Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 February 2007


Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee; Report

5:27 pm

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Primary Industries, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | Hansard source

I want to concur with Senator Heffernan’s remarks about this report’s production. It was produced in a cooperative atmosphere. Indeed, the committee agreed to extend the reporting date to allow for consideration of amendment proposals from a number of senators to the chairman’s original draft. Because of what was taking place at the end of last year there was inadequate time to do it then and so there was cooperation from the government members of the committee which led to the postponement of the completion of the report. The report, in fact, was concluded at a meeting in this building during January.

Frankly, that is a mark of the sort of cooperation that I can commend to other Senate committees. But it is at complete odds with the way that government members on the economics committee dealt with its report into petrol prices in Australia and I feel that it is important to point to the vast difference in approach. There were three deliberative meetings and an extension of the reporting date for this very important report produced by this cooperative committee. But in relation to the economics committee’s consideration of the petrol prices report—another important subject and related in many ways to other inquiries—there was one deliberative meeting, which lasted a very short time, at which the government members rammed through the committee report.

It was such shameful behaviour that the Labor senators lodged a dissenting report which essentially pointed to the truncation of the consideration process and the inadequate way in which the report dealt with matters. Senator Murray put in a dissenting report which said that basically he had had the report for 21 hours before it was considered—and that was the same for everybody else of course—and that he had not had an opportunity to even read the report before it was rammed through the committee. I know that Senator Barnaby Joyce, who also dissented, indicated that he had not had a chance to read the report before it was rammed through the committee. Here we have a contrast between proper procedure and cooperation leading to our unanimous report, and a report which has no standing—because clearly it is the view of a part of the committee—and which has been rammed through on the government vote.

As Senator Heffernan said, it is important that it is understood that the report of the Rural and Regional Affairs Transport Committee was produced in a spirit of cooperation and compromise. Indeed, throughout the report there is an element of common view in the way in which the language has been presented, and I think members of the committee of all persuasions have a comfort about the findings of the report, although I am sure that some would have liked some points to have been sharper on a particular subject. Senator Nash may have preferred that the report said something slightly different in relation to mandating of ethanol, but it does not. I and certainly other senators would have much preferred that the report talked about a national responsibility for funding public transport options, but that was not the view of the majority of the committee. This report has within it the element of compromise that is necessary in the process if committees are going to work together. On the other hand, contrast that with what is, frankly, a worthless report into the pricing of petrol by the Economics Committee because of the way it was handled.

I think recommendation 6 of the report should be highlighted:

The committee recommends that the Government, in consultation with the car industry, investigate and report on trends in the fuel efficiency of the light vehicle fleet and progress towards the 2010 target for the fuel efficiency of new passenger cars. If progress under the present voluntary code seems unlikely to meet the target, other measures should be considered, including incentives to favour more fuel efficient cars; or a mandatory code.

Frankly, as we can see from the sorts of vehicles being produced in Australia, there are differing trends by manufacturers in relation to the fuel efficiency of their vehicles. There has been a bit of debate about vehicles produced by General Motors and Ford. Other than the Elgas conversions by General Motors and the factory floor gas-powered model by Ford, the fuel efficiency of the large sedans does not seem to be moving in the right direction. Contrast that with the latest vehicle produced by Toyota, who claim that the fuel efficiency of their six-cylinder vehicle, the Orion, is equivalent to the fuel efficiency of their four-cylinder vehicle, the Camry. That is the sort of direction in which Australian manufacturing needs to be going in an environment where, as evidenced by the statistics, Australia’s motor vehicle fleet is seeing an increase in the number of small cars—which we do not make in this country—and therefore in the number of imports, with the resultant effect on Australian jobs and our balance of payments. With vehicles like the Orion, people can purchase a family-size sedan without making the sort of sacrifice that one would make compared with the fuel efficiency of other vehicles. Obviously other vehicles are very good, but the issue of fuel efficiency is driving motorists and families away from the purchase of those sedans. We are seeing from the statistics that, of cars being purchased in the general groups, there is an increasing volume in the very small vehicles and the more fuel efficient vehicles and a decreasing volume in the larger family sedan.

The other matter that I want to talk about relates to the work that the government needs to do in relation to research. There are a number of areas in the report that dealt with this. Recommendation 5 reads:

The committee recommends that the Government commission a research group within the Department of the Treasury to identify options for addressing the financial risks faced by prospective investments in alternative fuels projects that are currently preventing such projects from proceeding.  This group should determine how these risks might be best addressed in order to create a favourable investment climate for the timely development of alternative fuel industries, consistent with the principles of sustainability and security of supply.

Frankly, that seems to be a very self-evident proposition, one which I would suggest the committee should not have had to make. The government should have acted before this time on this matter. It has been clear that take-up of ethanol production opportunities has not been as great as it could have been—far from it. The need for investment in alternative fuels has been evident for some time, yet we have a very small number of projects that actually look like getting off the ground. A coal to liquids process in Victoria may well proceed to the point of coming into effect by 2016. That is a very long time away. We do need to look at the reasons that these projects have taken such a long time to get on the drawing board and at why there are not as many as there should be, which leaves us in a position of not being able to properly respond to the fuel challenges that this report outlines. I am happy to sit down now. I hope that, at the end of the 30 minutes available to address this matter, it is kept on the Notice Paper so that others can speak to it.


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