Senate debates

Wednesday, 12 February 2014


Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013; Second Reading

6:15 pm

Photo of Anne McEwenAnne McEwen (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate today on the government's legislation, entitled the Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013. This bill is part of a package of bills intended to undo all of the good work done by the previous Labor government to reduce Australia's carbon emissions—to reduce the amount of pollution that we put into the atmosphere, pollution that causes global warming and that global warming adversely affects our climate and results in things like extreme weather conditions. It affects our weather so that our agricultural and horticultural industries are severely affected by pests and diseases that once occurred in one area of our nation and now turn up in other areas because the climate is warming.

There is no good to come from carbon pollution and there is only good to come from reducing carbon pollution. Personally, I thought the whole issue of carbon pollution—how it causes global warming and the effect of that on how a nation lives its life—was fairly simple, but then I am influenced by science and experts in this field. I do not pretend to be a scientist or an expert myself, and so I am happy to take the advice of those who know what they are talking about. I am happy to take that advice because I do not want to see our nation riven by bushfires and floods or our crops or industries devastated. It is disappointing that every time we talk about carbon pollution reduction here, we again have to acknowledge that, unfortunately, the Abbott government has been hijacked by ideologues who do not believe the science and do not believe in climate change. The government is led by a person who himself does not believe in the science or climate change and is dismissive of those who do. It is extraordinary that we have to keep pointing that out. The rest of the world understands well and truly what the science is and accepts it. We have a government that thinks they know more than the scientists and hence we have this package of bills of repeal legislation before us. The Prime Minister is arrogant in thinking that he knows more than scientists.

This particular bill dismantles the independent Climate Change Authority. That authority was set up by the Labor government to provide advice independent of government—advice from scientists and experts to government on matters like meeting carbon emission targets and the appropriate level for the RET. It was set up with Professor Tim Flannery as the initial chair; he is certainly independent of any government. People who know Professor Flannery would be prepared to say that it was a statutory body intended to provide strong and independent advice to governments. The Abbott government immediately wanted to shut it down because it was a strong and independent authority and because they do not like to take advice from experts when that advice conflicts with their own ideology. It was interesting that, when the Climate Change Authority was targeted for demolition by the Abbott government, the reaction of Australians was one of horror. Professor Flannery and others associated with the authority acknowledged the reaction of the Australian people and embarked on a process to recreate, if you like, the Climate Change Authority. Knowing that they would never get any money from the Abbott coalition government, they sought crowd funding to continue the organisation—with extraordinary success, I understand. They raised their target of $1 million within a fortnight. It goes to underline and demonstrate that, while the current government might not be committed to climate change, many Australians certainly are and are prepared to put their hands in their pockets to help.

That was a great response, as was the response of ordinary Australians to the various climate rallies, which a number of senators from this side attended in November last year. There was a very well-attended rally in my home state of South Australia, in Adelaide. It was especially great to see so many young people turning up there and speaking about how devastated they were that the new government was not committed to addressing climate change and was going to undo all the good work that the Labor government had done.

The coalition government are mindful of the fact that not all Australians share in their ideology and that not all Australians are in the camp of the loony right who think that climate change is some sort of conspiracy concocted by the left. The coalition realise that, to have any kind of credibility, they have to make a token effort to indicate that they still support the carbon emissions reduction target—that is, reducing emissions by 2020 over year 2000 emissions levels—to which Australia is committed. So they have come up with their ridiculous Direct Action Plan. Mirroring the minister who concocted the plan and who is trying to introduce it in Australia, the plan is lightweight, without substance and ineffective; it is what you would expect from the Minister for the Environment, Mr Hunt.

Anyone with half a brain knows that the best way to stop behaviour which causes pollution is to put a price on pollution. That is the fundamental economic basis of the emissions trading scheme to which Labor wanted to move. It is a sad truth that, if you put a price on doing something, people think twice about doing it. Every credible economist in Australia and elsewhere in the world knows that an emissions trading scheme—in particular, a global emissions trading scheme—is the most appropriate way to reduce harmful carbon emissions. It works. Not only does it work but also it can be done on a global basis. It institutionalises in a society such as ours the mechanisms to make sure that carbon emissions reductions are done on a continuing basis in a way which: spreads the cost across the whole community; enables income to be generated to compensate industries which do not pollute; encourages polluting organisations not to pollute; and encourages companies to embark on energy efficiency measures and new technologies which will replace the dirty, carbon-emitting fuel technologies on which we rely at the moment.

