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

1:32 pm

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this legislation and support my colleagues, especially Senator Colbeck after the points he made in his presentation just then. Why do we have this legislation in front of this parliament now when we have not got the details of the carbon tax? Isn't it a case of having the cart before the horse? We know that wonderful things can be achieved by carbon. Many on that side refer to carbon as a 'pollutant'. It is amazing; when you actually google the list of pollutants, you do not find carbon dioxide or carbon listed as a pollutant. You might find 120 or 130 chemicals et cetera on that list of pollutants. You find carbon monoxide; we are very familiar with that from the exhaust fumes of motor vehicles. You find carbon tetrachloride and carbon disulphide. We do not actually find carbon as a pollutant. I can understand that, because 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the food we eat is actually carbon. So, under the theory that the government puts out about 'carbon pollution', that would mean that each evening we are having a meal of pollution. I do not think we eat pollution; we actually eat something that is healthy and good for us and keeps us alive. No doubt many people see the smog over cities at times. That is not carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is actually invisible. It is an odourless, colourless, non-toxic gas invisible to the eye. When we see that carbon is not even listed as a pollutant, we understand the spin in this whole debate about the carbon tax et cetera.

How do we know how many dollars a tonne the tax is going to be under this legislation? Obviously the government knows, because on Sunday—when parliament has risen, when they are away from scrutiny or questions from the opposition—they will release the details. We have had the very good details, the popular details, leak out, like no carbon tax on petrol for family vehicles and for the tradies' and smaller vehicles. We are still yet to find out about diesel for the transport industry. No doubt it will go on to diesel, to the bigger businesses—those very people who carry our nation. In the town where I live we do not have railway lines. We used to, many, many years ago. Everything comes into the town by road, everything goes out by road—whether it be the export of beef from our abattoir in Inverell or groceries, food and clothing for the stores in Inverell. But we are yet to know the detail of this tax. We will know on Sunday. Why can't we know now? Yet here is this bill being brought forward on the Carbon Farming Initiatives.

Carbon is a great ally to the soil. In fact, the greatest carbon sinks on this planet are the soil and the oceans. That is where the most carbon is stored. I see it in farms I visit out in the Moree and Wee Waa areas—that magnificent rich, black farming soil. Many years ago that soil contained five per cent carbon. In many areas now it has been reduced to just 0.5 per cent carbon—a huge reduction—and we know why. There were farming practices such as fallowing, and digging and working the soil back to kill the weeds before chemicals such as Roundup arrived. We know that nitrogen has been poured on the soil and when you put nitrogen on the soil that makes the microbes hungry and they eat the humus. And, of course, 60 per cent of humus is carbon.

You would be well aware, Acting Deputy President Marshall, that the coalition's policy is to build soil carbon. I gladly took opposition leader Tony Abbott to Spring Ridge on Australia Day last year. We visited the property of Cam McKellar. In just 12 months Mr McKellar has raised the carbon in his soil in one of his paddocks by one per cent. Doing some figures, one per cent of carbon in the top six inches of a hectare is about 15 tonnes of carbon. Cam McKellar increased the carbon in the soil by around 15 tonnes per hectare. That is equivalent to around 50 tonnes of CO2—there are about 3.77 cubic tonnes of CO2 to one tonne of carbon in the soil. So he stored 50 tonnes of CO2 per hectare when he raised his carbon by one per cent. If we were to raise that carbon by three per cent over a hectare of land, 150 tonnes of CO2 would be sequestered per hectare. We have 450 million hectares of agricultural land in Australia. If we raised the soil carbon over that 450 million hectares by three per cent, that would equate to the sequestration of 65 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Here is the win-win situation: the more carbon in the soil the better and less reliance on chemical fertilisers. I can take you back 30 years ago to Moree where they farmed the country for years and never put fertilisers into it. It was just good country. But, as the carbon reduced, they then had to put fertiliser in.

Think about 65 billion tonnes of CO2 sequested in the soil. Australia produces around 560 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. That sequested carbon would neutralise 100 per cent of Australia's emissions for more than 100 years, not five per cent by 2020 or 10 or 15 per cent as proposed by the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme—the emissions trading scheme that the Senate thankfully voted down. There are these mistruths and false statements out there that this would cost $30 billion a year. It would not cost that at all.

