Senate debates

Thursday, 17 October 2019


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

9:53 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019 and the Emergency Response Fund (Consequential Amendment) Bill 2019. And here we are again, with a government that does not accept climate science raiding a fund that was set up for other good purposes in order to mop up after crippling disasters while refusing to take action on what is causing those disasters. What an absolute insult to those communities that are already facing the ravages of extremely damaging bushfires. In my home state of Queensland these were a week out of winter and in areas that had never burned before. This government doesn't even have the decency to have a consultation with some climate scientists and actually fund a climate action plan. Instead, what they're now doing is trying to bribe people by raiding a fund that was set up to support regional universities to build institutions to help invest in the skills for those regions. The gall of this mob! Just when you think they can't find a new low, they manage to find one.

Of course we support funds for disaster relief, but this bill is not the way to go about it. Why do they have to raid funds for higher education to do disaster relief, when they're doing absolutely nothing about disaster prevention or about resilience and preparedness or about adaptation and mitigation?

My colleague Senator Faruqi will be moving some very important amendments that ensure that we can do disaster relief whilst not raiding education funds. I urge the opposition and members of the crossbench to support those amendments. We have a chance to get this right. We have a chance to not only help prepare for but respond to natural disasters, which we know are going to get more and more frequent, more severe, more damaging, more wild and unpredictable, and we also have a chance to keep supporting those regional universities.

I want to begin formally by just acknowledging the seriousness of the issue we're debating today. Hundreds of people have lost their lives in this country dealing with these disasters, not only firefighters but all of our emergency response personnel. They are absolute heroes in our eyes, and I'm sure everyone agrees with that—not just the paid folk; of course, the volunteer firefighters and the other volunteer relief emergency personnel. Many of our community members have lost their homes. Some have lost their lives. People have lost their businesses, and communities have been ripped apart.

We know that these disaster events, these extreme weather events, are only going to get worse. We know that. The climate scientists are telling us that, but the government just will not listen. It's got a tin ear when it comes to science. I wonder what's blocking their ears? Gee, I think it's probably the millions of dollars in donations that flood into their pockets from the oil, coal and gas industries. We know that's why that they don't have a climate policy: they're being paid to not have a policy. It's absolutely disgusting, and that's why of course we're moving to abolish donations from the coal, oil and gas sector—a longstanding position of the Greens.

Resources being made available to support communities in crisis are of course critical. We want these communities to have the help and support they need, but this bill is not the right way to go about it. What this bill actually does is fulfil a long-held government promise to abolish the Education Investment Fund. This was a Tony Abbott idea back in that horror budget of 2014 where frontline services, community support services and help for the vulnerable—all of those things—were slashed, and remember: they sat there and smoked their cigars afterwards. This was one of those promises. This is an Abbott-era attack on the higher education sector that this government has continued, and now they're trying to deliver on. What is incredible and very disappointing is that it seems they've now got Labor Party support to do just that.

The Education Investment Fund was created by Labor in the Rudd years for good reason: to provide ongoing capital investment in regional universities, in vocational education, in research and in all of those job-creating skills investments. This fund has already provided funding for a range of really important projects, a joint health education facility at Port Macquarie; the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Education at Charles Darwin University; a new space at Newcastle CBD campus; and, in my home state, at JCU, The Science Place. How interesting that we see an investment in a science place by a fund, and of course the government wants to abolish that very fund. This government really doesn't like science much. But the point is that this fund has been providing essential funds and essential infrastructure to those regional cities and towns to help us be ready for this century's economy. This government, of course, wants to gut it.

It's no surprise that Universities Australia have called this a raid on Australia's last remaining fund for building education and research infrastructure. Well, why is the government forcing the parliament to make a choice between two noble aims? Why are we being asked to choose between support for the higher education sector and for investing in those skills that we know our regional economies need to be ready for the economy that's changing under our feet? Why are we being forced to choose between that and vital disaster relief funding? What kind of amoral government would actually stand here and propose that?

Sadly, this is not the first time they have done this. We saw the same strategy with the drought fund where they're raiding infrastructure funding—again, another worthy objective—to put into drought funding. Of course it is only going to trickle out in a tiny amount while the government continues to ignore the climate crisis, which is driving the drought and making these natural disasters worse.

With that investment we could actually achieve the objectives of supporting higher education and regional communities and being ready for natural disasters and responding to them, if we simply raised the rates of the PRRT. Why are we not making the big oil and gas companies pay their fair share?

