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What governments are hiding behind coronavirus

Apr 16, 2020 • 12m 30s

While the country’s attention has been focused on the fight against coronavirus, Energy Minister Angus Taylor has forged ahead with a plan to prop up a coal-fired power generator. Today, Mike Seccombe on the push to undermine environmental protections during this crisis.

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What governments are hiding behind coronavirus

203 • Apr 16, 2020

What governments are hiding behind coronavirus

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

While the country’s attention has been focused on the fight against coronavirus, state and federal governments have quietly announced policies with significant implications for the environment.

Today, Mike Seccombe on the push to undermine environmental protections during the pandemic.

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Mike has the focus on this crisis meant that some policy decisions have been missed?

MIKE:

It's provided cover and a convenient excuse for some quite contentious things, some quite alarming things and some outright dodgy decisions, you know, particularly around the environment area.

RUBY:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s National Correspondent.

MIKE:

So in this case, I was looking at, you know, some environmental type matters and things that had been going on while we weren't looking, as it were.

RUBY:

On that - tell me about the investment program you’ve been covering for the paper, managed by the Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

MIKE:

I mean, to be fair, this has been a plan that's been afoot for a couple of years. So it pre-dated the coronavirus thing. But there have been developments this year since coronavirus has been around that that I thought were worthy of reporting.

And this was largely to do with a program most people wouldn't have heard of called the Underwriting New Generation Investment or Ankie Scheme. And that's Taylor's baby. And there are complaints that, a bit like sports rorts, there is legal advice about suggesting that there is no constitutional or legislative authority for the government to be distributing this money, that there are no established guidelines for assessing the project. And this is a process that's allocating millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars.

The thing that advanced on that front while we were all watching coronavirus was that back at the end of January, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments, which sets up a number of things, not all of them bad, some things like electric car charges and things like that, but also a number of initiatives that are of benefit to the fossil fuel industry.

RUBY:

What sorts of initiatives are being looked at under this program?

MIKE:

Well, buried in the attached schedules are some measures to guarantee coal supply to some power stations to try and keep others open and to further fund them. And the one that particularly stood out to me was one of three projects that seem to have the green light in New South Wales.

And one of them is a very old, very dirty coal power station at Vales Point in New South Wales. In spite of the fact that the younger program is called New Generation, this isn't a new generation at all.

It's an upgrade to a facility that was built in the 1960s. It was sold off by the New South Wales government back in 2015 for the bargain price of one million dollars.

And then a couple of years later, it was revalued at over 700 million dollars by its new owner as the wholesale price of electricity went up. So it has proven to be a bargain for the people who bought it.

RUBY:

So who owns the Vales Point plant? Who stands to benefit here?

MIKE:

I was hoping you would ask. It's owned by a group called Delta Energy, whose chairman is Trevor St Baker, who is one of the country's most generous political donors, who donates mostly to the Liberals and the Nationals. And St Baker is a very wealthy man. He's got a net worth of almost $650 million, according to the Financial Review rich list of last year.

RUBY:

Wow.

MIKE:

Yeah! So, a wealthy man, big donor to politics. And he's also endeared himself to those who support the fossil fuel industry by being also a very outspoken critic of wind and solar power and advocate of more coal.

RUBY:

Right so Trevor St Baker.. a liberal donor and coal advocate - looks set to benefit from this policy. Is there any pushback against this proposal?

MIKE:

Well, yes, there has. And in this case, it comes from the Australia Institute, which is a progressive think tank. And they're the ones who question the legislative and constitutional underpinning. And they have an opinion from a senior counsel to that effect.

So I spoke to Ben Oquist, who's the executive director, and he questions the validity of the entire scheme, not just the Vales Point part of it, but the entire billion dollar scheme.

Archival tape -- Ben Oquist:

It's going to be an outlay of millions of dollars in a highly controversial area. It just seems a complete shemozzle. At every step along the way there's confusion and we don't know what's going on.

MIKE:

Two weeks ago, he wrote to the federal Auditor-General. That's the same office, of course, that exposed the sports rorts scandal. And so McQuiston, the Australia Institute, are seeking an investigation by the auditor general's office. As yet, it's unknown whether they will take it up. They've acknowledged receipt and said they're looking at it.

Essentially, we have this scheme. We have people questioning its validity. We have a complaint to the Auditor-General to date. We don't know what the Auditor-General is going to do with it, but it would seem to me that it might be worth some scrutiny.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

So Mike some pretty egregious stuff seems to be happening during the Covid-19 pandemic. You've outlined one scheme operated by Angus Taylor. But what else is going on in this space?