The Labor government was committed to an emissions trading scheme; the current government is committed to a Direct Action Plan which nobody credibly supports. The former Treasury secretary Mr Ken Henry called it 'bizarre', and that is how it is viewed by pretty much every credible economist, environmentalist and scientist who works in the area of climate change. The Direct Action Plan is still fairly light on detail from the current minister, but we do know a couple of things about it. One of them is that its centrepiece is carbon sequestration in the soil. Basically, the Direct Action Plan sets up a fund providing money to people who own property to grow trees and sequester carbon. Hopefully, this method will work; realistically, it is still unproven. There is uncertainty about its viability in the long term. Is it the right thing to do to invest so much money and effort into this particular method of abating carbon when forestry can be so vulnerable to climate change or pests or other things which might affect the ability of trees to sequester carbon? Any reading of the science about carbon sequestration reveals that it says, 'We hope it works, but at the moment we're not really sure it's going to be the answer—and, of course, it's not a broad, far-reaching method for reducing carbon emissions, as an emissions trading scheme would be.'

Another thing we know about the Direct Action Plan is that part of its focus is to provide funding to organisations to introduce energy-efficiency measures—for example, green buildings and similar measures. Such measures aiming to reduce carbon emissions are incredibly expensive. You have to ask: where is the government going to find the money to pay for this Direct Action Plan? They are fairly silent about that. They will have to either increase taxes or cut spending somewhere else. We know that the government is good at cutting spending, so you would have to worry about that.

We also know that the Direct Action Plan will increase costs to Australian households by approximately $1,200 per year. When the Labor government introduced the carbon tax, we were very careful to ensure that the additional costs to households arising from the implementation of the carbon tax were offset by various measures—which are, of course, going to be undone, not by this particular bill but by the associated package of legislation. But there is no indication from the government how they intend to compensate ordinary families for the costs of their so-called Direct Action Plan.

What they are going to attempt to do is replace the potential for an emissions trading scheme with a direct action plan that is light on detail, unproven, and not supported by any credible economist or decent environmental scientist. Overall, you have to question the commitment of this government to Australia's target for reducing carbon emissions. You have to question their commitment to direct action at all, given, as I said earlier, that the coalition is stacked with people who do not actually believe that carbon emissions caused by human beings are causing damaging climate change. The Direct Action Plan of the government is currently subject to an inquiry by the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee. I had a look today at some of the submissions that that committee has received as part of its deliberations. I looked very hard to try and find a submission that actually supported the Direct Action Plan, but I could not find one. I think that is fairly indicative of what people who really understand what they are talking about think about the Direct Action Plan.

I would like to make note of some comments made in one of the submissions to that Senate inquiry. Those comments are from another independent and very well regarded organisation, the Climate Institute. I would recommend people read the submission by the Climate Institute, because it is very comprehensive and also very balanced. It says, for example, that 'no independent analysis to date has shown that the policy framework as outlined'—by the coalition government—'can achieve Australia’s international obligations and emission commitments'. No independent analysis at all supports what the coalition government's so-called climate change Direct Action Plan purports to do. The submission also says that 'international and Australian experience bears out concerns that a central policy mechanism of the nature proposed by the government will not drive substantial absolute emissions reductions'—so, it will not work. It goes on to say that 'under all scenarios Australia’s emissions continue to increase to 2020 and beyond'—again, it will not work. And worse, carbon emissions will continue to increase. You have to ask: is there anything salvageable out of the Direct Action Plan? The Climate Institute says that 'to achieve domestic emissions reductions that would deliver the five per cent target, the government’s policy requires additional taxpayer expenditure of at least $4 billion to 2020'—for it to meet even the modest emissions reduction targets that Australia has signed up to would cost us an extra $4 billion.

So it does not work—under the plan, emissions will increase—and it is going to cost more money. You would have to say that the Direct Action Plan is not worth the paper it is written on—but we knew that, because it is a document prepared by a government that is not really serious about addressing carbon emissions, or pollution, or the terrible impact that climate change is having on Australia right now and, if not addressed, will continue to have. I can only say I wholeheartedly oppose this particular bill in this package of legislation. It is unnecessary, and it will do nothing to address the issue of pollution and the importance of tackling climate change in Australia.

