by Andrew Bray and Lindsay Soutar
They say that Parliament House in Canberra is a world all to itself, with its own logic and its own way of doing things. Well, having joined a group of 30 representatives from communities across Australia to meet with nearly 50 MPs and their advisors on a day inside "the House" we can certainly vouch for that.
The aim of the big solar lobby day was to convey to MPs the depth of support for large scale solar that we found in our big solar poll (you can read the report yourself here). We wanted to show the strength and breadth of this campaign, and with the new $10 billion renewable energy fund, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, being debated in Parliament, wanted to ask the Coalition to support this fund, or otherwise tell us what they were doing to support large scale solar energy.
When people returned to our base in the downstairs cafeteria after their meetings there were dozens of tales to tell. Some were inspiring, some exhilarating and some were just downright unexpected. Here’s a collection of some of the day’s highlights:
Tony Abbott hears from his local constituent
A good half of the group had never been to visit a politician before in their lives so stories of people overcoming fear and trepidation to make their point abounded.
Despite her nervousness Viktorija from Tony Abbbott's electorate sat calmly before the man who may become our next Prime Minister and told him how her daughter was the first child in the world to receive a cochlear ear implant, way back in the seventies. She explained to him how government support for this groundbreaking Australian innovation at the commercialisation stage helped create what is today a world-leading Australian company, creating thousands jobs around the globe.
Viktorija then pointed out how large scale solar - in particular solar thermal - is in the same position right now - and how we need governments to get behind it.
Viktorija then went on to do the big solar poll on Mr Abbott. His answers: yes, he knows about big solar “in broad terms”, yes, he thinks governments should support these projects ‘if they are economic” but no, at this stage the government would not be revising the Direct Action Plan, though nothing was ever set in stone. (Greg Hunt was on hand to help talk policy too).
After handing over the 12,000 voices report Mr Abbott agreed to meet with us again in the next 12 months, we took a picture, shook hands, and we walked out pleased to know that there would now be no doubt in Mr Abbott’s mind that community members are looking for a bit less ‘No’ and a bit more hope and vision from this person who wants to be our next Prime Minister.
Tea and Scones with Tony Windsor
Key independent, Tony Windsor, was busy with meetings so sent his advisor to meet with Kirsten and Peter from Brisbane. But as they were showing him through the 12,000 Voices report, he was blown away by the vision in the report and the work the campaign was doing to promote big solar in Australia. 'This is too good, Tony's got to see this," he said.
So Kirsten and Peter were invited to join Tony, who was having morning tea with representatives from the cotton industry, in the courtyard for tea and scones. As one of the few (possibly only?!) parliamentarians to have visited an operational solar thermal power station, Tony was delighted to see people in the community who shared his passion for large scale solar. Our vollies in turn were delighted to thank Mr Windsor for his ongoing efforts to support renewable energy in parliament.
Port Augustans come to Canberra
Lizzie and Kaylene travelled all the way from Port Augusta in South Australia, where a buzz about the potential for replacing the local coal fired power stations with solar thermal and wind has recently gripped the local community. Lizzie, a nurse whose husband works in the coal plant and Kaylene, a grandmother who lost her husband to lung cancer, are both passionately concerned about the health impacts of coal, and wanted to share their excitement about the opportunity of replacing these plants with solar with as many South Australian MPs as possible.
These two strong women had a big schedule for the day with six meetings including with their own elected rep from South Australia Rowan Ramsay, Christine Milne and Penny Wong’s chief of staff. In each meeting, they shared their vision for powering their community with clean, safe renewable energy. At the end of the day Kaye said “It was really incredible to be here and such a great thing to be part of. I can't wait to get back home and tell everyone what we have been doing here....” These inspiring women will now go back to their community to continue to build the exciting and important “Repower Port Augusta” campaign.
Green tea with Malcolm Turnbull
Ian Rose together with friends in the Wentworth electorate of eastern Sydney had done over 600 solar polls over the past few months - and many of the respondents had suggested Mr Turnbull just fund big solar projects directly himself! Shortly after Ian and campagin organiser Dean entered the office for their meeting, Mr Turnbull walked in tea pot in hand - offering “green tea anyone?” - and settled in for a good chat.
Mr Turnbull was clearly very knowledgeable about the opportunities of large scale solar and finance options and chuckled upon hearing his constituents calls for him to become a big solar investor. By the end of the meeting he agreed to help us with a briefing for MPs on the falling cost of solar, and innovation overseas, by encouraging his colleagues to come along.
Greg Hunt: time for some action on Direct Action
The Coalition’s Direct Action Plan was written over two years ago now and the man who wrote it was Shadow Climate Change Minister, Greg Hunt. We were reminded of this in Coalition meetings throughout the day, as every MP asked about the plan said, ‘you need to talk to Greg about it.’
So talk we did and our first point of conversation for the Coalition policy man was the Direct Action plan’s outdated support provisions for solar. Knowing the low likelihood of the Coalition supporting the CEFC, we also discussed the need for the Direct Action Plan to be substantially revised, and our hopes that the Renewable Energy Target would be expanded. We also shared some information on innovative policy ideas for supporting big solar like the reverse auction feed-in tariff introduced by the ACT.
While Greg would not commit to revising the Direct Action plan at this stage he said he’d be very pleased to keep talking to us so we certainly intend to take him up on this offer.
And the picture of the day award goes to... Bob Katter!
Imagine Jamie and Larni's surprise when in the middle of their discussion with the colourful North Queensland member, Katter disappeared from the room without explanation, only to re-emerge with a packet of Vita-Weat biscuits and a can of condensed milk. He plonked them down on his desk, pulled out a Vita-Weat, dipped it in the condensed milk and asked them both, "Want one?"
Bob is a big advocate of renewable energy, so our North Queensland vollies had a very lively and encouraging discussion with Bob and ended up taking this photo of the day!
We’ll be back
As the end of the day grew close we all reflected how much of a parallel universe parliament can seem. So disconnected from what ordinary Australians are thinking and doing, the day highlighted the importance of community groups like ours going in to share directly with our representatives what people are saying. As Terry from Parramatta said, "I want to go in and meet these people to exercise my democratic right. I want them to see that I'm in their community and I support solar power. That's what I want to get out of these meetings."
This lobby day left our pollies with no doubt of the high levels of community support for renewable energy. We’ve still clearly got a way to go to turn that support into political action, but that’s what this campaign is all about. At the end of the day we left parliament house to go back to our communities, to keep sharing the vision of a clean safe renewable energy powered Australia. We’ll go home to keep working to build our numbers and power. And no doubt, before too long, we’ll be back, bigger and stronger than before.