Wednesday, 12 February 2014
Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013; Second Reading
Sometimes one of the problems in this place is that there are just too few quotes to use. Senator Xenophon gazumped me straightaway with Bernie Fraser's quote, which I know has been used many times in this debate, about the importance of strong independent advice. I know that Senator Xenophon and Bernie Fraser are not the only people in the world who think that strong independent advice is important. That is the argument that I am going to put up in my contribution to this debate.
We know that parliamentarians in this place bring a significant volume of skill, passion and commitment into their jobs and into debates. There have been major debates in this place where all parliamentarians have had a go, for a range of reasons, about the issues around climate change. We have heard significant comments made on all sides of the debate. For many of us, in relation to the focus of our future, issues around the best ways to respond to climate change are not our primary knowledge base. We rely on other people to give us information, we rely on seeking out advice and sometimes we rely on people who have a particular point of view; we listen to them, learn from them and then run arguments.
One of the most important elements that has come through this process is that people consistently argue that we must have the space, the respect and the ability to have strong independent advice. It really does not matter on which side of the argument you are. In this case we have opposing views on whether or not you accept the science of climate change and on whether or not you accept that we in Australia have a responsibility to respond and take action in whatever way is put forward to make change.
Given that there are diametrically opposite views about what should happen, everybody is seeking advice to find out exactly what the truth is, what the basis of the argument is and what arguments are put forward to make a case for the need either to act or not to act. We have heard many people put forward their personal views, their passions, but what has come through over the hours of debate in this place and considerably longer in the open community is that there remains a difference but that a great number of people have realised that there is a need to accept that there is climate change. Some of the aspects of that climate change have been driven by growing populations and the way we use energy on our planet. When the previous minister, Greg Combet, brought in the Climate Change Authority Bill 2011, he said that the bill would establish the Climate Change Authority, but that it would be based particularly on independent advice. He said:
This means that climate change policy will be directed by evidence and facts, rather than fear and political opportunism. It will take the politics out of the debate.
I am sorry, but that second sentence could be a little optimistic. I do not think, in this place or in the wider community, we will ever be able to successfully take the politics out of the debate.
The argument behind setting up the Climate Change Authority Bill was to establish within the community a process whereby a group of experts could seek advice and information from the broad community and come up with reports to government—not directions to government. It was not to be an outside body to take away power from the parliament. We were not removing the responsibility of parliament and handing it over to some other body. The authority was to be an independent body that would focus on evidence and facts. Minister Combet went on to say:
Australians also deserve an approach to tackling climate change that respects the scientific and economic consensus, where facts and not fear set public policy.
It seems to me that that is a fairly open statement and one with which there should be very little argument. Individuals have every right to have their own views about the issues, but all argument must be based on facts and evidence. We speak for ever in this place about evidence based policy. In fact, in all debates people complain that we should not make statements off the top of our heads—regardless of how important we believe the tops of our heads to be. We need evidence based approaches.
Through the entire climate change debate so much of the argument has been about what the science says. To our shame, through some of that debate, a quite serious lack of respect for people in the scientific community has been evident. There were allegations of flawed reports or inaccurate reports or reports that were biased in some way. We always insisted that the science be made public so that the information gathered by science was presented in a way that was accessible to everyone so that they could have confidence in it, but could still question it. But simply because something has been presented does not mean the argument is over.
The Climate Change Authority said consistently, in their very short life, that their role was to gather evidence and put it into reports to government and the community. Mr Combet stressed that it was very important that the authority's findings be independent, avoid unnecessary duplication of data collection and analysis and be publicly available. He also emphasised the need for the authority to examine best practice models for its own corporate governance.
We have heard a number of speakers on both sides talk about the importance of the climate change debate, but one thing we have all agreed on, and are committed to, are reductions in greenhouse emissions, regardless of whether the reductions are sufficient. There is agreement that climate change is impacting on our community and we need to take action, but how that is to occur differs widely. The process that was put in place by the previous government was set out in a range of legislation that is before us again. Then we went to an election, with both sides of parliament pledging to remove all forms of tax on carbon and to move to an emissions based scheme. The current government, however, has a significantly different plan for how they will address the issues of climate change.
It would seem to me that no matter what direction we take, there should be a shared acceptance that it is based on independent scientific information. There should not be any argument that any proposed action needs to be effectively reviewed, questioned and scrutinised. That is particularly so with our international position, because we are all agreed that it is an international problem. In the two previous debates in this place on the whole issue of climate change in Australia, one longstanding argument was that Australia by itself could not take the lead on the issue by itself—that you could not act alone. We heard strong statements that we were the only country to move forward at such a rate, in addressing climate change, that we were likely to cripple our economy and our industry.
