Will the regions have a voice in the debate over the  Climate Change Bill?

Regions are watching with interest as The House of Representatives this month passed the Climate Change Bill 2022 that will formally bind Australia to a reduction target of 43 per cent below 2005 emissions levels by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.

Independent Member for the regional Victorian seat of Indi, Dr Helen Haines, says renewable energy could be “the next gold rush” for regional Australia. Haines put forward two amendments that turn the national climate change focus to regional and rural areas.

The original Bill, a brief 12-page document, did not include any mention of regional Australia.

The  amendments add in a subclause that would ensure the Annual Climate Change Statement will include the social, employment and economic benefits being delivered by national climate change policies in rural and regional Australia.

Another added subclause specified official advice on emission reduction targets must include advice on the social, employment and economic benefits of any new or adjusted greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets and policies, including for rural and regional Australia, as well as the physical impacts of climate change on Australia.

“This is a victory for regional Australia and its impact will be felt for decades to come,” Haines says.

“These changes mean the Climate Change Authority will be required to ensure that any measures to respond to climate change will boost economic, employment and social benefits in regional and rural Australia.

“The regions will be explicitly considered when setting new emissions reduction targets and the minister must address the economic, employment and social benefits to regional Australia in the annual statement on emissions reductions.”

Expertise in regional development will also be an eligible qualification for appointments to the Climate Change Authority.

“It’s a very important amendment because it really does put regional Australia in the driver’s seat,” Haines says.

“The biggest impacts and the biggest projects are happening in regional areas, and there is the greatest opportunity to benefit existentially and financially in the regions.”

She says the opportunities include ensuring jobs within the regions the projects are located instead of using fly-in-fly-out workforces, regional training programs, advocacy for financial support for mid-scale regional renewable projects that are run locally, and providing more reliable sources of energy for communities already at the edge of the grid or off the grid.

“One of the greatest challenges is in ensuring that benefits flow to these communities,” Haines says. “Right now, it is relatively straightforward for a large company to come in and get approval for a major project where not a single cent could end up in the pocket of regional Australians. It could all go offshore.”

Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen told Parliament he “would be shocked if any member opposed these.”

Leader of the Nationals David Littleproud argued in Parliament the amendments were “well intended” but did not go to the heart of the issue.“In fact, as a Coalition government, we put in place a structured process of review that had independence,” he said. “It had an independent review by the Productivity Commission, who are better equipped to undertake these reviews than the Climate Change Authority.

“This is like having the Climate Change Authority assess their own homework. Why wouldn’t we have an independent authority come in and understand the economic impact on regional and rural Australia?”

Member for Fairfax, Liberal Party member Ted O’Brien also argued against the amendments.

“… it is not good enough to have the Climate Change Authority do this work,” O’Brien said.

“The leader of the National Party is right; it is the equivalent of them marking their own homework. Worse still, it is like the minister himself marking his own homework.

“That’s what these amendments would effectively enable. That’s why we have decided, as an opposition, to also oppose this amendment.”

Haines last year proposed a body called the Australian Local Power Agency (ALPA) to “simplify  and supercharge” the roll-out of community renewable energy projects across Australia.

She introduced the idea as the ALPA Bill in Parliament, and it was the subject of a Parliamentary Committee inquiry. The Bill proposed a new $467 million agency to support regional communities to develop and invest in their own renewable energy projects, with 50 local power hubs around the country.

In February this year, the committee recommended that the Bill not be passed.

“Ultimately, the committee considers that the creation of another new bureaucratic agency, with all the costs and administration that entails, would not be of benefit to Australians,” the report stated. “The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) are appropriate agencies to undertake the work of providing support to renewable energy projects in Australia.”

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