The Omnibus Omnishambles

Thursday, September 15, 2016

So here we are: it is about 20 to nine on the last sitting day of this session, most of the press gallery have gone to sleep and most of the rest of the country have almost certainly switched off from whatever might be going on in this building. Obviously, that is exactly what the government had in mind. Tomorrow's headlines, turned into Saturday's fish and chip wrapper, will be that the government did something or other to fix the budget. Tonight the vacuous emptiness at the heart of this government is laid bare, and that is why they are so happy to see it pushed to a vote in the dead of night.
It is a government empty of purpose and direction in open civil war with itself, with a bunch of yesterday's men whose ambition is only outmatched by their mediocrity. And this week is the anniversary of the overthrow of Mr Tony Abbott. How fitting! He was already two years past his use-by date by the time his colleagues threw him under a bus. He was replaced by someone with a big grin, a confident manner and a vague promise that any day now some sense of direction would be established. But, here we are tonight, debating the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill 2016, which sounds as though it is designed to be boring. It is designed to make your eyes glaze over and your attention move on. But what it is, effectively, is a dismal camel of a bill.

 
My colleagues, from Senator Whish-Wilson earlier in the afternoon to Senator Di Natale, Senator Hanson-Young, Senator Siewert, Senator Rice and Senator Waters, have dismantled the fundamental premise of the different elements of the bill and its overall philosophy in a fair bit of detail. Change to family payments is the biggest single measure, with more than $1½ billion in unnecessary cuts to family assistance, ending family tax benefit part A for families earning over $80,000, which actually is not very much as a combined household income. A single-parent family with two teenage children will lose $284 a year, or $5.50 a week. That is not much for people in here earning $200,000 a year, but for families struggling—uncertain about continued employment or suffering intergenerational unemployment—it is a big deal. Removing the ability to backdate a carer allowance is cruel and pointless and it saves, what, $108 billion over the forward estimates.
I will speak in greater detail about ARENA and my particular concerns about what is going to happen with the half a billion dollars ripped out of ARENA and how that will impact on Western Australia.
On higher education, I have been here long enough to remember how in 2013—or it might have been 2010—the Greens were campaigning against the then Labor government's utterly counterproductive cuts to higher education. Then, right after the election, right after the change of government in 2013, the Labor Party magically reinvented itself as the natural party of higher education, and we were all just expected to imagine that the preceding period simply had not existed. Now, as Sarah Hanson-Young pointed out, new scholarships are being turned into more HELP debts. The HELP repayment threshold is being dropped and indexation rates on payments are being boosted. All of this is, in a sense, to get students and people seeking a tertiary education further into hock, further into debt that will follow them around, in some instances, for the rest of their lives. How utterly counterproductive!
Other senators, including Senator Xenophon and Senator Whish-Wilson, have already pointed out that there was no hearing into this bill. It is worth $6 billion in cuts and revenue measures. Why would the Senate not conduct an inquiry into a bill of that scope? This is not a trivial matter. It was up to Senator Siewert to book a committee room and invite witnesses from various parts of society who will be impacted by the cuts in this bill to tell their stories. The priority of the Labor Party and the Liberal Party for this 45th Parliament is, so they say, deficit repair, but it is off the backs of the most vulnerable people. It does not tackle rising inequality. It does not tackle global warming. It does not tackle any of the real challenges bearing down on this country. As it turns out, it does not tackle budget repair either, and that is the most sadly ironic aspect of what is going on here.
The Australian Renewable Energy Agency was a key component of the clean energy package that Senator Christine Milne, Senator Bob Brown and the member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, negotiated with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Mr Combet and the two country Independents—the coalition stayed on the sidelines but they were not actually missed—to create a carbon price package that would fund the clean energy transition. ARENA was a foundational part of that, with ARENA doing the research and development and the early commercialisation work to get projects off the ground. There are people in this country with incredible technical and engineering expertise and they want to get the job done that we so urgently need done. They want to get a job, go to work and get these power stations built. These things were negotiated by the Greens with the Labor Party and the country Independents at the time to put together a world-leading climate package. It was not perfect. It was one of the most interesting examples of compromise. Nobody got everything they wanted, but it was a lot better than the alternative that was on offer. Now ARENA is an incredibly important part, a foundational keystone, of getting these projects to commercial scale.
I want to mention just a couple of examples from the $72 million dollars worth of projects in Western Australia, mostly in regional areas. This is why the National Party have not even bother to show up for the debate and cannot make eye contact with anybody. These are jobs in the regional areas that these people claim to represent. Without ARENA funding in Meekatharra, Perenjori and Cervantes, those communities and those small businesses who form part of the supply chain would have missed out on being a part of the transition. There were announcements just last week about three of 12 new projects being funded. At Emu Downs, $5½ million will go towards a 20-megawatt solar farm. It will complement the output from the big wind farm that is already at that location. That will mean clean energy and sustainable employment in Cervantes. 
It is almost inconceivable to imagine that the agency that has helped get that project off the ground would be suffering the kind of cut that is on the table tonight.
About three hours north of Perth, ARENA is funding a feasibility study into the construction of a 20-megawatt solar thermal power station in Perenjori. What could be more important in this day and age—an age of cheap solar and cheap wind—than to be able to bring dispatchable clean energy projects online? When the sun goes down, they just keep generating that output and they can provide the backup to the more ephemeral wind and solar output. That is the key to getting to 100 per cent clean energy: energy efficiency—which ARENA, the CEFC and industry are already invested in—and the kind of dispatchable clean energy that backs up the wind and the solar photovoltaic output. The plant is proposed to employ molten salt technology. Senator Milne and I visited one of these plants a couple of years ago, in the south of Spain—the Gemasolar plant. It is a 20 megawatt plant, a bit bigger than just prototype scale but smaller than a commercial unit, which runs 24/7 on sunlight. 
