Wednesday, 12 February 2014
Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013; Second Reading
Since coming to government, the coalition have begun attacking almost every institution, every tool and every utility that this country needs to tackle climate change and its impacts. Mr Abbott's direct action policy removes a legal cap on pollution, giving free rein for organisations to choke the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Instead of making them pay for this pollution, he will be giving these same organisations billions of taxpayer dollars as part of his carbon slush fund. All experts agree that this will cost households more and will fail to reduce carbon emissions. Moreover, it will mean Australia is left behind as the rest of the world moves to a clean energy economy built on emission trading schemes. It will almost certainly discredit Australia's international reputation, as we fail to do our part to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
Sadly, the changes and damage do not stop there. It is not enough for this government to erode Australia's ability to respond to climate change and to hand back power to those big polluters; it also wants to prevent scrutiny of how it goes about this, and to deny the public information about climate change. One of this government's first orders of business was to dismantle the Climate Commission, an organisation dedicated to providing the Australian public with independent and easily digestible information about climate change. Today, with this bill, they are coming after the Climate Change Authority.
This bill abolishes the Climate Change Authority and transfers to the minister the responsibility for ensuring that all of the authority's periodic reviews are carried out. These reviews cover a range of issues and include: the Carbon Farming Initiative, a scheme for farmers and landowners to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions and be rewarded with carbon credits; the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Scheme, a framework for monitoring and reporting on companies' greenhouse gas emissions and energy use; and the Renewable Energy Target Scheme, a market mechanism that puts a requirement on electricity retailers to surrender annually a certain number of Renewable Energy Certificates, where each certificate represents one megawatt hour of electricity generated from renewable sources. The bill also makes some changes to the scope and timing of these reviews. These include making the Renewable Energy Target Scheme review biennial instead of quadrennial and delaying the first review of the Carbon Farming Initiative by two years.
The Climate Change Authority was established to provide the highest quality advice and transparency about Australia's climate change policies. It has a charter that includes taking into account expert scientific and economic evidence and developments—as you would expect—in the international arena. By respecting the scientific and economic consensus, it circumvents the politics of climate change and ensures that Australia's policy is directed by empiricism and reason instead of fear, denial and greed. The CCA is also independent of the government and is tasked with undertaking regular reviews of the government's climate change policies. The minister's input is limited to providing direction on general matters only; they cannot direct the conduct of a review, nor can they influence the content of a report or a particular view. To ensure openness and accountability, the authority is required to hold public consultation as part of its reviews. In short, the Climate Change Authority provides the facts and the advice for everyone to see, and the government and the parliament decide how to act on that advice. This model is simple, it is independent, it is transparent and, most importantly, it is working—four big ticks for any policy, in my opinion. But apparently that is not enough to save it from being run over by a government stuck in reverse gear.
The coalition have told us that the Climate Change Authority is no longer necessary because it only exists to monitor the carbon price, and the carbon price is on its way out. There are a couple of issues there, but let's focus on the authority for now. To call the authority redundant, as the government have done, and to suggest that its lone purpose is to monitor the carbon price, is not true. The Climate Change Authority exists to monitor Australia's climate change mitigation policies. This government's direct action policy should receive the same scrutiny as that received by the previous government's carbon price and associated policies. And that scrutiny should come from an independent and transparent body—like the Climate Change Authority.
The authority also exists to track Australia's progress in meeting its emission reduction targets—the ones, I might remind my coalition colleagues here in the Senate chamber, that both our parties agreed to—and to determine whether Australia is doing its part to combat global climate change. It did exactly this four months ago when it released Reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions: targets and progress review draft report. This draft report pointed out that, while Australia was on its way to meet its target of a five per cent reduction in year 2000 emissions by 2020, it should be considering doing even more to cut its emissions by 2020. The authority also highlighted its own continuing relevance to the new government:
The Authority has taken the Government’s different policy approach into account in the analysis for this Draft Report. In the Authority’s view, this Report remains highly relevant despite the changing policy landscape. Its primary focus is Australia’s goals for reducing emissions. The setting of these goals raises the same critical questions, whatever the particular policies adopted to meet them.
Minister Hunt's argument that the Department of the Environment can assume the authority's review function flies in the face of the authority's very purpose—limiting ministerial influence and guaranteeing public transparency. This bill undermines the whole point of the authority, which is to keep the politics out of the facts so that Australia can have an informed and meaningful approach to tackling climate change. Extending the minister's logic, can we assume the Department of Finance will soon be subsuming the responsibilities of the Productivity Commission? We do not see that policy idea being floated.
Given the toxic and damaging political debates that have surrounded the science of climate change, one would have thought that retaining an independent authority to provide the government and public with an apolitical source of advice would be a great idea. That is what we in the Labor Party think—and we know we are not alone. The United Kingdom has an equivalent entity to the Climate Change Authority. Their Committee on Climate Change was established in 2008 with the express purpose of advising the UK government on emissions targets and reporting to parliament on the nation's progress towards reaching those targets and preparing for climate change. Essentially these are the same responsibilities as those of our Climate Change Authority.
