Senate debates

Monday, 15 September 2008

Climate Change

Return to Order

3:37 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I would like to make a statement on the Senate order for the production of documents agreed to on 3 September 2008. The order, agreed to on the motion by Senator Milne, relates to the provision of:

... the ‘alternative, more business-friendly formula for providing assistance to trade-exposed, emissions-intensive companies’ circulated to the business community by either the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism or the office of the Minister for Resources and Energy (Mr Ferguson) ahead of the roundtable meetings on 29 August 2008.

My office has consulted with Mr Ferguson’s office, which in turn has consulted with the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism. I am advised that the words in the newspaper article quoted but not attributed in the Senate order are a direct reference to the working notes and thoughts prepared by an officer of the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism. I am advised that the officer provided these working notes to a person in an external organisation in order to obtain that person’s views. The views in the notes are not those of the minister, his office, the Secretary of the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism or the department itself. The provision of those notes to a person outside the department was done without the prior knowledge or authority of the minister, his office or the secretary of the department.

I am also advised that the notes had no bearing on or relevance to the industry consultations conducted by Mr Ferguson on 29 August 2008. As such, the notes were not circulated in connection with the industry consultations. The government does not propose to table a document in response to the order on the basis that no document or documents have been brought into existence in the form so described.

3:40 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

There were actually two documents requested. One was the document to which the minister has referred and the other was the Wilkins review.

Photo of Nick SherryNick Sherry (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Superannuation and Corporate Law) Share this | | Hansard source

No, that was to me—a separate one.

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Through you, Mr Deputy President, Senator Sherry advises that his is a separate document, so I will just comment on Senator Carr’s explanation in relation to Minister Ferguson. I find it very interesting that, suddenly, what was a report is now the working notes and thoughts of a person in the department to somebody outside the department, and now does not constitute a document that is relevant to the return to order. It would be timely and appropriate for the government to reveal which person working in Minister Ferguson’s office or department thought it was appropriate to be circulating to the business community an alternative view about the emissions trading scheme, the nature of the free permits or otherwise and the targets or anything else pertaining to the government’s green paper.

As we know, the whole point of this—and it is clearly known outside the government—is that Minister Ferguson is doing everything possible to undermine a stringent emissions trading scheme in Australia, and that is, of course, because of his close association with the coal industry and in particular with the Business Council of Australia. We know that they are absolutely opposed to anything rigorous in terms of a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In fact the Business Council of Australia said that the most they could possibly live with was a 10 per cent reduction on 1990 levels, and of course Professor Garnaut was not even prepared—the government has not responded yet—to force the business community of Australia to their ambit position. An even weaker position was put up in terms of a zero, five or a maximum 10 per cent reduction.

I think it is very interesting to note that the way the government has chosen to get out of releasing this information is to say that it was working notes and thoughts and that it was released by someone in the department or the minister’s office to someone outside of the department without authority. I would hope the government is now going to tell us what action has been taken in relation to that. As the information was circulated in the business community, were they told it was the individual thoughts of one person, that it had no authority and did not have the imprimatur of the minister, the secretary or anyone else? Is it common practice for someone in the department to circulate to the business community an alternative model to what the government supposedly wants in its discussions with the business community?

There is someone here clearly seeking to undermine the minister, whose position is even slacker than that of the Minister for Climate Change and Water. It seems to me that we have had a greenhouse mafia working in the bureaucracy and in ministerial offices for a very long time. They are still there in the bureaucracy and that is why it would be very interesting to know who in Minister Ferguson’s department is actively undermining the government’s position on emissions trading.

One thing that I would say to the government in relation to this is: yes, you can vote with the opposition in this house to withhold reports such as the Herzfeld report on the pulp mill; yes, you can suddenly decide that a report is not a report but the notes and thoughts of a person inside the department who does not have the imprimatur of the government—and we are going to hear in a minute why we cannot have the Wilkins review, no doubt; and, yes, you can continue to make up reason after reason to keep documents out of the public arena. But once you start on that slippery slope that is the way that you are going to continue. We heard a whole lot of rhetoric when the Prime Minister came to power about more transparency and openness. There is no evidence at all to suggest that that is going to be the case.

Once you get people in departments actively undermining ministers and circulating information to the business community for them to use against the government, it is in everybody’s interest to know whether this is a one-off and what action the government has taken in relation to this matter, and for the government to clarify for the parliament what erroneous information was given to the business community. In other words, the thoughts that were put on paper that undermined the government’s case ought to also be disowned by the government in the context of this debate. It is a most unfortunate set of circumstances. I will be interested to see when we move for other documents to be released whether they are suddenly going to be reinterpreted as the working notes and thoughts of a person who had no right to be distributing that material.

