Board terms expire, leaving body tasked with investing in emerging technology in hands of department secretary for second time in two years
All appointed board members of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency have had their terms expire and have not been replaced, leaving it governed by the secretary of the Department of the Environment, Guardian Australia has learned.
The same thing happened in 2014 while Tony Abbott was prime minister, and the move has now been criticised as an attempt by the Turnbull government to remove the independence of the agency.
According to legislation, the board must consist of the secretary of the Department of the Environment and up to six others appointed by the minister. The agency can operate with the secretary being the only board member, since it reaches quorum when a majority of the board members are present, which now occurs with one.
Parliament sits for the first time in 2016 on Tuesday, with bills abolishing both the renewable energy agency (Arena) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation still before parliament, despite having been rejected by the Senate. Signs indicate the Turnbull government intends to keep them.
Arena is tasked with investing in emerging renewable energy technologies, while the CEFC invests in commercially viable renewable energy technologies. Disruption in the government’s handling of renewables has been blamed for a huge drop in clean energy investment in Australia.
If Arena is not abolished before July, it is set to receive almost $57m from the commonwealth and then almost $500m the following year.
The agency would not answer any questions about the matter and instead referred Guardian Australia to the Australian government boards website, which shows all positions are vacant.
The last three directors had their terms expire on 16 January.
“Everyone has been assuming with the change of leader, and a Senate that wouldn’t repeal it, that they were going to hang on to Arena,” said Tom Swann from the Australia Institute. “So given that, it’s pretty strange that they’ve let the board lapse and it raises questions about the future of Arena.”
The Greens environment spokeswoman, Larissa Waters, told Guardian Australia the move was an attempt to remove the agency’s independence. “The Senate won’t let the Liberals destroy this innovative, job-creating organisation, and so the Liberals are arrogantly trying to cut off its independence and expertise,” she said.
“Major proposals come to Arena’s board for decision and having only a time-poor department secretary on the board is bad due diligence and a wasted opportunity for injecting high-level, diverse expertise,” Waters said.
Swann said the agency’s empty board and the bills abolishing it and the CEFC still being before parliament continue to discourage the renewable energy industry. “Given that we’ve had such a huge drop-off of renewable energy [investment] in Australia, the last thing we need is confusing signals,” he said.
The chief executive of the Solar Council, John Grimes agreed the bills were bad for his industry and called on the government to remove them. “If Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t act on this then people will start to think he’s just another Tony Abbott,” Grimes said.
Waters said the bills were unlikely to be debated by parliament, but were being kept to keep peace within the Liberal party. “It’s duplicitous for the prime minister to talk up innovation, economic diversification and the achievements of Arena and CEFC, while keeping both of these cutting-edge agencies on the chopping block, presumably to placate climate-sceptic colleagues and donors,” she said.
“Given the Senate’s opposition to passing either abolition bill, listing them for debate sends an unnecessary and damaging investment message to the clean energy sector,” Waters said.
Labor environment spokesperson, Mark Butler told Guardian Australia: “The fact that Arena and the CEFC are still on the chopping block shows that the Liberals’ attacks on renewables hasn’t stopped under Malcolm Turnbull. Greg Hunt has confirmed that these two agencies will remain in the Turnbull Liberal government’s sites.”
A spokesman for the environment minister, Greg Hunt, said the government’s policy was still to abolish the two bodies, but said “there is little prospect of support in the Senate”. He said the new Office of Climate Change and Renewables Innovation, which was being established inside the Department of the Environment, “will bring a fresh focus to the role of innovation in supporting emerging renewable and low emissions technologies that will drive down emissions”.