House debates

Wednesday, 17 October 2018


Minister for the Environment

5:25 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Manager of Opposition Business (House)) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the Member for Watson from moving the following motion immediately—That the House:

(1) notes:

(a) in the House today, the Environment Minister categorically denied reports that last night she said to the former President of Kiribati "I know why you're here. It is for the cash. For the Pacific it's always about the cash. I have my cheque book here. How much do you want?";

(b) however, multiple sources have confirmed to journalists that the Minister did in fact say those words;

(c) the Minister also told the House today during Question Time that only "a small amount of money" could be spent on administration under the Government's almost half a billion dollar Great Barrier Reef grant and that administration costs were capped at five per cent;

(d) however, under the Government's grant agreement up to 10 per cent of the entire grant can be spent on administration by the Foundation itself and a further 10 per cent of any grant money provided to subcontractors can be spent on administration as well, which means that more than $80 million can be spent on administration; and

(e) immediately before providing this incorrect information, the Minister was handed a note by the Prime Minister which she appeared to rely on during her answer when she falsely claimed that administration costs were capped at five per cent—an amount $60 million lower than what is the case; and

(2) therefore, calls on the Environment Minister to:

(a) attend the House to correct her answers as she is required to do under the Prime Minister's Ministerial Standards; and

(b) advise the House whether any of the incorrect information she provided was as a result of the note handed to her by the Prime Minister.

It beggars belief that what we saw today was anything other than the Minister for the Environment misleading the House of Representatives. And when a minister misleads, they have an obligation to come into this place and correct the record. There is no doubt that by now the minister knows she misled. Her own office has a copy of the contract that makes it clear that more than $80 million can be spent on administration. They know that what was provided to this parliament is wrong. I suspect the minister would have been here a moment ago for the division. The obligation under ministerial standards is that you correct the record at the first available opportunity. Well, where is the minister? The minister should be here now correcting the record, because we saw two misleads that she needs to address. One of them appears to have been on the basis of false information having been provided to her by none other than the Prime Minister of Australia.

You really start to see what happens when the advertising guy has been put in charge of everything. It doesn't matter to them now whether what's presented is factual; all that matters to them is that they get over the next hurdle. This minister would have known exactly what she said last night to the former President of Kiribati. The words were put to her in writing by Senator Patrick Dodson prior to question time so that she was fully forewarned about this, and other people who were present have since corroborated the exact account that was presented to her in question time. What does the minister say? Sometimes you get weasel words—they say there was a different context or it was a little bit different. No, the words from the minister today were these: 'I 100 per cent disagree with what he has said was the conversation.' There is no room to move now. We had a minister provide information to the parliament about what she said last night to the former President of Kiribati that, based on all of the evidence in front of us, is just plain wrong.

We had that same minister in question time today provide information to us about how much could be spent on administration that is demonstrably wrong, based on the contract that the government itself has signed with the foundation. When did the government ever tell us, when they gave half a billion dollars away to a small private foundation, that $80 million of that wasn't for the reef but for a small private foundation to become a really big foundation and for a whole lot of contractors to take 10 per cent off the top as well? The minister described the amount that could be spent on administration in these terms: she said it was 'a small amount of money'. It takes a pretty extraordinary level of incompetence and denial to describe as 'a small amount of money' even $20 million, but, when it's $80 million, that's extraordinary.

Sometimes we come back after question time when someone has provided information that is incorrect. Often at the end of question time ministers or even prime ministers will stand up and add to an answer and correct information that they provided that was false. But this minister provided false information about what happened last night and provided false information about what is in black and white in a contract. She then would have come back here, I suspect, for the division. She has been available to the House. The shadow minister for climate change and I had a media conference a little while ago—more than an hour ago—explaining all of these issues. So there is no doubt that the minister, by the time she walked into the House for the division, knew she had misled the parliament. She knew. What did she do? Did she walk up to the dispatch box? Did she let people know that she was correcting the record? No, she just walked out again, as though there is not a problem.

