Wednesday, 24 June 2015
Excise Tariff Amendment (Fuel Indexation) Bill 2015, Customs Tariff Amendment (Fuel Indexation) Bill 2015, Fuel Indexation (Road Funding) Special Account Bill 2015, Fuel Indexation (Road Funding) Bill 2015; Second Reading
That was an interesting contribution from Senator Lambie. I rise to speak on the Excise Tariff Amendment (Fuel Indexation) Bill 2015, the Customs Tariff Amendment (Fuel Indexation) Bill 2015, the Fuel Indexation (Road Funding) Special Account Bill 2015, and the Fuel Indexation (Road Funding) Bill 2015. In particular, I rise to speak about the deal that has been done by the government and the Labor Party to increase the fuel tax that is going to be paid by Australians with all the money going to roads. This is an example of the Labor Party completely capitulating and giving the government everything they wanted. In the year that I have been in the Senate, discussion of the fuel excise has been on the agenda constantly. The Greens' position has been strong and firm and consistent—that we were open to negotiations on the increase in fuel excise if that revenue was going to go to two things: one, towards public transport, so that we could support the transformational change that is needed in our communities to be building cities and building country regions that are not dependent upon fossil fuels—so that people would have a choice; so that people would not have to drive their cars, or not have to drive their cars long distances. That was the first of our negotiation points. The second was to address the impact that an increase in the fuel prices was going to have on low income people who currently do not have the choice to avoid spending that money.
Labor have given the government everything they wanted. Right from the beginning, the government have been saying that they want to spend all of this increase in fuel taxes on roads—roads, roads and more roads. They have been completely consistent as well—completely against having a society that is reducing our carbon emissions and is genuinely interested in the welfare of people. But, no; through the deal that Labor did yesterday, they have delivered to the government what they wanted. The government will be popping the champagne corks, because they have completely derailed what was looking, potentially, to be a successful negotiation between the Greens and the government to actually divert that money into something that was going to deliver on transformational change—to deliver some of the fuel excise increase into a fund for public transport and into measures that would mean there would be compensation for the low income people who currently do not have a choice. What a missed opportunity!
The other missed opportunity that we have here is a missed opportunity to begin that transformation of our cities and a missed opportunity to address the impacts of fuel prices on people. It is also a missed opportunity to do something about the fuel security that Australia currently does and does not have. We have had a Senate inquiry into fuel security in Australia which, I understand, is going to report tomorrow. The submissions to that Senate inquiry have been very clear: that Australia's almost 100 per cent reliance on imported liquid fuels leaves the country's industries, and us, as commuters, and our transport systems extremely vulnerable to supply disruption, and exposes our economy to continually rising and volatile world prices for oil. Under the direction that we are heading in, that is the reality that we are facing.
Clearly, what we need to do in order to address this major issue of fuel security is to look really seriously at, and to build, our use of fuels other than fossil fuels. The obvious solution to dealing with our fuel security issues and with the climate change consequences of burning fossil fuels, and to creating a place where low-income earners are not going to be at risk of having to cope with increased oil prices, is to shift towards renewable transport fuels—in particular, to shift to public transport, which can be much more easily fuelled by electricity and can be accessible to a wide range of people. We need to shift our vehicle fleet to electric cars and use other renewable fuels. These are the sorts of directions in which we need to be heading. This is the sort of opportunity that we should be taking at every instance.
We had an opportunity here that has been missed, and the impact on low-income people is going to be massive. I know, from the work that I have done in the transport field over the last two decades, that price matters and that people do find that, with the increasing cost of fuel, they are not able to drive as far. It means that people miss out if they have not got any other options.
I stand here as a Green really quite perturbed at the misunderstanding of the Greens' position on fuel prices and low income people. Yet our position has been very clear over the last 12 months: we have wanted to really work with people, and to give low income people a choice. I know, from having spoken to people all across the country and particularly across the state in the last 12 months, that the people who are suffering the impact of high fuel prices want to have the opportunity to use public transport. Research I have recently seen corroborates other research that shows that, even in outer suburban areas, rural areas and regional areas, if you give people a choice of where they want to see transport funding being spent then their No. 1 priority is public transport, because people realise that they need to have a choice. They want to have the option of using public transport. But, at the moment, where we do not have public transport systems available to people in outer suburban areas, they have no choice. So an increase in fuel prices is going to mean that it is money that they are going to have to put into their petrol tank and are not going to be able to spend on putting food on the table or shoes on their kids. So people realise that that is not a good direction to be heading in. They know that there is another way.
