Monday, 23 June 2014
Infrastructure Australia Amendment Bill 2013; In Committee
At the time the first infrastructure bill was put through the parliament the Australian Greens were part of the consultation and the original language about addressing climate change was part of what was determined at the time. Many years have gone by since then, and the Australian experience has demonstrated that the failure to take climate change into account in infrastructure proposals that are either coming forward or in Infrastructure Australia's assessment suggests we need to go to something much more significant. Let me go to the first point in the amendment—the economic, social and environmental impacts of climate change. Let me take Roma as an example. We have had the shocking flooding in Queensland and we have had terrible storm damage as well. If the levee issue had been addressed in Roma in 2005, the estimated cost at the time would have been $20 million. Subsequent to that, since 2008, $100 million has been paid out in insurance claims in Roma and since 2005 over $500 million has been paid out by the public and the private sector for the repair bill. That is just one example where, if we had taken the climate predictions and scenarios seriously and moved in and built the infrastructure we needed to build when it was needed, we would have saved not only incredible distress in that community caused by the flooding; we would have saved an enormous amount in terms of infrastructure costs and replacement.
Over that period of time, we have seen: in January 2009, the Far North Queensland floods; February 2009, Victoria's Black Saturday; April 2009, Northern New South Wales flooding; May 2009, the Queensland storm damage; December 2009, bushfires in WA; March 2010, Western Queensland floods; March 2010, storm event in Melbourne; March 2010, storm event in Perth; December 2010, Queensland floods; January 2011, Victoria floods; February 2011, Cyclone Yasi in Queensland; February 2011, storm event in Melbourne; February 2011, Perth bushfires; November 2011, Margaret River bushfires; December 2011, storm event Melbourne; January 2012, floods in South-West Queensland; February 2012, floods in New South Wales and Victoria; January 2013, Tasmanian bushfires; January 2013, New South Wales bushfires; January 2013, storm event in Queensland; January 2013, storm event in Northern New South Wales; October 2013, New South Wales bushfires; January 2014, Perth bushfires; April 2014, Queensland cyclone.
That is what we are now seeing with extreme weather events, and with their intensity and cost. That cost goes to billions in terms of the infrastructure repairs, not to mention the insurance costs and the fact that several people in those communities have subsequently not been able to get insurance for their homes and businesses. When this goes to further infrastructure, we have had railway lines buckle in extreme heat; we have had roads wash away; we have had energy systems brought down and real risks of mega-blackouts and brownouts because of loss of energy infrastructure in the course of those extreme weather events.
The question has to be asked: at what point is Australia going to recognise that for Infrastructure Australia, assessment of projects has to include the worst-case scenarios for climate adaptation? A moment ago my colleague Senator Ludlam spoke about decarbonising the economy, which is essential. Let me give you the example of the bushfires in Victoria—sparking from overhead powerlines was one of the main causes of huge loss of life. Significant recommendations have come from the royal commission that in order to remove those risks, powerlines need to be undergrounded or, alternatively in some places, to cease and to not have the infrastructure going out there. Instead have renewable energy systems that are decentralised, so you are actually protecting the communities but stopping the potential for sparking in between. That is the kind of anticipatory action that the Victorian government, together with the power companies—the distribution and transmission companies—should have been bringing forward to Infrastructure Australia to look at reducing fire risk and cost in the longer term in Victoria. Those actions give you competitiveness in terms of power supply, more safety in terms of fire, and less in infrastructure costs. They are the sorts of things you need to be considering.
The other point with infrastructure was made very strongly by CEDA in a recent report: that there is a very real risk that Australia will be bypassed for the foreign capital that is necessary to fund infrastructure in this country, because the international capital flow is going to go to countries that are dealing with the real risks associated with climate change, that are decarbonising the economy, and that are building the kinds of infrastructure that will serve a decarbonised economy into the future. By going in the wrong direction and not putting these climate considerations at front and centre, Australia stands to be effectively bypassed by international capital, because that capital will assess climate risk in any project. It is not just the climate risk in terms of the loss of that infrastructure; it is climate risk in terms of whether that infrastructure becomes a stranded asset—sunk and dead capital into the future. There is no doubt in my mind that there are plenty of ports up for proposal in Queensland that will end up as stranded assets if they are built, not to mention the coal railway lines and the mines that are being considered.
In recent times there have been several cancellations with regard to major infrastructure projects in Queensland—not least of which is a big port—because international capital has been withdrawn from the projects on the basis that it is likely to be a stranded asset. Given that the Chinese are going to cap their climate emissions and their use of coal, anyone who invests in a coal port in Queensland is sinking their money into a dead hole and an asset divested from major pension funds and other funds around the world. If there is one thing Infrastructure Australia really needs to be looking at, it is those two essential elements—the costs to infrastructure into the future of a changing climate and the frequency and intensity of weather events; and, secondly, how Australia is going to fund the infrastructure that will lead to the decarbonisation of the economy and to attracting foreign capital into that infrastructure assessment. That is where I feel Australia is going to get further and further behind unless we actually deal with this. That is why I argued at the time that the one-off flood levy was a bad mistake—we should have a permanent fund which looks at doing preventive investment in infrastructure so we can minimise risks to people and property, minimise costs into the future and bring down and control insurance premiums.
Our failure to have done so has left us exposed very badly. I know the coalition does not care about this and is prepared to keep on seeing people end up with their houses devalued—there are places on the New South Wales coast now where if you are on the flat and subject to storm surge, your insurance premiums are so high that the value of your property is now really diminished compared with properties on the same street that are much higher up. It is becoming pretty obvious to people everywhere that failure to take this seriously is something that every Australian is going to be confronted with. The government could move to get some futuristic scenario planning and serious risk assessment done, rather than to pretend it is not happening, to pretend it is a one-off and to pretend that every time it happens we will somehow find the money to deal with it.
I strongly recommend this amendment to the Senate. It makes absolute sense to protect this country as best we can from damage, and to anticipate where we need to spend money and how we need to spend money to (a) create more jobs and investment; and (b) to protect communities from the ravages that are coming.