Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Finance and Administration (Senator Minchin) and the Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation (Senator Abetz) to questions without notice asked by Senators O’Brien and Crossin today relating to climate change.
This government has made a shambles of this debate over whether or not we should have a national carbon emissions trading scheme and the link between emissions and climate change. It also goes to the comments that the Prime Minister made—or failed to make—yesterday and to the commitment and change of heart from the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, Ian Macfarlane.
Let me go to yesterday. I have in my mind a picture, late at night, of the Prime Minister sitting down on the sofa. I am sure that Mrs Prime Minister probably said, ‘How was your day, darling?’ It was the first day of the sittings, the parliamentary New Year. I think he probably would have said: ‘Well, church was pretty good in the morning, except I didn’t know all the words to the hymns. That new Leader of the Opposition could sing every one of them without looking at the songbook, so I’d better lift my game there. It was going pretty well, actually, till they asked me a question about climate change and the emissions trading scheme. But I stuffed it up. I didn’t quite get it right. But it’s okay: when I got back to my office, I pretended my lack of hearing had done me wrong and that I mistook the question to be about drought and climate change and I just trotted back into the chamber and I rectified my problem.’
All up, it was probably not a really great day. In fact I think one of the papers gives his performance as a six out of 10. It was not a great day for this government for two reasons. Firstly, they have suddenly discovered that climate change is actually an issue in this country, and it has been an issue for a long time. I think it was Senator Minchin who said today that they had actually been working on the issue of climate change for 10 years. Ten seconds, I think, would probably be the more correct answer if he had been honest with the Senate. This is a government that has failed to believe the words ‘climate change’ even existed, let alone what they meant to this country. But we are in an election year, so I guess they have probably got their radars out and have decided they had better get on board—to start to use the words and to come up with a position.
But there is a bit of a problem, isn’t there? The Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, Ian Macfarlane, is saying: ‘Wait a minute, maybe we should actually have a look at this. Perhaps there is a link between emissions and climate change.’ Some people in this chamber still refuse to believe that there is a link. But then they say, ‘If the rest of the world get on board, we might follow them.’ The government’s problem is that it has always been a follower when it comes to dealing with the issue of climate change. It always has to march behind. It always has to step in line. It always has to wait to see what the rest of the world does before it actually takes any action. It takes no initiatives and has no new ideas. There is nothing creative about Australia when it comes to the international scene and dealing with climate change. So what do we get today? The government says: ‘We’re not actually going to initiate any national scheme, or even a regional scheme, unless it is truly global. Let’s sit back and see if the rest of the world is going to get on board and then we might make up our mind.’
It is the same with the Kyoto protocol: while the rest of the world is talking about stages 2 and 3, this government has not even signed on to stage 1. There is no guarantee, even if the rest of the world gets on board with an emissions trading scheme, that this government will get on board. That is their excuse. They do nothing. They get it confused with the link between drought and climate change and then have the Prime Minister toddle into the House late at night to say, ‘Mea culpa; I got it all wrong.’ Poor thing! It is a wonder they did not send someone else in to apologise for his mistake.
This government does nothing. It is a follower, not a leader. It does not take initiatives in this country or internationally. It is going to sit back and wait until the rest of the world gets onto the starting blocks. This government has had report after report after report on the impact of climate change, and the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly shows there is a direct link between human activity and climate change. (Time expired)
What we have just heard from Senator Crossin was extremely shallow and it was condescending towards the Prime Minister. She sought to use the Prime Minister’s hearing difficulty as a debating point, which is pathetic; it says more about the speaker than about the incident itself. If the Labor Party wants to engage in this very scientific, complex and multilayered debate which the public sometimes finds difficult to get to grips with, it should not do it in here through a lightweight like Senator Crossin. Labor ought to take it a little more seriously than the previous speaker, with her lightweight, unsophisticated and condescending approach. This debate deserves more.
