National Electricity (South Australia) (Retailer Reliability Obligation) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

I rise to speak on the National Electricity (South Australia) (Retailer Reliability Obligation) Amendment Bill 2019. It has taken me a lot to come to speak on this bill. I have just spent the last half an hour reading one of the most gruesome coronial reports I have ever read, and I will be talking about that on another day in this house.

However, I was motivated to interrupt myself in relation to that matter, difficult as it was, to speak on this bill because I do not think there was any question in our new Premier's mind that if we had the opportunity in March last year to form government what the priorities would be. So single focused was he in relation to some matters that he made sure that there would be an energy minister with no other responsibility other than to ensure that we secured affordable and reliable power. That is how important it was to him that we would address that.

There were some very pressing issues, including child protection, about which there had been a shameful history of failure under the previous government. But in a positive sense, in terms of a key ingredient to resurrect some economic future for our state power was one of those important ingredients. For most of our primary industry, power and water and people are critical to the provision of those jobs and not just a future for our children but economic sustainability of our own economy here. He understood that very well, so he appointed the current minister to exclusively have this responsibility. I just want to say that not only has he brought this bill to the parliament but also he has been completely and utterly dedicated to ensuring that we have a restoration of reliable power in this state, and I commend him for that.

Only some weeks ago, South Australia had a blisteringly, I dare say, hellishly, hot day. It was over 40°. The Premier had rather inconveniently gone overseas, and I was left with the responsibility ensuring that we kept everything in order. There were no floods, and there were no serious bushfires. There was a fire on the day, but there was no serious consequence. We did not have any cyber attacks, and we did not have any major problems, but I have to say that the Minister for Energy, minute by minute, was monitoring the supply and availability of power to deal with that very hot day.

I just place on record my admiration for his staying focused and completely disciplined on that task. I was sweating a lot, but he just stayed completely calm and got us through that difficult day. Following on from the public's attention to this, there was a critical period of time when I think there was a desire to have just enough power to meet demand, and that was achieved. We did not want too much more wind. We did not really want any wind because of the risk of bushfire, but the Minister for Energy was saying to me, 'Actually, we need a bit of wind.' I said, 'Well, hang on a minute. We might need to balance this so that we don't have a problem if we do have a major fire.'

These are the sorts of situations that the minister was able to steer through and keep a steady lever on ensuring the state had its continued secure supply. Most of us who are able bodied can endure a heat event, but the fact is that we need to take into account that there are many people in our community who, without power and without cooling, whether it is because they are frail aged, vulnerable or in disabled circumstances or a young infant, can be in a desperate situation if they do not have power.

My understanding is that the bill here, in having a Retailer Reliability Obligation, is designed to incentivise retailers and other market customers to support the reliability of the National Electricity Market through building on their contracting and investment strategies that underwrite investment in dispatchable capacity by encouraging earlier and longer term contracting. That is the gist of it, and it is very important. The detail has been outlined by other speakers.

I would just like to say that, whilst we had an era of comprehensive failure under the previous government on the provision of reliable and affordable power, and we continued to have the burden on the general community as a cost of living unfairly imposed on South Australians by incompetent ministers, it is very pleasing to see a new era come in, and there are other important initiatives that are being presented by the government.

I want to go back to circa 2002 when there was a change of government and I think the Hon. Patrick Conlon became the minister for energy—if not at that time, it might have been later. For a period, he had a stint as transport minister, but that is a period we would rather forget. I remind members that the previous Rann government adopted a policy to do two things. One was to go into a national system; that is, there was going to have to be a call on significant amounts of power in the states, in this part of the country—New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in particular—and we needed to think about how we were going to accommodate a national scheme.

I can fully admit to the house that I think I was the only person in South Australia who voted against going into the national scheme. I felt that there were significant risks to South Australia and I was not prepared to support them. They were in my wild younger days of being prepared to cross the floor. In any event, I make the point that, at the time, my concern was that the then state Labor government would abandon any real attempt to have lower power prices, would then blame the national scheme and say, 'It's their problem now.' That is about what happened; nevertheless, it still had to be resolved.