More recently, I visited the solar thermal plant at Crescent Dunes in Nevada, SolarReserve's project, designed to provide dispatchable electricity for peak-hour generation in Nevada, and for Las Vegas in particular, at about eight o'clock at night, running that brightly lit city on solar energy. These are the kinds of projects that we can bring to commercial scale if we keep these agencies in business. We should be getting a project of that scale. Earlier in the evening, Senator Hanson-Young put in a bid for Port Augusta; I am putting one in for the goldfields. Out on the edge of the Western Desert, on the edge of the interconnector leading back into the south-west grid, there is an industrial site already gazetted and there are companies that are interested. They cannot take these projects to the bank, because the finance is not quite there yet. That is ARENA's job; that is the CEFC's job.
One example that I would have thought would have been interesting to the coalition, given their passion for mining, primary industries and the bulk export of commodities, is the DeGrussa copper mine. They put in a solar battery system, not too far from Meekatharra, and created 45 jobs. A Western Australian local company put the infrastructure in. They received a $20 million grant from ARENA for a $40 million total project. It has allowed them to offset five million litres of diesel a year from July 2015, and that is diesel that does not have to be trucked out to the site and burned when the sun is not shining. Remote Western Australia is really the perfect place for starting these innovative off-grid applications, because it is so expensive to generate electricity. That was ARENA's job. That is what they were doing. They were providing the start-up funds to get these projects off the ground.
I get that the Liberal National Party is still on this grotesque bender to delay the clean energy transition for as long as it can. It means the donations keep rolling in, and after they are done they get to slide into those sweet lobbyist roles with the Minerals Council and whoever else offers to pay the bills in their political afterlife. Every now and then they send in one of their more impressionable product placements, shuffling in here wearing a fluorescent vest donated by the Australian Coal Association, just in case there is anyone left in the country who thinks there is still some residual ambiguity in the government's attitude to the world's increasingly violent weather. 
The thing that I do not get—maybe Senator Conroy, Senator Bilyk or somebody up the other end of the room can help us out and make it clear to me—is why on earth the Labor Party is providing cover for this undignified hot mess. What are you doing? We have the numbers to defeat this tonight, if you come in here and do what people pay opposition parties to do. Did you tell the social media people who photoshopped this thing up this afternoon what you had actually done? For the benefit of the Hansard, there is a picture of Mr Shorten and Ms Plibersek on a rooftop surrounded by solar panels—it is a nice photograph, very well composed—and the text says 'Breaking news: Labor saves ARENA from the government's plan to destroy it. Thank you.' No, thank you, Australian Labor Party. If someone says that they are going to set fire to your house, and you just sit there with your eyes glazed over until it is half burned down, you do not get to post memes congratulating yourself for there still being some ruins standing! It is like drinking half of someone's beer while they are not watching and then expecting them to thank you for the courtesy of having some leftovers. This is bad, and you should feel bad. Go and put that on your Facebook page!
If it is revenue that you want, if it is savings that the government is after, we can help. We are a part of this debate. We took $141 billion of revenue and savings measures to the 2016 election, all of it costed by the independent Parliamentary Budget Office. Phase out the capital gains tax discount and negative gearing and you can generate $14 billion over the forward estimates. That is a start. That is more than this bill is worth. An end to fossil fuel subsidies would save nearly $24 billion over the forward estimates. Can you imagine, in an age of climate change, that we still subsidise fossil fuels? A coal export levy, so that that industry can start to at least amass some funds to pay for the harm that it is doing to communities here and overseas, would raise $2.4 billion. Putting a price back on pollution would raise $16 billion. 
There are any number of ideas. Here is a good local one. What if I told you that, sight unseen, the federal government wants to blow nearly $1 billion of your taxes on a heavy freight highway through a wetland, obliterating 90 hectares of banksia woodland, wiping out an Aboriginal campground that has tens of thousands of years of occupation behind it and ruining neighbourhood amenity for all time? The federal government proposes to chip $960 million into this atrocity. It is a project that the community does not support. It is a project that has been running under cover of darkness, because even this week the government refused to hand over basic information about the financial liability that the Barnett government is signing taxpayers up to in WA. Mr Turnbull, on the underwhelming anniversary of the deposition of your predecessor, we found you twice as much money as you are ripping out of ARENA just in this one wide, pointless strip of concrete on the other side of the country. That is really how we know that this bill actually has nothing to do with budget repair. You have done nothing but kick the debt and deficit can down the road. Anything that would have required so much as homeopathic traces of political courage has been forced under the carpet.
The government will get the headlines it wants in the morning; I know it will. We all know we will get endless footage of Mr Morrison's beaming head and the only thing we will be able to do is turn the volume down until he goes away. But the numbers will not lie. The big challenges still lie ahead, whether it is bringing the budget back into balance, doing something about our dependence on fossil fuels, or creating opportunities for people whose jobs are being offshored or automated out of existence.
How do we know that this bill has nothing to do with budget repair? Senator Whish-Wilson belled the cat right at the outset of this debate, because while we were in here debating this bill, the House of Representatives was debating a $4.3 billion tax cut for the 20 per cent wealthiest Australians. This is about nothing more than that headline and the opportunity for Mr Morrison to get himself on television in an attempt to persuade people that they have some faint idea what it is they are doing but the budget papers will not lie, and the stale charade that you put us through this week will be exposed for what it is. And instead of standing up to you, the Labor Party has let you run the table. So tonight I am nominating Dr Richard Di Natale as leader of the opposition because you lot are just not up to it; I am sorry, but you are not.