The other side do not care to listen. I guess that is their job in opposition. May we never return to opposition! They asked several questions of Senator Minchin at question time on the issue of a national carbon emissions trading scheme. The answer was quite clear, categorical and black and white: this government does not support a domestic carbon emissions trading scheme for the good reason—backed up by research—that it would not be in this country’s national interest. We said some three years ago, in the national white paper Securing Australia’s energy future, that we would support and work towards an international carbon emissions trading scheme. We will say that until we are blue in the face, until the other side accept that that is this government’s policy.
I take it that the opposition’s policy is to introduce a national—that is, domestic—carbon emissions trading scheme. Well, go ahead! Try and sell that to the business community and those who will lose their jobs as a consequence! I know that you have recently appointed a new business liaison manager; he will have his fingers crossed even before he has heard of your absurd policy. On behalf of the Labor Party, this man is meant to liaise with big business, the energy producers of this country, and present a good face that says Labor, if they ever get into government, will listen to business and be business friendly. Well, try and sell that policy! Go and get your liaison officer to sell this policy. He will have more than his fingers crossed.
There are several other myths that the other side try to sell on this issue, including that the government are still sceptics—that we are late to the issue. I say to the other side that that is far from the truth; it is a myth I would like to put to rest. In 1996, our first year in government, we initiated a major review of the National Greenhouse Response Strategy. The strategy was completed in 1996 and was developed throughout 1997. I stress that it was during our first term in government, in 1997, that we established the Australian Greenhouse Office, the world’s first ever greenhouse office. That office coordinated a national greenhouse approach with the states and local government. I will read from a press release from the then Minister for the Environment, Senator Robert Hill, dated 20 November 1997—so you cannot say we are Johnny-come-latelies on this issue. He said:
A new Commonwealth Greenhouse Office is to be established in the Department of the Environment to galvanise the drive to improve Australia’s greenhouse performance.
Through the Greenhouse Office, back in 1997, we put down a policy and a strategy—fully funded, I should add.
There are several other myths with regard to this issue—and, no doubt, I will have more time to speak on the matter because it has been the issue of the week. I suspect it will be the issue of the year, seeing that the Labor Party have now dropped and run away from their industrial relations strategy leading up to the next campaign. But I just want to point out that this government had a policy, strategy and funding for the greenhouse gas emissions problem in its first term of government. (Time expired)
No doubt Senator Abetz, the Minister representing the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, would have been expecting such a question on climate change today, given the embarrassment this government is experiencing on the issue of the environment. I refer specifically to its lack of action on climate change and the confused message it has been sending out, with the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and other ministers appearing to have different views on what the government’s position is on carbon emissions trading. Given that the Prime Minister’s discussion paper on carbon emissions trading indicates that it is unlikely that a global scheme will emerge in the near future and given the apparently different views of members of the government, it is likely that inaction will be the outcome under a Liberal-National coalition government. This seems a fair assessment, given the way that the government has equivocated on climate change while global warming has made its impact.
The Australian public, our constituents, are genuinely concerned—concerned about the impact climate change has already had, the impact it is having today and the impact it will have tomorrow on our planet and future generations. They should be concerned, given that 600 scientists, including 42 Australian scientists, representing 113 governments on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have found that warming of the climate system ‘is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice’ and rising sea levels. The public are concerned, knowing that this government, after 10 long years in power and after years of denial, has fallen well short of addressing the issue.
In the last parliamentary session of 2006, the government pushed through the Environment and Heritage Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2006. What a missed opportunity that bill turned out to be for the government to address the very real challenge of climate change if it believed climate change was a serious and genuine concern. Those opposite cannot get away from the fact that this bill was made up of 409 pages of amendments without a single mention of protecting Australia from dangerous climate change; nor was there any measure to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution.
