Address in Reply | SPEECH


The Hon. D.C. VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN (Stuart—Minister for Energy and Mining) (11:01): It is my pleasure on behalf of the people of the electorate of Stuart to make my contribution to this Address in Reply debate. Let me start by saying that I personally thank His Excellency the Governor, Hieu Van Le, and his wife, Lady Lan Le, for the work they do, and I do that on behalf of my electorate. They work tirelessly. They work—I use the word ‘professionally’, but I do not mean in the sense of their doing it for the money—to an incredibly high standard and I especially appreciate the work they do in country South Australia.

As a country and outback MP, I know that people genuinely love the visits, whether they be formal or informal, by Mr and Mrs Le. I am continually impressed with how those two people can oversee the most formal and structured of gatherings that we have in our state and also be so down to earth, warm, friendly and easygoing in a country environment. The people I represent really do warm to that. That is not to say that the things they do in the country are easy, relaxed or frivolous, as most of them are actually very meaty, genuine, real and significant, but they do it in a way that is appropriate for the country lifestyle, and that is absolutely outstanding.

It was very good to hear the Governor’s speech laying out the agenda for the government. I think it was quite appropriate that parliament was prorogued and that we were able to segment, if you like, the two halves of this four-year term in a very sensible way and for very pragmatic reasons. As I look through the Governor’s speech, I will cover some of the things that seem most important to me.

Before I do so, please keep in mind that the Marshall Liberal government, and in fact our team when in opposition, has a very clear philosophy about wanting to support people who need support. That is one of the most fundamental philosophies behind our Liberal team in South Australia, but we know that we cannot do that as well as possible if we do not have a strong economy. We have a very strong focus on the economy so that we can deliver services. The stronger our economy, the lower our taxes can be, person by person or business by business.

The stronger our economy, even with lower taxes per taxpayer, the more the total tax income will be and the more money the government will have to support South Australians, whether it be supporting people on incredibly low incomes; whether it be supporting people with some form of disability that makes it very hard for them to earn money; whether it be people who are in accidents; whether it be support that flows through the education system, the health system or the police; whether it be in some of the really big, lumpy expenditures on infrastructure so that people can drive with as little congestion as possible around metropolitan Adelaide; or whether industry can thrive in our country and outback areas because the infrastructure they need is there.

The philosophy deeply ingrained in our government is that we need a strong economy so that we can provide all the services that South Australians need. It is not surprising that one of the first things the Governor mentioned in his speech was the cost of living for families—before that, he touched on bushfires, and I will come back to bushfires—and lowering the cost of living for families in our state is one of our very top headline ambitions. It goes along with increasing employment and it goes along with providing better services. Reducing the cost of living is absolutely vital.

Lower costs, more jobs, better services: people have heard this from us for a very long time, for quite a few years now, from even before we came into government. Mr Speaker, let me make it very clear for you and this house: those priorities are not changing. Those three core priorities—lowering the cost of living, creating more employment and providing better services—are the things that we will continue to work towards to the very best of our ability.

It is also true to say that these are things that are never 100 per cent achieved. We know that. We are not trying to get past the finishing post. As low as we get the cost of living, we want it to be lower. As many people as we can get into work, we want more into work. As good as services can become, we want services to be even better. We are not pretending that there is a finishing line where we can say, ‘Good, we have ticked those three things off.’ It is a never-ending pursuit by our government. There are many ways that we will do that, one of which has been quite topical over the last few years—that is, to allow extended shop trading hours.

We have a crazy situation in this state where people want to work, people want to shop and business owners want to be open and provide a service, yet many of them are not allowed to because of the rules in our state. The completely bizarre situation was revealed a couple of years ago when some of the smaller traders were campaigning, or at the very least speaking vocally, against relaxing shop trading hour restrictions because they thought they would lose an advantage they have compared with some of the bigger traders, but it turned out that some of those smaller traders were trading outside their entitlement with regard to the rules and regulations about shop trading. That is quite a strange situation.

We have also had a situation where, when some of those traders were given the opportunity to take up temporary options to trade outside of the normal rules and regulations, they took that opportunity. They campaign against relaxing the rules but, when given an opportunity to temporarily trade outside the rules, they seem to take it every time. I do not mind any business operator focusing on what is best for their business. That is one of the things that he or she should do, of course, but we need to relax shop trading hours in our state so that we can improve services, grow our economy, reduce the cost of living and get more people into work.

