Christine Milne's Plan For Renewables

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It’s a typically windy and overcast Melbourne winter afternoon when I catch up with the leader of the Greens, Senator Christine Milne, in the Greens’ federal offices in Spring Street.

Milne has a bit of a sniffle and so chief of staff Ben Oquist offers to make us both a cup of tea. When I ask for milk, I am informed, Milne informs me with a twinkle in her eye that "we only have soy." We share a joke about environmentalist cliches.

I’m here to interview Milne about energy for New Matilda’s Future Shock series. Actually, I had hoped to interview Energy Minister Martin Ferguson and Opposition energy spokesman Ian Macfarlane as well, but neither agreed.

As policy areas go, energy is like that. In a highly regulated and fiercely contested policy space, policy announcements and ministerial speeches tend to be treated with the sort of avid scrutiny that financial markets reserve for the gnostic comments of Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens. When Macfarlane recently recommitted to the Coalition’s support of the Renewable Energy Target, for instance, his remarks were widely discussed in the sector. As for Martin Ferguson, his media shyness — and the headaches he tends to cause Labor when he is allowed to speak — is legendary.

Milne, on the other hand, appears at home when talking about the portfolio. "I held a roundtable in Canberra a few months ago with a whole lot of different stakeholders in the renewables and efficiency sector," she begins. "And when we were sitting around the table figuring out how do we bring on renewable energy and energy efficiency, what people have been saying to me is that there are all these barriers created by the electricity market operators, and the electricity market rules."

"But the problem was it all had to go through COAG. I have had a view always that COAG is this great big black hole where you just shove all the problems in, it’s just a way for governments to buck-pass for years on end, and if you look at the COAG agenda for the last 10 years that bears that out."

It helps that energy, long a portfolio responsibility for Milne, has suddenly shot to the top of the political agenda. The very day that I interviewed Milne, Julia Gillard had given a speech the Energy Policy Institute, in which she accused the states of jacking up prices due to infrastructure gold-plating "One sixth of our national electricity networks — $11 billion in infrastructure — caters for peak events that last for barely four days per year," she told the assembled lobbyists and boffins.

Milne was rather sceptical of Labor’s commitment to the problem. The problem, she argues, is that the system is stacked against efforts to reform the National Electricity Market (NEM).

"It becomes obvious that if you’re going to get the renewable energy revolution and the demand-side management that you need, you have to address the structural barriers. This is confirmed to me wherever I go, people talk to me about how they want to put in renewable energy, but people are citing barriers that are put in their way."

"What the PM was saying today is that she wants COAG to go through this process and deliver something by the end of the year, and while she has to because the states are involved, it’s difficult to see how some of the states in particular are going to facilitate this, because they have such a profit stream coming from the existing system."

Milne thinks the government is hopelessly conflicted about energy policy, particularly with Martin Ferguson at the helm of the energy portfolio.

"One of the things that really disturbed me today was Minister Ferguson coming out and saying that the objectives of the NEM are satisfactory, and one of the things that people have said to me is: no, that is not correct, because there is no environmental objective."

"There’s nothing about an environmental objective in the National Electricity Rules, and in the UK they’ve brought about significant reform by bringing about changes to the objectives. So the objectives of the NEM should be about bringing about policy objectives of reducing emissions as well as to bring down people’s power bills, and if you had that then you would force that debate about how you would significantly reduce that cost."

How is your relationship with Minister Ferguson, I ask. Milne takes a deep breath.

"He is totally pro-fossil fuels, he has never embraced the renewable energy revolution and he still sees a major role for the major role for the fossil fuel sector and facilitates that," she responds. "So I see Minister Ferguson as not being part of the drive for a clean energy future in Australia."

Milne thinks the government is often working at cross-purposes, with Ferguson’s energy and resources portfolio fighting back room battles against Greg Combet in the climate change portfolio.

"There’s no internal government consistency, put it that way, between the energy portfolio and the climate portfolio," she says.

"You’ve got Greg Combet out selling the emissions trading package, and I think he’s doing a pretty good job."

"And then you’ve got Minister Ferguson driving expanded new industry in brown coal and encouraging massive expansion of coal mining and extraction right around the country, particularly in Queensland, and you have the PM on one hand saying we’ve delivered this clean energy package with the Greens, and then you have her equally launching these massive new coal mines and massive resources going into coal railways."

"I just see this as the problem the government has got, they don’t have an internally-consistent approach to global warming at all."

Politically, Milne is signalling that that her next focus will be on policy solutions to bringing down electricity prices. She moved to set up a Senate enquiry on electricity prices that has already started taking submissions.

"The whole debate is focused on electricity costs, and not on bringing down people’s power bills, and actually you might have to invest in smart grids and in efficiency initiatives and so on, because that will bring down consumer’s bills."

"So I think that we really have to change the focus to bringing down electricity bills which means demand management and actually cutting back consumption. We’ve got $45 billion that’s going to be spent in the next five years on new poles and wires and gold-plating the system, and if the Senate enquiry I want to have — and if this review process that the Prime Minister wants to have — did something in a reasonable timeframe, you would be able to significant reduce that $45 billion investment over the next five years."

All this is fine and dandy, of course, but what happens under an Abbott government?

Milne doesn’t mince words. "I simply don’t believe that the Coalition are going to dismantle this [the Clean Energy package], I’ve said several times that the Coalition is going to have to change its policy or its leader or both, because increasingly they are exposed as having no viable alternative to address global warming at all, to have emissions reduction. Their latest effort on the carbon farming initiative is a case in point."

"And they don’t have the money for it, they have not said where are they going to get the money to pay the polluters to reduce emissions. There is no methodology to support the confidence they have … in soil carbon. Their whole policy is a joke — and it is unfunded."

Should Abbott win office, what would the Greens do, I ask, assuming they retained the balance of power in the Senate?

"I reject the notion of being obstructionist. What we would be doing is maintaining the momentum that will make Australia competitive and resilient into the future. We will be using our position to stop any Coalition government trying to take Australia back to the past."

"The Greens will be supporting the retention of the emissions trading scheme and all of the [clean energy]investment … pricing pollution is here to stay."

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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