Senate debates

Thursday, 17 October 2019


Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019, Emergency Response Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019; Second Reading

9:41 am

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak to the Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019. This bill really does lay bare the Liberal-National government's logic-free approach to the wicked problems of our time. With this bill they are attempting to abolish Australia's only—I repeat, only—TAFE and university infrastructure fund, to create an opaque Emergency Response Fund, without a cent for disaster resilience or any action on the climate crisis. What a mess!

Of course we must fund disaster relief, but the Greens will not be party to the government's long-running campaign to cut our universities and TAFE to the bone, while their climate inaction endangers all of us. In early spring we've seen bushfires rage across New South Wales and Queensland, destroying rainforest habitats and homes. As former Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins identified this year, what we are seeing is the effects of climate change putting more and more people and homes at risk. We cannot shy away from the fact that communities are hurting because the government isn't acting on the climate emergency. People are hurting. Lives and homes are being tragically lost. Animals are suffering and dying in droughts and bushfires and the intense heat. I'm frightened by the thought of what this summer will bring. The Australian seasonal bushfire outlook reports that the entire New South Wales coast in my beloved home state has above-normal fire potential for this coming summer. We've had long periods of very low rainfall, drought in almost the entire state, and high temperatures are expected statewide.

While the government persists in doing nothing to address the climate crisis, we know that unseasonal catastrophic weather events will only happen again and again with more intensity and more terrifying consequences. This throws into stark relief the lack of attention to mitigation and disaster resilience in the government's efforts. My colleague Senator Rice put it well last year when she said that, if we throw money at the consequences of the climate crisis without addressing the cause, we might as well be putting a bandaid on a bullet wound. As it stands, only three per cent of disaster relief funding is spent on prevention. It is important that we are equipped to respond to disasters when they happen and support communities during and in the aftermath, but to so massively underfund mitigation and resilience gets the entire approach wrong and makes disaster relief efforts less effective when they are really needed.

We just heard that Labor have done a deal with the Liberal Party to put some funding in the ERF for resilience. But $50 million is a drop in the ocean. They are giving up $4 billion of the Education Investment Fund that our TAFEs and universities desperately need in exchange for a mere $50 million, which is not going to go far at all.

I note the Insurance Council of Australia agree that a focus on disaster preparedness is appropriate and sorely needed. They've called for funds to be redirected to mitigation and resilience infrastructure projects to actually prevent natural disasters and make our homes and businesses more resilient. But what's in this fund for climate change action? Zero. The government has gone right ahead; it has ignored this advice and the Productivity Commission's recommendation that the Commonwealth invests at least $200 million a year in mitigation and resilience projects. They've said $200 million; $50 million is but a small portion of that.

I want to be clear: natural disasters and emergencies cause immense suffering, and responding to that suffering quickly and properly is absolutely vital. But instead of committing to resilience and well-managed disaster response, or actually acting on the root causes of why these disasters are occurring, the government has brought forward this bill, which fails on the resilience front, fails on the climate action front and lacks all of the appropriate transparency and safeguards in its spending on disaster response.

Having seen the government's mismanagement of the drought relief fund and the embarrassment of their so-called drought envoy, are we meant to trust that a fund administered by Minister Littleproud, who seems to be in two minds as to whether climate change is human made or not, is going to be the right thing for the community? I think not. The government cannot escape the fact that natural disasters are being fuelled by their big fossil fuel donors who are destroying our planet. If the government had a shred of decency, of care for generations to come, they would fund disaster response by making the polluters pay instead of once again gutting our education funding.

Equally as galling as the government's willingness to roll over backwards for their big polluting mates is their continued cut after cut of vital education. Universities Australia are right to call this a raid on Australia's last remaining fund for building education and research infrastructure. In fact, the government is using this bill to abolish the Education Infrastructure Fund altogether. I foreshadow that the Greens will be moving amendments to try to make sure that this doesn't happen, that this vital fund is not abolished by this government, which attacks public education every single day. We saw just this week the passing of the bill that puts extra onus, extra tax and extra levies on universities and students.

The Education Infrastructure Fund is dedicated to providing ongoing capital funding for infrastructure in universities, vocational education and research. During its lifetime, the Education Infrastructure Fund supported more than 200 projects and allocated $4.2 billion in funding, including significant grants for regional universities, and I note that the Labor Party has come to some agreement with the government on some funding going to TAFE. Fifty million dollars, though? Of course they desperately need money, but $50 million in exchange for losing $4 billion? That is a bad deal!

Before it was punitively frozen by Tony Abbott's Liberal government, the EIF helped keep our education and research at world-class levels around the country, contributing to laboratories, teaching and learning facilities, and providing seed funding that attracted significant other investment in research and infrastructure. It's particularly interesting to see the government talk up their support for regional universities while abolishing the Education Investment Fund, which has meaningfully built research and teaching capacity outside city centres. Personally, I've seen the impact of the Education Investment Fund in my academic career, and in Port Macquarie where I lived and worked. The fund contributed to the Port Macquarie Joint Health Education Facility, which is training doctors to meet demand for care in rural and regional areas. While travelling around New South Wales, from Newcastle, to Lismore, to Bathurst and to Wollongong I hear from the sector the same thing they told the government the last time they tried to abolish the Education Investment Fund: this funding is necessary. The Liberals and Nationals ignored them then and they're ignoring them again now—and so is the Labor Party.

The Greens are committed to reopening the Education Investment Fund as part of our plan to make world-class TAFE and university free for all, throughout people's lives. And let's make no mistake: the government's malice towards universities and the vital research and education they conduct is not a new phenomenon. I note with particular bemusement Minister Littleproud's attempts to boast of the government's education spending while introducing this bill to cut education funding. The reality is that unis, TAFEs and research have all suffered under this government. We have seen a cut of $2.1 billion in real terms in funding for student places in the last two years alone.

Not satisfied with cuts which have dashed the hopes of young Australians wanting to attend uni, this government has taken the hatchet to research funding. After $3.9 billion in cuts between 2011 and 2012, and 2016 and 2017, the Liberals went on to cut $345 million in research funding from universities over the four years from the 2017 MYEFO. This cut hit regional universities the hardest, including $91 million in cuts to universities in my home state of New South Wales. At the same time, we've seen TAFE being slowly destroyed by the government's neglect, a lack of funding and privatisation, with the latest data showing student numbers have dropped two per cent and that training hours are down six per cent at a time where we're meant to be addressing the skills crisis and the jobs shortage.

The bottom line is that pitting vital education funding against disaster relief will compound the harms this government has already done to our disaster readiness and education. We need disaster relief funded by big polluters, real investment in resilience and solutions to the wicked complex problems of the climate crisis that only university research can provide. For them to do that vital work, they need infrastructure and funding. The Greens will oppose this bill, and I move the following second reading amendment:

At the end of the motion, add:

", but the Senate

(a) notes that the fossil fuel industry is contributing to climate change, leading to more frequent and more intense natural disasters;

(b) notes that imposing a 10 per cent royalty on projects subject to the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax would raise $5 billion in real terms over two years;

(c) is of the opinion that the Education Investment Fund should not be abolished and should only be used for education and research infrastructure; and

(d) calls upon the Government to introduce legislation to place a Commonwealth royalty on oil and gas projects to create a resilience and emergency relief fund for natural disasters."


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