Senate debates

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Bills

Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013; Second Reading

10:09 am

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I did listen intently to my colleague Senator Carr's words, and it is quite daunting. I cannot argue with anything that he said there. Especially coming from a previous industry minister, I think those words are quite solemn.

I rise to speak on the Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013, which will see the abolition of the Climate Change Authority. I can think of nothing that epitomises the government's total disregard for the future of the Australian people than its proposed legislation to dismantle the authority which informs Australians and the government on the effects of climate change. Recently, thousands of Australians turned out to show their support for strong action on climate change. Right around the country there were demonstrations of people's concern about climate change and demand for actual policies to address the challenges ahead of us.

Today Australia stands at the crossroads. As a nation we can go one of two ways, both in this debate and, of course, more broadly. The first course is the one that the coalition government has embarked upon: to disparage scientists, to cut their funding or to sack them. It is a path where the Minister for the Environment relies more on Wikipedia, unfortunately, than the consensus of the scientific community. It is where the Climate Change Authority is seen as expendable. That is the course that this government has set. The other course—the course that the Labor Party supports—is towards a nation that relies on the facts and the expert analysis of our brightest minds. It is a course where we make the tough decisions now to ensure a better future. It is a course where we lead others, rather than wait for others to lead us. One of these courses is on the right side of history, the other takes a short-term view that ignores the challenges we face as a nation.

One thing that really amazes me about this debate is that it is alleged that there is some sort of divided opinion on the facts surrounding climate change. The fact is it is only on the conservative side of politics that there is any division. As far as scientists are concerned, there is a near unanimous view that climate change is real and it is caused by humans. Ninety-seven per cent of peer reviewed scientific climate change papers over 20 years have said that climate change is real and caused by humans, so the scientific community is united. This issue also has done the near impossible by uniting the economic community. No less than 86 per cent of economists who were surveyed recently backed an emissions trading scheme to deal with the threat of climate change in a cheap and efficient way.

I would like to reinforce a point that my good mate and colleague Senator Alex Gallacher made in the chamber recently with regard to the insurance industry. As Senator Gallacher stated, the reinsurers—Swiss Re, General Re and others—are the ones who are responsible for predicting and costing disasters such as cyclones, floods, tornadoes and earthquakes. It is a very interesting subject. As Senator Gallacher noted, it is interesting to see how these companies assess the risks involved when carrying out their business. They go into an organisation and they test it. They go through all the likely scenarios involving potential catastrophes that could happen to your organisation. Obviously, depending on where you are located, they can range widely. They can go through and place a price on the risk. You go and buy that insurance and then you go on about your business.

A really interesting notion that arises from examining the behaviour of these reinsurers—and one that should really be investigated in greater detail—is how the reinsurers are factoring in climate change. If the coalition seriously do not believe in climate change, or if they do not accept the scientific evidence, then the money men in those reinsuring industries will tell them that the prevalence of tornadoes, cyclones and catastrophic storms in the American Midwest or in the UK or in Europe demonstrates that something is happening there. Something is changing.

For the economic rationalists in the Liberal Party—if there are any left—this should be pretty clear evidence. If the market is factoring in climate change—that is, if the insurers are factoring increasingly extreme weather events into their premiums—then that is something that an economic rationalist should be able to accept. You would not think it was that hard.

They can deride the scientific evidence all they want, but the reality is that the people whose business is to factor in this kind of thing, the re-insurers and the insurance companies they sell their insurance to, are operating that insurance on the premise that something is happening globally that cannot be ignored. The money men around the world are certainly not ignoring it.

I pose this question: how do the Liberal Party argue their position in the face of such clear consensus? It is because the sensible heads in the Liberal Party have been usurped by the fringe and the mad loonie Right. The Prime Minister saw an opportunity to score a political victory over former Prime Minister Gillard and had no thought of the consequences. Sadly, he was cheered on by sections of the right-wing media who think they know better than the near-unanimous view of all the scientists and economists around the world.

Once Mr Abbott had become the champion of every far-right whacko and their friends at News Corp, there was no turning back. As I have said in this chamber before, it is clear to me that the Prime Minister is a climate change sceptic. This should come as a surprise to no-one. The Prime Minister's view affirm, and he has repeated them over a very long period of time, that the science of climate change, in his words—and I quote: is 'absolute crap'. He has described an emissions trading scheme as a 'so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no-one.' That was at a press conference on 5 July 2013.