Regardless of what the senator said today, for 10 years the Howard government has failed to listen to the concerns of the experts—the scientists—and the Australian people on environmental issues, failed to provide solutions and failed to provide hope for the future. It is a government without answers led by a Prime Minister who has been a climate change sceptic. We have the Prime Minister leading a government that has failed to deliver climate change solutions for 10 years and claiming on Lateline to be a realist on climate change and not prone to exaggeration. Yesterday during question time we had him saying ‘the jury is still out’ on the link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change but then, following the nightly news, returning to the chamber to correct his statement.
What the Australian public is seeing is a government that does not know what it believes on the issue of climate change and emissions trading. On Monday the Prime Minister said Australia could implement a domestic scheme if there was ‘reasonable anticipation of activity on the global level’ and then yesterday we had the Minister for Finance and Administration, Senator Minchin, saying that the government continues to be opposed to Australia acting unilaterally to tax Australian industry by way of a domestic emissions trading scheme, or carbon tax, in the absence of any action by our trading partners or other major nations in the world. This government has been backed into a corner on climate change and has been well and truly exposed as a government that cannot be trusted when it comes to dealing with our environment and as a government with a decade of climate change scepticism, policy inaction and complacency.
Throughout that time Labor has been asking the questions, putting forward ways to address environmental issues, moving amendments and introducing bills. This week, Labor’s leader, Kevin Rudd, announced he will convene in the coming months a national summit on climate change. The summit will be designed to bring together Australia’s best scientists, with a view to shaping a national consensus on the best way forward for Australia to deal with climate change over the next decade. (Time expired)
It is amazing to listen to the confected outrage of people on the other side of the chamber saying that climate change is worth destroying Australian industry for and that we need to take measures that are going to dislocate industry across this nation and effectively cause economic paralysis. I am a climate change realist. Like the Prime Minister, I acknowledge that our climate is changing. It has been changing for centuries. We have had warmer periods and we have had cooler periods. We are currently in a warmer period. There is no doubt that the scientific evidence does demonstrate that greenhouse gases are making a contribution to this. We as a government acknowledge this, which is why we established in 1997 the Australian Greenhouse Office, the first agency dedicated to addressing climate change.
Whilst we have not signed the Kyoto protocol, we have not done so just so that we can ignore it like other countries have done—which is apparently what you lot opposite want. We have sought to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and we are expecting that reduction to be within one per cent of our stated Kyoto protocol target in any event. By 2010 we will have reduced our emissions by some 87 million tonnes, which is equivalent to the emissions from our entire transport sector; that is our goal. This is a reasonable response to an issue that the world is confronting: a world where we have to compete at an economic level and a nation where we need to provide jobs and a growing economy for Australian workers.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has generally been accepted as a definitive statement on climate change and on the severe impacts it may have on the global economic environment and humans’ living conditions. But one thing that has gone quite underreported about that report is that, whilst it acknowledges man’s contribution to global warming, greenhouse gases and climate change, it also says that some of the more alarmist theories that have been peddled in an attempt to score cheap political points are simply not true. Antarctica is not warming, I read in this morning’s paper. It is not melting away and going to drown us all under metres of water. No, the Gulf Stream will not stop. Europe will not fall into a new ice age as a result of climate change. No, climate change is not responsible for more hurricanes—or cyclones, as we call them here in Australia. The IPCC report also suggests that Sydney will not be under water in just a couple of decades time, which is what some of the more alarmist people are peddling.
This government has been committed for 10 years, since we established the Greenhouse Office, to examining renewable technologies—investing in energy options that can produce a viable, profound change in Australian emissions for the future. As I said earlier, the latest projections of Australian emissions say that we are within one per cent of our Kyoto protocol target. To achieve this, the government have done many different things. We have established the largest renewable energy project in solar panels, in the seat of Makin in Adelaide, which Senator Wortley would be well aware of. We have done this to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and to reduce emissions.
