I rise to speak on the Net Zero Economy Authority Bill 2024. This bill represents a significant opportunity for Australia as we decarbonise and work towards a net zero economy by 2050. Most importantly, this bill represents an opportunity for regional, rural and remote Australia—the communities that will host the wind, solar, batteries, hydrogen and transmission lines that will power the rest of the nation.

The transition to renewable sources of energy will be as transformational for our country as the development of our current sources of energy. I want to ensure we grab this opportunity for investment into regional Australia to reap the rewards of true regional development: a thriving workforce; reliable and cheap energy for households and businesses; access to affordable and accessible housing, health care, child care; better roads and more. Australians are proud of the nation and community building that came with Snowy Hydro, and this is the moment to do it again.

There are two things I’m going to address in speaking on this bill. Firstly, that the authority is currently set up to support communities transitioning out of coal and gas; and, secondly, that the authority should also support communities transitioning into renewable energy so we can achieve true regional development right across our nation.

The bill sets up a new statutory body called the Net Zero Economy Authority, whose functions include ensuring Australia’s emissions-intensive industries and regions decarbonise and diversify, and supporting workers and communities through that change. I support an end to fossil fuel industries and I support a shift towards renewable energy that lowers our carbon emissions. I believe measures that support this goal, including those in this bill, are absolutely critical if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

During my first election campaign in 2019 and my second in 2022, people across my electorate came to me passionately wanting our parliament to address climate change. They were tired of years of inaction from government. They knew then, as they know now, that as long as greenhouse gas emissions continue, our temperatures will rise, and this will have devastating impacts to our health, our economy and our connection to our magnificent natural environment at home and around the world.

I know, like my constituents, that decarbonising our electricity supply to renewable energy is one critical way to protect all that we love. It’s why hundreds of members of my community and rural people from across the nation came together in 2020 to help me draft the Local Power Plan, a blueprint to bring in new jobs, new opportunities and an infinite supply of cheap, clean local power in regional Australia. And the plan demonstrated that in the regions, people are hungry for practical ideas about how to seize the momentous opportunity before us—that is in achieving net zero and utilising renewable energy to build a generation of shared prosperity.

I want to briefly address ‘net zero’ in the title of this bill, because we must be very cautious about including controversial offsetting methods like carbon capture and storage in net zero. We must also be cautious about thinking that expanding gas production is part of achieving net zero. The authority must focus on renewable energy and multisector decarbonisation. I support the objective of the Net Zero Economy Authority to promote orderly and positive economic transformation associated with achieving net zero emissions by 2050. I also agree with the assistant minister, who said in his second reading speech when introducing the bill:

We know there are communities in which the experience of the transition will be most concentrated.

This government knows that we must support these communities and those that live in them.

He went on to say:

We will leave no-one behind.

He refers to ‘communities’. Whenever the Labor government refers to communities affected by the shift towards the net zero economy, they list places like the Hunter, Latrobe and Gladstone, where coal-fired power stations and gas-fired generators are closing. The assistant minister further said, in introducing this bill:

The authority will help place these regions in a position to continue to play the vital role they always have.

I have no argument with that. We must replace jobs in these communities as they transition out of fossil fuel generated electricity to a renewable economy and its why, ultimately, I support this bill. But I argue that we must, in parallel, consider the communities who have never been associated with electricity generation and who are now being asked to host the wind, the solar and the hydro that will power our future energy systems. What is this bill doing to ensure that the transition brings community benefit to these people? If the answer is, ‘Nothing yet,’ then I say, ‘You are leaving these communities, like those in my electorate and many like them, behind.’

In my electorate, communities may not be transitioning away from fossil fuel generated energy, but they are absolutely at the forefront of the transition into renewable energy: generation, storage and transmission. Indi hosts two renewable energy zones. Grid scale solar projects are being built apace by large international companies near Glenrowan, Wangaratta and Benalla, while the Meadow Creek solar farm in the King Valley and the Seymour wind farm in the Strathbogie Ranges are in the early stages of planning. Battery energy storage systems have also recently been proposed in Tolmie and the Alpine and Kiewa valleys. These are landscapes that have never hosted a coal-fired power station. They are mostly farming properties, producing high-value beef and dairy. The visual landscape is rolling hills and bushland.

These regional communities need to be at the decision-making table. They need to be consulted with early in plans to generate, store and transmit power. These communities also deserve to benefit from these projects. While community benefit funds may assist in providing scholarships and small grants to local groups, we need to be thinking about bigger, transformative, nation-building benefit. I’m talking about a tangible, sustainable, long-term benefit to regional Australia. I want to see towns and communities across regional Australia truly prosper and thrive—not simply replacing jobs where they will be lost. I want regional Australians to look back in 20 years time and say, ‘Australia’s shift towards a net zero economy was when we got the best roads, when we got the best new health care, when new businesses came and when long-term, high-paying jobs for our towns became a reality. It’s when regional development really happened, and we’re benefiting from it for generations to come.’

