Sorting out the sound and fury of energy

Power bills are skyrocketing, there are dire predictions of blackouts and politicians are calling each other silly names.

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Welcome to the energy policy debate – full of sound and fury and leaving one wondering if it signifies anything.

The Turnbull government is reshaping the clean energy target recommended by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel into something palatable to the conservatives on its backbench.

It received the Finkel report in June and quickly agreed to 49 of its 50 recommendations.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reluctantly – during a media interview – set himself a December deadline for sorting out the final recommendation of a clean energy target or similar policy.

Industry and experts have repeatedly warned the policy paralysis cannot continue if there is to be the investment in new generation or storage necessary to replace ageing coal-fired generators.

The problem is that investing in any kind of power generation is a decades-long prospect and no one wants to put their money on the line if the government might change the rules and make it unviable.

For the past month or so the government has said it was waiting on a report from the Australian Energy Market Operator about electricity generation needs in the future before developing a policy.

It got that report just over a week ago and has used its warning the grid will need an extra 1000 megawatts of dispatchable power (which can be sent when it’s needed) before the Liddell coal-fired power station closes in 2022 to pressure owner AGL into keeping it open longer.

But policy expert Oliver Yates – who led the government’s green finance bank until May – says it’s exactly that kind of intervention that is causing chaos and reluctance to invest.

Coal power, while dispatchable, isn’t suited to the changing market in the long term because its capacity can’t be quickly ramped up or down to respond to demand levels, unlike gas plants or storage options such as batteries or pumped hydro.

Expect to hear more about “demand response measures” soon too.

This is when energy companies or AEMO pay energy users – usually large industry – to volunteer to cut their power consumption during extreme spikes in demand, meaning others don’t face forced blackouts.

WHAT IS THE CLEAN ENERGY TARGET?

* Sets an emissions intensity threshold – Finkel modelled this at 600kg of carbon dioxide or equivalent pollution per megawatt hour (600kg CO2/MWh) of energy produced

* New generators that produce electricity below this threshold would receive certificates based on how far under it their emissions are.

* Existing generators could earn certificates if they produce more electricity than they do now – increase capacity – and it falls under the emissions threshold.

* Emissions-free generators – such as wind or solar – would get a whole certificate while dirtier forms – such as gas or coal – would get a fraction of one, meaning they would have to generate more power to receive the same number of certificates.

* Electricity retailers would have to buy and surrender to government each year a certain number of certificates, to show there is enough clean energy in the system.

* If the CET level was set at 700kg CO2/MWh it would incorporate the newest technology, high-efficiency low-emissions coal stations – of which there are none in Australia at the moment.

Same-sex marriage: What next? A ban on ‘mum and dad’, says Hanson

The One Nation leader has told parliament she will ignore a majority “yes” result of a postal survey on the issue.

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“I feel it’s a sham, it’s farcical and it’s a waste of money,” she said of the $122 million ballot.

Senator Hanson also slammed gay couples for trying to “take the word ‘marriage'”.

“Why won’t you try and compromise?” she said.

Senator Hanson warned marriage equality meant schoolchildren would be banned from calling their parents “mum and dad” so as not to offend the children of same-sex couples.

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Meanwhile, she said proposed anti-vilification laws being debated in the Senate on Wednesday would shut down the “no” campaign and free speech.

Earlier senior Labor figure Penny Wong delivered an impassioned speech urging the prime minister to protect children like her own.

“How do you think it feels for children in same-sex families … to be told politely and courteously `Actually you’re not quite normal, your families aren’t as good’?” asked Senator Wong, who is a parent in a same-sex relationship.

The bill makes it an offence to vilify, intimidate or threaten to cause harm to a person on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status or religious conviction during the survey.

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Senator Wong lamented that those opposed to gay marriage were using “odd, bizarre and unconnected things” to make their argument.

“They want to talk about our children, they want to talk about – what’s the phrase – `radical gay sex education’.”

The bill could not protect the LGBTI community from hurt.

Greens senator Janet Rice, who married her transgender wife Penny 30 years ago when her partner was Peter, said she wanted to be able to hold her partner’s hand in public, the way they used to, without fear of abuse.

“We used to hold hands, we used to kiss in public but over the last 13 years we self-censor,” she told parliament.

“We generally don’t hold hands in public, we get used to the fact that if we are holding hands in the street we need to be ready for the possibility of having a car driving past, wind down its window and hurl abuse at us.”

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Cabinet minister Mathias Cormann said the bill was seeking to add extra protections to existing safeguards in federal, state and territory legislation.

“This will help ensure the integrity in this process and that Australians can have complete confidence that the outcome of the survey reflects the freely given views of the respondents,” he said.

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Conservative crossbencher Cory Bernardi also opposes the legislation, warning there would be spurious claims from people claiming to be upset.

“This is essentially 18C on steroids to protect people from being upset,” he said, referring to race hate-speech laws he has fought to scrap.

It was “wholly inappropriate” that Attorney-General George Brandis has responsibility for judging complaints, given he supports marriage equality.

“Do we want really a cheerleader… anyone who is a partisan cheerleader for a side in a camp to be rendering any form of judgment about the conduct of one side or the other?” he said.

