only having an impact on prices—with the wholesale energy price up 158 per cent, forward prices up 29 per cent and a tripling of gas prices—but also leading to a massive missed opportunity in the transition that is occurring in energy production all around the world. We are missing out on the massive opportunity, just as we did in the first round of solar technologies that were developed.

It's a little-known fact that 60 per cent of the photovoltaic cells—the things on people's roofs producing solar power—are based on technology developed at the University of New South Wales, but we got very little jobs out of this innovation, because the Howard government was so virulently anti-renewable energy. That was a massively missed opportunity. We are seeing another missed opportunity right now with the attack on renewable energy by this government. We have a renewable energy strike going on right now, because the delivery of the RET has been accomplished. Labor's RET has been fulfilled, and so renewable energy investment is falling off the cliff. This is a massively missed opportunity.

There are significant jobs to be gained in renewable energy if we have sound investment. The hydrogen industry could produce 16,000 jobs for Australia, taking advantage of the massive demand that is going to occur for clean hydrogen in the economies of North Asia. We can also be the home of energy-intensive manufacturing, because we have more solar radiation falling on our continent per square metre than anywhere else in the world, and we have great wind and wave resources as well. Once we get through the transition to renewable energy, we can be the home of low-cost energy-intensive manufacturing.

We are also greatly endowed with the inputs to the new clean energy technologies. We're the second-largest producer of rare earths in the world. We have the greatest reserves of iron and titanium, the second-greatest reserves of copper and lithium and the third-greatest reserves of silver. These are all instrumental, these are all key, to producing batteries, solar PV cells and other technologies. So there is a great opportunity for key parts of our mining industry to benefit from the clean technology boom. In fact, our metallurgical coal sector can also benefit. It takes 200 tonnes of coking coal to produce one wind turbine, and that's great news for our coal industry and is something I wholeheartedly support. These are the opportunities that are there to be embraced if we have a stable and rational energy policy.

Sadly, we are not seeing it from this government. We are seeing chaos and division. We have seen 16 energy policies in six years. We are seeing ideology run rampant. Half their party room is the tinfoil hat brigade, who don't accept the science of climate change. They don't accept market realities that renewable energy is now the cheapest form of new power. They have half their party room led by the member for Hughes, who is often off in cuckoo land, and then we have the other half who are probably worse! They are pragmatists. They think they can take political advantage of scaring people about climate change rather than taking action on greenhouse gas emissions. They will be condemned by history. They will be condemned by their kids and their grandkids for putting their short-term political interests ahead of a necessary transition that will be good for the economy, that will lower power prices and that will produce a whole new generation of energy.

You can view the speech here