Senate debates

Tuesday, 11 February 2014


Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013; Second Reading

6:25 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I continue my remarks on the Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013 from just prior to question time.

We had a situation where an election was basically run and allegedly won as an adjudication of climate change—whether there is climate change, whether there is global warming and whether the solutions of the previous government were correct, or if the incoming government had the right strategy. A brief look at the incoming government's strategy in respect of climate change was that they would plant more trees—or plant lots of trees—and that they would pay polluters to pollute slowly.

In amongst the incessant negativity that emanated from the other side during the whole term of the Labor government and, increasingly, towards the election timetable, it was 'Climate change, carbon taxes: bad, bad, bad, bad'. Basically, the scientists were not reputable or their views were that of zealots.

It was Senator Whish-Wilson who first raised in this chamber the reinsurance industry. It is really interesting to go and look at not the zealots of the world but the reinsurers of the world. There are probably about 10 reinsurers in the global sense, in a very large way: Munich Re, Swiss Re, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and the Gen Re group, Hannover Re Group, Lloyd's, SCOR, Everest Re Group, PartnerRe, TransRe and ACE Tempest Re Group. These are reinsurers with a global reach, and they all make clear, unequivocal comments. Munich Re has stated:

Climate change is a subject that concerns us all. It is one of the greatest risks facing mankind. In recent years, Munich Re has actively supported and advanced climate protection and adaptation to global warming.

This is a company that since 1973 has had a strategy, not born out of philosophy—although I hesitate to denigrate their motives in any way—but basically born out of experience and practicalities. They reinsure risk.

There have been catastrophic storms in the US and they cost lots of money. They cost billions of dollars. As I said earlier, Swiss Re, representing 722 investors who hold some US$87 trillion worth of assets, is seeking to insure those assets. These are the people who do that, so they are working from years of history, they are working from actuaries, they are working at reducing the carbon footprint and they are working with global companies which understand this problem.

The challenge in this debate is to get over the opposition to representing the best interests of the Australian population and the best interests of future Australians in terms of economic damage and climate change damage, and we do not see any signs of that. Planting more trees and paying polluters to pollute slowly is not a coherent national strategy for dealing with a global position.

I can understand the politics of it. I personally am very challenged at the impact of the carbon price on a lot of sectors in our economy. But what you cannot do is forgo the national interest and pretend to act for one sector only and pull the wool over everyone else's eyes. Basically, the reinsurers of the world, representing billions of dollars worth of reinsurance, believe that climate change is real, that it is happening, and that, unless there are strategies to mitigate global warming, it is going to get much worse.

Any government that goes ahead with a strategy of simply planting more trees and paying polluters to pollute slowly is not in the ballpark. All of the economists and all of the economic advice is that if you want to change behaviour you have to put a price on that behaviour. No economic strategy to pay people to pollute slowly will be effective. It is simply the case that we need to change behaviour, and that is extremely challenging for lots of us on this side of the chamber, too. But the strategy we have at the moment is for more trees and paying people to pollute slowly. It flies against all of the evidence. I urge Mr Abbott and his team to reconsider.

6:31 pm

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013. We are not making a lot of progress, I have to say, because we on this side of the chamber for very good reasons absolutely disagree with the proposition that this authority should be abolished. None of us need to be reminded very much about the fact that, just a month after the government announced its plans to abolish the Climate Change Authority, here in New South Wales—and I know in other states, because we can see what is happening in Victoria and Western Australia—we have experienced some of the worst bushfires in a decade, and our continent remains a tinderbox, having stayed on high alert all summer.

In November, the newly re-formed Climate Council released a landmark report called Be prepared: climate change and the Australian bushfire threat, which highlighted the demonstrable connection between climate change and the duration and severity of Australian bushfires. The reason today's debate is so important is that this government is burning up the means that we had to be prepared. That is the message we are all being given: be prepared.

The independent research we have seen into the impacts of climate change is critical, because it helps us to prepare ourselves. The Prime Minister spent the election campaign reassuring the public that he accepts the science on climate change, so it is pretty frustrating and hard to understand why his government is removing the very authority that will help Australia's community leaders to prepare for the inevitable impacts of hotter summers and prolonged droughts, increases in bushfires and flooding threats and so on.

Minister Hunt says he will be able to seek advice from the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO, but to do so diverts these organisations from their primary function: collecting and analysing data and forecasting and warning, in the case of the bureau; and scientific research, in the case of CSIRO. In an article in The Conversationnot too long ago, Monash University professor Neville Nicholls critiqued this arrangement. At the time, in December last year, he wrote:

One might think, however, that having a local agency to collate and assess this information for the Australian government might be more prudent than relying on other organisations, with their various biases. And it is hard to see how the Bureau of Meteorology or CSIRO could fill this role and provide advice on this aspect of climate change—it seems way outside their comfort zone.

