I was in Corryong two weeks ago when a women approached me on the street—I’ll call her Samantha. Samantha told me that she had grown up in Corryong and had just returned after being away for 30 years.
Corryong, in the Upper Murray, is ‘The man from Snowy River’ country. It’s remote and wild country. Before it becomes mighty, the Murray River begins its journey to the ocean here in these hills.
I’ve told the story in this place before how Corryong was cut off from power in the bushfires because it relies on a single, fragile powerline going down to Wodonga, which was burnt down. But losing power is not a rare event for people who live here.
Samantha told me that she loses power at least once a day, from anything for a few seconds to several hours. When she first moved back here in January, her mother, who still lives in the upper Murray, told her to buy two things: candles and a torch. Samantha told me: ‘You need them around here; nothing has changed in 30 years.’
That’s not exactly supporting Australian households, says the member for Ryan. Nothing has changed in 30 years.
After the fires left the Upper Murray community completely isolated, the community came together to try and fix its problem of unreliable and insecure power. The result is the Upper Murray Placed Based Power Plan, which aims to build a mini grid of dozens of connected solar generators and batteries right across the region.
The community has won $3 million in bushfire recovery funds to start work on this. The mini grid will allow them to generate and store their own power, especially in a bushfire event but also to make sure they have an everyday power supply.
When I read this motion, which is really just self-congratulatory guff, I think of places like Corryong, where everyday people are getting on and building their own solutions with renewables.
The contrast between the stunning lack of action from government to support community-led renewables and the impressive commitment of regional communities is remarkable. This is, of course, the government that claims to be reducing emissions by subsidising a gas-led recovery.
Politicians in this place often stand up and beat their chests about how regional Australia needs coal and gas for all sorts of reasons.
But, once you get past the bravado, the reality on the ground is completely different. It’s not just local communities; large regional manufacturers are turning off gas and turning on renewables, not for some highfalutin concern about the planet, but because it makes sense for them and us in the regions.
Ryan and McNulty Sawmillers, a timber sawmill in Benalla, has plastered its roof in solar panels to save power. Senator (Bridget) McKenzie and I, on Friday, visited the new Wangaratta pool, and we saw how it’s powered completely now by rooftop solar. The Mars factory in Wodonga, just a week ago, announced that it, along with seven other Mars factories in Victoria, has gone 100 per cent renewable by partnering with a solar farm near Ouyen, in the member for Mallee’s electorate. They’re procuring enough renewable power to process 185 million bags of M&Ms, and they’re doing it because they wanted to cut down on power outages, which are immensely costly for a large manufacturer like them, and because renewables are simply cheaper.
In places like the Upper Murray, the most rural of communities you’ll find, people aren’t talking about gas. They’re talking about renewables. They’re talking about their own locally-designed, locally-driven mini grid proposal.
I don’t know whose idea the gas-fuelled recovery is, or who it actually serves, but it’s totally disconnected from the reality of regional Australia that I represent. It’s disconnected from the reality of regional hospitals, regional councils, regional manufacturers and regional people, like Samantha, who are just trying to keep the lights on.
These aren’t activists. These aren’t, as the Deputy Prime Minister suggests, inner-city lefties. The gas distribution network simply doesn’t even physically cover most of regional Australia. It doesn’t reach places like Corryong. If you want to cook with gas in Corryong, you need to use a gas bottle. The idea that subsidising big gas companies will help communities like Corryong is, frankly, laughable.
The National Party, really the entire government, has got this one completely wrong. It’s time they truly listened to regional communities and actually understood what real, practical action means. Renewables could be the best thing to happen to regional Australia since the wool boom, but no-one seems to get that in government.
In the last parliamentary sitting I tabled a bill to set up a new agency: the Australian Local Power Agency. Its job would be to drive investment in locally-owned renewables in regional Australia that would see jobs procurement and money coming into regional Australia. We put support right behind communities like the Upper Murray.
We don’t need a gas-led recovery; we need a renewable-led recovery and we need a community-led recovery, so I say to the National Party and the government to look at my Australian Local Power Agency bill and back in regional Australia in our economic recovery.
IMAGE: Sandy Tyrell (Indigo Power)