November 18, 2018



While he is in the chamber, I would like to acknowledge the member for Hughes, who is a member of the Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy, which produced the report Powering our future: inquiry into modernising Australia’s electricity grid. That committee is chaired by Mr Broad. I would recommend the report to all those who are interested in electricity, and I think many people are interested because of the escalating cost of electricity. I welcome the committee's latest report, which deals with a topic that affects every facet of Australian society. It impacts every home, business and industry in my electorate of Paterson.

It is all about energy. As I've said before, energy is the oxygen of our economy. With this report we should celebrate the fact that members of this standing committee from different areas in this political arena came together to create a document that charts a path forward. That's right, a consensus was achieved across four parties, and that is no mean feat in an area that has seen so much division—and derision, I might add.

I congratulate the committee on its 135-page document. I urge the Prime Minister, his government and his cabinet to look at this report and treat it as a roadmap that can lead to some energy sustainability in this country, a roadmap towards a national energy policy, which we are so desperately in need of, a roadmap to investment in energy, lower pollution and lower electricity prices, which my constituents and the people of Australia genuinely are calling out for, and, importantly, a path to energy security.

Today much of my electorate of Paterson swelters in 40-degree temperatures. That's right. I know we don't get that in Canberra, but there are many places where the temperature at this time is over 40 degrees. But in spite of the heat I'm sure there are shivers down the spine of many people in my electorate, because almost precisely one year ago this week another heatwave wracked the Hunter. The effect of that was particularly devastating but could have been so much worse. We all know that high temperatures and fossil fuel energy generation are a pretty unhappy marriage—and we're certainly accustomed to those in this place—although I would like to say that I am the recipient of some wonderful roses on this Valentine's Day. The hotter it gets, the more unreliable our coal- and gas-fired generators become. We know that. At the same time, demand peaks as people seek relief from the extreme heat and turn on their air conditioning.

When this perfect storm struck in 2017, the mighty Tomago Aluminium smelter, in my electorate of Paterson, was forced to cut back production so the lights and air conditioners could stay on in New South Wales. Tomago supplies about a quarter of the country's primary aluminium. It draws 12 per cent of the state's power, the equivalent of one million homes. It also directly supports nearly a thousand families in my electorate through jobs, and almost 2,000 when you take the contractors into account. So, as you can appreciate, the fortunes of Tomago Aluminium are closely linked to the fortunes of many of my constituents. When the heatwave hit on 10 February Tomago had no choice but to cut production by 30 per cent. This was no small matter. Curtailing production at an aluminium smelter is dangerous. It's dangerous to the smelter and its workings. It's dangerous for the workers, who are dealing with 900-degree molten aluminium and working on a potline where the mercury stands at 55 degrees Celsius. Yes, they go in with sapling trees to break the seal that forms when you cut down power at an aluminium smelter. If the power is off too long, the potlines freeze and the aluminium solidifies. I will read from the report, which says:

The Committee visited Tomago and heard about the consequences to the plant during peak usage shut downs. The Committee also heard from the Energy Efficiency Council that requiring a very large aluminium smelter to reduce its demand is a very bad idea because it can cause setting of the pots in that industrial facility.

That came from Mr Robert Murray-Leach, the Head of Policy at the Energy Efficiency Council. The committee heard that it is a very bad idea—indeed, it is a very bad idea. Once the potlines freeze it's not just a matter of saying, 'We'll just move out the solid aluminium and start it up again.' That doesn't happen, as we have witnessed in other places across Australia. I've already lost one aluminium smelter in my electorate, not because of a freeze. It happened in Kurri Kurri. Hydro Aluminium was shut down because of worldwide aluminium prices as well as electricity prices. I don't want to see another one go.

Since that day—10 February last year—I have fought to encourage this government to craft and commit to a national energy policy. I have highlighted the plight of Tomago Aluminium and I've worked to help the chief executive officer, Matt Howell, obtain some certainty and security around the provision of energy. I've also worked to get Matt's expertise in front of this committee, that's done some really great work. I am absolutely delighted to say that I know that this interaction between Mr Howell and the committee was of particular use. I refer to recommendations 18 and 19, where the committee says that we need to look at the rules surrounding the energy market in Australia and we need to look at the re-bidding practices of last year and particularly the gaming of the system in New South Wales during 2017.

It's not just about manufacturing, however. The Powering our future report refers to findings of the energy council which say that this country's ongoing energy debate and inability to agree on national energy policy has cost us the equivalent of a $50 per tonne carbon price since 2009. That is a mighty expensive dose of paralysis through policy indecision. And it hits every one of us.

I have spoken in parliament before about this and I have begged this government to stop its squabbling and take a good look at the Finkel recommendations. My Labor colleagues and I have repeatedly said that we are open to a bipartisan approach, because Australians deserve better. They do deserve better electricity prices. When you think about the fact that we are an island nation, it is clear that we should be an energy efficient hub. We should be able to what they do in Europe; they draw on power from other countries. We should be able to do that within the states. As this report says, we should be able to use wind power from Tasmania, wave power from Western Australia, and the sunshine from Queensland and New South Wales. We should all be working together across this mighty continent to make sure that energy isn't something that we have a problem with.

Let me tell you, the bill shock that is impacting Australians across our country now is real. People are making terrible decisions. On hot days like it is today in the Hunter—it is over 40 degrees—I know people who are thinking, 'Can I actually afford to turn on the air-conditioner?' I'm not just using hubris. I went for a blood test during the break, and the pathology operator and nurse said: 'Meryl, I live on my own. It's going to be over 45 tomorrow and I'm actually seriously thinking I'm not sure if I can afford to turn on the air-conditioner.' How have we gotten to this in Australia? I'll tell you how: through 10 years of squabbling about energy.

We need to stop that squabble and we need to really look at this report. Again, I say in all seriousness and fairness, four parties came together in a multipartisan way to come up with the recommendations in this report. Please, let's not turn our backs on the people of Australia and, more importantly, on the future generations of Australia who will look back on this epoch in political history, shake their heads and say: 'What were they thinking? Were they thinking? Why weren't they getting on and doing the job that they should have been doing?' Please let us not waste a moment longer in this place when we could be moving towards the exciting advances that are being made in energy.

The member for Newcastle sits in the Deputy Speaker's chair today. The CSIRO, who operates out of her electorate, are doing some magnificent work in photovoltaics. It is important and it is exciting, and we can't stand here and take home the remuneration that we do as politicians without seriously thinking about the hard-earned money of Australians that is being spent so unnecessarily on electricity.