Wednesday, 26 March 2014
I am very privileged to be able to reply to the Governor-General's speech. I am especially fortunate to be doing it nearly six months after I started—I am in continuation. Back then, in the first few minutes of my speech, I reflected on what Al Gore had said on The 7.30 Report about climate change and the Abbott government's attempts to repeal the carbon package. He very clearly said that our democracy has been hijacked by vested interests, special interests. An incredulous Annabel Crabb said, 'Surely you are not putting forward some sort of conspiracy theory here?' He said, 'No, this is how it works in politics.'
Looking back on it now, my feeling while listening to the Governor-General's speech was that it did not have any vision and was all about tearing down existing legislation, legislation which my party feels is good public policy. Interestingly, I was sitting next to Kevin Rudd during the Governor-General's speech. He said the same thing. He asked, 'Where is the vision?' I do not know if anyone else was listening, but I certainly was—because I felt the same thing.
Looking at what has transpired over the last six months in this chamber and in this parliament, I would have to say that my comments at the beginning of my speech have turned out to be correct. What Mr Gore was referring to is commonly called the 'special interest effect'. It is well studied, understood and accepted by economists, sociologists and students of political science, but we seldom hear much about it. The effect explains why vested interests—usually big, powerful, profit-seeking corporations—often get their own way in politics. They have a very simple but persuasive strategy. Because they are well-resourced they lobby hard, often through front groups and lobby groups, and are effective.
According to the theory, special interests can concentrate the benefits and costs to decision makers, such as politicians, on issues like the mining tax—or, I should say, the tax on the superprofits of miners—the price on carbon and financial services reform. The costs and benefits to the politicians are made very clear. On the benefit side, there are often political donations or other carrots. The costs are such things as legal challenges or the threat of high-profile advertising and political campaigns against MPs and governments. Do you remember the advertising campaign on the superprofits tax that helped unseat Mr Rudd? I am sure he is very aware of the special interest effect in this country.
But the reasons for the success of powerful industry lobby groups go much deeper than this. There is another side to the ledger. Any decision maker on an issue of importance faces a trade-off: face the big powerful corporations on one hand or face a potential backlash from the people, the voters, on the other. Sadly, both experience and theory tell us that in this trade-off it is usually in a politician's self-interest to back the powerful vested interests instead of the public interest. Why is this the case? It is because of what economists term the 'rational ignorance' of voters. The costs of devoting significant time and resources to fully understand the issues are too high for voters, especially if those issues are not accurately reflected in the media—and especially when those voters are busy putting food on the table and getting on with their busy lives. On the other hand, what is the benefit to them if they do invest the time and effort to gain an understanding of these issues? Often the costs or benefits of a policy change to an individual are not acute, are indirect, or are spread out over large numbers of people or long periods of time. Sometimes they are even transferred to future generations. This is often the case when the policy involves the issue of sustainability.
So, from a simple cost-benefit point of view, it is often rational for an individual voter to remain ignorant—to a point at least. Throw in the fact that there are a multitude of things that are important to individual voters and it becomes unlikely that one thing will significantly influence their vote. So a pollie can often assume they are safe from voter backlash on any single issue. This special interest effect is a longstanding political and economic theory. In addition, many of these issues are complex—and it is in the interests of the vested interests to make them complicated and to put out misinformation to muddy the waters. I have heard a lot of that misinformation here in this chamber in debates on the sorts of issues I have been talking about.
One issue that I feel very strongly about and campaigned on for years before I came into the Senate is getting a recycling refund in place for single-use plastics, especially plastic bottles—what is often called 'cash for containers'. The power of the Food and Grocery Council has always been really obvious to me. They have an impact on decision makers. I have seen the way Coca-Cola and other beverage companies have behaved when legislation has been proposed to give this country a refund for recycling bottles. Their power is no surprise to me, but it was a surprise to me that a lobbyist on behalf of the Beverages Council was actually an adviser to the minister. It just you how entrenched lobbyists and special interests are in our political system.
This same theory explains why it is such rubbish that the Liberal and National parties claim a mandate on just about every issue that it suits them to. The world is a lot more complex than that. There is no science that explains exactly how people vote when they go to the polling booth.
Al Gore was right. Our democracy has been undermined. It is undermined when special interests do not have any regard for the public good and are only looking after the interests of their members. Advocacy groups are exactly the same. Who was most vocal in supporting the carbon tax repeal legislation that has just passed through the Senate? Yes, you guessed it—the big end of town. The cheer squad included the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia and the Minerals Council of Australia. 'Industry calls for swift repeal of carbon tax'—that is one of the headlines I picked out from the newspapers. Of course they would; it is in the interests of their members to call for the repeal of a price on carbon.
