Sue Higginson addressed the NSW Farmers Energy Forum at the Workers Club on Thursday night, January 31. Sharing a panel with the Liberals Energy Minister Don Harwin and Labor Shadow Energy spokesman Adam Searle, she overshadowed them both with what amounted to a visionary policy statement on our global climate and energy crisis.
Sue electrified the eighty-odd attendees with a vivid evocation of living Greens policy, reinforced by her hard-won experience fighting for land, water and communities in Australia’s court rooms.
“We’re actually having a climate emergency right now,” she told the eighty attendees. “It’s not a joke, it’s very serious and we can acknowledge it in its component parts, like Tasmania is on fire, that crops are failing because we don’t have rain. That Australia was the hottest place on earth for days on end. We are getting temperatures where the elderly and the vulnerable don’t survive, so we need to be very focused on the fact that energy production and how we resource it is one of the main contributing factors as to why we’re having this climate emergency. The good news story about our crisis is that it provides us with the opportunity to step up and do great things.
“In my work as a public interest environmental lawyer heading up the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) for 15 years, I spent the last eight years of that challenging our governments for not taking proper action on climate change. What I have seen is new coal mine after new coal mine be approved. We have enough coal mine projects in the pipeline in NSW to dwarf Adani. We are currently one of the worlds biggest coal exporters. In fact the year before last, our own Department of Resources and Energy officers were offshore spruiking our coal in countries like Canada, telling people overseas to invest in our coal because we have some of the highest quality coal in the planet.
“It’s time we change the way we obtain our energy. No more talking about aspirational goals, the energy market operator has said there are no fundamental barriers whatsoever to us being 100% renewable, so why are we not doing it? We can be intimidated by how difficult this challenge is, or we can get the policy settings right and make that transition in a just, sensible and rapid way.
“The way we do that is by having clear targets, clear investment certainty and the right mechanisms. The current energy contracts will run out next year, thank goodness, but where is the conversation about where we are going and what we are doing?”
Even from a partisan viewpoint it was easy to distinguish Sue’s impassioned delivery from the party-line recitals of the major party reps, whose back-slapping camaraderie spoke of too many years inhabiting the same cosy parliamentary nests. Their uneasiness with Sue’s direct style was evident in their refusal to acknowledge or even look in her direction for most of the forum. The main point of difference between the two was Harwin’s insistence that de-regulating the energy market was essential to bringing down prices – something that hasn’t worked in their eight years of power – and Searle’s insistence that Labor would regulate the market.
Minister Harwin rather predictably insisted that our energy crisis was no fault of the Coalition and that sticking to their current ‘plan’ was the only way to ensure stability and bring down prices. Bringing down temperatures with affirmative action was not in his portfolio. Instead he encouraged more of the neoliberal economics that have brought us to this dire situation.
“More regulation will reduce competition, put up prices and kill investment. What will bring prices down is more competition,” he claimed.
Searle pointed out that one of the reasons power prices have doubled is that the State government sold off our electricity generation assets.
“Vales Point power station sold for one million dollars,” he said. “Today it’s valued at more than 700 million dollars. Privatisation has helped to drive prices up and deregulation of the retail market has taken the leash off the big three retail companies, which are also the generator companies. The ACCC has said that the retail margin is at least ten percent of power bills. Evidence to the parliamentary enquiry suggests that it could be as high as 20%.”
Questions from the audience ranged from coal and CSG issues to land use legislation and the predictable renewables-bashing, cued by rusted-on Nats voters. One rather pointed question implied that renewables were directly responsible for increasing power prices, to which Sue deftly responded;
“The reason you’re getting blackouts in Dorrigo is because you’re relying on outdated coal-fired power technology, because we get storms and trees fall on powerlines. The new cause of blackouts are heatwaves, so renewables shouldn’t be the thing that you fear. The evidence and the science are overwhelming now.
“We’ve already done this work. What we need to do is get on with it. We don’t have blackouts because of targets that are set. Those targets drive our policy frameworks and the market needs to be regulated in order to deliver the outcomes and the outcomes are 100% renewables.”
Interrupting Sue at strategic moments seemed to be Harwin’s debating strategy. When he wasn’t wistfully recalling the Coalition’s botched National Energy Guarantee (NEG), he was expounding the virtues of coal and dodging questions on alternatives to it. He actually referred to South Australia’s successful renewables transmission project and Victoria’s fledgling imitation of it as ‘the Victorian and South Australian disease’.
Neither Harwin nor Searle would rule out continued CSG exploration, while Sue categorically emphasised the Greens would put a stop to this dangerous industry and furthermore, that the disastrous Shenhua coal project would end under the Greens. Her insistence that food security was a priority for NSW was sidelined by a debate over where solar installations should be placed and the rather absurd insistence by one Casino farmer that we should be building dams wherever flooding occurs.
Sue’s “I’m running for the state seat of Lismore because energy and climate are my main motivation. I’m a farmer, I have lived on the land. My expertise in law is rooted in what’s been happening within the NSW and Commonwealth government for the last 15 years. As a public administrative lawyer I look at government decisions and policy and watch where it’s failing our communities. I have been to court and advised so many farmers and community groups all over NSW, trying to protect land, water and community from harm.
“I have watched how our governments are failing us, our environment is struggling, temperatures are rising. We are going to experience more extreme weather events and the more vulnerable in our communities are the ones who are copping it the worst. Wages are stagnating, the rich have got richer, our public services have virtually disappeared. We have unreliable public transport, virtually no social housing. Frankly, the neo-liberalist model of dealing with our problems is failing us.
“We need to take brave, evidence-based approaches as to how we run this place. We can embrace innovation and science and the good will of our communities and work together at the grass roots level and stop thinking that big business will take care of us, ‘cos it won’t and that’s why more people are homeless, more people are in despair and disoriented.
“It’s time to embrace the challenges with courage and heartfelt wellness, to come together and make this place more liveable. We’re not going to do it by sitting around waiting for a National Energy Guarantee, we’re not going to make a safe climate relying on others. This is our challenge and it’s exciting and I want to be a part of it of getting on with it and making it work for all of us.”