Newly elected Greens leader Christine Milne says it is time for “progressive industry” to stand up and be counted as the debate over the carbon price and complementary measures such as the Renewable Energy Target, the Clean Energy Finance Corp and other measures takes a worrying course.
The Tasmania Senator said in an interview with RenewEconomy that she plans to paint a vision of a low-carbon economy that can thrive beyond the inevitable end of the mining boom, but it’s essential that progressive companies countered the fear campaign against clean energy policies launched by established industry groups.
“I think (these companies) are wondering if Tony Abbott will win the next election and, if he does, and they put their heads above the parapet now, that will somehow deny them access or cache with a Coalition government,” Milne said. “But as I say to them, this is the time to stand up and fight for the frameworks necessary for your business.”
Milne also said she would be closely watching the contents of the Clean Energy Finance Corp, for fear that its mandate would be “too conservative.”
Here is an edited transcript of the interview:
Q: Congratulations on your appointment. Did you have any inkling this would happen on Friday?
A: Yes, I did. Bob told me on Easter Thursday so I had a week to get used to it.
Q: What was the first thing that you thought you had to do as the new leader of the Greens?
A: I’ve long had the view that we need an economic narrative so that people can understand how a low-carbon economy fits with a progressive, jobs-rich, diversified modern economy; and how that supports the kind of progressive society that I think most Australians aspire to. So I thought the first thing I have to do is to bring on the Greens’ economic credentials in terms of what a low-carbon economy actually looks like, as opposed to just an academic concept.
Q: That’s not that easy, particularly in a high-carbon economy like Australia where so much of the rhetoric is geared towards saying, this is not possible.
A: It is a big challenge. But I think there is a real yearning for someone to articulate a vision for Australia that is beyond the mining boom. I think most people realise that the boom will come to an end, that it is not sustainable to talk about a future for Australia which is just about digging it up, cutting it down and shipping it away; and there’s a level of anxiety about where the jobs will come from, what opportunities will there be for my children, how I will be employed into the future when the mining boom comes to an end? There is a lot of concern that Australia is going the way of other places, with increasing levels of inequality and small numbers are benefiting from the boom enormously and the rest are suffering; and there is not much vision as to how to address that. So I think that, at one level it is hard, but at another level there is a yearning to hear that there is a bright future and someone needs to paint it for me.
Q: And do you think the Greens can cut through on that issue to a broader public?
A: I have to try. It would be too much to say that I can – what I want to do is try and that is why I have been calling for progressive business to step up and put its head above the parapet, at the moment, because one of my frustrations is that I go to meetings, like Sustainable Business Australia, or I have meetings with companies that are doing amazing things, terrific R&D, talking to people who can relate what their associates overseas are doing and yet none of it is hitting the Australian media very much. And you go on to the Twitter feed and you see all the reports of new solar facilities coming on line and the reports of what is happening in China, Spain and the United States, and you are just not reading it in the mainstream press. And when I challenge these companies they say, oh, but we are trying and we’re not being reported. I’m not totally confident that they are trying hard enough. We’ve got the work that you are doing and several others, but it is not hitting the front pages or the lead items on the news.
Q: Why do you think those businesses are so reluctant? Do they fear more powerful interests?
A: A lot of the progressive businesses depend on the RET, and depend on the Clean Energy Finance Corp, depend on the Carbon farming Initiative, depend on emissions trading, and I think they are now wondering if Tony Abbott will win the next election and if he does, and they put their heads above the parapet now, that will somehow deny them access or cachet with a Coalition government. But as I say to them, this is the time to stand up and fight for the frameworks necessary for your business. If you continue to sit back and think that it is only the Greens and a few climate groups and a few outspoken journalists like yourself who are talking about this, until they come out and say my business depends on Australia moving on in terms of pricing carbon – only when you get that sort of debate are you going to see ACCI, the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia having to answer to a challenge from somewhere else.
Q: There is a degree of fear about the fate of those pieces of legislation. What is your reading now on the carbon price. There has been talk recently that the progress made by the Katter Party in Queensland, for instance, may mean that the Greens do not retain the balance of power in the next election? How do you go about protecting the legislation you have done so much to bring to fruition?
A: Well, that is why I am going to use the leadership position to try and paint a vision of the alternative future that Australia can have and address the main vulnerabilities we have in the economy at the moment. I would argue that the dependence on the resource-based industries has led to the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector, to massive underinvestment in education, research, training and skills development, and extreme vulnerability when the boom ends.