Communities, not just landholders, deserve to benefit from hosting large-scale renewable energy infrastructure. Take the Strathbogie Shire communities in my electorate, for example. These communities have long-term energy security issues. In fact, many communities in Strathbogie Shire have experienced up to 11 power outages between November 2023 and February 2024—this year. These communities are on the edge of the grid, and their energy security in a modern Australia is absolutely 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 whether this energy project would keep the lights on for this local community, who will see turbines and transmission lines in their backyards.

There’s an opportunity here that’s not being realised: cheap, reliable power where it’s generated, to bring benefit to the local people who are generating this power. If communities start talking about renewable energy in terms of benefit, rather than what they don’t want to see, we’ll get so much further along the path to net zero. This really is as much about achieving regional development as it is about simply seeking social licence.

That’s why I’m pleased that one of the new authority’s objects is to ‘ensure Australia’s regions and workers are supported in relation to, and benefit from, Australia’s transition to a net zero emissions economy’. ‘Engagement’, ‘benefit’ and ‘support’ are important words. They’re easy to say in a speech; they’re easy to write in a bill. But how you achieve them is another thing entirely. This leads me to the actual details of the bill before us. As far as I can see, the only practical measures to achieve the authority’s objective of supporting communities in relation to Australia’s transition to a net zero emissions economy are in part 5 of the bill. Part 5 sets out the authority’s powers to create energy industry jobs plans. These plans will support workers in coal-fired power stations that are closing and gas-fired generators that are closing to transition to new jobs via retraining, redeployment and other practical measures. Energy industry jobs plans create a clear pathway for the authority to assist communities in the Hunter and Latrobe valleys. I welcome that, but it’s really the only ‘how to’ in this bill. There is nothing setting out how the authority will ‘ensure Australia’s regions and workers are supported in relation to, and benefit from, Australia’s transition to a net zero emissions economy’. There is nothing for the communities across my electorate, and across regional Australia more broadly, whose land use and workforce aren’t transitioning from an economy powered by fossil fuels but very much transitioning to one powered by renewables. They’re experiencing something completely new, and right now they feel it’s happening to them, rather than with them.

To bridge this gap between what the authority is supposed to do and how it will achieve it, I will move a number of amendments to this bill. These amendments are for communities like Meadow Creek, Dederang, Bobinawarrah, Ruffy, Benalla and the many others still to come who will host wind turbines, a solar farm, a battery or a transmission project. These amendments set out how the authority can ensure communities are meaningfully engaged by renewable energy project developers, through a developer rating scheme and local energy hubs which would bring evidence based, neutral information and guidance to local communities. My amendments set out how these communities, through community benefit plans, can receive touchable, tangible benefit when a project is built in their backyard. My amendments would ensure we have a bottom-up, not top-down, approach when it comes to figuring out what communities want from this new economy. My amendments would also add sensible, simple provisions that really should already be there, like acknowledging renewable energy zones, requiring the authority to submit annual work plans, and ensuring that the board which provides advice to the authority includes a member with expertise or experience, professional credibility and significant standing in regional, rural and remote development advocacy and community leadership. It’s not much to ask, actually—quite a modest ask.

Many of my amendments implement the recommendations of the Community Engagement Review, which I worked with the Minister Bowen, the Minister for Climate Change and Energy, to establish last year. They are recommendations for a developer rating scheme; a communications program, so that the public understand energy transition; and a package to realise community benefits. I’m pleased to see the government acting on the Community Engagement Review’s recommendations through the budget, but this announcement, again, lacks detail of the how to. It fails to show regional Australia how it will benefit from the renewable energy transition. The budget announcement didn’t indicate any future legislation for the how to. That is why I’m moving amendments to this bill. To achieve community engagement and benefit, there must be measures set out in the primary legislation, not just line items in a budget, which can be removed at the whim of a political party.

I will move around 18 amendments to this bill. It shows that the bill is a start but it has a long way to go for regional Australia. Rather than simply criticising the government for introducing a bill that ignores regional communities like those in my electorate, though, I am putting forward sensible, constructive amendments—amendments which I know will give communities and developers all the tools to make this transition the best thing to happen to the regions in a generation and put regional communities right at the forefront of their own future.

Unless we legislate practical measures for this authority to undertake, the bill is just words on a page. It’s a nice intention from this government but one which delivers no meaningful outcomes for regional communities like mine. My amendments are about action. So I call on this government: support my amendments and improve this bill so that you truly fulfil your noble intention of leaving no community behind as we transition to a cleaner economy and a stronger future.

Sign up

Keep up to date with the latest news and information