Misleading the House has been described by none other than the Minister for Home Affairs as a cardinal sin. Misleading the House is the one thing that everybody in Westminster has always agreed is a reason a minister would have to go. But it has always been accepted that if someone makes a mistake they merely have to correct the record. Well, the minister has had the opportunity, and she hasn't done that. So it's time for the House to call on the minister to come back here and correct the record and to tell the truth about what was said last night, rather than to give an account of the conversation last night with the former President of Kiribati that doesn't match the version corroborated by the other people who just happened to have heard what was said. The minister needs to come back and tell the truth about what was said last night.

The minister needs to come back and tell the truth about how much money this government claimed was going to the Great Barrier Reef and instead is being thrown away so a foundation run by some of their mates can go from being a small foundation employing half a dozen people full time to being a foundation that has tens and tens and tens of millions of dollars at its disposal not for the reef but for itself. Don't forget: 'administration costs' will include their own salaries. 'Administration costs' will include their own friends who they choose to employ, and the contractors will have the same opportunity.

If you are the Minister for the Environment in that government, of all the things that could be a factual piece of information that you probably should know about, it's probably the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. It's not like it's been a small issue. It's not like the concept that's in front of us is something that wasn't likely to come up in question time.

It's one thing for a minister to be incompetent. It's one thing for a minister not to be able to answer questions that should have been in the question time briefing so she should have known or questions that she should have known because they only happened last night. It's another thing for the minister to then think that ministers in this government are just above the rules, that they can provide misleading information to this parliament and it just doesn't matter. It does matter, and this parliament will expect this minister to come back into the House and to correct the record, to tell the truth about how much money can be thrown away on administration and tell the truth about what was said last night to the former President of Kiribati.

Photo of Andrew HastieAndrew Hastie (Canning, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

5:36 pm

Photo of Mark ButlerMark Butler (Port Adelaide, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion. This—

Photo of Andrew HastieAndrew Hastie (Canning, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Are you speaking to the motion?

Photo of Mark ButlerMark Butler (Port Adelaide, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, that's right. That's the idea.

Photo of Andrew HastieAndrew Hastie (Canning, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I give you the call.

Photo of Mark ButlerMark Butler (Port Adelaide, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

That's what happens. Phil Coorey from the Financial Review wrote this morning that yesterday was one of the worst days that any government has had in recent memory. Well, the Minister for the Environment is trying to lift the bar. She potentially misled this parliament not only once in question time earlier this afternoon but twice, on two separate matters utterly central to her portfolio. I think any casual observer of the environment and climate change portfolios would understand that this minister, to say the least, has made a slow and inauspicious start to her portfolio. But what she has done this afternoon beggars belief. And her failure to come in and participate in this debate just compounds the insults to these portfolios and to our friends and neighbours in the Pacific islands region.

We've only heard once or twice from this minister. She's done one interview in the several weeks she's had this portfolio, and it was a complete car crash. She described the IPCC report, one of the most serious reports published on climate change in recent years, as just the 'opinion' of a number of scientists. When asked what policies she was putting in place to bring down carbon pollution, it was a whole list of things that this government has tried to abolish: the CEFC, ARENA, the Renewable Energy Target and 'building' one billion trees. It's not entirely her fault, because this has been a government at least consistent in its denial of climate science and the need to take serious action on climate change, but today brings into question very clearly this minister's fitness to hold an office of minister of the Crown.

Last night, it is said—by Senator Patrick Dodson, one of the most respected figures in the Australian community—that this minister, when informed that former President Tong from Kiribati was here in Australia again to talk about climate change, said: 'I know why you're here. It is for the cash. For the Pacific, it's always about the cash. I have my chequebook here. How much do you want?' Former President Tong is a nominee for the Nobel prize, a confidant of President Obama on climate change policy, not only an esteemed figure in the region and a regular visitor to Australia about the existential threat posed by climate change to our neighbours in the Pacific but an esteemed figure around the world. Not only is this a deep insult to him as an individual but it's a deep insult to the entire region because of what President Tong represents as a key, esteemed figure from that region.