But our job is to look at the much bigger issues here and at the public good, not just the good of a few large businesses. This is especially so given that only 0.01 per cent of Australian businesses are liable to pay the carbon price and that four companies alone pay nearly 50 per cent of Australia's carbon liability. It is concentrated in a very small number of industries. This demonstrates how effective the big polluters in this country have been in influencing the Liberal-National government and, sadly, in attempting to change our legislation. We have already been through the minerals resource rent tax in detail in the last week. Only 10 to 20 companies are being impacted by it—out of the 300 originally touted. We have seen attempts to change EPBC laws and hand back powers to the states, because the same big business cheer squad are asking for it. We have seen changes to New South Wales environmental laws that put the economy above the environment in that state.
Another area of interest to me is the so-called free trade deals that we are negotiating, which are being pushed almost entirely by vested interests—we are talking about not just the self-interest and vested interests of Australian companies but those of significant global multinational corporations domiciled in other countries, including US corporations—and how that may impact Australian sovereignty in terms of how we legislate in the public interest. That is all on the table with Trojan Horse clauses called 'investor-state dispute settlement'.
It is no secret that my party, the Greens, feel that the government has a very important role to play in standing up to vested interests, balancing the equation and making sure all interests are represented, not just some. It is about restoring balance to this government's extreme agenda, which is putting the interests and profits of corporations ahead of the people. Nowhere is this more important than in tackling climate change. The role of government is in correcting market failures, and the biggest market failure of all time is climate change. There should be no more of this rubbish about the cost of living; we should be discussing the costs of living with climate change.
I do not want to give the impression that I am antibusiness, because I am not. I worked for big and small business for many years before coming into this role in the Senate, and I have spent years chasing a buck. I lived for my bonus at the end of the year. But I have also had a different life in the past decade in Tasmania, and I have genuinely glimpsed an alternative reality. We do not need as much as we think to be happy. The community, the environment and nature should be central to our thinking and our decision making. In this regard, tackling global warming, as the biggest threat facing my generation and the generation of the children watching me as I speak, is an issue we have to take seriously, and it is more important than the short-term costs to the profits of the big polluters in this country.
Six months ago I was happy to go into a lot of detail, which we have already seen in this chamber, about climate change, but clearly food security, the loss of crops and effects on drinking water are not just environmental issues but also anthropogenic issues and economy issues. They are economic costs to future generations which if the forecasts are right—and we have seen even more in recent weeks—will lead to trillions of dollars worth of damage and costs to our global economy. We have already seen billions of dollars in costs from individual weather events. Who knows what it will stack up into in the future? We need to mitigate and we need to take action against this now.
I remember going to Agfest in Tassie last year, and I saw the Liberal Party tent. They must have spent a lot of money; they certainly were very impressive in their display. They had a picture of a Holden ute—a big pull-up ute—and it said, 'The carbon tax will cost you a Ute every year.' I remember Christine Milne saying, 'Climate change will cost you your farm if you don't get behind taking effective action.' That is really the debate in this chamber that we need to try to find balance in.
I will look at Tasmania in the few minutes that I have left. Tasmania has been a beneficiary of a price on carbon, because we produce clean energy and we export that clean energy. The dividends range between $70 million and $200 million a year to Hydro Tasmania because of a price on carbon. We were never going to get that back if these repeal bills were passed. The dividends are very important to my state. They account for 12½ per cent of Tasmania's non-Canberra revenues. I notice Senator Smith, who is certainly one of the champions in this chamber of taking GST money away from Tasmania. Have a think about how you are going to give us that money back, Senator Smith, not to mention the fact that the mining boom has put significant upward pressure on the exchange rate, which has been one of the negative impacts on my economy. It is called Dutch disease, and everybody knows about it. It is never discussed in here—the impact on manufacturing and the agricultural community of a high Australian dollar. So let us be fair and reasonable about how we share out the pie in this country and not claim that my state, which has had 70 years of sucking on the teat, suddenly wants to take money off other states.
We have also seen a change in Tasmania in recent weeks. People in Tasmania have voted for a new government, but there are significant areas that we need to have tripartisan support on in Tasmania: the importance of our scientific community and the money that they need for research, the importance of the University of Tasmania, and the importance of finding a truly sustainable forestry industry and a way forward to look after our natural assets, which are so important to Tasmania's economy. It is what we have a competitive advantage on. Every other state would love to have our forests and wild areas. In fact, most people in the world would give their left leg to have them. They are what brings people to my state, and they are one of the biggest generators of employment and income. We need to look after them and we need to put them first.