Rate capping is another one of those issues that is quite contentious. We took a rate capping policy to the 2014 election, and we took it again to the 2018 election. We were successful at the election, but to date we have been unsuccessful in implementing the rate capping policy. The rate capping policy is not about trying to hamstring local government. I know that many in local government are not comfortable with this policy, but I also know that many in local government, and more and more in local government over time, are becoming more comfortable with it as they understand it a bit better.

Rate capping is not about trying to control councils or saying that you can or you cannot do this across a whole wide range of things. At its simplest, it is about saying that councils cannot increase their council rates in excess of a local government appropriate inflation rate, and they cannot do that without putting a case to the Essential Services Commission and receiving the ESCOSA blessing. When I have talked to mayors and councillors—many of them very good friends of mine who do not see the benefit of this policy for their council—they say, ‘We’d never, ever get that blessing. Once you put in the rate capping, once you put in the local government CPI, sure, you would give us the chance to go and make a case but we’d never get it.’ I say to them: you would get it if you could show that a strong majority of your ratepayers were in favour of what you are proposing.

To pick an example, let’s say they want to increase council rates because they want to build a new swimming pool. If that required that rates be increased in excess of inflation to be able to make that investment in important local community infrastructure, particularly in country areas where typically we have very hot summers and we do not have all the services we would like to have, and if you can show that your ratepayers are happy to pay an increase in council rates in excess of the inflation rate, why would the Essential Services Commissioner not give the go-ahead to do that? It seems to me it would be crazy not to do that. It should be pretty straightforward. If a council wanted to increase rates in excess of inflation, and as long as you could demonstrate that a strong majority of your ratepayers were comfortable with that, you would not be hamstrung by this proposal.

While in government we have been unsuccessful in getting these two issues I have mentioned through parliament because the opposition and crossbenchers have chosen not to support them. I say very clearly that we are not leaving these issues behind, just as we are not leaving the issue of allowing our farmers on mainland South Australia to grow genetically modified crops—another very sensible, very practical and very popular move that we would like to make on behalf of the people of South Australia, which the opposition and crossbenchers have objected to.

I say to them: please think it through. Are you really going to stand in the way of our government doing what we know the people want us to do, what we know would be good for our economy and, when it is good for our economy, will actually then be good for the provision of services throughout the state to people? Do you really want to stand in the way of that? We are more than happy to accept suggestions. I know, for example, that the Minister for Local Government is revising his proposal for rate capping in local government. We are not beyond saying, ‘Sure, if that’s a good idea, we’ll take it on board,’ but the basic principles of what we know we need to achieve are not going to change.

Another principle that we took to the last election and that we are delivering on is a very significant infrastructure spend. It is the largest infrastructure spend that our state has ever seen: $13 billion over four years. It is an enormous spend. As well as knowing that we are spending taxpayers’ money in the right places so that taxpayers will benefit, I am also very pleased that we are delivering on some of the very specific commitments that we made with regard to infrastructure.

One of those key commitments is in my electorate of Stuart, namely, to duplicate the Joy Baluch AM Bridge in Port Augusta. This, of course, will be very handy for all local Port Augusta motorists, but it also has statewide benefits and interstate national benefits. It is a key piece of infrastructure for all heavy road freight going from Sydney to Perth or from Adelaide to Darwin. It is very important for the resources industry as well.

Another key piece of infrastructure that we pledged before the election and that we are delivering now is the duplication of the highway through Port Wakefield and building the overpass to improve the intersection of the Augusta Highway and the Copper Coast Highway. That piece of work is sometimes described unkindly as being something just to ease the traffic congestion on long weekends and on Easter and summer holidays when people from Adelaide are going to their holiday homes on Yorke Peninsula. As a Port Augusta-based MP, I would never support something like that, if that were all it was.

I think people will often quite unkindly forget that that intersection of the Copper Coast Highway and the Augusta Highway is notoriously bad: it has a disproportionate number of serious accidents and fatalities. In my observation, because I drive through there a lot, it has near misses as well. When I say ‘near misses’, I do not mean near miss fender benders: I mean near miss tragic accidents. It is not at all uncommon to see that happen, so we are going to upgrade that intersection and improve access, north and south, through Port Wakefield, for very good reasons.

