Are We Open For Green Business?

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Stewart Taggart is a smart guy. A former business and technology journalist for Wired, he is now a renewable energy entrepreneur with a dream for clean energy and water in South Australia’s Spencer Gulf.

Taggart is a Director of start-up renewables firm Acquasol Infrastructure Limited and a founder of DESERTEC Australia, the Australian affiliate of the global DESERTEC network. If you’ve been following the renewables sector recently you’ll know that the European and North African arms of DESERTEC are big business. Their idea of building a massive solar-thermal power network stretching between the north African desert and Europe has attracted the support of corporate giants like Siemens, Munich Re, Deutsche Bank and ABB.

Taggart believes Australia could also think big about solar power. With vast sun-baked deserts, long windy coastlines and huge potential geothermal, tidal and wave power possibilities, DESERTEC believes Australia could be a "clean energy superpower" by 2050, exporting clean electricity along high-voltage direct current cables straight to our Asian neighbours.

"I came out here in 1995," Stewart Taggart told me in a phone interview. A US citizen from California, he covered the tech boom as a freelance journalist "until about 2000, when the tech market hit its peak and began to fall, so I had to reinvent myself".

"I thought that solar energy had to be on the verge of becoming the next big thing. So I looked around for solar energy investments, I invested in Acquasol and another small company."

Acquasol has bold ideas. Aiming to combine a 100MW solar-thermal power station with a desalination plant on the coast of South Australia’s Spencer Gulf, the company hopes to create truly renewable electricity and water for more than 50,000 South Australians. Even more impressively, Acquasol plans to deal with the desal plant’s salty waste product by piping it to salt harvesting pans, where a company called Cheetham Salt has been harvesting salt for decades. It’s a dream of a renewable future.

"The Spencer Gulf in South Australia is the driest inhabited part of the country," Taggart explains. "It gets 100 per cent of its water from the Murray River 400 kilometres away through a pipeline, upstream of Adelaide. If that pipeline got ruptured, they’re out of water within days."

Acquasol is still in early-stage feasibility studies. "We need to get the final feasibility, final drawings and then financial costings completed; the current $5 million valuation is based upon the implicit future valuation."

But that dream is now in jeopardy. In addition to the usual barriers that entrepreneurs and venture capitalists face — such as access to funding, the dominance of the fossil fuels sector and the lack of a carbon price in this country, Taggart is also fighting a much bigger battle.

It’s a battle against the Australian Government, which wants to deport him.

After working in the country previously on a 457 visa, which has since been abolished, Acquasol applied to sponsor Taggart to work in Australia under an 856 visa, which covers "employers who want to sponsor highly skilled workers for a permanent visa to work in Australia".

And there’s the catch. Because Acquasol is a small company in its start-up phase, the Immigration Department knocked back Taggart’s visa application on the grounds that Acquasol didn’t meet the eligibility requirements. These include, among other things, a specification that the applicant be paid a salary.

But Taggart is an investor and director in Acquasol, and the company is a small start-up looking to conserve scarce cash by not paying its directors. Ironically, the fact that Taggart is investing money into Acquasol rather than taking money out is grounds for his visa rejection.

"I think I fall into a hole [in the eligibility rules]", Taggart told me. "I’m an investor in a company that has enormous implicit value, but at this stage its not paying a tangible salary. Against this backdrop, you have everyone in the Government from Kim Carr to the Prime Minister saying we need to commercialise all the wonderful research we create here."

"There’s a disconnect here."

And indeed there is. While Innovation Minister Kim Carr welcomes renewable energy innovation, recently launching a $20 million Clean Energy Centre specifically designed to assist "small and medium sized businesses in the clean energy sector", a spokesman from Carr’s office told me he couldn’t comment on immigration matters. That’s the job of Immigration Minister Chris Evans, whose office referred me back to the Immigration Department for further comment on this case.

And this is when things got interesting. After contacting the Immigration Department’s national media centre to inquire about Stewart Taggart’s case, I was phoned on Wednesday by David Seal, a department spokesman.

Seal was all business. "This is ‘on background’, but there’s no story here," he began our conversation. Journalists tend to get a little curious when a Government spin doctor tells them that there’s "no story here", so I started asking Seal further questions. In the extraordinary conversation that ensued, the spokesman questioned Taggart’s credentials and qualifications, asserted that he had "shopped this story around to other journalists" and argued that, as far as the Immigration Department is concerned, the facts of this case suggested that Stewart Taggart was trying to scam his way into the country by "sponsoring himself". It was a strange and quite unsettling conversation.

Eventually, I was able to ascertain that the Immigration Department refused Taggart’s visa application because the department "was not satisfied it was actively operating a business in this country" and that there was not an "adequate provision of training to existing employees". But my discussion with David Seal left me in no doubt that, at least as far as the Immigration Department is concerned, the onus of proof is on the applicant.

Migration lawyer Zeke Bentley agrees. "The Immigration Department has a policy of querying sponsoring employers where there’s some relationship between the employee and employer," he explained, "and also where a company has not had a long history of successful trading. Where there is limited trading history you really have to get persuasive evidence together."

Bentley thinks that "a lot of people fail because they don’t get something persuasive together. It might be persuasive enough to convince a bank but not persuasive enough to convince an Immigration Department official."

And therein lies the problem. In the Australian immigration system, venture capital and angel investors like Stewart Taggart have to prove their bona fides — not just to banks, business partners and the market, but to the Immigration Department as well.

newmatilda.com sought comment from the offices of both Minister Evans and Minister Carr for this article. At the time of publishing they had not returned our calls. Stewart Taggart is appealing the Immigration Department’s decision.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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