Senate debates

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Bills

Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013; Second Reading

11:48 am

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Families and Payments) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013. I get the honour of following Senator Bernardi. To use his own words, I follow a contribution that was 'alarmist climate change propaganda', because the former speaker, Senator Bernardi, is one of the chief deniers about climate change. He is a very up-front about it, unlike many other members of the coalition government. At least Senator Bernardi is up-front about it. He does not believe. He is one of the chief deniers, one of the chief clunkers over there. But the coalition government's response to climate change is a defining issue for our parliament and the country. The early signs are not good. Indeed, I think Senator Bernardi has captured the leadership team and perhaps was an architect of Direct Action. As the coalition have done in the past, and I assume they will continue to do this, they name their policies and legislation the exact opposite of what those policies and legislation will do.

The Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott, has an axe hanging over the Climate Change Authority. Senator Bernardi in his contribution said that he welcomes 'proper and prudent advice', and that is what the Climate Change Authority gives. The Climate Change Authority gives thought-out, independent advice on climate change policies to improve the quality of life of all Australians—the same Climate Change Authority that makes its recommendations based on the best available science. It is an impartial body with the freedom to 'call things as they see it' on the very important challenge of climate change.

But, rather than listening to the best available science, Mr Abbott and those opposite seem to know better than the best minds on the matter of climate change. The coalition have such a low regard for science that they do not even have a science minister. The coalition do not like what the Climate Change Authority has to say, so they are trying to shut it down. That is not the way Mr Abbott should run his government. As part of the suite of policies the former Labor government put in this place, the creation of the Climate Change Authority was one of the most important. In its inquiry into the government's carbon tax repeal bills, the Senate's Environment and Communications Legislation Committee heard from a number of stakeholders about the value of these bodies. The value of the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, as we have debated in this place recently, extends beyond carbon pricing. These bodies are value-adding to our nation. They are helping Australia to plot a chart towards reducing our emissions footprint. They are making a difference, as this generation attempts to combat a problem that will only get more challenging for future generations unless we act now.

The legislation regarding the Climate Change Authority is being considered separately because, regardless of the outcome of putting a price on carbon, it still has a significant role to play. The bills are being debated separately regardless of the outcome of the debate on how this country should price carbon. Both bodies should be retained regardless of the policy approach that the country ends up with.

The Climate Change Authority gives expert, transparent advice and information on carbon pollution and climate change issues to government, business and the public. It is impartial. It looks at the science, looks at the facts and makes its recommendations. The CCA's advice is well respected. It is doubtful that its functions could be performed in-house by the environment department. The Climate Change Authority's role of providing information and advice should continue so that value can be added to the climate change debate in Australia, even if the Abbott government succeeds in foisting its policy con on Australians and gets its way on Direct Action. Even if the Direct Action Plan, which will line the pockets of the polluters, goes through, both the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation will have important roles to fill. To scrap them will set the country back.

Mr Abbott has the chance to do the right thing and leave these bodies in place. To scrap the Climate Change Authority would prove that Mr Abbott and those opposite are climate change deniers. Is the coalition's rationale for disposing of the Climate Change Authority that it thinks climate change is not real? I suspect we have just heard an answer to that from Senator Bernardi. The Australian people know climate change is real, and Labor is with them. We are listening to the experts. We are listening to the best available science. But this is a Prime Minister who has in the past, when speaking to an audience in regional Victoria, in October 2009, said that the 'climate change argument is absolute crap'. That speaks to his attitude on this issue. He is out of step with the views of Australians.

Because this narrow-minded Prime Minister does not believe in climate change, the country must suffer. Future generations will suffer. It makes no sense to destroy the very authority that seeks to deliver independent and expert advice to government and other stakeholders. The Climate Change Authority has continued to gather information and debate policy positions. Is Mr Abbott concerned about the Climate Change Authority's opinion of Direct Action? Is that why he wants to get rid of this independent body of experts? If we refuse to listen to the experts, we are doomed to fail.