The minister came into the parliament and didn't equivocate about this. As my colleague the member for Watson said, she denied it 100 per cent. She denied Senator Dodson's account 100 per cent. But, since question time, another figure who was at the table and heard the conversation has backed Senator Dodson's account 100 per cent. It is well beyond time that this minister came in and corrected the record, withdrew the comments she made last night and apologised not just to President Tong but to our neighbours in the Pacific. And the clock is ticking on whether or not this minister has a future as a minister of the Crown if she continues to delay the delivery of her responsibility to do this.

This government has form, unfortunately, on this question. We all remember the Minister for Home Affairs and his boom-mic moment, when he laughed at the fact, as he described it, that Pacific Islanders might be late because they have water lapping at their doorsteps. He laughed at the existential threat facing communities that Australians regard as friends and neighbours. In the Pacific Islands Forum, in recent weeks, we know—because the Prime Minister of Tuvalu said so—that the Australian government sought time and time again to water down declarations from that forum about the importance of the global community, including Australia, taking serious action on climate change.

This is a government with clear form on disrespecting the science of climate change, disrespecting the impact that climate change will have on some of our neighbours and friends in the Pacific Islands, and disrespecting individuals, like President Tong, who have devoted their remaining years to doing everything they can to engender climate action around the world. The clock is ticking on this minister. Her duty now is to come into this parliament, apologise and withdraw the outrageous comments she made last night.

5:41 pm

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

This government rejects this motion from a party that is a bunch of frauds on the environment, frauds on the reef and frauds on climate change. And let us begin with their glorious achievements: pink batts, green loans, cash for clunkers, a citizens' assembly and putting the reef on the World Heritage watchlist. I had to go and correct your disastrous pattern of putting the reef at the risk of being declared in danger and, of course, a carbon tax that was nothing more than an electricity price hike. So these guys, on that side, are environmental frauds. And we are calling them out today.

Hands up those who think that the pink batts program was a success. Is there one member on that side who will stand for the pink batts program?

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm happy to!

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

One brave soul.

Photo of Andrew HastieAndrew Hastie (Canning, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The minister will resume his seat. If the member for McEwen wants to interject he can do it from his seat.

Honourable members interjecting

Order! Just try me.

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

So is there one who stands up for the pink batts program? I knew the families that were affected by it. This is an opposition that pretends to be pro-worker, yet there was an utter silence, a cowardly silence, a conspiracy of silence about a program that took four lives. Is there anybody who's proud of that program—any brave souls, anybody sufficiently callous, anybody sufficiently cowardly? We warned, we talked in advance, of the first loss of life, about a program that was going to be a catastrophe. We put that program to the Auditor-General before the first of those four young men lost their lives. There was nothing—no response, no care, no concern. Not one member of this great coalition of the workers' supporters stood up for those young men in advance. Nor, when they talk about investing in the environment and waste, do they think that a $2 billion catastrophic waste is worthwhile, because it was an utter shame, in terms of public money, as the royal commission found. It was a royal commission that eviscerated the program, eviscerated the conduct, and we had to fix it up, in terms of payments to the families and businesses that were affected by it.

It was the same with the green loans. It was a catastrophic program that utterly failed to achieve value for money and outcomes. When you raise the issue of investing and getting value for money, that program was a disgrace and a disaster and an embarrassment to the then government. Before we even get to the issue of the citizens' assembly and cash for clunkers—is there anybody here who stands by cash for clunkers? Just one, one brave soul. Come on!

An opposition member interjecting

Oh, you're a cash for clunkers fan? Is that a program that you will bring back? The member for Griffith is a big fan of cash for clunkers. What about the citizens' assembly—that glorious policy which they abandoned the moment they were re-elected in 2010?

