Fiery debate as energy market overhauled in Senate

THIS afternoon Parliament passed Labor’s energy relief bill 28-22 unamended thanks to the support of the Greens, the Jacqui Lambie Network and independent senator David Pocock.
Fiery debate as energy market overhauled in Senate Fiery debate as energy market overhauled in Senate Fiery debate as energy market overhauled in Senate Fiery debate as energy market overhauled in Senate Fiery debate as energy market overhauled in Senate

Paul Hunt

Deputy Editor: Energy & Commodities

Paul Hunt

The legislation will cap wholesale gas prices at $12 a gigajoule and has been touted by the Liberal-National opposition as the biggest market intervention made by the government since the Whitlam era. 

Some members of Parliament had just three hours to read and consider the legislation. 

Labor government MPs gave up their 15-minute speaking time to give crossbenchers and the opposition a chance to argue points and move amendments. None of the amendments were adopted. 

Jacqui Lambie Network senator Tammy Tyrrell said her party, which consists of two members including founder and namesake Lambie herself, only supported the legislation because it would bring temporary bill relief to Tasmanians. 

Tyrrell noted that energy prices were still expected to rise by as much as 20% next year, for Tasmanians, but that the price cap would help minimise the impact of further rises. 

The origin of this figure was unclear. 

She did say that she felt uncomfortable voting through legislation with such little detail. 

Others who voted against the bill felt similarly.

One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts said the Bill was a "disgusting spectacle." 

"With no committee oversight, no public scrutiny, no industry scrutiny [this is] a shocking bill rammed through courtesy of the ALP, Greens and ‘teal' senator Pocock… in a single day, in hours, in return for quid pro quos next year," Roberts declared. 

Greens senator Dorinda Cox said the party supported the legislation because they had negotiated a special package of reforms to do with electrifying households. 

However, this package of promises from the Albanese government has not been announced yet. 

"There are long-term solutions… but as always it is the major parties lagging behind," Cox said in a heated speech. 

"Privatisation has failed to deliver cheaper energy in this country.

"The public good must come first before corporate profits." 

The Greens said they want to nationalise the energy sector, prompting opposition members to say "socialising" the energy sector would turn the nation into a communist state. 

WA Liberal senators Michaelia Cash and Jonathon Duniam said the true test of the legislation's success would be when Australians open their power bill. Cash's Western Australia electorate is exempt as it is not part of the east coast market. 

The Nationals went further. 

"History and economics tells us that controlling pricing doesn't work. It sounds good, but it actually doesn't work," Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie said. 

McKenzie said history was littered with examples, from the Roman Empire (when a price cap on gold devaluated currency, caused inflation and collapsed the economy), to US president Nixon's failed attempt to price gasoline. 

"The most notable example in recent times was when the government (in Australia) attempted to set a price floor for wool in the 80s. When the floor price failed and was abandoned, the Australian industry was left with a stockpile of 6 billion bales of wool and a debt of $2.7 billion back when that was a lot of money," she said. 

"Labor is reverting to its worst anti-business, pro-regulation, ‘big government' instincts."

She also said Greens crossbenchers "did not even see the legislation" before it was voted on. 

"So desperate to do a deal. Socialists one and all." 

APPEA outraged

It was a hard decision for the federal government to go to war with one of the most important and powerful industries in the nation, but with domestic gas prices rocketing this year, prime minister Anthony Albanese must have felt he had little choice. 

The oil and gas peak body, the Australian Petroleum Production Exploration Association, said in a statement following the passage of the Bill that Australian businesses should be "alarmed" that the government could step in and regulate without notice. 

APPEA said investor confidence would be "smashed" and Australia's reputation as a secure and stable investment destination was now in jeopardy. 

"This intervention in the market will have the opposite effect of that intended. Price caps and ongoing regulation of prices will undermine the case for investment in new supply and ultimately lead to higher prices and greater problems down the track," APPEA chief executive Samantha McCulloch said. 

Unpicking the cap 

The cap will come into effect in four months' time. It will not impact production from new developments or current long-term contracts. Many contracts for 2023 supply have already been signed. 

The concept of a cap is not the only measure in the proposal causing concern for industry.

It is the fact that the cap can be extended, and new caps can be introduced by the government of the day, for ambiguous periods of time.

A closer look at the policy paper shows the government would introduce a new "gas market code" which includes rules ordering gas producers to direct supply to domestic markets "in specific circumstances."

The government would also have the power to determine how much gas is supplied, where the gas is supplied from, when it would be supplied, and broad powers over agreements, contracts and pricing.

An important clause to note is that there is no stop-date to this policy. There is no end date and looks to be a permanent policy overhaul.

It comes after federal resources minister Madeleine King met with east coast LNG producers and struck a heads of agreement for industry to ensure ample supply to the market.

APPEA believes the government has not allowed enough time for the HoA to work.

The organisation said prime minister Anthony Albanese and energy and climate minister Chris Bowen had "succumbed to the undermining efforts of some ministers, unions and customers."



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