One of my famous quotes is from Hernan Cortes, the most famous of the Spanish conquistadors. He said, 'My men and I suffer from a disease of the heart that can only be cured by gold.' The tale of the conquistadors is a sad tale of the consequences of greed, of always wanting more and of enough never being enough. It is not too different in our modern society, where corporate greed and a never-ending search for increasing profits can undermine our democracy. I do not want to see, in the next three years of this Liberal-National government, the heart of this big nation further infected by an incurable disease—the never-ending, never-satiated, profit-seeking behaviour of a few big, powerful corporations. Politics is the art of the possible, and it is about showing leadership. I strongly believe it is possible to do our bit to stop climate change, to care for people, to be good international citizens, to be real and not phoney, and to do something real. I would not be here today if I did not believe this. But this is going to require standing up to special interests and breaking the nexus that so often hijacks our democracy. It is about making the Australian people truly understand these arguments and getting action in this chamber.
I look forward to a future opportunity to share my views about the Federation and about GST reform with Senator Whish-Wilson and other senators in this place. But today, it is with great pleasure that I rise to make my contribution to this address-in-reply. It is with particular pleasure that I do so as a government senator, following the strong support the coalition received from the people of Australia on 7 September. Of course, by virtue of circumstance, the people of Western Australia will again be heading to the polls on Saturday week to elect six senators. I will not dwell on that at length today, as I have already done so in other contributions in the Senate. Suffice to say that the actions of Labor and the Greens in this place over the past fortnight in preventing the repeal of carbon and mining taxes—both are taxes that hurt Western Australia and that Western Australians want gone—speak volumes about those two parties' total ignorance of the needs and aspirations of electors in Western Australia. Many of my coalition colleagues have already made contributions in this debate that have reflected on the significance of that day when Australians made a significant decision to elect an Abbott coalition government and put an end to the years of chaos and dysfunction under Labor.
Today I would like to spend a few moments reflecting more broadly on some of those traditions that drive the continuing stability of Australia's parliamentary system. The address-in-reply is a significant tradition in a parliamentary system that is itself a construct of traditions, customs and conventions. It is the unwritten rule that underpins so many aspects of Australia's parliamentary democracy. For example, were you to ask most Australians which is the most significant political office in our country, I have no doubt the overwhelming majority of them would say that it is the office of the Prime Minister. Yet most of them would be astounded to learn that there is no mention of that office in our Constitution. More than anything, I think that that demonstrates the centrality of tradition and constitutional convention in our system of government.
Despite the fact that the most significant political office in our nation is not specifically mentioned in our Constitution, we have nonetheless been a remarkably stable democracy for over 113 years now. Why? It is because, putting the day-to-day vagaries of politics and our own views of the character of individual prime ministers aside, those entrusted with that office have sought to preserve it and have worked in their own way to protect its dignity. Likewise, the office of Governor-General holds a sacred place in the heart of our democratic system. The Governor-General in Australia is a symbol of the continuity and permanence of the Crown, and long may that remain the case. That continuity is reinforced through many of the official duties that a governor-general performs, not just here in Canberra but around our country and, indeed, around the globe. This address-in-reply debate comes because the Governor-General, as the representative of Her Majesty the Queen, comes to the Senate chamber and officially opens parliament after each election. That in itself is a powerful symbol of the Crown being above bipartisan politics. Many of our governors-general, our current one included, have presided over official openings of parliament that have occurred under governments of different political persuasions. That is a powerful symbol of the unity and permanence of the Crown that is at the heart of our democratic system.
I am pleased to be making my contribution to this debate this week where the focus has been so much on the office of Governor-General, culminating in official ceremonies yesterday and today to farewell Her Excellency Dame Quentin Bryce. On Friday we will welcome General Peter Cosgrove, soon to be Sir Peter Cosgrove, as Australia's next Governor-General when he is officially sworn in in this chamber. As Australia's first female Governor-General, Dame Quentin Bryce's appointment to that office was, indeed, historic. Many of those in the community who would describe themselves as constitutional conservatives would be of the view that her conduct in the office of Governor-General has been, for the most part, exemplary. Professor David Flint, head of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, has publicly stated his view that our present Governor-General has enjoyed a successful tenure. He said:
She was elegant and charming. She was attentive to her duties. I have only praise for her for all of that.
I think that is a sentiment with which many Australians would concur. Our present Governor-General has performed with grace. I think all Australians will particularly recall the way in which she reached out to communities suffering as a result of national disasters such as Black Saturday in 2009 or the horrific Queensland floods in early 2011. On top of this there has been her committed work as the patron of numerous charities around Australia. Her Excellency's deep-felt and genuine devotion to the less privileged is a shining example for all Australians, most especially in encouraging young Australians to commit to community service.
