House debates

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Matters of Public Importance

Climate Change

3:20 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | Hansard source

Australia needs urgent action on climate change. In South Australia, particularly in my electorate of Mayo, what climate change has meant is extended bushfire seasons and it's meant coastal storms are becoming more dangerous, the impacts of which are becoming more severe. Climate change will have severe impacts upon Australia's national security, upon our economic security and our food security, upon public health and upon our natural environment. And regional and rural Australia will experience this more so than metropolitan Australia.

The policy solution to climate change has been clear for decades. In order to incentivise changes in behaviour and the way we structure our economic production at both the corporate and household levels, we need price signals that include the real cost to society of the pollution that induces climate change. In simple terms, this means we need an emissions reduction scheme or an emissions intensity scheme, and there is broad expert consensus on this approach. John Howard, who many in this chamber consider to have been one of our greatest prime ministers, accepted this expert advice, as did former prime ministers Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull. My former leader, former Senator Nick Xenophon, also accepted this evidence and policy solution. However, what subsequent governments have all struggled to master is the politics of it. The failure of Australia to adopt a meaningful and durable energy and climate change policy is an essential failure of Australian politics of our age—of this 46th Parliament and the 45th Parliament, and, indeed, the 44th.

Rural and regional Australia, as I said, will face the brunt of climate change. And it is not only the top-tier issue of Australian energy policy that has faced repeated political failure; Australian vehicle emissions standards are the worst in the OECD by a wide margin—worse than Europe, worse than anywhere in the OECD—and things are getting worse. CO2 emissions from new Australian passenger vehicles are increasing at an accelerated rate. The public health outcomes of our inaction are, indeed, diabolical. While tight estimates are difficult to formulate, traffic pollution is estimated to cause approximately 3,000 deaths a year, so we can reasonably conclude that improving standards has the potential to save at least 100 lives a year. The government last conducted in-service vehicle emissions testing in 2009—a decade ago—so we do not even have an up-to-date or detailed understanding of Australia's vehicle emissions profile and how we should adapt international standards to Australian conditions. That is diabolical. The Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions was established in October 2015 and has consulted broadly but is yet to implement anything of substance. That was four years ago. The horrible irony of all of this is that improving fuel efficiency standards would not only lead to better environmental and better public health outcomes but also save households, businesses and governments money because more efficient fuel means you have to buy less of it. Those of us who represent regional and rural electorates know that people are so heavily reliant on their cars. We don't have the public transport networks of the major capital cities, so it is imperative that we act.

I now wish to move on to the impact of climate change on water security. Droughts and water shortages are becoming more common in Australia, a fact known only too well by so many farmers. The area roughly between Adelaide and Brisbane has already experienced a 15 per cent decline in late autumn and early winter rainfall over the past few decades. Across the Murray-Darling Basin stream flows have declined by 41 per cent since the mid-1990s. As the electorate at the bottom of the Murray River, a sizeable part of Mayo is more vulnerable than most to the environmental degradation and the genuine possibility of system-wide collapse. We saw it teeter close to the edge during the millennium drought. In the face of climate change much more needs to be done to build environmental resilience at the bottom of the river. In my community during the millennium drought it was beyond heartbreaking; it was absolutely heartbreaking. My sister had a farm down at Milang at the time. It is one of the last major townships before the mouth. When you stand on the jetty in Milang and look out there's hundreds of metres before the edge of the water and you see the dying fauna. We can't allow that to happen in Australia again. We are allowing political pettiness in this place to distract us from real action.

It is for this reason that I have long advocated for a dedicated South Australian Murray research institute for the end section of this river. Such an institute would focus on issues including real-time summaries of the ecological condition of the river, to allow for provision of advice and remedies for intermediate and extreme drought events; funding for new solutions for managing water, salinity and nutrient levels in the Coorong, the Lower Lakes and the Murray in the context of real-time ebb-and-flow conditions; new ebb-and-flow management enhancements for the Murray River channels and floodplains; and monitoring and reporting socioeconomic benefits to stakeholders across agriculture, fisheries, Indigenous affairs, tourism and recreational groups, especially during ebb-and-flow events.

To complement this important work, Mayo urgently needs the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to have a permanent presence, specifically a regional engagement officer, in the Lower Lakes and Coorong region, ideally in Goolwa. This would vastly improve the two-way exchange of information between the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the local community and, in turn, improve the quality of the management of our part of the river, which will become even more critical as the impacts of climate change on our river community become more severe.

We are supposed to take into account the needs of our communities, address those issues and come up with solutions in this place. I often look back at the Hansard from decades ago and think, 'My goodness, what insight and courage those members of parliament had,' while in this place we sit on our hands with respect to climate change. I wonder what children will do in decades to come when they open up the history books and see the lack of action in this place in 2019, in 2018, in 2017. They will be so angry at us. They will be angry because we are destroying their future. We have a responsibility in this place. Each one of us is the one person elected from our community to make positive change in this place. I urge every member in this place to read the science and come to this place with a solution, and let's get some real action on our emissions.

We are not doing well. Our emissions are going up. We all know this yet we continue to sit on our hands. Let this be the last time, the last year, that we do nothing. And let's make sure that we change for the future for our future Australians. It is a conservative thing to do to plan for the future generations, not to leave future generations with a burden. We often hear that from the government side—the burden of debt. Well, I say, the burden of inaction on climate change is just as important, if not more important, because we are destroying the future of Australians.

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