Myer expected to unveil weak FY sales

Myer’s struggle to overcome sluggish consumer spending will be back under the spotlight on Thursday, with the department store giant expected to confirm a fall in sales amid its full-year results.

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Fierce rival David Jones last month called out falling consumer confidence as a major factor behind a 0.7 per cent fall in full-year comparable sales, and Myer looks set to suffer too.

Chief executive Richard Umbers has been trying to turnaround the business for two years but Myer already warned in May that “challenging trading conditions” would continue to hurt sales.

The retailer reported a 3.3 per cent fall in its third quarter sales in May with comparable sales down two per cent.

Citi analyst Bryan Raymond wrote in a note that the second half was tough for David Jones and that Myer would likely have had a weaker performance.

“David Jones and Myer’s stores and customers overlap in many parts of Australia,” Mr Raymond said last month.

Citi has forecast Myer’s comparable store sales to drop 2.8 per cent and for earnings before tax and interest to have slipped in the second half of the 2017 financial year.

Mr Raymond said the second-half results will highlight the challenging conditions Myer has faced, particularly as Mr Umbers tries to cut back on discounting.

Myer announced in July that it will take a total $45.6 million hit after writing off the value of its 20 per cent stake in Topshop’s Australian franchisee and impairing the value of its struggling sass & bide brand.

The retailer had previously expected net profit to exceed 2016’s $60.5 million but the writedowns and another $20 million of costs are expected to weigh.

The company expects underlying net profit to be in the range of $66 million to $70 million.

Myer has shed many of its private labels and brought in more popular brands as concession stalls – outlets inside the department store – in the past year as part of its turnaround strategy.

The higher mix of concession stalls, with a focus on popular brands, including John Lewis and Veronica Maine, has reduced Myer’s operational costs.

Dutton introduces draft laws to ban phones, drugs in detention centres

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton wants the power to ban anything he deems poses a “risk” to Australia’s detention centres – including mobile phones.

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Draft laws introduced to parliament on Wednesday will also give authorised officers greater power to search for prohibited items without a warrant.

The move follows a court ruling in February that blocked a bid by the Australian Border Force to confiscate phones of detainees in immigration detention.

Mr Dutton said phones were enabling criminal activity within centres, including – in at least one case – to organise the contract killing of another detainee.

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They had also been used to arrange escapes, riots and drug distribution, as well as to access child pornography.

They had become a form of currency in the facilities with owners of phones being subjected to “standover tactics” and threats.

Mr Dutton said existing arrangements were inadequate to manage the increasing risk of contraband.

“This government and I will not tolerate behaviour that is illegal or that threatens the stability of detention facilities, placing my officers, visitors or detainees at risk,” he said.

The federal government lost an appeal in August over a Federal Court ruling that determined guards don’t have the right to confiscate phones from people held in immigration detention.

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Mr Dutton said about half of the detention population are non-citizens who have had their visas cancelled.

Asylum seekers who arrived by boat make up nearly 30 per cent, including “people with criminal histories and other security concerns”.

That meant more than half of detainees consist of a “high-risk cohort”.

“These cohorts have significant criminal histories like child sex offences, or links to criminal gangs such as outlawed motorcycle gangs, and other organised crime groups, or they represent an unacceptable risk to the Australian community,” Mr Dutton said.

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“These criminals often have serious behavioural issues and pose a critical threat to the health, safety, security and good order of the detention network.”

The proposed laws will allow the minister to determine ‘prohibited things’ by legislative instrument.

It will also allow the use of detector dogs for screening detainees or people entering the facilities, and give authorised officers and assistants permission to search accommodation and common areas, rooms, medical examination areas, storage and the personal effects of detainees without a warrant.

Give up the slush fund, Hanson tells ABC

Pauline Hanson is demanding the ABC should give up its taxpayer-funded “slush fund” if it wants to bid against media rivals for programs.

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As the Senate debated media ownership reform laws on Wednesday, the One Nation leader questioned why the ABC was using public money to compete in the commercial market.

“If we intend to have diverse media outlets in Australia then the ABC has to get out of trying to compete with the commercial market,” she told parliament.

“If the ABC chooses not to then I suggest foregoing taxpayer funding to become a commercial enterprise. See how well you do without your slush fund.”

The ABC and SBS will be forced to disclose staff salaries of more than $200,000 under a deal struck between the Turnbull government and One Nation on the media reforms.

The deal will also have the national broadcasters face an inquiry into “competitive neutrality” and the ABC have the words “fair and balanced” slotted into its charter.

But Senator Hanson has rejected claims the deal has any impact on ABC funding, insisting that was “never discussed” during her negotiations with the government.

“I intend to pursue the ABC funding with the relevant ministers at an appropriate time in the future,” she said.

A revised version of the media reforms is expected to clear the Senate after the government struck a deal with the Xenophon team.

Crossbencher Nick Xenophon says his deal, which includes a three-year government assistance fund for small and regional publishers, is all but done.

Labor opposes the legislation, which seeks to repeal the two-out-of-three rule, which bars a person owning newspapers and licences for TV and radio in a single market.