One good thing that Mr Conlon did was to announce on behalf of his government that it was important to have an interconnector, that if we were in a national scheme, we should have an interconnector. He also promised a desalination plant on the West Coast because they were in desperate need of water, but that promise came and went, but in relation to the interconnector, he was right: if we were going to go into a national scheme, we had to be connected so that we could have the benefit of this scheme.

Whilst I was sceptical about their abandonment of responsibility in providing for South Australians in this space, I nevertheless agreed that an interconnector was very important and year after year, budget after budget, we would look in there to see where this mysterious interconnector was going to start, or at least the planning for it, and that it was going to happen.

Fast-forward to 2019 and we do not have one, but we do have a government that is committed to the very essence of the fundamentals of underpinning reliable power, namely, having an interconnector with New South Wales. Again, I am very pleased that the Minister for Energy is responsibly advancing this project, and that it is progressing. No doubt, he will give us further updates as to the important advancement of that.

The reliability issue is pretty important to the extent that we also need to consider what access we have to connection in other parts of this state. Most of you know that I grew up on Kangaroo Island. Until I was about 12, we did not have mains power. My job was to turn the generator on daily and turn it off at about midnight, or let it just run out of fuel—that was the other option. If you let it splutter away for a while, it would eventually run out, and mum would be halfway through the ironing or something. In any event, that is what would happen.

Just last weekend I was home on the island and stayed with my cousin, who does not have mains power. He has a long drop, too, so it was an interesting experience to revisit. Nevertheless, we got through the night. He would go off to put his generator on, and so on. It just reminds us how lucky we are to have a system where we can go into a room and turn on a light and be able to have access to power in our ordinary living, but we should remember the critical needs of somebody conducting surgery on a little baby in a hospital or making provision for irrigation that needs to be powered, as the Minister for Primary Industries has just outlined to us. In every way, we rely on regular power and its interruption can be very costly in money and in lives.

I will give an example of the human harm that arises out of a blackout like we had under the previous government. There had been a major failing at the Flinders Medical Centre, and couples had their hope of a family extinguished when their frozen embryos started to defrost. The embryos were lost as a direct consequence of the interruption to power and the failure to bring online the diesel backup generators. Apparently, there was no fuel in them or something. In any event, little human embryos were lost and families' hopes of having children were lost. There was a significant cost to the community through taxpayer-funded claims that needed to be settled to resolve these things. There are real and present costs and consequences to these things, so I think that it is terribly important that we recognise the significance of reliability and ensure that we maintain it.

Another thing I learned is that the replacement for the cable from South Australia to Kangaroo Island that currently provides mains power to Kangaroo Island is underway. It is due to be replaced after a 65-year arrangement. I am not sure whether they have actually started rolling them off the back of the ship yet, but it is underway. I very much thank the Minister for Energy for whatever role he has to ensure that happens. I know that one of our operators does undertake that. I think it is SA Power Networks that actually undertake that role. I look forward to the day when that is connected up and we have other opportunities for renewable and sustainable energy being developed on Kangaroo Island.

I would be happy to put windmills all down the coast, but these are things that have to be worked through to ensure that we are able to be a positive contributor to the energy production market down the track. I look forward to that day. I think that would be a great opportunity. However, in the meantime we need to have some backups. The experience we have had of mismanagement by governments in the past has meant that we have had to ensure that we all go out and buy generators and make sure that we have some capacity to survive, especially if one is living in a regional community.

On a positive note, I will say that we pulled out the generator when my nieces and nephews were home recently. We taught them what to do in the event of a fire approaching, and they seemed at least to have some understanding of what to do. In any event, it is terribly important that we recognise the significance of the reliability of energy, and our obligation in this will be assisted by the passage of this bill.