3:45 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to respond to Senator Milne. I have no intention of responding to her political points about Mr Ferguson, as I do not think that they require a response. But in terms of the request for the name of the public servant concerned, I am not in a position to provide that and, frankly, I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to do so. There is no attempt here to withhold information from the Senate. In fact, what I have sought to do, on the advice of Minister Ferguson, is to provide information about the working notes that were provided erroneously by a public servant without authority to one organisation—and one person in that organisation. They have been described equally erroneously by Senator Milne and the Financial Review.

The motion and the statements here today seek to imply that the documents had either the approval or some form of standing either in the department or in the minister’s office. That is just not the case. The officer who produced the working notes provided them, without prior knowledge of his superiors or the minister’s office, to—I repeat—one individual in one organisation to seek their views. This hardly constitutes a circulation to the business community and certainly was not a document being circulated by the minister or the department. I do not think that it is appropriate in these circumstances to provide the name of the officer, even if I did have that information at my disposal.

Question agreed to.

3:47 pm

Photo of Nick SherryNick Sherry (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Superannuation and Corporate Law) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I rise to speak in relation to the motion put by Senator Milne pursuant to standing order 164 and passed by the Senate on 3 September 2008. The motion relates to a document entitled The strategic review of climate change policies prepared for the government by Mr Roger Wilkins AO. Unlike in the previous debate, I acknowledge that that document does exist. The document discussed in the previous debate did not exist.

I am advised by the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, who I represent in the Senate, that the purpose of the Wilkins review was to assess the appropriateness, efficiency and effectiveness of the Australian government climate change programs and to develop a set of principles to assist in the assessment of whether climate change programs will complement the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, known as the CPRS. The review has been prepared as an input in developing the government’s climate change policy, including the forthcoming CPRS white paper. There are very important policy matters that require detailed consideration and analysis and which contain matters subject to cabinet consideration. As such, I am advised that the document is protected by cabinet-in-confidence. I wish to also inform the Senate that I am advised that the document in question included advice to ministers to assist in the deliberative processes of government. In accordance with long-standing practice, the review is therefore subject to a claim of public interest immunity.

The government have not come to this decision lightly, as we strongly endorse the open and transparent functioning of our parliament. We come to this position on the basis of extensive precedent, including precedent from the previous government, where advice to government of a similar nature—that is, for the purpose of the government’s deliberative processes—has not been provided on an order of the Senate.

It is prudent to look at several of these precedents. The first, interestingly, relates to a request by me to obtain a report presented to the former government by the Superannuation Working Group in 2002. Senator Troeth, who responded on behalf of the government on that occasion, made the situation very clear when on 29 August 2002 she read by leave a statement by Senator Coonan in which she informed the Senate:

The report has been received by the government and is being examined and considered. The report itself and any measures the government may propose to implement to improve prudential safety of superannuation will be considered by cabinet. At this stage, the report is clearly part of the deliberative process of government.

I accept the need for the Senate to access certain information if it is to perform its proper functions. I understand and believe in the important principles of transparent democracy and accountability. I am also aware of my responsibilities as a minister and the need to consider whether disclosure of information would be contrary to the public interest. There is a balance to be struck which properly addresses the tension between these competing principles.

Having considered these principles and responsibilities in the circumstances at hand, I have determined, on balance, that it is not in the public interest for the Superannuation Working Group report to be laid on the table at this time.

A further example was seen on 11 March 1999, when Senator Ian Macdonald, referring to the Hawke report into Airservices Australia, stated:

The former Minister for Transport and Regional Development, Mr Sharp, instructed the then Department of Transport and Regional Development to prepare the document for the purposes of cabinet deliberation.

It is a document that has underpinned confidential cabinet deliberations and relates to a subject that is still under government consideration. As a result, it would not serve the public interest for me to table the report in the Senate.

Again this highlights the clearest precedents used in this place. Again, on 24 September 2001 former Liberal Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Hill, declined to provide documents on the basis:

The documents are in the nature of, or relating to, opinion, advice or recommendation obtained, prepared or recorded in the course of, or for the purposes of, the deliberative processes involved in the functions of the government whose release would be contrary to the public interest.