The incentive for farmers to build the carbon in their soil is simply the cost of fertilisers. Two years ago MAP fertilisers cost $1,700 a tonne. Currently, MAP fertilisers cost $1,200 a tonne. The more carbon in the soil, the less chemical fertilisers you need. That is the incentive. As you know, we have also put up a tin of money, $800 million a year, as an incentive for people to raise the carbon in their soil.

My big concern is that when this carbon tax package comes out on Sunday—and, as everyone knows, we are not allowed to know about it this week; we are only allowed to know about the good parts: the compensation and the increase to pensioners above the actual costs—as Professor Ross Garnaut said, families will pay for it. That is who it will eventually come back to. The government is going to tax 1,000 polluters. Can you imagine if Caltex diesel is taxed. If Caltex is taxed on its diesel, is it going to say, 'That is fine, that is a couple of billion dollars tax; we will cop that in the neck and we will not pass that onto our consumers'? No, it will not work like that. We know full well it will pass the cost of diesel onto the farmers, to the transport industry and to everyone using diesel.

We do not know any of the details of the carbon tax. We will find this out on Sunday after the parliament has risen. The costs will be passed on. Macquarie Generation in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, between Singleton and Muswellbrook, produce 40 per cent of the electricity for New South Wales. Each year they produce around 25 million tonnes of CO2. When they get hit with a price of $20 a tonne, it will cost them $500 million. It is a government owned enterprise, so do you think the New South Wales government is going to say, 'Well, we will just cop that $500 million cost to that generator there in the Hunter Valley'? No, they will pass it on through the electricity prices to the consumer. Some consumers may be compensated under the package, but what about the businesses, what about the abattoirs, what about the ordinary businesses going about their work, what about the engineers running their mid-welders or stick welders and what about the farmers running their businesses? They will pay. Someone will pay.

We come back to this legislation about the Carbon Farming Initiative. There is a great incentive to build carbon in the soil if we do it properly over a 10- or 15-year period working with our landowners. I say our landowners because, when you look at a map of Australia, I would guess 50 per cent or 60 per cent of this whole nation, the whole landscape of Australia, is in the hands of farmers and graziers. That is the environmental issue. That is where we have to look after our environment, to protect our soil for future generations. Our greatest asset of all is our soil—it grows our food.

This is a health issue. If you do not have healthy soil, you do not grow healthy food and you do not have healthy people. This comes back to health in the soil. I know what we have done to the soil. I have been a part of it. I can take you back to the 1970s when I was driving transports in South Australia. I would take a load of sheep from Peterborough across to Donald in Victoria. Driving through the Mallee country, I would see a wheat crop two inches high with a good germination rate where it came up well. When I went back two weeks later it would have been blown away. Why had it blown away? Overclearing—there were no windbreaks left. They were fallowing the light, sandy-soil country. I am sure Senator Back is familiar with much of that country in Western Australia. To sow a wheat crop in May, we would farm it in October the year before. It was left bare and open to the wind. The soil would blow away. It was bad practice. Now farmers use direct drilling and use chemicals to kill the weeds, which keeps cover on the soil so that it does not blow away. The farming practices were so wrong for many years, but now it has all been turned around. The farmers are now the environmentalists and they look after the soil to the absolute best of their knowledge.

Under this legislation, it is amazing that you cannot claim carbon credits if you plant a row of trees around every paddock on your property to block the wind, which causes dryness across the countryside. A windbreak tree that sequests carbon is different from a tree that you grow in some forest or somewhere else. That is simply wrong. The issue here is the price of carbon and how much farmers are going to be paid for growing trees. What farmers do on their property, in my belief, is their business. There are many farms in Australia that have a lot of good country and some rough country on them. The farmers might choose to plant trees on the rough country. It will not affect their gross production at all. That is their business. But it will be a sad day when a farmer gets paid more to plant a tree than he does to grow a tonne of wheat or to produce beef, mutton, lamb or whatever. It will be a sad day when farmers say to the bank manager, 'I can make more money out of planting trees on my country than I can out of farming it.' We simply cannot live on trees. We actually have to grow food.