In March 2011 Mr Abbott said, 'Whether the carbon tax is quite the environmental villain that some people make it out to be is not yet proven.' In March 2012 the Prime Minister said that he did not 'believe that the science is settled.' I think the Prime Minister's words speak volumes. As I have said before: the government's so-called Direct Action Plan is just a shell, a policy for the sake of having a policy.

I have spoken previously in this place of the fact that the Prime Minister is not of the same political calibre as his hero, Mr John Howard. While the former Prime Minister had enough political nous to hide his climate change scepticism and present the Australian people with a legitimate policy of emission trading at the 2011 election, his protege has delivered far, far less. Mr Abbott has not even gone to the effort of attempting to put forward a credible policy. He is repealing, with support from that mob over there, one of the most effective climate change policies in the world and replacing it with nothing more than a slogan. The Prime Minister obviously has a very dim view of the intelligence of the Australian people if he thinks that he can pull the wool over their eyes on this issue. But what is clear is that, while there may still be some sensible heads in the Liberal Party—and I do not want to mislead the Senate: I said 'maybe'—the fringe-dwellers and climate sceptics have taken over. That is a fact. I notice the heads down on that side: no-one is going to argue with me on that one. In fact, I would welcome it if they were to charge into the chamber and challenge me, because I do not think there are any sensible heads left.

We saw that, during the debate on the sale of GrainCorp, how agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, and the Nationals, were really in control in the cabinet. We saw that, despite the Treasurer sticking out his chest on foreign investment, and insisting that he would not be bullied by anyone—those were his words: not 'bullied by anyone'—it did not take long before he was held to ransom by Mr Joyce and the Nationals. We saw that, in the end, the Treasurer Mr Hockey's bluster was empty: he really was full of wind. His total capitulation to the Nationals on the GrainCorp deal highlighted the lack of courage inside the so-called 'moderates' within the Liberal Party. In this bill we see again the defeat of any sensible heads inside the Liberal Party, as they set about abolishing the Climate Change Authority.

We saw the former leader, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, knifed by sceptics for his support of an emissions trading scheme. We have seen the new Minister for the Environment, Mr Greg Hunt, so debase himself at the feet of the climate-sceptic leader that he has given up on what was, until recently, his most passionate issue. It was Mr Hunt who, until 2009, championed—I repeat: championed—the idea of an emissions trading scheme. It was Mr Hunt who wrote a thesis at university entitled 'A tax to make the polluter pay'. Now the minister, Mr Hunt, has to stand in front of the Australian people with a straight face and advocate the abolition of the Climate Change Authority.

I just want to take a moment to talk about the Climate Change Authority. Some people must be wondering what is so terrible about the authority that it is in need of abolition. The Climate Change Authority was set up by the former government to advise on the setting of carbon pollution caps, to conduct periodic reviews of the carbon-pricing process and, importantly, to report on progress towards meeting national targets for emissions reductions. That does not sound too terrible to me, and I am not sure what the Prime Minister finds so unpalatable about that. Perhaps what was so unpalatable to the Prime Minister has more to do with what information the authority was releasing. Was it perhaps the fact that the authority noted that the former Labor government's price on carbon had led to a 6.1 per cent decrease in emissions in the electricity sector that so annoyed this Prime Minister?

For the benefit of the Prime Minister, I should note that a 6.1 per cent decrease in emissions is equivalent to 12 million tonnes of CO2. We know that the Prime Minister believes that CO2 is just an invisible gas, so for the sake of the Prime Minister I have checked the figures and he will be surprised to learn that 12 million tonnes of CO2—this is a real groundbreaker—actually weighs 12 million tonnes. Maybe I should have whispered so it did not get to him so quickly. It might be too much to fathom. As an ex-truckie, I understand what 12 million tonnes means. It is a heck of a lot of road trucks. It is a gas that is invisible to the naked eye—bewdy!—but I am assured by a scientist that 12 million tonnes of CO2 weighs 12 million tonnes, which just happens to be, in layman's terms, the equivalent of taking about 3½ million cars off the road. Maybe the Prime Minister will understand that equation. He has already accepted that, because of the crash of Toyota and Holden, but anyway.