So, if not the experts, just who has Mr Abbott's ear on this matter? His top business adviser, Mr Maurice Newman, certainly seems to have it. Mr Newman is a climate change non-believer. On 17 September, Mr Newman wrote in the Australian Financial Review:

The CSIRO, for example, has 27 scientists dedicated to climate change. It and the weather bureau continue to propagate the myth of anthropological climate change and are likely to be background critics of the Coalition's Direct Action policies.

Mr Newman denies the science. He thinks climate change is a political issue. And, most significantly, he has Mr Abbott's ear. In his column in the Australian Financial Review, Mr Newman also advocated the abolition of the Climate Change Authority.

We have seen from Mr Abbott that he certainly got Mr Newman's memo: the Climate Change Authority is in his sights with this legislation. But the Labor party will not accept this bill. We will not side with the climate change deniers who are only prepared to provide lip service towards an issue to important to most Australians. That essentially is what Direct Action is: lip service.

Mr Abbott says no more money than has been allocated will go towards Direct Action. Even more damning is that the former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull told the ABC's 7:30 that the best virtue of direct action is that it can be ripped up. Mr Malcolm Turnbull explained why when speaking with 7.30 presenter Mr Tony Jones on Lateline on 18 May 2011. Mr Turnbull told Lateline that under Direct Action the government spends taxpayers' money to pay for investments to offset the emissions by industry. Of its virtues, he says:

One is that it can be easily terminated. If in fact climate change is proved to be not real, which some people obviously believe—I don't. If you believe climate change is going to be proved to be unreal, then a scheme like that can be brought to an end.

Is that it? The best case scenario for direct action is if climate change is not real? That would be cold comfort for all who hear it. The Climate Change Authority certainly believes that climate change is real. The leading scientists all believe that climate change is real. The Labor Party believes that climate change is real. In that interview, Mr Turnbull went on to Direct Action's other virtues:

Or if you believe that there is not going to be any global action and that the rest of the world will just say, "It's all too hard and we'll just let the planet get hotter and hotter," and, you know, heaven help our future generations - if you take that rather grim, fatalistic view of the future and you want to abandon all activity, a scheme like that is easier to stop.

A grim and fatalistic view indeed, but one it seems other members of his party are happy to adopt. Why bother taking any meaningful steps to reduce emissions when you can stick it in the too-hard basket and give up. It is cause for concern if that is the approach that this government will take towards tackling climate change but, frighteningly, this appears to be the only rationale. Deny the science. Deny that climate change is an issue. Deny, deny, deny.

Climate change is certainly an easier issue to tackle if you refuse to acknowledge that it exists. Is that the Liberal-National coalition's real solution to this issue? They have no answers and will not listen to a body like the Climate Change Authority, which is there to give advice. Worse still, the coalition wants to scrap it altogether. Labor, on the other hand, whole-heartedly supports the Climate Change Authority. Labor also supports replacing the carbon tax with an emissions trading scheme. We do not support Direct Action.

But regardless, the Labor Party wants legislation around abolishing the Climate Change Authority to be debated separately, as it has a role to play no matter what the outcome of how this country puts a price on carbon. The shadow minister for environment, climate change and water, the Hon. Mark Butler MP, said the reason for this is that the Climate Change Authority is:

… a statutory body charged with providing strong and independent advice to government about matters, including the Renewable Energy Target as well as caps and targets for carbon pollution or carbon emissions. The authority is chaired by former Reserve Bank governor Bernie Fraser, with a board made up of highly esteemed business leaders, economists and scientists, including Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Chubb.

… These bills would also shut down the independent voice of the Climate Change Authority on the critically important question of targets, extending yet further the emerging theme of this government: to ensure that all advice—advice to the parliament and advice to the Australian community—is managed and controlled by the Prime Minister's office. Well, Labor will stand up for strong, independent advice. We will oppose the bill that abolishes the Climate Change Authority outright.

The government must be taking action on climate change. It must show leadership on this matter. The evidence just keeps piling up about what is happening in the climate.