When the Conservatives came to power in the UK, however, they did not scrap the Committee on Climate Change. They could see the sense in retaining an organisation that provided apolitical advice on climate change mitigation strategies. This is the British Conservative government—the ideological parent, one would argue, of the Australian Liberal Party. But even they can see the sense in retaining an independent advisory body for climate change. It shows just how out of step this government is with the international community—a conservative outsider even among their own conservative peers.
We in the Labor Party know we are not alone in Australia in wanting to see the Climate Change Authority left intact to do the job it was created to do. Numerous environmental organisations and climate change action groups provided submissions urging the government to retain the Climate Change Authority even in the event that the carbon price and pollution cap are repealed. For example, the World Wildlife Fund said:
… it is critical that the Climate Change Authority or similar body is retained to ensure Australia’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are informed by independent scientific, economic, energy, and policy experts with a level of distance from stakeholder influence.
Similarly, the Conservation Council of South Australia said:
The Conservation Council of SA does not support the abolition of the Climate Change Authority. Such an Authority is vital to the independence of advice on climate change policy and initiatives.
Professor Frank Jotzo, who works in my electorate as the director of the ANU Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, pointed out in his submission to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee that the Climate Change Authority could still function under the coalition's direct action policy.
The business community also supports the Climate Change Authority. The Investor Group on Climate Change pointed out that the investor community values the analysis provided by the authority:
Regardless of the policy tools that Australian governments choose to implement, the CCA’s analysis assists investors to interpret the likely future emissions reductions trajectory for Australia and the scale of policy response that will be required.
By removing the Climate Change Authority, we also risk Australia falling out of step with the emissions reduction developments emerging at the international level in response to new science and global carbon budget commitments. This could have dire consequences for Australian businesses as they become uncompetitive, or less competitive, in an international market that now values low-emission products and services.
If environmental organisations and the Australian business community both support the Climate Change Authority and the intelligence it provides to all considerations surrounding climate change, why is this government moving to scrap it? Allow me to speculate here. They have said a number of things, but I believe it is because they do not want their climate mitigation policies scrutinised by an independent body. They want this parliament, and the Australian people at large, kept in the dark about the impacts their policies are having on this country's carbon emissions. I suspect—and many people have made this observation—it is because they know their policies will not work.
Moving the authority's review responsibilities to the environment department is a sleight of hand to give Minister Hunt the right to censor reviews of his own policies. And what about the authority's other responsibilities? This bill does not make any mention of who will assume these responsibilities—responsibilities that include assessing and recommending national emissions reduction targets, providing the government with analysis of the response and efforts of other countries and providing the government with advice on the developments in climate science that are occurring all the time around the world.
By abolishing the Climate Change Authority this government is seeking to shut out any form of public and unbiased scrutiny of its climate mitigation policies. I suppose it should not come as a surprise, because of this government's poor record when it comes to transparency. We know it has made a virtue of ducking for cover, of keeping things secret, and it is an absolute discredit to a government that for many years in opposition clamoured for greater transparency—transparency that the former Labor government was only too happy to provide. We made a diligent effort to be transparent on a whole range of policy issues, not the least being the level of scrutiny we were able to establish for our climate change policies. An example of the government's lack of transparency is the weekly briefings on border control, which proved too sensitive and have been downgraded to press releases. I am involved in one of the committee inquiries into the Commission of Audit, another process shrouded in secrecy. It is extraordinarily difficult to get information, and yet the Commission of Audit seeks to make recommendations to the government on a wide range of cost-cutting and expenditure reducing measures that not only are likely to impact on the social experience of millions of Australians but also go to the heart of the function of government itself. Yet there is no transparency.
This lack of transparency is becoming a characteristic of the Abbott government. It is a characteristic that has no place in the 21st century. We have seen time and again that the benefits of transparency not only offer citizens of a country the opportunity to participate in a modern democracy but also allow for parliaments, and us as elected representatives, to engage more fully and openly in the great policy challenges of our time. I think this lack of transparency is because the Abbott government are afraid that their policies will not work. It may be worse than that—it may be that they already know that and they are seeking to provide a blanket to shield that knowledge from the rest of us. We know this government have nothing more than contempt for the way in which climate science is presented by experts who have devoted their life to that field of science, and some—not all—have ridiculed the strength of that science. Many Australians have observed that over many years with dismay.
The government closed down the Climate Commission when they came to power and they have savagely cut the CSIRO, and today they are looking to shut down the Climate Change Authority. We know that many members of the government are suspicious of climate change; we know that there are some deniers of climate change, even now, after decades of established science. This is, after all, a government led by a person who has questioned whether carbon dioxide is quite the environmental villain that some people make it out to be—not to mention his describing climate change at one point as 'absolute crap'. These kinds of comments, disregarding well established science, bring this whole place down. They reflect on all of us as parliamentarians and they reflect on the professionalism of the Australian parliament. It is embarrassing that such things are said about established science. I believe in a future where we do use science to test our policies, where we do rely on science for evidence of where we need to go next and to ensure we are making policies that best serve the next generation of Australians.
I do not understand why this government is trying so hard to hide. I have speculated on the potential motivations—I guess it is up to members of the government to tell us why they need to scrap the Climate Change Authority. As yet, there has been no plausible or satisfactory explanation, other than the lack of transparency, for a policy that I suspect they already know will not work.