One of the core roles of the Climate Change Authority was to investigate such statements by looking at what was happening not just in Australia but also across the world, because the problems of climate change are not peculiar to Australia. We have our own significant problems with our rate of pollution and the way we use our energy—we are, per capita, a relatively high polluter. This is a fact which is nothing to be proud of, but it is an independent fact. The Climate Change Authority was able to see what was occurring not just here but also internationally and to put the facts into the public arena. This is one of the things I value most about the way the Climate Change Authority has operated since it effectively came into being in 2012.
We have not had long to evaluate the authority. I think we are rushing to dismantle it even though it has only just begun to operate effectively and to gain the trust of the wider community and the scientific community that it has the freedom to put forward views in public discourse and not be subject to the kind of abuse we have seen in the past. The Climate Change Authority was designed to operate as an independent body and not be caught up in the very real politics of the climate change debate. When an organisation is set up with the word 'independent' in its name, there is an expectation that it will indeed be independent. The thing about independence is that it pleases no-one; statements made by an independent organisation do not please any side of the argument because they challenge people who have made up their minds completely and are no longer willing to question further. Any organisation which is independent must fight hard to retain its independence, because, once it is no longer accepted that what it is doing is in fact truly independent, the organisation loses its value. The Climate Change Authority has, since it was initially set up in 2011 and then came into being in 2012, taken its responsibility to be independent extremely seriously. This attitude consistently comes out in the people who work on the board and in the community.
When you are independent you make statements which do not please the government of the day. In fact, it is almost a position of honour that, when you are working as an independent authority in a government environment, you will at times make statements which the government of the day—or, indeed, the opposition of the day—does not agree with. This is the job of an independent authority. Its job is not to just recycle information which is part of the political discourse, and it is certainly not to pander to any particular argument. The Climate Change Authority was set up quite explicitly to ensure that these things did not happen.
In its original draft report the Climate Change Authority made a lot of comments about the Renewable Energy Target, and these comments raised further questions. In compiling this report, the authority took evidence from so many sources and did not limit the public's opportunities to give evidence, to make submissions and to engage. From the time that the Climate Change Authority was developed, the idea was that it would work for Australians and not for Australian governments. It was with this principle in mind that certain people were chosen to be on the board. Have a look at the bios of the people who are on the current board. I think it would be very difficult to claim that any of these people had pre-existing views which would have closed their minds.
I find it very disappointing that, in seeking an alternative approach to the consideration of climate change in our country, the view is that the Climate Change Authority needs to be dismantled completely without first taking a look at the value of each of its component parts. I have my own views about what should happen next, and I certainly think that the things we put in place while we were in government widened the knowledge and awareness of Australians about climate change. It is all very well for governments to make decisions and pass legislation, but if the processes are not fully understood and are seen as detrimental Australians will not support them.
We saw in the recent election that it is so simple just to say 'no climate tax'. Linking climate change so strongly to taxation seemed to me to ignore several basic requirements for Australia: identifying and understanding the vulnerability of our planet; looking at the way we use energy and the way we operate in our own country; and accepting that Australia's role is international and not only about our daily work and daily lives in Australia. I had hoped that the Climate Change Authority would help to create awareness and understanding of the issues around climate change rather than of the political, often short term, debates. When you dilute an argument so that it becomes a slogan, there will be problems with creating understanding—or at least a desire for wider understanding—because it is all too simple. Slogans, particularly negative slogans, are easy.
We really have not had the chance to see the full impact of the work that the Climate Change Authority can do for all of us. They are, at this moment, continuing to work on putting together a draft report on where we are now in reacting to climate change in our country. They have a significant public schedule—again, doing the job for which the authority was set up, which was to engage and then through that process provide independent advice about what was happening on these issues, not just to governments but also to the community.
It is a sadness, I believe, that that work may not be able to be completed. I have seen nothing in the proposals being put forward by the government that sets up an alternative way for this work to be done. Regardless of what governments choose to do about the real issues of climate change in our community, there needs to be a way to ensure that there is independent scrutiny and independent advice that are not touched by the passionate elements of politics. I am a parliamentarian, not a climate scientist. No matter what argument comes up, I will need to look at it and question it. I think the best way of doing that, for anyone in this country, is to have access to the kinds of information that should be available in the draft reports of the Climate Change Authority—to look at the evidence that has been provided, and by whom that evidence has been provided, and to see what the volume of evidence is around a particular issue or response. Without this kind of independent advice, we will come back to individual slogans, and I do not think that is the best way for public policy to go. Regardless of what we are going to do with the process, I think there should be a place for an organisation like the Climate Change Authority. We need to respect independence. We need to respect science. That is the only way that we will be able to get an effective response to something that is real for all of us.