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Speech on National Reconstruction Fund Bill

On Monday 13 February 2023, I made a speech in Federal Parliament on the government's National Reconstruction Fund Corporation Bill 2022. You can watch the speech here or read the full transcript below.

E WATSON-BROWN: The National Reconstruction Fund is a proposed $15 billion fund that would invest in key priority areas across the Australian economy with the goal of reviving Australian manufacturing, creating jobs for Australians and encouraging downstream processing to diversify, and to create the necessary complexity in our Australian economy. Australian manufacturing is in dire need of investment. Under the previous coalition government we saw the Australian economy become far less complex, a sort of 'dig it up, chop it down and ship it out' economy. We have seen good quality manufacturing jobs driven offshore by a government hostile to state-led investment. The death of car manufacturing is just one example of a job-intense manufacturing industry that suffered really badly; in fact, it was killed under the previous government. This trend must be reversed.

The Greens support an active role for government in getting public money to where it needs to be. The National Reconstruction Fund Corporation Bill 2022 is a step towards an Australia that can add value to the raw materials we extract, a manufacturing nation that creates high-quality jobs across a diverse economy. At the last federal election, the Greens proposed a $15 billion 'made in Australia' bank to support finance and manufacturing, innovation, industrial decarbonisation and re-localisation of supply chains, a finance vehicle with a core purpose of driving the decarbonisation of Australia manufacturing and significantly reducing emissions in industrial processes. When the Greens set up the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and ARENA with Labor, we built an Abbott-proof fence around it. We insisted on the legislation preventing public funds being directed away from clean energy and towards coal, gas, carbon capture or nuclear. This was actually baked into that legislation and it saved the CEFC and ARENA from multiple attempts by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments to destroy or undermine it.

While the Greens strongly support the government fostering new productive industries and diversifying our economy, we are deeply concerned by the extreme lack of specificity contained in this legislation for the National Reconstruction Fund. It could take us backwards on the climate emergency. Our final position on this bill in the Senate has not yet been finally determined. There is a real risk with this legislation that this government or subsequent governments have almost unlimited discretion to declare priority areas for a gas-fired recovery or a coalmine renaissance. There is a serious possibility that the NRF could be turned into a ministerial vessel for fossil fuel. Concerningly, there is nothing in the legislation itself to prevent investment in coal and gas, or in projects that would lock in and extend the use of coal and gas. Anything the government of the day chooses to support could be declared NRF priorities in the future. Likewise, the scope of matters that a government can specify in the investment mandate, which is not allowable, affords very considerable discretion. The only limiting factor on this are rules preventing a government from dictating that the NRF undertake a specific investment.

Under the proposed legislation, the minister would issue the investment mandate as a non-disallowable legislative instrument and declare the priority areas of the Australian economy in the form of a disallowable legislative instrument. The minister has provided a good deal of detail on the proposed priority areas, and we thank the minister for their collegiate approach, but the detail provided is effectively a moot point when there are so few limitations on what industries the government of the day can choose to direct the NRF towards.

We Greens strongly support public investment in rebuilding manufacturing in Australia. We need to diversify our economy, but the legislation in its current form is wide open to abuse by governments that want to use the $15 billion for more coal and gas. That is a risk the Australian Greens simply cannot take. We need clear guardrails to stop public money being used to prop up coal and gas. For that reason, on behalf of the Greens, I will be moving amendments during consideration in detail that would rule out money from the NRF going towards coal and gas, or towards native forest logging. These are reasonable amendments that would strengthen the NRF, protect it from abuse, allow the government to invest in reviving Australian manufacturing and decarbonise our economy.

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