Professor Garnaut has had a lot of input into this whole policy. This is the very man that suggested that farmers do away with their sheep and cattle and run kangaroos. What a farce. I can just imagine trying to muster a paddock of kangaroos, putting them in the yards and putting them on a truck. Hypothetical and simply outrageous are how I would describe it. Senator Milne referred to this legislation as a way of saving our forests. I see the national parks in our country; one of my pet hates is country locked up and left, not managed, not grazed, with fuel levels just building up higher and higher. We cannot control the temperature of the day. We cannot control the wind speed or the strong winds of the day. We can control the fuel levels on the ground. But we are not allowed to graze in national parks. Just recently we saw Senator Ludwig kowtowing to the Greens when the new Victorian government put grazing up in the alpine regions to reduce the fuel levels to prevent savage bushfires in Victoria. They had enough on Black Saturday two years ago, where roughly 50 per cent of the country burnt, and it just happened to be national park. I do not know if the Greens are out there helping to put the bushfires out. I have certainly spent a fair bit of my time at bushfires in my life, especially in South Australia. We had 90 million tonnes of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere in the Black Saturday bushfires.

The message here is that we must manage our country. We must keep the fuel levels down. While the Greens have this policy of locking up country, leaving it and not allowing grazing, they will simply destroy the country, destroy the forests and destroy the animals that live in that environment. If you have ever seen a koala on the ground, you will know that they are pretty hopeless at moving. I have seen them there around the paddocks at Inverell and where I was grazing up there. They are good up trees but very slow to move on the ground. We saw the Pilliga burn from one end to the other. I wonder how many koalas were sizzled in that fire—like in the Goonoo fire the year before; we are going back a few years now, probably four or five years ago—and how much carbon dioxide that put into the atmosphere.

The point I make is that building carbon in the soil is a win-win situation, and I cannot emphasise enough the importance of our soil. We have seen over many years the state governments wind back on land conservation programs and funding for the Soil Conservation Centre. I know that many of them were running bulldozers around, doing earthworks with 20,000 to 25,000 hours on the bulldozers; they have not even been able to afford to upgrade them or replace them, to put in proper contour banks and soil conservation. That has been the neglect that New South Wales has had for many years. Hopefully, with the new government in New South Wales, things will change and they will actually get to address the important issue of our land and looking after it.

The soil carbon is not expensive and not difficult to do. The main thing you have to do in raising the carbon in your soil is to balance your magnesium and calcium levels. Most of our farm land has lower levels of calcium. Simply spread lime on the country. Many farmers are doing that. Once you build your calcium levels and you have magnesium and calcium in balance, those little microbes in the soil break down the humus into carbon and they multiply, to huge numbers that actually do the job better. That is what it is about: balancing the magnesium and calcium in the soil, building that microbe population, and good farm management. That is where we can store the carbon.

As I said—and even Senator Milne agrees with me—more carbon in the soil means less reliance on chemical fertilisers. Take some of those chemical fertilisers: sulfate of ammonia is one—a chemical for nitrogen. It was actually used in the Second World War to put on the countryside to harden the soil to make airstrips. Now it is a common fertiliser. Perhaps we need to revisit what we are putting into our soil. That was the original use of sulfate of ammonia: to spray on the countryside to harden the soil so they could use it for airstrips during the Second World War. Now it is a fertiliser.

We need to get off the reliance on chemical fertilisers and get back more into nature, and building the carbon in the soil is one way to do that. These days we manage the soil using Roundup, a magnificent chemical that is not resilient in the soil but has good control over weeds. The simple fact is that you cannot grow a crop of wheat and a crop of weeds together; you grow one or the other. For your crop to yield and be profitable, it must not have weeds in it. With the chemicals now, which are much safer in many regards, we can manage the country better, we can store the carbon in the soil and we can keep our soil on a road of improvement, if I can put it that way, increasing the productivity and the quality of our soil so that future generations can benefit. We do not want to leave this country to the next generation and say: 'Well, what a mess we made of that. We destroyed our soil, our greatest asset.' Australia with its growing population has to keep its food production up, and even growing. That is why we were so critical when the government cut back funding in the federal budget to the CRCs, who do a magnificent job in many industries, whether it be red meat or poultry or whatever.

This bill is rushed. It should not be here yet. Surely we should wait until the next sitting of parliament, when we actually know the details of the carbon tax, until we know what is going to come before parliament, and then bring this forward. But this bill is about a Carbon Farming Initiative, when we do not know the details of the carbon tax that is going to supplement or pay for it. As I said, my greatest concern is that we will have farmers earning more money out of planting trees than they will out of growing food. Then, we will have a serious problem.


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