We all know that the PRRT, the petroleum resource rent tax, is one of the most rorted taxes that we have on our books, with many billions of credits outstanding. They effectively don't pay a cent. What an absolute joke! With a mere 10 per cent increase and a new Commonwealth royalty regime on those oil and gas companies, you could raise $5 billion in two years. That's more than this fund in just two years. Not only would you be reducing the inputs to the climate crisis; you could do the real investment in community resilience and preparedness, as well as response, for these incredibly cruel and indiscriminate natural disasters. It's the concept of actually making the polluter pay to prevent the problem that's causing so much heartache for everyone that we have always backed and that we think could have been employed really usefully here.

The other point is that this fund is solely focused on mitigation. It doesn't do anything about preparedness. I acknowledge that Labor say they will move an amendment. Unfortunately, I haven't actually seen it yet, and neither has our spokesperson on the matter. Hopefully, we will see that amendment soon, but I understand that in it they have an extra $50 million a year to do what I think Senator Murray Watt explained was some prevention works. That's a step in the right direction, but what an absolute drop in the ocean it is. You're not going to be able to do anything with fifty million bucks. The phrase 'cheap date' comes to mind. We need a serious investment in community resilience and disaster preparedness and in genuine prevention and mitigation of what's causing this, which of course is the climate crisis.

The stakeholders to the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill didn't think much of the bill either. The Insurance Council, who are of course experts in analysing and managing financial risk, particularly in relation to the extreme weather events that are climate driven, said:

Whilst a cliche, the phrase prevention is better than the cure, is the rule in most policy areas, except it would seem in disaster management, where spending levels for mitigation account for 3% of spending compared to disaster response at 97%.

But we know that a commitment to trying to prevent these sorts of natural disasters would require this government to take the climate emergency seriously. Don't hold your breath, folks. It would also require a genuine commitment to public infrastructure spending. But, whilst they have all of the ingredients laid out before them—with record-low interest rates it's a perfect time for government to borrow and invest in infrastructure to provide the community with the services they deserve, and what a fantastic stimulus and job-creating measure it would be—the government will not touch public infrastructure funding. My point is proven by the fact that they just gutted the infrastructure fund to service their drought fund, again setting up a false dichotomy. They're two noble things which both should have been funded.

The climate emergency is real. It is driving these extreme weather events. Rainforest in South-East Queensland was on fire a week out of winter. That is unprecedented. Northern New South Wales is still on fire. This is happening earlier than it ever has before, and the scientists are telling us this is a harbinger of what's to come, and come more severely, frequently and erratically. It's not like we haven't been told. Why is this government still refusing to act on the scientific advice that could keep our community safe and protect our natural world? It could generate more jobs, not just through a public infrastructure boom, which the Greens support, but through investing in the energy transition that's already underway. It's already creating fantastic jobs in those regions, particularly here in Queensland, where we desperately need those jobs. Why on earth would you gut funding for the skills those communities need as that transition continues to happen?

That's why we're seeking to amend this bill today—and my colleague Senator Faruqi has outlined the nature of our amendments. We don't think the money should come from this education fund. We think it should come from increasing the take from oil and gas companies. There are myriad other sources of revenue for this natural disaster resilience fund; higher education should not be one of them.

Again I note that we haven't yet received Labor's amendments relating to the additional money that they say has now sweetened the deal for them. They used to not like this legislation, before the election, but it seems they've changed their mind. We're very keen to see the actual detail of what's got them over the line, because I would have thought that funding higher education should have been something that the Labor Party stood by, although I do recall then Prime Minister Gillard seeking to cut, I think it was $2.3 billion, from the higher education sector, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

I also recall that before the election the shadow minister for education described this bill as pitting two worthy aims against each other. I'm not quite clear on what's changed and why you've decided to throw education under the bus just because this bill has got a scary title, but I would urge you, at this late stage, to consider supporting our amendments. We can achieve both objectives here. We can have a natural disaster resilience fund and strong support for the higher education sector. Don't let them make you choose. Don't play right into their hands and just facilitate their agenda. The idea of being an opposition is to oppose. We really do encourage you to see that you can achieve two objectives here and you don't simply have to be Liberal light.

