Thursday, 17 June 2010
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Assistant Treasurer (Senator Sherry) to a question without notice asked by Senator Milne today, relating to fossil fuel subsidies.
I spoke to Senator Sherry during estimates, when he was appearing at the Treasury estimates, and I raised this issue again today. The Prime Minister made an agreement at the last G20 meeting in Pittsburgh in the United States that Australia, with the other G20 countries, would phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. At that meeting the Australian Prime Minister agreed that there would be an implementation plan and a timetable for the phase-out of those fossil fuel subsidies by the meeting in Toronto in nine days time. There was a meeting of finance ministers in Korea a week or two ago and nobody in Australia can find out to this day which fossil fuel subsidies Australia is putting on the table as those that it would phase out. Nor do we know what the timetable is, nor do we know what Australia has said or agrees is a definition of a subsidy for fossil fuels.
This is critical, because the Prime Minister has wedged himself on this issue. He not only agreed in Pittsburgh last year as part of the G20 communique; he also did it at APEC. So it is not once but twice he has told other countries that Australia will phase out its fossil fuel subsidies, as it should do if it is serious about climate change. I support the Prime Minister in making that commitment to the global community, but what I think is disgraceful is that, because we are now in the midst of a big fight with the mining industry over a superprofits tax, the Prime Minister is not coming out and telling Australians which fossil fuel subsidies are on the table for phase-out and over what period of time.
I asked specifically today: is the fuel tax credit on the table? That is critical, because the mining industry in Australia gets $1.7 billion per annum as a fuel tax credit. It is a direct fossil fuel subsidy. Is that a fossil fuel subsidy that Australia has on the table for the phase-out, and what is the time frame for it? What about the fringe benefits tax concession for motor vehicles? The Henry tax review said to get rid of it and most submissions to the Henry tax review were about this particular issue, and yet the government has not had the courage to get rid of it. Is it on the table?
What people want to know is: what is Australia going to agree is the definition of a fossil fuel subsidy? The Australian taxpayer subsidises the coal industry $50 million for research by Geoscience Australia identifying holes in the ground where you might pump carbon dioxide. Is that a subsidy? Is the $50 million that Geoscience gets to do exploration work for the oil and gas industry a subsidy to the fossil fuel industry? Well, of course it is, but is Australia going to agree to that? Or are we going to argue for the lowest common denominator definition of what constitutes a fossil fuel subsidy and argue that it really is only the direct subsidies that you might use to reduce the price of fossil fuels—where a government just puts in money to reduce the price, as the CPRS did? Is that all we are going to do? Are we going to disregard all these other subsidies to the fossil fuel industry? Australians have a direct interest in knowing right now what our definition of a fossil fuel subsidy is, what it is that Wayne Swan and the Prime Minister put on the table in Korea and will put on the table in Toronto in nine days time, what the time frame is and what Australia’s attitude is.
I find it appalling that Senator Sherry, as the minister representing the Treasurer, was not aware that New Zealand and Sweden launched last week a Friends of Fossil-Fuel Subsidy Reform group. They are countries outside the G20. They formed this group to lobby the G20 leaders for more ambitious and transparent action on the fossil fuel phase-out. The reason they used ‘transparent’ is that countries outside the G20 do not know what G20 are up to. Nobody has told them what has been on the table in Korea or what indeed is likely to be on the table in Toronto. Those papers should be public so that the whole world—every country—knows what the G20 are prepared to do. This plays into the climate negotiations. We want to know in Australia before other countries know—exactly at the same time, at least—what it is that our government is putting on the table about a timetable for the phase-out of fossil fuels, a definition of a fossil fuel subsidy and indeed which subsidies we are phasing out.
Question agreed to.