Mor­ri­son close to lower house win on 'big stick' en­ergy pack­age

The Guardian Australia - - Front Page - Katharine Mur­phy Po­lit­i­cal edi­tor

The Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment is hurtling to­wards a suc­cess­ful lower house vote on its con­tro­ver­sial en­ergy pack­age de­spite a con­certed rear­guard ac­tion by La­bor to de­fer a vote un­til the new year.

With fierce lob­by­ing un­der way in the par­lia­ment on Wed­nes­day night to try and de­rail the vote, the Coali­tion pushed for­ward, bring­ing on the sec­ond read­ing de­bate with the sup­port of Bob Kat­ter and An­drew Wilkie.

Af­ter nine di­vi­sions in the space of an hour, and the trea­surer, Josh Fry­den­berg re­lo­cat­ing to ca­jole var­i­ous cross­benchers to sup­port the gov­ern­ment in bring­ing on the pack­age, the shadow trea­surer, Chris Bowen, ob­jected to the gov­ern­ment forc­ing sub­stan­tive dis­cus­sion on leg­is­la­tion which gov­ern­ment MPs had not yet seen.

Bowen con­tended the leg­is­la­tion had been pulled to­gether in “an all­nighter in the Trea­sury”. He said it was pos­si­ble it had draft­ing er­rors, given the gov­ern­ment had been forced by its own back­bench to re­work its orig­i­nal pro­posal, and experts hadn’t had a chance to ex­am­ine it.

The shadow trea­surer said there were or­derly pro­cesses in place in the par­lia­ment “to stop bad law”.

Aus­tralia’s ma­jor power com­pa­nies, who have fore­shad­owed a high court chal­lenge against the di­vesti­ture regime, also urged the gov­ern­ment to slow down.

“We are dis­ap­pointed the gov­ern­ment has in­tro­duced this bill into the par­lia­ment, not only be­cause it rep­re­sents un­prece­dented mar­ket in­ter­ven­tion, but also be­cause of the se­cre­tive way the bill has been de­vel­oped with­out any rea­son­able con­sul­ta­tion or con­sid­er­a­tion of its im­pacts,” said the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Aus­tralian En­ergy Coun­cil, Sarah McNa­mara.

“This bill, if passed, will have far­reach­ing con­se­quences beyond the en­ergy in­dus­try, and yet, de­spite these ram­i­fi­ca­tions and with­out the sup­port of any in­dus­try body, con­sumer group or even its own reg­u­la­tor, the gov­ern­ment is press­ing on re­gard­less.”

The gov­ern­ment re­vised key com­po­nents of its much vaunted “big stick” di­vesti­ture power af­ter in­ter­nal ob­jec­tions from more than 20 back­benchers. Gov­ern­ment MPs ar­gued break­ing up pri­vate com­pa­nies of­fended core Lib­eral val­ues.

The re­drafted pro­posal en­sures that di­vesti­ture will only hap­pen af­ter a rec­om­men­da­tion by Aus­tralia’s com­pe­ti­tion watch­dog, which has first sanc­tioned poor cor­po­rate con­duct.

The courts would also be the ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion-mak­ers, rather than a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter – the orig­i­nal pro­posal that trig­gered an in­tense back­lash in the busi­ness com­mu­nity, and ar­gu­ments the regime may be un­con­sti­tu­tional.

Scott Mor­ri­son and the en­ergy min­is­ter, An­gus Tay­lor, de­fended the re­worked pack­age on Wed­nes­day, say­ing crit­ics of it had lined up with the power com­pa­nies at the ex­pense of con­sumers.

The Lib­eral Craig Kelly, whose pre­s­e­lec­tion was saved by Mor­ri­son ear­lier this week, de­clared La­bor was “aid­ing and abet­ting” the power com­pa­nies at the ex­pense of house­holds and busi­ness. “That’s whose side they are on,” Kelly said.

Given its di­min­ished ma­jor­ity in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, the gov­ern­ment needs two cross­bench votes to pass the leg­is­la­tion.

Kat­ter seems a cer­tainty, and Wilkie con­firmed to Guardian Aus­tralia on Wed­nes­day night he would vote for the pack­age. He said it was im­por­tant for the gov­ern­ment to have the power “to rein in the en­ergy gi­ants when they act im­prop­erly”.

“Cur­rently these com­pa­nies have way too much mar­ket power, and just the threat of hav­ing to di­vest some as­sets in some cir­cum­stances will en­cour­age them to im­prove their be­hav­iour,” Wilkie said.

The Tas­ma­nian in­de­pen­dent said he had been con­cerned about as­pects of the leg­is­la­tion but the ad­just­ments the gov­ern­ment made to keep the back­bench in line had ad­dressed the de­fi­cien­cies.

“My ini­tial reser­va­tions with the bill were largely ad­dressed by the safe­guards that are in­cluded, and in par­tic­u­lar that any di­vest­ment can only be on the ad­vice of the Aus­tralian Com­pe­ti­tion and Con­sumer Com­mis­sion and at the or­der of the fed­eral court.”

He said di­vesti­ture powers ex­isted in other coun­tries.

But Wilkie said Aus­tralia was still de­void of a func­tional en­ergy pol­icy. “It needs to be clearly un­der­stood that this is a very nar­rowly-fo­cused bill and noth­ing like the com­pre­hen­sive en­ergy pol­icy the coun­try so de­spe-

rately needs.”

The Cen­tre Al­liance MP Re­bekha Sharkie also con­firmed on Wed­nes­day night that she would sup­port the bill.

While se­cur­ing progress on di­vesti­ture, the Coali­tion has, how­ever, trig­gered a ma­jor new po­lit­i­cal fight in Queens­land. Tay­lor has de­manded Queens­land’s state-owned gen­er­a­tors re­duce their power prices, or face an or­der to sell as­sets.

With pri­vati­sa­tion a sen­si­tive is­sue in Queens­land, Tay­lor’s threat was re­buked im­me­di­ately by both Queens­land

La­bor and by the LNP.

Re­bekha Sharkie, Josh Fry­den­berg, An­drew Wilkie and Scott Mor­ri­son on the cross­benches as the gov­ern­ment moves to bring on de­bate on the en­ergy bills. Pho­to­graph: Mike Bow­ers for the Guardian

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