Sadly, this is not the first time that we've seen the Liberal government's agenda being waved through this chamber. We saw the $158 billion of tax cuts, most of which went to folks that didn't really need the help. That was waved through by the so-called opposition. They caved in on the temporary exclusion orders, which gave yet more powers to the home affairs minister. Boy, is that going on to his head. They caved in on the ag gag laws, which put in place draconian antiprotest laws, which have been backed in by our Queensland state government, because apparently protest is illegal now. No-one's allowed to have an opinion that opposes the government—certainly not on climate change. And of course they caved in on the drought bill, which was funded by raiding $4 billion from the national infrastructure budget. It's very disappointing that we now see that, once again, the so-called opposition are going to cave in and raid a very worthy education fund, which has already provided some great investment in regional Australia. They're going to cave in and wave this through.

Please reconsider, and please have a close look at the amendments proposed by Senator Faruqi for the Greens. We can have natural disaster preparedness and resilience and response funding, and we can also have a strong higher education sector. I'm not quite sure what parallel universe we're now in, where you think that's a choice that you need to make.

We here at the Greens will always be strong supporters of not just mopping up after a disaster but actually investing in preventing them, investing in not only community resilience and preparedness but the mitigation of what's causing these natural disasters. We are in a climate emergency. We are sleepwalking to our own demise. We are losing species at a rate that is just criminal, in my view. We've lost half the coral cover of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the largest and most ancient living structures on this planet. I don't think we have the right to wreck the natural world in the way that we have been just to make a few rich people richer. It is absolutely disgusting. It's not just about the impacts on nature; it's also about the impacts on communities: people's homes being flooded and burned; communities ripped apart; the suicide rates for our land managers off the charts.

What on earth is it going to take for this government to get with the program, accept the climate science and do what's necessary to protect the community, not to mention nature? We know you're not keen on nature, but for goodness sake: regional Australia is desperate for a climate plan. We just heard the head of the National Farmers Federation calling for climate action on national radio this morning and pointing out that renewable energy might be an additional income stream for farmers, which the Greens have long supported and proposed. But this government is so in the pocket of big oil, coal and gas that it just will not see reason. It will not see the science and it will not stand with what those communities desperately need—a real drought plan, a real climate plan, and real investment in educational institutions in those regional areas that create jobs and create the skills that we are going to need.

As the rest of the world continues on its journey to become a clean energy economy, we are getting left behind. We are now on fire and this government wants to raid an education fund to do some mop-up work after the fact while doing absolutely nothing to prevent what is causing these natural disasters in the first place. I believe that this is criminal; I think it's criminal negligence. And when we see other countries and governments around the world, even of conservative persuasions, accepting climate science, the government have no cover anymore. There is no excuse for them to try and say that this is a political issue. The climate crisis is so far above politics, it is ridiculous. For heaven's sake, please stop being blinded by the dirty money that you're getting from these big multinational oil, coal and gas companies to fund your re-election campaigns—and that goes for both sides of politics. Both sides, sadly, took $4 million over the past five years as part of the broader $100 million from big corporates since 2012. Dirty money is ruining the policymaking potential of this parliament, and it is blinding the government to where their real obligations lie. They should be protecting communities, protecting the planet and actually planning for the future. Surely the job of government is to plan and prepare?

This bill is all about mopping up whilst raiding another fund that would actually help communities develop their skills. This is an abomination. We will always support disaster response funding, but you don't get it from wrecking and gutting higher education and you don't stop those natural disasters by ignoring the climate crisis that we're facing and trying to just pray the problem away. Each to their own, but that is not a climate policy. The government can't just pray for rain and pretend that climate change isn't happening and that it's not anthropogenic. And they can't pretend that they don't have the power, as the government of Australia, to actually do something to fix it. Please wake up.

I have been so impressed by the community response to the climate crisis. People are starting to feel their power. I hope the government are paying attention. We've got more and more folk hitting the streets. They can see what these natural disasters are doing to our communities. They can see what it's doing to nature and to our biodiversity. They can see the potential for prosperity and fairness and job creation in a clean energy economy. They want action on climate change. They don't want the big coal multinationals to be making decisions about the whole country anymore. They want their democracy back. That's what we support, and we will continue to stand with those folks who are hitting the streets, desperate for their government to do the right thing. The government has a chance today to vote to not gut education, to invest not just in natural disaster response but in mitigation, prevention, preparedness, resilience—all of those things that our communities deserve from its national government. Please give the dirty donations back and please start looking at the evidence and doing the right thing.


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