The 12 months to October were the hottest on record in Australia in spite of it not being an El Nino period. The evidence is there that our climate is changing. It is almost certain that humans are speeding it up. We cannot do nothing. We must continue to act. To destroy the Climate Change Authority undoes so much good work and sets back future governments and, indeed, future generations. Senator Bernardi, in his contribution, talked about his concern for our children, our future generations and, indeed, the country. Yet, in the next breath, he denies climate change all together. Well, Senator Bernardi, those future generations will inevitably have to tackle the issue, because this issue is not going away. The Climate Change Authority must be allowed to continue its good work.

The coalition's plan to close the Climate Change Authority is clear evidence that they have no time for independent expert advice. I think we have already seen that in a number of other policy areas. It is more of a central command process that is going on, coming out of the Prime Minister's office. The coalition seems to be more interested in listening to climate change deniers, like Mr Maurice Newman and those others in the coalition caucus. Already the coalition has sacked leading public servants that were too frank and fearless in pointing out that the coalition's direct action policy would be disastrous for Australia. So it is hard to imagine Mr Abbott wanting to listen to the Climate Change Authority.

But look at the contrast between the positions of Labor and the coalition. Concerning the year 2020, both parties are committed to being five per cent below the 2000 level. However, if you look closely, the parties have differing positions. That is even putting aside this new government's attitude to its commitments, which have played out with the Better Schools funding fiasco that the Minister for Education, Chris Pyne, put the nation's schools, parents and children through.

For Labor, five per cent below 2000 levels is the minimum. Our position was and is that Australia should reach a reduction of up to 25 per cent, conditional on international action. The Labor Party would also set its final target after considering the advice of the Climate Change Authority. The coalition has on paper made a commitment, but Mr Abbott told the National Press Club, on 2 September 2013, that if Direct Action did not work he would not meet the target.

The five per cent target is a minimum target, but Mr Abbott is unlikely to commit to anything other than the minimum, as reported in The Age. The Prime Minster said that the five per cent target will not increase 'in the absence of very serious like-binding commitments from other countries, and there is no evidence of that'.

Any excuse to weasel out of so-called binding commitments to reach the target. Mr Abbott agreed to the five per cent target when he wrote to the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2009. Even though he did not agree to putting a price on carbon, he agreed that five per cent of 2000 emissions by 2020 was the minimum target. If he wishes to achieve this without putting a price on carbon then he needs bodies like the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to achieve it.

Looking further ahead to 2050, Labor's policy is to be 80 per cent below 2000 levels. That means taking more than 17 billion tonnes of pollution out of the atmosphere between now and 2050. The coalition has no commitment for a 2050 target. It cannot be overstated how short-sighted this coalition is when it comes to attempting to reduce Australia's carbon footprint. If setting goals for seven years away is a headache, setting goals for 2050 is just too hard to compute for those opposite.

The Climate Change Authority is a key institution to give governments advice on the effectiveness of their policies. This is a government that not only ignores the scientists but also does not even have a science minister. If this government has its way and scraps the Climate Change Authority, it is clear evidence that Mr Abbott and his inner circle have no interest in hearing any views other than their own backward, conservative, slash-and-burn mentality. Prime Minister Abbott's decision to try to axe the Climate Change Authority shows his complete hostility to independent expert advice.

The coalition makes the argument that the Department of Environment can do the work of the Climate Commission and the Climate Change Authority. But this is a government that has already fired three senior public servants, including the former secretary of the Department of Climate Change, Blair Comley, who dared to be more frank and fearless than the coalition wanted to hear. It is a disturbing pattern. If you say things this government does not want to hear, you will be shown the door. It makes you question whether the Department of the Environment can be expected to keep the public properly informed. If the government gets away with it and scraps the Climate Change Authority, primarily it seems because those opposite do not like what it has to say, can anyone seriously expect the Department of the Environment to fill the void when their jobs are constantly at risk from a coalition government that is seeking to remove anyone who will hold them to account?

It should be left to the Climate Change Authority to advise the government in the area of climate change, not the department. The Climate Change Authority is independent and it is there to provide expert advice. As we know, Mr Abbott's coalition government is lukewarm on this approach.

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