Monday, 22 August 2011
Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011, Carbon Credits (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2011, Australian National Registry of Emissions Units Bill 2011; In Committee
I want to address some of the contributions made so far to the debate on this amendment. I thank Senator Macdonald for a valuable contribution that has highlighted not just the importance of this amendment but some of the broader issues around the continual scrutiny and analysis of science in this debate. Senator Milne, in outlining hers and the Green's opposition to this amendment, was emphatic that we must keep the 100-year benchmark. Nothing about this amendment, in and of itself, seeks to step away from 100 years. Nothing suggests that 100 years, as the time line for permanence under the carbon farming scheme, will not be the ongoing figure. All it does is say that, if relevant international scientific research suggests that a different approach to permanence is warranted, that research should be brought to the attention of the minister and should be published on the department's website. It is a pretty straightforward amendment in that regard. It is not, in fact, an amendment—even were the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee to find that there is overwhelming scientific research that would warrant a change in the definition—that does not mandate that change. All it does is say that the DOIC must advise the minister of that finding and they must publish the evidence. That is where it starts and ends. Then we can have a debate about how the minister may respond to that change in evidence. So I think to portray this amendment as an amendment that in some way seeks to undermine the 100-year benchmark as it currently exists is not accurate. It is purely an amendment that seeks to ensure there is genuine ongoing analysis of the science.
Senator Milne said that permanence needs to be permanence, and the minister emphasised the international discussions that continue with regard to permanence. We have semantic debates about words in this place sometimes. Obviously, in this case we all accept that the word 'permanence' is being used with a definitional period and would, in any other debate, be a description of duration rather than permanence. When you say something is for 100 years, that is 100 years duration not 100 years of permanence, because in all the usual approaches permanence means permanent, not 50 years, 100 years or a trillion years. But I understand that this is a case of accepting international language in that regard.
What does disturb me, though, about the minister's contribution is that he emphasised it is not the role or function of the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee to undertake this work. That is right to a point, Minister, but it is a bit of a circular argument because the functions of the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee are laid out by clause 255 of the bill, and the amendment we are debating seeks to change and add to those functions. If we pass this amendment and it goes into law then indeed it will be the function of the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee to look at and monitor scientific research relevant to the issue of permanence. So the argument is: who should be responsible for looking at that? Who should be the responsible party to provide some advice to the government about up-to-date scientific information on permanence as it relates to the operation of the carbon farming scheme?
Whilst in the way the government envisioned this scheme operating it may not have been the DOIC's core role to look at this, the DOIC does appear to be the best fit as to who should most logically look at and provide ongoing advice to government about these matters of permanence. Rather than accepting a 'trust us' attitude—and we have had, as I have emphasised at other times in this debate, serious concerns time and time again when this government has said, 'Trust us; she'll be right, mate,' in its approach to things—the opposition believes, and is keen to support Senator Xenophon in this regard, that it makes a lot of sense to mandate some ongoing analysis of the science in regard to permanence and to ensure that somebody with particular responsibility for how the scheme will work has an ongoing brief to look at international developments with regard to permanence. That makes perfect sense.
We think the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee are the obvious parties to do so when it comes to this legislation. We do not want just to leave it up in the air—that is, the minister of the day will be advised by the department of the day about the matter. We do not want to leave it on a 'trust us' platform that, should those international standards evolve, change or be informed by better science, the minister will respond to that in an unprompted way. We want to make sure the prompting process is in place, and these amendments of Senator Xenophon provide very specifically for the prompt to be given that the scientific consensus or research has shifted and there is a better understanding of how permanence may be treated. This relatively simple amendment provides for a very clear process by which the Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee will monitor the science around permanence and tell the minister what they have seen, what they know, what they understand it to be. They are the people, after all, who ultimately are looking at the methodologies for the operation of the scheme and any issues that come up in relation to programs that operate under this scheme. They are the people who are tasked and equipped to provide good oversight. With regard to the practical—where you bring the science together with the practical operation of the scheme—they are the people who are going to have to make those decisions and mould it together, so they are equally well placed to advise on this matter.
The minister rightly said that in the clause as it is written there is probably nothing to prevent the committee providing information to the minister if they think it relevant in relation to this issue of permanence and scientific research on it. I agree with the minister—there probably is nothing to prevent them doing that. Certainly subclause 255(d) provides for them to have a function:
to do anything incidental to or conducive to the performance of the above functions.
And those above functions themselves are relatively broad about providing advice to either the secretary or the minister in relation to offset projects. If in the course of providing advice about a project matters of permanence come up, it is obvious that it would not just be prohibited but probably be a responsibility of the committee to provide some advice to the minister in relation to those matters of permanence and the scientific advice that surrounds them. So the potential and the likelihood are already there that, at some points in time, the DOIC will be looking at matters of permanence. Given at some points in time they will be looking at those matters of permanence, we think it is quite appropriate that in fact all of the time in an ongoing manner they should have an obligation to ensure they are up to date with the science and across it and, where there are changes in that science, inform the minister of them and, where there are relevant changes in that science, having informed the minister of them inform other stakeholders and the public of them so that we get that feedback loop that I talked about previously that ensures we are continually apprised of developments in this regard.
I struggle with the government's arguments against this. I am not sure why the government is so emphatically against it. I understand the arguments that Senator Milne has made, but once again I think she is attempting to read more into these amendments than they will actually achieve. She is attempting to believe that these amendments will somehow undermine the standards that have been set from day one. There is nothing in these amendments that will undermine those standards. There is nothing in these amendments that will see anything change in the 100-year time line any time soon. There is nothing in these amendments that will provide increased powers or scope for the minister or the government of the day to arbitrarily change that. These amendments are about the provision of advice and the publication of that advice. That seems to us to be perfectly sensible and rational, and to be perfectly entitled to our support.