Over the summer I have been reminded very clearly that it is not just the federal and state governments that require authoritative advice on our changing climate. We are a nation with 565 local government authorities, which are scrambling to put in place the best infrastructure and economic development plans for their communities. The question needs to be asked: can we really expect local councils to get on the phone to their local weather station and ask for advice on how best to prepare their communities for climate change?

As we well know, the effects of climate change are being particularly felt in regional and rural Australia. I know the minister has had her concerns when experiencing the drought that is significantly impacting in New South Wales at the moment, because her own country has been affected by it. Think about what has been going on down in the Riverina and out west. In March 2012, the Riverina, in Wagga Wagga for example, was devastated by the Murrumbidgee flooding. Then, just a few months later, it was threatened by a series of uncontrolled bushfires. Also, in November just last year farmers in that area experienced freak frosts. That followed the breaking of the decade-long drought, and now we are back into this drought situation again. So, floods, fires, droughts and frosts have all been experienced by one community down in the Wagga Wagga region. That is a good example of the challenges that one local government authority is having to deal with. So where is that council going to go to getting the advice they need on tackling this multitude of climate challenges? We need the Climate Change Authority for those reasons.

We can choose to proactively address climate change, or we can mop up afterwards. That response, which is really encapsulated in this bill to abolish the Climate Change Authority, means that Australia will actually miss out on a whole range of opportunities.

The mayor of Geelong, someone else who has been affected by the recent fires, said not long ago: 'We believe there is considerable scope for Geelong to use its manufacturing capability to share in the growing green technology market.' He said that before we heard the news about the car industry. They will be desperately seeking to capture and engage their manufacturing workforce in the innovation, research and development that will help build their economy for the future. He said at the time that, rather than job losses, there is the potential to expand jobs in the region as demand for green technology increases. So we have local governments and regional development authorities around the country trying to be innovative, trying to diversify their local economies and trying to deal with the real challenges of climate change. Then we have an authoritative research arm of the government being abolished by this legislation. It robs our mayors and business leaders of the advice they need to allow them to lead their communities with confidence. This probably is something that has not really had much attention paid to it.

The Climate Change Authority offers many inconvenient truths to our current government, such as this, which came from the draft report of its Targets and Progress Review: '…it is possible to sustain economic growth while reducing emissions.' That statement is a truth that repudiates the Prime Minister's ideological stance. This report is due to come out at the end of this month.

As long as the Climate Change Authority exists, the government will not want to receive the report of the Targets and Progress Review, which the authority is legislated to produce and which we are awaiting with interest. It is easy to understand why the government is eager to abolish this organisation and prevent the report from seeing the light of day. That is quite a strong motivation in this abolition bill. The draft report suggests a number of areas where the government's climate policy will be found to be lacking. Much of that evidence is being reiterated in the Senate's inquiry into the direct action plan, which we have been undertaking for the last few months. It is very difficult to find anywhere in any of the submissions evidence that the direct action plan is going to deliver the targets that are being proposed.

The draft report recognises a clear global trend towards more ambitious climate action at the same time that this government has decided to claw back the climate change targets. I quote again from the draft report, which says:

… international action on climate change is strengthening, particularly in some of the world’s largest economies.

Ninety-nine countries, including Australia’s major trading partners and neighbours, and covering over 80 per cent of global emissions and over 90 per cent of the world’s economic output, have 2020 emissions reduction pledges. All of these countries are implementing policies to reduce emissions, including renewable energy targets, emissions trading schemes and vehicle emissions standards.

In particular, the world’s two largest emitters—China and the United States (jointly producing over a third of global emissions)—are stepping up their efforts to reduce emissions. Both countries have emissions reduction targets. China is investing heavily in renewable energy projects, closing inefficient coal power plants and trialling market mechanisms to reduce emissions. President Obama announced an ambitious plan for US action in June 2013, including new restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants, strengthened vehicle emission standards and renewable energy activities. These complement state-based market initiatives to reduce emissions.

Despite the trend towards increased climate action, the draft report of the Targets and Progress Review notes that more must be done here in Australia. The international community must increase its emissions reduction targets and Australia cannot step away from that obligation either.

The draft report's critique of the government's present stand gets more pointed. It argues that Australia's five per cent emissions reduction target should be increased for at least three good reasons. The report says:

First, the scale and pace of international action suggests that Australia should be pursuing a stronger target.