What the alternative vision is that we need to get off the idea that the only thing Australia can do is dig up resources. In fact, we can invest in the community, bring best and brightest home, get better protection for our intellectual property rights, get involved in capacity building in our region, invests in productivity in agricultural to protect food security and prices and so on, and get out there and campaign for the alternative. But it will require support from others in the business sector. My election to the leadership gives me the opportunity to say the climate crisis is accelerating but it provides an enormous opportunity to deal with the vulnerabilities currently created by the resources boom.
Q: Let’s get on to the RET, it is supposed to have bipartisan support, but there is obviously a big campaign against the renewable energy target. How do you read the politics of that?
A: Well, there is a concerted campaign from those who want to destroy renewable energy in Australia who say that now we have a carbon price then we should ditch all complementary measures, including the RET. That has been there from the start, which is why, throughout the negotiation, I said we needed a carbon price plus, plus, plus – including the RET and the CEFC – and I continue to say that.
In terms of political support, the Labor party supports the retention of the RET, and the Coalition has come out in last week too and says it supports the RET. So the challenge is to increase the target, to make sure that it supports technologies which are economically viable now at scale, and the CEFC brings on others which are not as economically viable. That is the challenge – and the Coalition does not support the CEFC. The Greens will go to the next election saying that if you support renewable energy, 100 per cent renewables as quickly as possible, then you need to have the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate, so the Coalition will not be able to undermine the renewable energy target and the CEFC. It will be a matter of choice for the community, but there is huge support for 100 per cent renewables as quickly as possible; and the other thing is that we are getting to cost parity faster than anyone imagined.
Q: What do you hope to come from the CEFC mandate that will be released soon. What do you hope it delivers and what do you fear it won’t.
A: The idea was to recognised that we need to bring renewable energy at scale in a quicker time frame. The science makes that imperative clear. The CEFC was designed not to displace private sector finance, but to try and support those technologies that work but which the carbon price is not high enough to bring on. This is not designed to displace private sector finance, this is about facilitating private sector investment and reducing risk.
Q: If the CEFC recommendations do not deliver what you anticipated, will you seek amendments to it?
A: At this stage, the Greens were keen to see the CEFC legislation last year as part of the Clean Energy Future package. The government said it was necessary to get the investment mandate right and we need to appoint a chair and get the consultation process with industry to determine what is needed to deliver that outcome. I can see that is an imperative because one of the big criticisms from many renewable companies, and from energy efficiency companies, and that was the experience with the Solar Flagships program, was that industry was not consulted about what industry really needed. So I was prepared to concede that we should talk to industry and see what that mandate looks like.
I understand that is with government but we have not seen it yet. But I will be keen to get that legislation through, but the key thing that has occurred because of the time delay is that the coalition has been able to run around beating up the idea that the CEFC will lose millions of taxpayers’ money and that it shouldn’t carry too much risk. The idea is to destroy the intent of the CEFC – of course it will have a portfolio, some of which will have risk. That is the whole point of something that goes between commercialisation and venture capital. If there is something that goes in between it has to have a risk profile. My concern is that because they have beaten up so much on that, the investment mandate will be too conservative. I will be keen to see what has come from Jillian Broadbent’s consultation, and we will be considering that with the government as the legislation is developed.
Q: So you will not guarantee free passage if it is not consistent with the original intent?
A: We will be talking to the government about it. I don’t want to see the Coalition destroying the CEFC, which is clearly what they have set out to do. It’s got an important role to play. I see this more as a collaboration effort between the industry, the government and the Greens to get this right.
Q: Over the course of time, the CEFC is more vulnerable than the carbon pricing legislation, because it could be starved of funds, couldn’t it? How confident are you that it can survive a change of government?
A: Well, I am confident of the whole package – contrary to the hot air we hear from Tony Abbott about blood oaths, and everything else. What I hear around Australia is that people are really pleased about the Carbon Farming Initiative and the Coalition said it won’t repeal that. It has also said it won’t repeal the RET; it is yet to say what it will do about the provisions on energy efficiency, and indeed on the scenario planning with the electricity market operator, AEMO, and about electricity market rules. But I am confident that whatever we achieve will stand and that just leaves Tony Abbott with his promise to get rid of emissions trading and the CEFC, but they will be up and running for a year before the next federal election.
There will be a lot of business taking place in that time, plus all compensation measures will have been rolled out and will be operational. What Tony Abbott will have to spell out is how to achieve a 5 per cent reduction without emissions trading and how he will achieve higher levels of aspiration that will come in the course of global negotiations. What we propose is a lot cheaper, and there is a fair bit of water under the bridge before the next election.