6:35 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Again the arrogance of the Abbott government is on display for all to witness—and what an ugly sight. Winding back action on climate change at a time when we should be stepping up our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is highly irresponsible—possibly one of the most irresponsible acts that any government could be involved in. And what a reminder we have had that we need much more action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: this summer, so many people have experienced sweltering heat, fires and record temperatures. This has been the case across the country and in many extreme weather events across the globe. We have seen fires last year in the Blue Mountains, in New South Wales. Tragically, so many homes were lost. The good news was that lives were not lost, but the hardship and the trauma were considerable. There have been fires and extreme weather events in so many places across this country.

Yet, despite this year's record-breaking heat and unprecedented scientific certainty about the impacts of global warming, the Abbott government is trying to tear down the price on pollution—our best defence against future extreme storms, droughts and fires. We have acknowledged that more work needs to be done on this, but to dismantle what has been achieved is highly irresponsible. It beggars belief that, while Australians across the country are feeling the effects of climate change, the Prime Minister is so obsessed with sticking to an ideological position that flies in the face of the hard, clear facts. At every turn, we see this government adopting a neoliberal approach—blocking policies that would bring relief to people experiencing hardship, blocking policies that would drive greater action on climate change, and blocking policies to assist with the transition that our society is going through and must go through.

The world is starting to turn its back on the coal industry. Coal prices go up and down, but more countries are moving to clean, renewable energy and Australia is being left behind. Our clean energy laws are already reducing greenhouse gas pollution in this country and creating real jobs that will last well into the future. For all the talk from the coal industry—and from those in this place who back it—if you look at the figures, you can see that the industry is not generating jobs growth. Even when coal production goes up, as it does periodically, the high levels of automation in the industry mean that that does not necessarily translate into more jobs. The coal industry is not the job creator that so many make it out to be. More and more, it is in fact becoming a job killer in many regions.

I look at the impacts of global warming on our community very closely in New South Wales. We see these impacts very clearly in many areas of Sydney, and a number of local councils have studied this closely. Their reports provide a real reminder why these bills should not go through and why we in fact need more action on climate change. It has been identified that Sydney will experience more variable rainfall and stronger winds and that the result will be droughts and more extreme weather events. Between 43,900 and 65,300 residential buildings in New South Wales are at risk of inundation from a sea level rise of 1.1 metres. Interestingly, it is homes in Rockdale, a Sydney local government area, which face the highest risk in Australia of such inundation. Each year, there are 176 heat related deaths in Sydney. It is estimated that this could rise to 417 a year by 2020 and to 1,312 by 2050. Further, it has been identified that Sydney's water supply is at risk. We have already had the experience in recent times of our water supplies falling to very low levels, but now it is forecast that climate change is likely to cause a decrease in annual rainfall and run-off into inland catchments by 2030.

Against the backdrop of the Abbott government's irresponsible failure to take meaningful action on climate change, it is interesting to see how they interact with the mining industry. We now know that they have been taking increasing amounts of money in political donations from some of the big coal industry companies and from some of the big resource industry companies. Each year, the Australian Electoral Commission releases data for the preceding financial year on political donations to the various parties. The data for the 2012-13 financial year came out at the beginning of February. It shows that donations from the mining and resource companies to the federal coalition increased by 60 per cent in the lead-up to the last election.

It is worth noting that we do not have the data for the current financial year, 2013-14. Given that the election was in September, the data for July, August and the first week of September—that part of the election period which did not fall into the 2012-13 financial year—will not be available until the AEC publishes it at the beginning of 2015. That is an area where we need reform. People have the right to know who is donating to political parties in the lead-up to an election; but, as things stand, they will not know that for another 12 months.

However, from what is available, that overall 60 per cent increase in mining industry donations to the coalition is not the only interesting piece of information. There were also some very interesting individual donations. Gina Rinehart's two companies, Hancock Coal and Hancock Prospecting, donated $163,130 to the coalition and Labor in 2012-13. Hancock Coal and Hancock Prospecting are set to make massive profits out of the decisions of various governments—they now have the contract for the new coal terminals at Abbot Point. Then there is GVK, another resource company set to benefit from that same Abbot Point coal project. They donated $55,000 to federal Labor in 2012-13.