…   …   …

Second, 5 per cent is considered an inadequate first step if Australia is to play its part in limiting warming to below 2 degrees.

…   …   …

Third, the Authority considers that moving to a stronger target now could be accommodated at a relatively low cost to the economy, based on modelling of Australia’s economy and emissions outlook.

The draft report notes that since our five per cent target was initially set the efforts required to achieve this target have decreased significantly, so present efforts will guide us in the direction of an 11 per cent reduction by 2020. In light of that, the coalition's determination to retain the target at its five per cent level is paltry, to say the least.

The draft report suggests that we could be doing so much more without too much effort. Should the coalition fail to shut down the Climate Change Authority before the end of February they will have to contend with a Targets and Progress Review that will recommend that Australia's emissions reduction target be increased to either 15 per cent or 25 per cent. The government know that direct action alone will never be able to meet these targets—as does the Climate Change Authority, of course. This sets the government up for perhaps the biggest embarrassment of all, because they will have to acknowledge that Australia needs a carbon-pricing mechanism. There is going to have to be a market mechanism. Direct action, in and of itself, is not going to achieve the kinds of outcomes that this government is pursuing.

Seeing that the abolition of the Climate Change Authority stands to save the government a paltry $1.6 million annually, you really have to ask the question: what is the real saving being made by today's bill? Ordinary Australians might be forgiven for presuming that, in fact, this legislation is about saving face rather than about saving money.

So when you think that Labor actually established the Climate Change Authority to be an authority—an independent body—designed to sit outside of the strictures of party politics, you realise that that is the true reason the coalition are seeking its abolition. They know that as long as this authority exists, their medieval approach to climate policy will be embarrassed. By seeking to abolish the Climate Change Authority, the government is taking a crucial resource from every community in Australia simply to limit their own embarrassment.

But the Australian community itself has demonstrated that it understands how critical the Climate Change Authority will be for our future. It crowd funded $1 million in a little over a week. That was a herculean effort. It is a fundraising effort that now ensures the Climate Council's survival should this bill proceed. That does not make this debate irrelevant. On the contrary, it heightens the yawning chasm between the concerns and the hopes of the Australian people and the obstinacy that is the government's position at the moment.

Coalition members and senators have continually returned to the argument that they have a mandate to deconstruct Australia's Clean Energy Future. Twenty thousand donations to the Climate Commission in just one week show that the Australian people support climate action. It is alive and well in Australia. This is, according to the Climate Commission, actually the biggest crowd-funding campaign in Australia's history.

When we think now about the public polling that is going on we find that the Newspoll figures continually ask the questions about climate change. There are enough figures to refute the Prime Minister's claim that he is acting on popular support. The Australian people believe that we must take action on climate change. Older Australians believe we must take this action for generations in the future, for our farming communities, for our farming industries, for coastal communities, for the Great Barrier Reef and for all the natural resources that we have in our country. To ignore the reality of climate change is a folly that we should not allow this government to get away with.

Then there is more evidence that refutes the existence of the imaginary mandate that this government professes to have. If we go back to the exit polling conducted by the Climate Institute on the election day we find that Tony Abbott's views on carbon pricing and on climate change are:

… sharply at odds with the views of the electorate.

Again, I can quote from some additional exit polling which says:

National exit polling done on behalf of the Climate Institute showed that voters' primary concern was for the economy and jobs (31 per cent) …

I think voters everywhere would be very concerned by what has happened in the last week about jobs and the economy the polling continues:

… with climate change (5 per cent) and carbon tax (3 per cent) significantly lower. Even among Coalition voters only 3 per cent listed the carbon tax as a top issue.

So the coalition has an obstinate attitude to climate action and its opposition has been incessant for the past six years.

Hansard shows that 'carbon tax' is the most overused term by coalition members and senators, having been spoken more than 14,000 times in the last parliament between 2007 and 2014. Their strategy was to repeat something often enough for it to be believed. I feel that perhaps the only people who believe this are the coalition members themselves. The only Australians who are actually convinced by all of that repetition are those attempting to pass today's bill. This is a bill that does not deserve to be passed. It is not deserve the support of Labor and the opposition. We will not be supporting the bill.

6:49 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak against the coalition's determination to hack away at another body that is vital to Australia's efforts in combating climate change: the Climate Change Authority. Last year, I spoke in this chamber about the government's determination to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation—never mind that the CEFC makes the Australian government a four per cent profit, which is above the government's bond rate, or that it has leveraged $1.5 billion worth of private funding in a very short period of time. Never mind, also, that it has led to $2 billion worth of clean energy.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Thank you, Senator Polley. It now being 6.50 pm, I call on consideration of government documents.

Debate interrupted.