The Greens were negotiating with the government to have a public transport fund. That amount of money could have been spent on many different public transport projects. There would have been a very strong argument that the most efficient way to spend that money on public transport projects, thus spreading the benefits of that $2 billion over the next four years, would have been to make a massive investment in outer suburban bus services and bus services serving regional and rural communities, because they are the people who currently do not have the choice of public transport and for whom any increase in fuel is going to mean less money that they have got to spend on other, essential household and family goods and services. These are the people who we need to be giving the opportunity and the choice to have public transport that works for them and can enable them to travel on public transport and not rely on their cars.
The other opportunity that has really been missed here is this. Not only are we continuing in the direction which is bad for people on low incomes, but also we are absolutely continuing in a direction that is not in the interests of the long-term health and sustainability of our society. We know we have carbon pollution from increasing use of fossil fuels. We have particulate pollution in our cities. We need to be working that out. We need to be shifting away from the use of fossil fuels so that we can get outcomes, which we can do. We know what the answers are. We know where the money needs to be spent. They are outcomes that are going to be good for our climate, shifting us into renewably fuelled transport, good for the shape of our cities and good for the health of the people living in those cities.
Health is another really important factor that, again, is being disregarded here. By our not funding public transport, people are having to rely on their cars. Having to drive means that they are missing out on the health opportunities of the exercise that could be available. We know that with every public transport journey there is a walk, whether it is to the bus, to the train or to the tram. Just having that regular walk in people's days will reduce their risk of heart disease, reduce issues of weight problems and reduce the risk of cancer. These are the sorts of issues that would all come together if we were to take a holistic look at creating healthy cities. Yet it is this direction that the government and the Labor Party are ignoring, totally missing that opportunity.
I will finish on the deal that has been done to put this money into Roads to Recovery projects. As I said, this is exactly what the government wanted. They would have spent the money on roads anyway. As a former councillor, I know the benefits of Roads to Recovery. I know that councils really need that money to be spent on their local roads. But they also need money to be spent on their public transport initiatives. They also need to spend money on walking and cycling initiatives, and they are not being given the choice.
We need to work out where a balanced transport budget is. Over the last 50 years the bulk of funding has gone into road projects. We can never catch up. You are always fighting to catch up because the more money you put into the road projects the more people use those roads. The less money you put into public transport the less opportunity there is for people to use public transport and the more they have to use the roads. It is a completely endless cycle, and it is such an inefficient way to be funding our transport networks.
If we were to have affirmative action for public transport, it would mean that we could break out of that vicious cycle. We could give people the opportunity to shift their transport away from expensive car transport into public transport. If we give local governments the opportunity of funding sources not just to fund roads but also to fund walking and cycling, we are giving people the opportunity to be able to travel their journeys—and particularly the short journeys under five kilometres, which, in fact, are the majority of journeys that people take—by walking and cycling, and this would improve their health.
Doing all of these things leads to a positive, healthy situation both for the people of Australia and for our climate. Roads to Recovery projects are all very well, but we need to have a much better balance. We need to have a balance in transport funding so that we can reach a situation where I reckon we could have approximately a third of all journeys being made by walking and cycling, a third of all journeys being made by public transport and a third of all journeys being made by private vehicle transport, with those private vehicle trips increasingly being made by cars that are being fuelled by renewable fuels. That would be the sort of balance that would be heading us into a positive future that would be really addressing the issues of fuel security, of climate change, of unhealthy people and of the impact and the cost of transport on low-income peoples. We have missed that opportunity completely today, but we know that the Greens will continue to fight for it. We know that we have the support of the Australian community for healthy communities, for actively encouraging walking and cycling and for public transport. We know the fight is going to go on, but I am just so disappointed that today we missed such an incredible and important opportunity to further our progress on these issues.