Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011, Carbon Credits (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2011, Australian National Registry of Emissions Units Bill 2011; Second Reading

1:12 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011. If ever there was an example of how not to progress a piece of legislation or how not to progress a policy, this is it. It is a great demonstration of how not to do something. I remember thinking, and I might even have tweeted, on the morning of the hearings by the Senate Environment and Communi­cations Legislation Committee into this legislation that this government could not organise a lolly scramble in a candy store. The lack of information, the lack of preparation and the lack of final prepared­ness of this legislation—along with all of the other very important things, as Senator Milne has just said, that go with this legislation—could not be more stark.

There was some critical documentation that was not available to the committee. CSIRO and ABARES were tasked by the government to do some work on the impacts of this legislation, which was very important for the committee in preparing its deliberations. Senator Milne is correct in saying that we spent a lot of time on this legislation and we tried to give it due deference, because it is important legislation and it provides enormous opportunities for carbon storage in our natural environment, if it is done right. Those two critical pieces of information from ABARES and CSIRO were not available to the committee. The CSIRO information was released the day before the committee reported. This gave very little time for the committee to properly consider how this legislation, this policy, might impact on rural and regional Australia. The ABARES research is still not available and is subject to Treasury's discretion. Treasury commissioned the work, so we do not have access to that work. ABARES have done some very good work in the past and been very cooperative with the Senate and its committees in working towards some indications of the impact of some of these policies. During the debate on the CPRS they did some work and when some concerns were pointed out about it ABARES went back and did some additional work to clarify their information. They have been very cooperative. Yet none of that data is yet available to the Senate or to the parliament in considering this very important legislation. It provides enormous opportunity for rural Australia, regional Australia, to participate in a carbon market. But you would think, when you go through this legislation, that the government are actually frightened to really allow people to store carbon in the landscape. What they have done is effectively taken every single sensitive element and regulated it out of the legislation.

In fact, the most telling thing as part of this piece of legislation is a response from the National Farmers Federation. They talk about the fact that, under the proposed ineligibility criteria, a windbreak on a farm is regarded as common practice. Therefore, as something that is common practice, it is not a new way to store carbon in the environment and it is ruled out. I would have thought that encouraging farmers to plant trees as windbreaks to break up their farms and to put some native trees back into the environment would have been one of the things that we would be encouraging. That is the coalition's view.

There is enormous potential for carbon storage in the natural environment through things like windbreaks and hedgerows on farmland to bring back the percentage of vegetation in these areas that have been largely cleared over the last 100 or 150 years in the face of agriculture. We know, the science tells us, that we can do this without having a huge impact on our agricultural capacity. In fact, in some cases it will improve our agricultural capacity because it has the impact of lowering salt pans and salt levels in the environment and reviving land that is degraded because of our past agricultural practices. Those sorts of things are ruled out by this legislation and quite rightly the National Farmers Federation cannot understand why. I certainly cannot. But that gives a clear demonstration of how timid the government have been in preparing this legislation in that they have effectively ruled everything out as part of the preparation of the bills.

We then go on to some other elements of the legislation that Senator Milne and Senator Birmingham have covered that also again give no reason for the rush to pass this legislation through the parliament. As Senator Birmingham has said, we have a second reading amendment to say that this legislation should not be finally considered before the regulations are laid on the table. In the context of the development of the regulations—basically, the positive and negative lists—that is a very sensible amendment that we are proposing. Effect­ively, this legislation is nowhere near ready. Those lists are a long way from being finalised because the negotiation process is still ongoing, but also some of the work that underpins them is a long way from being prepared.

Senator Milne talked about the relationship with NRM groups. The NRM groups potentially play a very important role in this legislation. This legislation effectively makes them pseudo-planning authorities. We know that the NRM plans vary enormously and there is no consistency across the country. They are developed at a local level, albeit under national guidelines, and there is enormous variability across them. There is enormous variability in the structures of the NRM groups, and what we are doing in this circumstance is effectively making them pseudo-planning authorities with powers that they were never set up to have. The negotiations with those groups, as I understand it, have not even started yet and yet here we are trying to pass a piece of legislation that would enshrine this responsibility on those groups.

It may be that they are the best organisations to deal with this. I am not sure that that is the case. This is really the minister fobbing off his responsibilities down the chain so that he has a bit of deniability, in my view, but what should be happening is that those negotiations, those processes, should be taken into account as part of the development and passing of this legislation. It is going to take a considerable time to deal with those particular groups in the way that they are structured and the way that their plans are designed. One thing that could very well happen is that you could get interest groups inserting themselves into the NRM groups and creating even more perverse outcomes.

Senator Milne talked about perverse outcomes and protection of agricultural land and yet it is the Greens that are actually providing a lot of the threats to that by trying to push forestry out of our native forests and into plantations. Those plantations have to be grown somewhere. There is only one place for them to go and that is on agricultural land, and yet the science is very clear. If you want to store more carbon, if you want to protect biodiversity, if you want to have better water quality, if you want to use fewer chemicals, if you want to mitigate bushfires, if you want to protect scenic landscape values then you will have long-term rotations in your native forests and you will store more carbon over time. You will store more carbon in a native forest than you will in a plantation. The science is very clear.