By comparison, we hear a little bit about the reef. The question of the reef has been raised in this context. The government is investing over $400 million in programs to improve the reef. Let us remember what the largest part of that is: it's reducing sediment run-off; it's reducing the impact of nutrients; it's reducing the impact on the reef of the items that come from farms or gullies. They are all programs with a practical, real-world impact. I have a little bit of acquaintance with this because I had to attend the meeting in relation to the World Heritage Convention. Why was that so important? That was important because, when we came into government, Labor had two consecutive motions from the World Heritage Convention Committee which put Australia's Great Barrier Reef on the watch list, on a path to 'in danger', and they demanded a radical change. They demanded a change because what had occurred under Labor was a catastrophic failure of management, a catastrophic failure of environmental outcomes and a catastrophic failure in relation to protecting Australia's reputation. Do you know what happened at that meeting in Bonn in 2015? The World Heritage Committee took what Australia had done on the reef, in our time, on our watch, including the ending of capital dredge disposal in the Great Barrier Reef and including ending the five major proposals that Labor had for capital dredge to be dumped on the reef. They saw our investment, they saw our long-term plan out to 2050, they saw the changes that we made and, as a consequence of that, they praised Australia as a global leader.

This is about waste and calling out Labor's utter fraud and 'what we've achieved', and it also is about the reef. In relation to the reef, we turned around Labor's catastrophic mismanagement. Those people are utter frauds on the environment and the reef, and the World Heritage Committee called them out. Why did they praise us? Because we got it right and we reversed their failures. We reversed the actions which led to Australia being put on the path to 'in danger', on the World Heritage watchlist. I am very happy—

Opposition members interjecting

You know that the 2012 and 2013 decisions of the World Heritage Committee made it absolutely clear that, without reform, Australia was going to be put—

Opposition members interjecting

You are airbrushing history and you out to be utterly ashamed of what occurred on your watch. Let me be absolutely clear: the third part of this element is about climate change. When we came into government, there was a 750-million-tonne shortfall to meet our 2020 targets. Do you know what? We're on track now to be an almost 300-million-tonne surplus government. We have a billion-tonne turnaround from where Labor had emissions to where we are. We've achieved what they promised. We were on a track to fail. So we have achieved the very thing they promised but were unable to deliver. Their own figures, in their own last assessments, showed a shortfall of 755 million tonnes. The other thing we did as part of that was to abolish a catastrophic carbon tax, which wasn't going to achieve the outcomes but was going to achieve the damage.

The last time they were in government, they brought an electricity tax to the Australian people. They deliberately increased the price of electricity. We took that tax and abolished that tax. We reduced the price of electricity, as the ACCC said, by the full amount of the tax that the previous government introduced, and, as a consequence, families and business and jobs are better off. But, as we project forward to what their plan is and their proposal is, it's another electricity tax. As the Prime Minister made clear last night, potentially we are looking at a tripling of the carbon tax with their 45 per cent emissions reduction target and their 50 per cent renewable target. If we put those two together we have a near tripling of the carbon tax, but in the form of an electricity tax. So their plan going forward now is a massive electricity tax on Australians.

They want to talk about honesty and they want to talk about record. Well, we are very happy to talk about those. They are ashamed of what they did on the reef and they deny what the World Heritage Committee had to say. They are ashamed of what they did in the Home Insulation Program and in the pink batts program. Not one of them is willing to stand by that—but on this occasion for good reason, because young people lost their lives in a program which was a disgrace. Not one member of that government should ever be in government again.

As a consequence of that and because of those failures—because of their failures on the reef and because of the fact that they were 755 million tonnes short—we reject this motion on every possible ground. On that side they are environmental frauds; on this side we've achieved the outcomes. We reject this motion, and categorically reject it.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by the Manager of Opposition Business be agreed to.

5:59 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

As members would be aware, in these circumstances I issue a casting vote. Normally that vote, according to the principles, would be that the motion doesn't have a majority and the status quo remains, but I think, in line with earlier precedents, I won't exercise a casting vote because the motion is to suspend standing orders and it fails because it doesn't have an absolute majority. So we'll just declare it lost.