This is not a healthy situation. The mining industry has benefited for well over a decade from very favourable decisions made by successive state and federal governments. We saw this in New South Wales with the former Labor government weakening planning laws and weakening laws protecting landholder rights—making it easier for mining companies to get going. We have seen some of that play out in front of the ICAC. But there is so much more. We saw not only outright corruption but also the corrupting influence of donations—acting through the weakening of the planning laws, making it so much easier for mining companies to get approvals. The likes of the disgraced minister, Mr Ian Macdonald, and representatives of the various mining companies would often say: 'It's only exploration. That's all we're doing. It's just exploration to see what's there.' But it is hard to find any examples of proposals for new mine sites in New South Wales that did not go ahead. Time and time again—this is how the law worked—exploration was the first stage of full-scale mining, mining that has been deeply destructive. The mining industry in Australia is one of the most extreme examples of corporate welfare one could ever find—$12 billion a year in government money goes to assisting this industry. Part of the reason this industry can make record profits is that so much of its infrastructure is underwritten.

The problems here are playing out in many ways, and I want to return to the point I made about some of the damage we are seeing in New South Wales because of climate change. I give these examples because they are such a clear reminder why the bills before us are so deeply wrong, why we must be doing more and not less with action on climate change. This is quite personal for me because I spent much of my life at Bondi Beach—world-famous but it obviously means a great deal to locals. It is estimated in Waverley local council studies and the latest IPCC work that came out in September last year that sea level rises will be much greater than had been previously estimated. The IPCC study has estimated that the rise will be 80 centimetres greater by the end of the century than previously estimated, and Waverley council's own research shows that the beach would recede by 20 metres by 2050 and 45 metres by 2100.

It is worth sharing this with the Senate because these are factual reports. My Greens colleague in the New South Wales state parliament, David Shoebridge, who has responsibility for planning issues, announced this research while on Bondi Beach and advocated the need for more action on climate change. Lo and behold the council, which is Liberal controlled these days—the mayor is Sally Betts—demanded that he have a permit if he was going to be on Bondi Beach talking about these issues. He was just with a few colleagues at the start of this campaign. The fact that the Liberal council in Bondi, clearly with a responsibility to look at a beach that is not just famous locally or nationally but globally, is trying to intimidate people who are out there speaking about local council reports and the need to do the right thing. So what we saw with the mayor, Sally Betts, is in keeping with what we are seeing from this Liberal government—ugly tactics.

Photo of Arthur SinodinosArthur Sinodinos (NSW, Liberal Party, Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Sally Betts runs one of the most environmentally conscious councils in New South Wales—the Waverley council. I put that on the record.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no point of order.

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I do note the comments of Senator Sinodinos—he is trying to excuse some embarrassing behaviour that he has seen from some of his colleagues. It is useful to have this on the record. What we saw that day from the Liberal council was wilful blindness, when they have a clear council report as well as, obviously, all the work that has been done by Australian and international scientists. It is a further reminder that there are some cashed-up political forces that are going to great lengths to stop real action on climate change. We are seeing it play out in this parliament at the moment.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I would like the learned senator to refer to the bill we are debating.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On the point of order on relevance, there has been a tradition of allowing free-ranging debate.

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The set of bills before the Senate should never even have been drafted. They are extremely irresponsible and will come to dog this government as this country faces more extreme weather events. We should be pulling together to deal with what is obviously a very challenging issue. But we know that challenge can be met. It can be met in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and creates jobs that will last well into the future.

The carbon price package is a platform on which stronger action can be built. That is what we should be working on together right now. The new Climate Change Authority, led by independent experts, has the opportunity to build on this package with further measures. I am repeating myself but it needs to be said in the face of these very ugly tactics of the opposition: we need to be looking at the next age. We know that renewable energy projects are now commercially and industrially viable—we just need governments with the political will to put the money in. At times there would be the necessity to borrow money to build those projects—large-scale projects; many such projects have already been built in other countries as the world transitions. China have brought in legislation to increase the amount of renewable energy by 2020, and they are far ahead of their targets. They have leapfrogged us in terms of the amount of solar panels produced and the number of wind turbines produced. They are all industries where we should be leading the world.

Debate interrupted.