Yet here we have the Greens trying to push our forest industries out of our sustainably managed native forests and into our agricultural landscape, and there they are at the other end complaining about the plantations that are going to be developed as part of that process. You cannot have it both ways. I know the Greens often try to do so but you cannot have it both ways and the science, I repeat, is very clear. In fact a report released only a couple of weeks ago by Forest and Wood Products Australia gives a clear demonstration of that very fact. It would be very interesting to see whether the Greens might read that. In respect of the positive and negative lists, I have great concerns about the way they are currently structured. For the first time that I have seen, on the negative list is a requirement for a plantation to have a full high-security water licence. That introduces something very new into the overall process for growing plantations in this country. I know there is a range of views on that, but it is, in my view, the thin edge of the wedge. It potentially sets the agricultural sector up to have to have high-quality water licences, high-reliability water licences for a whole range of other dryland crops. I know this is a contentious issue, but it is something the farming sector should be very concerned about. Too often we have seen the farming sector sit back while the forest sector is pushed around by the environmental groups, only to find out later that they are going to get hit down the track with exactly the same issues. We have seen it with agricultural chemicals on a number of occasions, and this is one that needs to be looked at very carefully.

I have mentioned before the terms about common practice, and the complete stupidity, in my view, of effectively ruling out windbreaks on farms. I cannot understand why perhaps the most viable way for farmers to gain an income—and for this country, if it wants to, to store some carbon—is effectively ruled out by the regulatory process of this piece of legislation. It just does not make sense. And it shows how timid this government has been in trying to remove any sort of concern that might be raised, particularly by the Greens, who we know are now wagging the dog. This legislation effectively will not do anything. That is the really disappointing thing about this piece of legislation. It rules out access to native forests, and yet the science is very clear: responsible long-term management of native forests will, over time, store more carbon. There is no question about that. Okay, you get a loss at the beginning, but you get a return. And things like the fantastic furniture in this place are all carbon sinks. The carbon stored in those products is locked away for the life of that product. Then the next incarnation of the native forest is regrown, which is the way that we do it here in Australia—you do not just cut it down and leave it or do something else with it; you regenerate the forest and you store more carbon. Those are the sorts of things that should be considered as part of this legislation, and yet they are locked out because of the timidity of the government.

There is also the issue around state sovereignty and land rights. Senator Birmingham has mentioned this, and even Senator Milne has mentioned it, and there will be amendments about it. Again, there is a failure of consultation in relation to this piece of legislation. I, too, was impressed by the presentation of the Indigenous groups, who want to participate in this process but feel that they are not able to. But I am equally concerned that states like Western Australia feel obliged to challenge the design of this legislation because it impinges on their state rights. Again, the government wants to pass this legislation in a rush, perhaps to give the impression that it is doing something, but there is so much around this legislation that has not been resolved. That is one of the major concerns the opposition has about this legislation, and it is why our second reading amendment asks to delay it until all of the information is on the table so that we can properly consider it. I think that is reasonable. The government talks about quality legislation based on quality information, and yet we do not have the information. We do not have the modelling from ABARES that talks about the potential impacts of this because the government, through Treasury, will not release it. We got the CSIRO information only the day before the committee reported.

I want to move on to the issue of permanence. It is a complex issue and one that needs modification as part of this legislative process. It is interesting that some farmers who came in to talk to us, who are all about storing carbon in their landscape, brought in to us presentations demonstrating how they were changing their farming methodologies to store carbon in their landscape. They talked about the improvements in productivity. They discussed with us the carrying capacity of their land as a result of their different management practices. And yet Mr Kiely, who came before the committee to give us evidence, says that permanence is 'the deal killer'. He said:

No farmer would be silly enough to agree to 100 years for soil carbon or 100 years for anything. A finance lender would want to know seriously the impact on the value of the property of agreeing to such a thing. We did some research into the 100 years thing and discovered it was a policy decision, not a scientific measure …

These are people who are committed to carbon storage, who are practising the sorts of things the government wants to encourage, and they are saying that the government processes are a 'deal killer'. And these are the sorts of people who the government should legitimately be listening to as part of this process. It is only common sense that practitioners, who have spent time and effort in trying to develop their farms and who actually practice these things, and have some expertise, should be listened to by the government.

I want to talk for a moment about the risk of reversal. Senator Milne raised some concerns about this and said she is comforted by the fact that the CSIRO will look at this in its review of the legislation. That work should be done now, because I believe that the five per cent in the legislation is a real risk and that the risk-of-reversal process should be a risk based approach, because we know that different forms of sequestration in the landscape bear different risks. It should be designed in as part of the methodologies. Senator Milne has mentioned those. I would like to see the government make some amendment to this legislation to reflect that.

We know that with, for example, sequestration in forests, there is a higher security in those, although there are risks—bushfire, drought and those things. But there is a much higher risk in storing carbon in the soil itself—in the landscape. There is a much higher risk of reversal. So rather than having just a blanket five per cent, in my view there should be some changes to the way that the risk of reversal is dealt with so that it can be a genuinely risk based process. There are some reasonable proposals that are being suggested from industry in relation to this. I think the government should consider them.

The other issue relates to additionality. The unfortunate part of this legislation—and I suppose whenever you commence something you go down that track—is that early movers are effectively disadvantaged by this process. Those who have in place methodologies that are already storing carbon in their landscapes are effectively locked out because it is not regarded as being additional. I accept that there is a need for an additionality process, but there needs to be some consideration given to people who, because of the way they like to look after their landscape, might already have, for example, a 25-year farm management plan in place. They should be able to access some of the process under this legislation. But, again, because of the additionality clauses, they are effectively locked out. I am not saying, 'Do not have additionality clauses,' because that is a reasonable requirement. But when you get the situation, as I indicated earlier, that planting a windbreak on your farm, which is a win-win for everybody, is effectively locked out of this legislation, it shows, as I have said a number of times, how timid the government has been in preparing this legislation and how poorly it has prepared for passing this legislation at this time. In closing, I again urge the chamber to seriously consider the coalition's second reading amendment to put this legislation off until after the regulations are available. (Time expired)


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