You would know, Mr Speaker, that on the weekend the Minister for Transport, Planning and Infrastructure announced the coalition of three prime contractors, essentially, who will do the design and construct work for those two projects, but that is not all we are doing. There is lots of other work being done, both metropolitan and in the country. Approximately a thousand kilometres of country roads will be upgraded.

The most dangerous entire road in this state is the Horrocks Highway. We have a very strong focus on the Horrocks Highway, which, in my electorate of Stuart, will include upgrading the Spring Creek Bridge between Wilmington and Melrose. It is a bridge which, when two trucks or two caravans are passing in opposite directions, is very tight. I have to say, with an unskilled person behind the wheel, it is a very risky manoeuvre, so widening that bridge is very important.

Upgrading the rail crossing at Gladstone on the Horrocks Highway in my electorate is another very important piece of work that is part of this infrastructure spend. Gladstone is the largest inland grain-receiving silo we have in South Australia. I believe it is one of the largest inland grain receivals in the nation, actually so it is very important. It is highly trafficked at certain times of the year. The grain industry affects both heavy vehicle and rail transport. It is a lot of work. It is an enormously important pipeline of infrastructure coming through in that regard.

Returning to cost of living, we have already made very significant headway and we intend to make more headway. We have reduced payroll tax for small businesses; in fact, for small businesses with a payroll of less than $1½ million a year there is now no payroll tax. We have reduced people’s emergency services levy bills. We have pledged to and will, on 1 July coming, reduce the cost of water for South Australian water consumers. We have also reduced NRM levies and I congratulate the Minister for Environment and Water on his very good work in that regard, in relation to not only water costs but also NRM levies, and for his very good work to have the new Landscape SA Bill put through parliament as a key part of that.

The Minister for Recreation, Sport and Racing has doubled the value of sports vouchers for families, which then goes directly to reducing cost of living for those families. We have introduced free screening checks for volunteers, and the Minister for Human Services has done tremendous work in that regard. It was something that amazed all of us on our team when in opposition, and I would like to think that when they were in government those opposite were amazed, but for some reason they were not able to address that adequately so that people volunteering in a wide range of ways to support vulnerable people, typically very old or very young people, needed to pay for and sometimes have multiple volunteer screenings and checks so that they could assure the organisation with which they were working that they were the right sort of people, or, more importantly, not the wrong sort of people. We have gone a long way in that regard.

One of the most important areas, and one which is key to me, is the delivery of lower electricity costs to South Australians. It is one of my highest obligations and it is one of my highest priorities in my work. We are doing that. We still have a lot more to do, but ESCOSA, independent of government, assessed that last financial year average electricity costs for households dropped 3 per cent on the year before, and that year was a per cent and a half lower than the year before that. After years of increased electricity prices forced on South Australians by the previous state government, the tide has turned. I do not, I cannot, I must not suggest that the work is done in that area, and I personally take on an enormous obligation in that regard.

We need to get electricity prices lower. We will get electricity prices lower. The tide has turned, but we need to get the tide moving swiftly in that direction, and we are doing that in many ways. We are not doing it by pursuing single, one-off, haphazard energy policies, as we have seen over the last several years. We took to the last election a very clear set of policies in energy, half-a-dozen-odd key components of energy policy, including interconnection with New South Wales, a household battery scheme, a grid-scale storage scheme, demand management, a range of other measures, and we are rolling them out.

I receive comments from the public and industry quite regularly that they are very pleased that our government set our policies before the election. We did as much homework as we possibly could. We got as much advice as we possibly could. We did everything that we could with the limited resources that you have in opposition to determine our policies, and then when we got into government we had the benefit of all the advice of the department.

We were able to actually allocate budgets to the election spending commitments that we had previously made, but we did not have to change our policies. We developed them further. We got to the implementation stage. Essentially, people are very pleased that we are not chopping and changing because one of the most important things we need in energy policy is a certain level of stability so that industry will invest. It is very easy for me as the minister to say, ‘We’re doing this, we’re doing that and we’re doing the other.’ We are, but in energy policy and mining policy we are always doing it in partnership with industry and in partnership with consumers.

If we do not have policies that are attractive to industry so that they are willing to invest, then we do not have a supply side. If we do not have a supply side, then consumers have nothing. I say quite openly to energy industry gatherings that our government is overwhelmingly on the side of the consumer. We want them to get the best service and we want them to get the lowest price, but we recognise that if there is not an attractive, sustainable, long-term business model for the supply side then they will not be here, nothing will be supplied and consumers will have nothing.

