I rise this evening to speak to the Annual climate change statement 2023 tabled by the Minister for Climate Change and Energy. The annual climate change statement is a reporting requirement legislated by the Climate Change Act 2022. The objective of the annual climate change statementis to promote accountability and ambition as we respond to climate change. It requires the minister to consider the independent advice provided by the Climate Change Authority and to share this advice and the government’s response with the public.

Independent expert advice and public accountability of government are key elements of a successful democracy, and they’re especially critical when it comes to the issue of climate change—so fundamental to the future of our country, including to my constituents in Indi. This is why I worked with the government in 2022 to amend the Climate Change Act. The first of my successful amendments requires the minister, via the annual climate change statement—this statement—to report on the impacts of the government’s emissions reductions policies on rural, remote and regional Australia. This includes reporting on the social, employment and economic benefits being delivered by those policies in rural and regional Australia. My second successful amendment requires the Climate Change Authority to advise on the benefits for rural and regional Australia of recommended changes to Australia’s emissions reduction targets. The advice given must also detail the physical impacts of climate change on rural and regional Australia.

I am a steadfast supporter of efforts to transition the Australian economy to renewable energy. My amendments have the clear aim of ensuring that the government’s actions in support of the transition deliver economic, employment and social benefits for all of Australia, including rural, remote and regional Australia. These amendments are especially important, given regional Australia will host the vast majority of the renewable energy infrastructure set to be built.

Beyond the context of this act, I’ve worked with committees across my electorate of Indi and with all levels of government to seize the opportunities presented by renewable energy, energy efficiency and the new industries they will unlock. I’ve engaged constructively with the government of the day and have put forward bills that would both accelerate the energy transition in Australia and benefit regional communities, because, with good policy, with well-designed policy, this doesn’t need to be an either-or scenario.

The Australian Local Power Agency Bill and my cheaper home batteries bill were designed to do just that: lock in genuine benefit sharing with the transition to renewables. Disappointingly, the government has so far largely failed to support and empower regional communities as central actors in energy transition. This failure is clearly evident in its Annual climate change statement 2023. With my amendment, the statement is required to detail the benefits and other impacts of the government’s policies on regional communities, yet the efforts of the government to fulfil this obligation are paltry.

The Annual climate change statement is 92 pages long with over 37,000 words, yet only 280 words are dedicated to detailing regional impacts. Furthermore, almost all of these 280 words are dedicated to the challenges and needs of communities with fossil fuel industries as they transition. Now, such work is critically important, and I wholeheartedly support the work of the Net Zero Economy Agency in this space. However, the annual statement fails to detail the actual impacts of Commonwealth government policies to date on these communities. Critically, the statement also fails to detail the impacts of government policies on traditional agricultural communities that are now finding themselves host to renewable energy infrastructure. Again, I want to be clear: there are many farmers right now that are taking advantage of this transition and hosting very successful renewable energy projects alongside their farming enterprises.

Beyond the impacts on regional communities, though, the statement refers to community engagement for renewable energy infrastructure projects. Community engagement in the statement is framed as a means of securing social licence for projects. This is not nearly good enough, because I’m seeing firsthand in the electorate of Indi the real impacts of renewable energy projects on communities. Regional communities are playing host to almost all of the infrastructure needed to deliver Australia’s clean energy transition: solar PV, wind, battery and transmission infrastructure. Communities in Indi such as Bobinawarrah, Meadow Creek, Ruffy, Dederang and others are facing the prospect of significant renewable energy being developed in their area with little or no information on the impact, either positive or negative, that these projects will have on their committees, let alone the real benefits that they could receive and share if this is done well.

I know that there are some bad-faith actors in this debate who are ideologically seeking to oppose the transition completely, without putting forward any realistic alternatives to reach net zero emissions. But as this rollout happens, many farmers, landholders and communities have legitimate questions and concerns, and, as I’ve said many times, a legitimate question or a legitimate concern becomes a complaint if it’s not listened to. They want to know about things like fire risks—potential or real—impacts on insurance premiums and how farmers and regional communities can truly benefit, and they should know. This goes well beyond mere social licence to operate.

What I’ve heard from these communities is that these concerns are rarely addressed. In almost all cases, community engagement and benefit sharing has been disappointing at best and non-existent at worst. Take the Strathbogie shire communities in my electorate, for example. These communities have long-term energy security issues. In fact, many communities in the shire of Strathbogie have experienced up to 17 power outages in the last four months. They’re on the edge of the grid and their energy security is appalling. These same communities are at the forefront of a renewable energy project proposal of wind turbines and transmission lines that are being touted as part of the solution to keeping the nation’s lights on. But under the proposal, it’s unclear if this energy project would keep the lights on for this local community, which will see these turbines and transmission lines in their backyards.

That is why, last year, I worked with Senator David Pocock on the terms of reference for an independent review into the community engagement on renewable energy infrastructure developments. That inquiry was commissioned by the Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, and was led by the Australian Energy Infrastructure Commissioner, Andrew Dyer. The review held a series of roundtables across the country, including in Wangaratta, where they met with local governments, businesses, landholders and community groups from Indi—communities like those from Meadow Creek, Dederang, Barnawartha and the Strathbogie Ranges.

Mr Dyer finalised his report in December last year. I’m pleased that, last Friday, standing beside the National Farmers’ Federation, Minister Bowen made the findings and recommendations of that report public and accepted in principle all of the report’s recommendations. The government’s acceptance of this report is an indication they are beginning to see community engagement not as a box that needs to be ticked but rather as a genuine process that aims to secure beneficial outcomes for all those involved.

This report gives state, territory and Commonwealth governments a road map for improving how people are consulted when energy projects are developed in their communities. The review made several recommendations that require the Commonwealth to work with the states and territories. These include ensuring best-practice complaints handling via state and territory ombudsmen, reforming planning laws to better recognise no-go and inappropriate locations for projects and identifying opportunities for benefit sharing between communities and developers.

I’m calling on the government to have the community engagement review recommendations at the top of the agenda when the Energy and Climate Change Ministerial Council meet for the first time this year. I also urge the government to fund, under the upcoming budget, a number of its recommendations, including setting up an independent body to design and operate a developer rating scheme so communities know whether they are dealing with good-faith proponents when they get a knock on the door or a letter in the post.

The government must also set up a communications program that provides local communities with details and time frames for the energy transition. Communities shouldn’t be left to do this work alone. The government has so far failed to adequately fulfil its obligations under the Climate Change Act to detail how its policies benefit regional Australia. I urge the government to remedy this shortcoming through stronger policy action and better information sharing. Implementing the recommendations of the community engagement review, and implementing them quickly, is a good place to start.

There are major opportunities this government must take up to empower regional communities to play a role in the energy transition and to truly benefit. Let this be a gold rush for rural and regional Australia.

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