Finally, there is a fourth precedent. Let us turn to the very correct advice, I have to say, offered by former senator Ian Campbell, who said on 28 June 2001:

Disclosure of such documents would discourage the proper provision of advice to ministers. Were the government to disclose such information, it may prejudice the future supply of information from third parties to the Commonwealth.

No truer words by former senator Ian Campbell. It was very prudent advice he gave to the Senate on that occasion and the government will adhere to the same precedent because his advice on that occasion was sound. It is correct. Although it may now be forgotten by some in this chamber, it is a long-standing Senate practice.

I do wish to take this opportunity to draw the Senate’s attention to the real issues at play in relation to climate change. The Labor government through both the Prime Minister and Senator Wong, the Minister for Climate Change and Water, have from day one been fighting to ensure that the legacy of inaction from the now opposition on climate change is overcome. The government is preparing Australia for the challenges of the future by tackling climate change and securing our water supplies. Australians know that acting now on climate change is the responsible thing to do and we cannot afford to waste any more time. So, for the reasons that I have outlined and for the four precedents over a number of years that I have quoted, the government does not propose to provide this document to the Senate.

3:54 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I think that it is interesting that the government shares a number of precedents because, of course, it is true that for years the Howard government was able to hide various reports from the public and now we are seeing the quid pro quo with this government doing precisely the same thing. Whether or not it is in the public interest, whether cabinet solidarity and confidentiality are more important than the public interest, is the question in debate here today.

There is no more important policy challenge for Australia than responding to climate change. Absolutely, there is not a more important issue for us to get our heads around. The community has been invited to try to engage this issue through the emissions trading scheme. We have had the green paper leading into a white paper; we have had the Garnaut review and any number of other things. But what is not clear is how the government’s policies are in any way internally consistent. I have been pointing this out from day one. You have the Department of Climate Change saying one thing and the department of resources saying an entirely different thing. You have a discussion about fossil fuel subsidies and the Department of Climate Change says that it is not their matter for concern; it is the minister for resources who should be dealing with that. Yet it beggars belief that you can have a policy position which says that we need to reduce emissions while at the same time giving huge subsidies to the fossil fuel sector. You have endless competing initiatives in the federal government which are cancelling one another out. The big debate around the Wilkins review is about the mandatory renewable energy target. We know that Mr Wilkins supports getting rid of the MRET, or at least incorporating into it carbon capture and storage—low-emissions technologies—so actually undermining, in my view, the integrity of the MRET by pushing it out to be a low-emissions technology target to include the fossil fuel sector.

There are a number of other issues that need to be debated and the concern here is: if you want to invite the public to have a genuine debate about climate change, then you should release the document so that the public can have a debate as informed as it possibly can be. Instead of that we have got a situation where we have documents that are not documents—they are working notes and thoughts. We now have documents that are cabinet-in-confidence documents because they play into government policy down the line. Then we have the public consultation process. Why would the public engage the government’s calls for information, discussion and input to various reviews if at the end of those reviews the public cannot actually see what the review said in the context of preparing policy? Rather, what we are seeing is the government hiding that until they have made a decision in cabinet about what they intend to do about it and then they will selectively release or do whatever they choose to do in relation to it. That is the way it is going to go.

So the general public is now on notice that the government, just like the Howard government, will be selective about what they release. They will ask for public comment but have no intention of taking the public into their confidence in the way that the public might have expected from a government that said they were interested in transparency. I have very grave concerns about the decision of the government not to release the Wilkins review. It is completed. It should be out there. The community has a right to see it. The community has been asked to engage climate change, been asked to engage the emissions trading system, wants to know about the complementary measures that may be necessary and about the internal consistency of a number of the government’s policies. Here we have an issue with the government putting off any investment in renewable energy for 12 months while putting $500 million into carbon capture and storage. We have a government with draft legislation coming in here absolving the industry of any liability in the long term for carbon dioxide so captured and transferring that to the public.

Here we have a government with $9 billion worth of subsidies to the fossil fuel sector and we have a review which will say, ‘Oh, but we have to have a level playing field for carbon capture and storage,’ whilst pushing the renewables out for years. Here we have a government that delayed the introduction of the green car fund. We want to actually see how all of this fits together. I think the government’s decision is a very clear signal to the community that nothing has changed on the transparency of government front from the Howard government years. As I said before, if you begin this way it is the way you will continue and it will cause problems for the government in the longer term. The community will eventually get hold of the Wilkins review, albeit too late to be able to play into the policy discussion that needs to take place before the government makes its decision—and not be informed after the event of what the Wilkins review had to say about the appropriateness of the government’s climate change policies.

Question agreed to.