Perhaps the Climate Change Authority's greatest crime was that it was doing its job of involving the public in the effectiveness of a price in carbon too well and causing Mr Abbott and his climate sceptic colleagues to be a tad uncomfortable. Perhaps it is what the chairman of the Climate Change Authority, the very well-respected former Governor of the Reserve Bank Mr Bernie Fraser, has been saying that has Mr Abbott's hackles up. Mr Fraser recently said that the government's target of a five per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 is not enough and the target should be higher. Mr Fraser also debunked another of the Liberal Party's favourite lines when he said that the economy would continue to grow even if emissions targets were increased. In a recent appearance on 7.30, Mr Fraser labelled climate change an important and complex issue and said that climate change will not go away because there is a new government. Perhaps it is an eminent Australian with the backing of a credible institution speaking an inconvenient truth that is the real reason behind the government's decision to abolish the authority. It is because Mr Abbott does not want to have a debate on the facts of this issue.

I will give this to the Prime Minister: he is a master of the political slogan. We see this again with the so-called direct action plan, but the reality is that we are not getting anything that could be defined as direct action. The policies that the government says it will implement are untested. There is not one economist who says they will work. The Minister for the Environment is hanging his hat on the success of soil carbon sequestration. I think they are drifting into magic dirt territory if they think that soil carbon is going to be the answer. Some experts are saying it might—might—reduce emissions by an amount in the order of 10 million tonnes. That certainly will not be enough.

Then there is the great brainwave the government has to plant trees. That is right—one of the core tenets of the government's climate change policy is to plant more trees. In all seriousness, you would have to plant the entire area of Victoria and Tasmania with trees to achieve the sort of offset that the government is aiming for. Now, don't get me wrong: I am all for planting trees—I am a big fan of it—but we have to get real. To get that sort of offset you would have to get rid of all the grazing land in Australia and put it under trees. You would have to kick farmers off their land and turn farms into tree plantations. In all fairness it is a ridiculous policy because it is not a serious policy. The Prime Minister has no intention of planting trees across Australia. Direct action was merely another political fix to take the issue off the agenda before the election.

Before I conclude I want to make a point that is sometimes forgotten in this debate. The catalyst for the ascension of Mr Abbott to the Liberal leadership was brought about through negotiations between the Labor government and the then opposition leader, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, over the introduction of an emissions trading scheme. Such negotiations were taking place because of the outrageous behaviour of the Greens, who chose to grandstand on an issue that should never have become a political football. If the Greens had acted with maturity and chosen to negotiate on this important issue then things could have been so different. It is no good being an expert after the event and, unfortunately, that is the fact: the Greens abrogated their responsibility on that day. Rather than choosing to get most of the things they wanted, they held on to their extreme and unproductive positions, demanding unrealistic concessions that were never ever going to be accepted.

Senator Ludlam interjecting—

Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, Senator Ludlam said that the Greens could have. That is right—they could have, if they had grown up on the day and not sided with the opposition to condemn the government's policy. They had their chance like so many other things. It was no different than trying to save desperate souls leaving countries to travel across treacherous waters. They could have had an input, they could have had a place in history where they were on the right side. But, because of political expediency, they chose to side with the former opposition and go for the headline rather than go for the good policy.

Senator Ludlam interjecting—

As I said, the Greens could have had an emissions trading scheme in the final weeks of November 2009. Every senator in this chamber remembers, Senator Ludlam, where you sat on that day. The Greens destroyed any hope through their reckless grandstanding. But we should not be surprised, as that is their modus operandi. The Greens are as much responsible for this as the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party. Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, take these words away with you, Senator Ludlam: you, the Greens, are responsible. Thank you very much for what you have done. The Libs are very proud of you.

However, do not for one second think that this in some way reduces the culpability of our Liberal Prime Minister. While the Greens have their share of the blame to carry, it is the Liberal government's dismantling of the system that is making a real difference in cutting our emissions. What Mr Abbott needs to understand is this: he can cut the Climate Change Authority and deny the science all he wants, but it will not stop the effects of climate change. It will not stop the rest of the world regarding Australia as a pariah on this issue. The Prime Minister trumpets the letter he received from his like-minded conservative mates in Canada for repealing carbon pricing. What he does not realise is that he will eventually be shown to be on the wrong side of history, along with the Greens, on this issue.

What the government needs to realise is that, while they might see an opportunity to make some political mileage on this issue in the short term, if they do not act to kerb emissions, the planet will pay a price. Our children will pay a price, our grandchildren will pay a price and our great grandchildren will always remember the names of those who have done this to our country. Sadly, they lack the foresight and the vision to make the hard decisions. I will not be supporting the bill.

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