MIKE:

Quite a lot, actually. While we've all been consumed by the coronavirus, policymaking and deals continue to be done elsewhere largely unscrutinized because A) there's not much public interest in it, B) there's not much media interest as a result, and C) of course all of politics is also consumed with it.

To give one example, at the end of March, the New South Wales government gave approval for a US-based coal miner, Peabody, to extend its operations under the Woronora Reservoir, which supplies drinking water to parts of Sydney and other towns just south of Sydney. That got some media at the time, but might have got more under other circumstances.

Archival tape -- Unknown speaker:

This decision by the New South Wales government to allow coal mining under the Woronora reservoir poses a direct threat to the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of residents.

MIKE:

A few days before the Woronora decision in New South Wales, the Victorian government announced it would end a five year moratorium restricting onshore gas exploration.

Archival tape -- News reporter:

The Andrews government has given the green light to conventional onshore gas drilling, saying gas prices could eventually drop.

MIKE:

There was a decision earlier in April from the federal and Victorian governments to extend agreements that exempt the logging industry from certain conservation laws. Continuing to have no state native forests open up to logging until 2030. It seems that notwithstanding the fact that the bushfire burnt out, a lot of the bush, you know, logging industry is going ahead regardless.

RUBY:

These big decisions in important policy areas. Who is keeping track of them and are these decisions being scrutinized?

MIKE:

Well, as I mentioned, not much in the media and politicians are to some extent otherwise distracted. But on top of that, of course, there's the fact that normal democratic processes have been essentially frozen. You know, the federal parliament has been suspended. The New South Wales parliament has been suspended along with others, other states. So in the case of the Warren R01, where they were going to be digging under the reservoir, various conservation groups had collated a 10000 signature petition against this decision, which might otherwise have been brought before the parliament and debated. But now obviously can't be because the parliament isn't sitting down.

I think the fear here is that we will see the economic impacts of Covid-19 used as an excuse to permanently weaken environmental protections. You know, industry bodies like the Minerals Council and the Business Council of Australia, various conservative media commentators are making the case that the economic response to coronavirus should include less regulation and also more fossil fuels. You know, and I might add, we've seen this movie before. We saw it after the last economic crisis after the GFC. You know, headlines like “resources led recovery”.

RUBY:

How likely is that given so much of the economy is hibernation, as the Prime Minister puts it?

MIKE:

You know, I've got to say to some extent you can see why this push would be attractive because.... Let's face it, our tourism industry is in tatters. Our other big export earner, which is educating people from China and India and elsewhere around the world, that's in tatters. So, you know, we're going to have to make up the slack somewhere. And the argument is that the resources sector will do it. In particular, coal.

So that's the risk. You know that in the rush to try and recover economically, protections that have been established will be ripped up and realities like the issue of climate change, you know, which in the long term is a much bigger threat to humanity than is the coronavirus will be forgotten.

It's not just the matter of public money being invested in a few antiquated power stations around the place. There's also a bigger push afoot, I think, to actually undermine environmental safeguards in general. And I think that that's a somewhat worrying development, that one crisis coronavirus is being used as cover for not addressing another bigger crisis, which is climate change and the environment.

RUBY:

Mike, thanks so much for your time today.

MIKE:

My pleasure.

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RUBY:

Also in the news…

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has released a video message urging schools to work towards a return to face-to-face classes.

In the message Morrison told teachers that “students and their families are relying on you more than ever.”

He said that distance learning, which is being rolled out across a number of states, was no substitute for face-to-face classes, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds.

However state governments are advising parents to keep their children at home if they can and to adapt to remote learning.

**

NSW has expanded Covid-19 testing to anyone experiencing a cough, temperature or a sore throat.

More than one-third of the state’s 2886 confirmed cases are locally acquired, and the expanded testing regime is an attempt to minimise community transmission of the virus.

**

In the US President Donald Trump has instructed his administration to suspend funding to the World Health Organization over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump accused the W H O of promoting China's alleged "disinformation". The move was criticised by the UN and health experts

**

And the High Court has unanimously found that a search warrant used by the AFP to raid the house of journalist Annika Smethurst wasn't drafted precisely enough and should be quashed.

However, in a split decision the court found that the AFP would not have to destroy the material they gathered in the raid.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, welcomed the decision but expressed concern that police didn’t have to destroy the material gathered.

The media union warned that this meant “there is no protection for public-interest journalism in Australia.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

Federal and state governments have quietly been winding back environmental regulations while most of the world is focused on the coronavirus pandemic. Today, Mike Seccombe on Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s plan to prop up coal-fired power generators, and the push to undermine environmental protections during this crisis.

Guest: The Saturday Paper’s National Correspondent Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Angus Taylor’s energy projects push in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

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auspol environment covid19 coronavirus energy angustaylor




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203: What governments are hiding behind coronavirus