We are very clear about that balance. We are overwhelmingly on the side of consumers but determined to make sure that we can attract investment. I am very pleased to see investment growing in South Australia in generation of all sorts. We are not wedded to this, ‘It has to be all fossil fuels or it has to be all renewables,’ argument, which in my opinion far too many people all around the nation seem to want.

That fervour is fanned by activists and campaigners who have an interest in only one or the other and who are trying to make everybody take a side: ‘What kind of an energy person are you? Are you a coal person or are you a renewables person?’ That is absolutely ridiculous and completely unproductive. We need to use all the tools that we have at our disposal, all the fantastic, outstanding new renewable energy technology, which, by the way, provides the cheapest marginal cost electricity that we will ever see.

We also need to use the new technology in fast-start gas generation so that they are more efficient, they use less gas, they create less pollution and they can enter and leave the market incredibly quickly. We need to use storage at the household level and the grid-scale level. We need to use the really smart technology which we have at our fingertips these days and which is perpetually improving with regard to voluntary demand management so that consumers can choose to surrender—voluntarily surrender—some of the control of their demand for electricity in return for a financial benefit. They weigh it up; if they want to take that choice, they do it, and when enough of them do it everybody else benefits. Interconnection is absolutely important.

We are doing everything we can to get the cost of electricity down. On the mining side, on the resources side, another of my highest priorities, I am very pleased to say that the industry is actually in good shape. It is never perfect, but the industry is actually in good shape. Prices are pretty good from an industry perspective. We are seeing more and more activity in the Cooper Basin and in the Otway Basin in the South-East from the petroleum side of industry.

There is a bit of a conundrum there. Higher world prices for oil and gas encourage more investment, create more jobs and get more gas and oil out of the ground, which is all very positive, but of course higher gas prices, particularly, are not what we want from an electricity price perspective. There is careful treading to be done there, but jobs, lower costs and better services will all be delivered when we have healthy, sustainable industries. The petroleum industry is one of the most important in South Australia.

Another critical industry is broadly part of what we describe as mining, but if you break it up into petroleum and minerals the mining industry in South Australia is going very well. It is hugely pleasing to have received Canadian Fraser Institute’s report last week, which ranked South Australia as the sixth most attractive jurisdiction in the world for mining companies—tremendous—up from 24 the year before, so a very significant improvement.

It is easy for people to say, ‘The department is too slow, it’s too cumbersome and it costs too much. It’s just getting in the way. It’s not helping me get my project up. It’s slowing me down.’ It is easy for people who are frustrated to say those sorts of things. The Fraser Institute said that our Department for Energy and Mining is actually one of the best in the world and doing an absolutely outstanding job helping projects get up at the moment. Again, we do this in partnership with industry.

BHP intends to expand the Olympic Dam mine and OZ Minerals is transitioning so well from Prominent Hill to Carrapateena and has delivered its first ore at the end of the last calendar year in such a short space of time. There is the Oak Dam investment and the things that we are doing as a government, including the Accelerated Discovery Initiative, the Gawler Craton challenge and other things that have not yet been announced. I am hopeful these things will make our state more attractive. They are all vitally important in creating jobs, creating industry and giving us a very healthy economy.

Mining exports account for a third of our state’s total exports, an incredibly important industry and one on which we must—I must—work better with landholders. I accept that agriculture is our largest industry and probably will be for a long time. Mining is one of our strongest growth industries. Another one of my very high priorities is to improve the way the government leads those two industries to interact together.

There is an enormous amount of wonderful work that our government is doing, which I would be very pleased to talk about but, in the time I have left, I will just touch on bushfires. I have deliberately not spent a long time on this topic because many previous speakers have done a good job on it. Nobody can ignore the fact that our state and, in fact, other states around the nation have been very seriously impacted by bushfires. We are on the recovery pathway. We are past the emergency stage and we are on the recovery pathway.

It was wonderful to be in the Adelaide Hills today with a mother and daughter, Nelle and Maddie, on their cleared block where they are going to rebuild a new home. They will get the support of council, the federal government and state government. In fact, the state government will give them a household battery to complement their new home build and their new solar installation, which they were going to have anyway. We are doing that for any one of the 188 homes around the state, in the South-East, Eyre Peninsula, Yorke Peninsula, Kangaroo Island and the Adelaide Hills. We are doing everything we can to support bushfire victims.