Imagine for a moment if we did what the Labor Party and some of the more extreme fringe parties would advocate and we actually shut down our coal industry. How many thousands of jobs would be lost as a result of that? How many jobs are you prepared to give up, Senator Wortley? How many coal stations are you prepared to close in order to achieve a further reduction, even though we are within one per cent of what our Kyoto protocol limit would be? The fact is that we are looking at something that is sustainable for this country. We have to do what is in the best interests of not only the workers but our environment in this country. This government is working very hard towards that strategy. We are working with key allies in our region and with our competitors. (Time expired)
I note that in discussing this very important issue of climate change there are five senators from South Australia in this chamber. That is entirely fitting, because of course South Australia is the driest state in the driest continent in the world and what happens in the matter of climate change is particularly important to the people of South Australia.
I am addressing my comments to the responses by Senator Abetz, the Minister representing the Minister for Environment and Water Resources, to questions today. I note Minister Abetz’s failed attempt to try to defend his government’s activity in the area of climate change and in particular his failure to defend the Prime Minister, who yesterday blustered and blundered when trying to articulate his government’s position on climate change. The Prime Minister, as we saw, had to scuttle back into the House and recast his incredible statement that ‘the jury is still out on the degree of connection’ between carbon emissions and climate change.
It may be that the Prime Minister did not hear the question that gave rise to that ridiculous response, but he has certainly heard the Australian public, who are asking loud and clear, ‘What has this government done and what is it doing about climate change?’ He has heard the criticism levelled at his tired, out-of-touch government, because he has read the polls. We know now that the polls are bad for the Prime Minister, because suddenly he is all about talking about climate change. He has dumped one dud environment minister and he has put the latest prime ministerial wannabe into the firing line.
So, instead of Senator Ian Campbell’s failed global quest to save the whale, we have ‘Malcolm in the muddle’ trying to cobble together a coherent government response to climate change—except that it is not coherent, as Minister Abetz so eloquently showed us, because the government is still full of climate change nonbelievers. They refused to sign up to Kyoto and they are still umming and ahing about whether or not Australia should have a national carbon emissions trading scheme. ‘Maybe we should wait for a global scheme to come into place,’ they say. How much longer are we going to wait for a national carbon emissions trading scheme? This government has still got the blinkers on as far as carbon pollution and climate change go, despite the stream of reports coming from eminent scientists that Senator Crossin and Senator Wortley mentioned earlier in this debate, such as the reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the highly esteemed Wentworth Group of scientists and the Australian of the Year, Dr Tim Flannery, a fine South Australian, who has dedicated a lot of his life to the issue of saving our planet.
This government has had more than a decade in office to do something to reduce the emissions that contribute to climate change and to mitigate the effects of climate change, and what do we hear today? ‘We set up an office called the Greenhouse Office. We did it 10 years ago.’ What has it done? Where is the evidence of anything that it has done? I am sure that it is a very nice office, but I have not seen any evidence of what it has done. What is the Greenhouse Office doing to mitigate what could be a potentially disastrous situation? We are looking at our magnificent natural heritage in Australia coming under threat because of climate change—the Great Barrier Reef; Kakadu; the Murray-Darling Basin, as we know; and the magnificent Coorong in my state, which is already in a diabolical situation and is apparently headed for an even worse environmental situation unless something is done quickly. What are we going to do when the alpine zones just a few hours from this place are affected by climate change? It will be too late then.
I noted that Senator Bernardi in his comments raised the issue of the environment versus the economy—that we cannot have a national emissions trading scheme because it might have an economic impact. Of course it will have an economic impact. We know that. We know that it is going to have an economic impact, but we have got to deal with that fact. The two things are not mutually exclusive. What is Senator Bernardi going to do when the agricultural and horticultural industries in South Australia, upon which the state heavily relies, are affected by increases in temperature and even less rainfall, as is predicted? I know Senator Bernardi is intimately involved in the wine industry. What is he going to do when the grapes stop growing in the Barossa and the Coorong and what is he going to tell the South Australian growers in the Riverland when there is not enough water to keep their crops growing? What does this government do? ‘It’s somebody else’s fault. We set up a Greenhouse Office, but it hasn’t actually done anything. We are not actually convinced.’ (Time expired)
Question agreed to.