Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN (Stuart) (11:42): It is my pleasure on behalf of the people of Stuart to rise to contribute to the Appropriation Bill 2017. We all know this is about the estimates period that follows the budget period. Let me put on the record right at the start that budgeting is always difficult. It does not matter if it is the smallest household or the largest national economy: budgeting is difficult. There is never enough money to do all the things that you want to do.
It actually comes down to your priorities. It comes down to picking necessities and picking priorities. Of course, that is one of the foundations of politics in our system. Many priorities are the same and many priorities are different. There is also another difference, and that is the capacity to manage money. We on this side of the house believe that we would be much more efficient and much more effective budgeters on behalf of the people of South Australia, keeping in mind that the money is not ours.
The money does not belong to government, the money does not belong to parliament or to MPs; it belongs to the people of South Australia. It is money that they have been taxed by the South Australian government or the federal government and then a share of that tax from the federal government has been passed on to the state government to spend on behalf of South Australians. It is not the government’s money; it is South Australians’ money, to be spent for their best benefit.
I have to say that through the budget, towards the estimates period, estimates is a very frustrating thing for opposition. The government knows that. I understand that they know that. I understand that they try to make it frustrating. It is frustrating not only for members of the opposition but also for members of the public because they know it is their money, they know it is being spent on their behalf and they are incredibly frustrated that the government frustrates the opposition when it comes to finding out how that money is being spent.
The process is meant to allow detailed questions to lead to detailed answers so that everybody can know exactly what is going on, but that certainly has not happened this year. I sat in on defence industries, veterans affairs, employment, science and technology, manufacturing and innovation, automotive transformation and, from the opposition’s perspective, I also led the mineral resources and energy session.
In those seven different sessions that I sat in on, there were very few open and frank answers about how the money is being spent or why the government has established the priorities that it has established. I say again, ‘Don’t worry about us. Don’t worry about the opposition MPs. Worry about the South Australians who are frustrated because the government won’t give us answers on their behalf,’ because we represent South Australians as well; it is not only the government that represents them.
The opposition and this whole parliament represent South Australians, so we are asking those questions on behalf of the public so that the public can get the answers they deserve, but unfortunately they were not forthcoming at all. I understand that we are only a few months out from the election and tempers get frayed, that relationships are stressed and life becomes a lot more difficult in this building the closer you get to an election. Guess what? That is just bad luck. The government still is obliged to provide straight answers, even a few to several months out from an election.
It will not surprise anybody in this house that one of the most argumentative ministers in estimates was the Treasurer, the Minister for State Development, the Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy. He has a particular knack of putting forward his view and nobody else’s view and avoiding and dodging questions. I suppose in many ways that might well be described as a political skill, but the reality is that the overwhelming majority of people in South Australia do not view it that way. The overwhelming majority of people in South Australia view it as dodgy, as a way of avoiding scrutiny and applying spin to a particular point of view.
Be that as it may, it is the opposition’s job to get the best that we possibly can out of the estimates process. Some people find estimates dull and some people find it ineffective, but my view is that, as frustrating as it is, it is the opportunity that we have and, if the government gives us only a small percentage of the value out of it that we are entitled to, we should still take whatever we can get on behalf the people of South Australia.
This year, of course, there was a strong focus on energy. In the estimates session I led as the shadow minister for energy and mining with the Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy, the focus was entirely on energy, not because mining is not important—it is very, very important, and I am an extraordinarily strong supporter of our mineral resources industries in this state, including petroleum—but because that is where the public focus is and that is where the biggest mess is at the moment with regard to government policy.
Also, this year the government provided less time for mineral resources and energy than it has in previous years, so time was tighter. Interestingly, the minister took government questions this year, which he has not done in all the last several years in which I have participated as the shadow minister. A greater focus on energy, a shorter time allowed by the government and the minister’s taking government questions all meant that the opportunity for me to ask questions was significantly diminished, so I thought it was appropriate to focus on energy—apologies to the mining sector. It is just the way it had to be this year, but that does not mean for a second that mining is not important; it certainly is.
The reason that it was so important for the minister to provide straightforward, helpful answers is that energy in our state is a mess. Everybody knows it. Everybody all over Australia knows that energy in our state is a mess, and everybody knows that, after 16 years of state Labor government policy, energy is a mess. The government has punished South Australians with outrageously high electricity prices, job losses and blackouts. The government has said that that is necessary because it wants to reduce emissions, help the environment and have an extremely quick leap towards a lower carbon emissions world.
But one of the most startling things in the budget—this is the information that the government itself put in the budget—is that emissions generated within South Australia from electricity generation will actually increase from 2016-17 to 2017-18. It will increase from a target in the last year of 43½ per cent—I would have to check that—to a forecast for the 2017-18 year of 55 per cent (and I know I have that number right). They are punishing all South Australians with increased electricity prices, job losses and blackouts, all to reduce emissions, they say, yet their budget says they will not reduce emissions. That is absolutely disgraceful.
This has led directly to South Australia having the highest unemployment rate in the nation for the last several years. It is not an accident. High electricity prices flow through from the smallest household to the largest employer. It is an additional cost on every household and every business. The reason I focus on business is not because I am so focused on business profitability but because I want businesses to be able to employ people, and if a business is not making a certain level of profit and does not have a secure future then that business cannot provide secure employment and secure employment is what every person deserves to have. Everybody deserves secure employment—that is why businesses need to be successful.
This increase in electricity prices and the blackouts—we all know the Business SA figures say nearly half a billion dollars was lost from the statewide blackout on 28 September last year, plus the other five blackouts that we have had in the last year or so—have had an extraordinarily negative impact upon business and that is why employment is suffering, among other reasons. But we all know—every member on this side of the house knows and every government member knows—that if we had lower electricity prices, we would have higher employment; it is just a fact.
This business that the government trots out about privatisation nearly 20 years ago being the cause and the devil that has created all this is absolute rubbish because for most of that nearly 20 years Victoria and South Australia have both been privatised and for most of that nearly 20 years South Australia has had the highest prices and Victoria has had the lowest prices for electricity. So that privatisation argument is dead and buried and absolutely ridiculous.
As we know, there are some commentators who say South Australia has the highest electricity prices in the world. That is absolutely shameful. It is also shameful that the minister would not honestly, directly and in a very open way answer estimates questions that people quite rightfully want to know the answers to. They want to know why we are in this situation. Of course, through the budget, from the government’s announcement back on 14 March and all the way through the estimates period that we are talking about at the moment, the government has clung to its $550 million plan, which it says is going to help South Australians in this area.
Interestingly, the government said at the beginning of this process, back on 14 March and in the days immediately afterwards, that the government’s plan would reduce electricity prices. That is what they said. If they spent $550 million of taxpayers’ money it would reduce electricity prices. However, you cannot find any government member, let alone the minister or the Premier, saying that these days. They have totally walked away from that commitment because, as the opposition said at the time, that was never going to happen. Unfortunate as that fact is, they tried to oversell, they tried to overspruik and they said things which now you cannot get them to say again because they know they were not true.
What we quite regularly get, and what we got through estimates, was the government saying, ‘Don’t worry about all of this; we’re going to spend $550 million,’ but they will not provide any detail at all about how that money is going to be spent. The answer is, of course, that as they keep changing their plan, as they have done half a dozen times, the answer is always, ‘It’s okay; it’s within the budget.’ Let me tell you, Deputy Speaker, if I were to drive your car—
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: You wouldn’t fit in my car!
Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN: —and if I were to crash your car and I then said to you, ‘Don’t worry about it because I’m going to spend a lot of your money getting your car fixed,’ you would not be very happy. If then I kept changing my plans about how it was going to be fixed and if I had said at the start, ‘Don’t worry, it will be completely fixed,’ but a bit later on said, ‘Maybe I’ll fix it a bit; maybe it will be sort of fixed. I can’t keep the promise that I made to start with,’ you would be even less happy. Then if I said to you, ‘But don’t worry, Deputy Speaker, it will all be within the very high budget of your money that I told you that I would spend,’ you would not be happy.
However, that is what the government is telling the people of South Australia. The government is telling the people of South Australia not to worry because it is going to be within the $550 million budget of South Australians’ own money that the government is going to spend to fix the problem that the government created—and they think that is okay. They think that is okay but no-one else thinks it is okay.
No-one anywhere in South Australia thinks that is okay. I know that if members opposite were in a position to speak openly, many of them would say they know it is not okay, as well. It is not okay to say that they are going to spend $550 million of taxpayers’ money to fix the problem that they created and then, when they cannot explain exactly what the solution is (and they change the solution regularly), say, ‘It will all be within the $550 million so you don’t need to worry.’ No-one is falling for that.
South Australians are being left in the dark about how their money is being spent, whether it is considering the big battery near Jamestown, the gas generator which we were told initially would be in place for this coming summer, the diesel generators we have subsequently been told will be in place for this coming summer or what will now be the same generators which can run on diesel and can run on gas and will be in place for two years and then will be transferred to gas, which they are going to lease to begin with but there is an option to buy them but they cannot tell us what the price for the lease or the price for the purchase is, and they cannot tell us when they are going to transfer from a lease to purchase.
It is no wonder that nobody out there is comfortable with this plan. It is no wonder that they are angry about the fact that they are being told, ‘$550 million of your money, it will all be okay; don’t worry about it,’ when none of those very straightforward questions will be answered, not even in the estimates process, which is exactly where those questions should be answered. Even with regard to some technical questions—and it is fair to ask technical questions in estimates when there is a budget allocated to the work to be done—it is fair to ask, ‘How is this particular money going to be spent? What is going to be done with this money?’ It is fair to ask even very straightforward questions like, ‘Are the connections into the grid at Jamestown at the Hornsdale Wind Farm sufficient currently to allow for the installation of the new battery next to the wind farm? Will there be extra connection infrastructure required to make that happen?’
Of course, then the energy minister looks up and laughs and says, ‘That’s how little the opposition knows about this stuff. Why would you ask a question like that?’ as some sort of high and mighty defence, and then turns around to the advisers and starts chuckling, so they all start chuckling as if they think it is funny. They do not, but if the minister chuckles, they chuckle and that is just what often happens. There are a lot of unanswered questions about this energy plan. The government will have to answer these questions. They also have to explain why they are backing away from the commitments they made when they initially announced the plan.
This plan has been changed half a dozen times, and no doubt it will continue to change. A very fair question that comes out of all this—and one we hear regularly, and I do not mind it at all—is: what about the opposition’s energy plan? That is a fair question, and the very fair answer is: the opposition’s energy plan will be released well in advance of the next state election.
The opposition’s energy plan will be focused on delivering affordable, reliable electricity for South Australians that will flow through to increased employment in every way imaginable, as I said before, from the smallest household to the largest employer. Every single South Australian is affected by electricity. We will deliver a plan months out from the election that makes it very clear how South Australia will again retain affordable and reliable electricity for the benefit of every South Australian.