On the day of his appointment, General Cosgrove made a statement which neatly encapsulates the theme of much of what I have said this morning. He said:
…I think your responsibility is to shine light but not to generate heat. You've got to listen a lot and take in everything that you see but you're not a participant in the political process.
That neatly encapsulates the view that many of us in this place, particularly constitutional conservatives, would take in relation to the role of the Governor-General. I am looking forward to General Cosgrove's efforts in the years ahead to shine light on issues that should be of concern and interest to all Australians. I am confident that he will do so in a very thoughtful and dignified way.
In the time remaining to me, I would like to turn to two particular issues that are not perhaps headlines at present, but are nonetheless significant for the nation and of personal interest to me. The first of these relates to the issue of mental health. It has been reported that 45 per cent of Australians will experience a mental health illness in their lifetime. The most prevalent mental illnesses include depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2030 depression will be the leading cause of disease burden, generally, in our community. It is the highest burden of disease in Australia and the No. 1 cause of non-fatal disability. A recent analysis by the World Economic Forum estimated the cumulative global impact of mental disorders, in terms of lost economic output, will amount to $US16 trillion over the next 20 years.
The social and economic consequences of mental illness include homelessness, crime and incarceration, lack of educational and income generation opportunities, severe mental illnesses associated with the highest rates of unemployment—up to 90 per cent in some cases—unhygienic and inhumane living conditions, and physical and sexual abuse. In a 2013 report on mental health, the World Health Organization stated that:
Mental health or psychological well-being makes up an integral part of an individual's capacity to lead a fulfilling life, including the ability to form and maintain relationships, to study, work or pursue leisure interests, and to make day-to-day decisions about educational, employment, housing or other choices. Disturbances to an individual's mental well-being can adversely compromise these capacities and choices, leading not only to diminished functioning at the individual level but also broader welfare losses at the household and societal level.
One notable phenomenon is that of self-medication. Those impacted by mental illness turn to alcohol and drugs in an attempt to deal with their situation. The 2007 the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, concluded that of those with anxiety disorder with symptoms in the 12 months prior to interview, 13.7 per cent drank each day and almost 40 per cent misused drugs. In the case of those with an effective disorder with symptoms in the 12 months prior to interview, 37.9 per cent drank each day and 30.9 per cent misused drugs.
Actor Stephen Fry openly acknowledged that he turned to cocaine and alcohol to dampen the mood swings caused by bipolar disorder. Substance abuse is obviously dangerous, worsening the situation of those affected. Once again, this comes at a cost to their families, friends and the community as a whole. Once diagnosed, many mental illnesses can be successfully treated. Reducing the impact of mental illness is clearly of benefit to those affected, their families and our community as a whole. This is about changing and saving lives. It follows that access to treatment is crucial to achieving this objective. Many Australians fail to seek diagnosis and treatment; further, other individuals face financial and other impediments to treatment. The result is a loss of potential years of life due to death, states of poor health and disability.
A prominent example is the treatment of bipolar disorder. Approximately six per cent of Australians experience this disorder during their lifetimes. The disorder consists of prolonged episodes of mania or hypomania and depression. Those living with the disorder are more likely to be on government benefits, have comorbid anxiety disorders or substance abuse and spend more days disabled. A key to treatment of bipolar disorder is the use of mood stabilisers. These are designed to reduce the duration and severity of such episodes. A number of mood stabilisers are approved by the PBS for the treatment of bipolar disorder. The most prominent is lithium. The problem is that lithium, along with other approved treatments, has significant side effects. This leads to practitioners turning to other mood stabilisers with fewer side effects.
One of these is the anticonvulsant medication lamotrigine. Lamotrigine is commonly used as a mood stabiliser, with minimal side effects. It is particularly effective in combating bipolar depression, one of the most debilitating aspects of this disorder. However, it has not been PBS approved for the treatment of bipolar disorder. As Dr Elvera Stow stated in correspondence to the PBAC, the lack of PBS approval means patients suffering from this severe mental illness have to pay between $80 and $200 a month for this treatment. The treatment is therefore out of reach of many individuals. Even low-income individuals with a health-care card do not receive a concession for this mediation. The PBAC responded by stating that it had not been provided with the necessary evidence to show cost-effectiveness of the drug for the treatment of bipolarity.
This example highlights the key tension in the treatment of mental illness in Australia. Those most likely to be affected by mental illness are least able to seek help. High out-of-pocket expenses prevent those on low incomes from receiving the necessary health care. This extends to costs of medication. This is particularly the case in those affected by debilitating depression, whether this is unipolar or bipolar depression.
We have a medication capable of treating bipolar disorder and giving individuals an opportunity to live successful lives free from unemployment, poverty and other consequences of mental illness. However, the failure to obtain PBS approval for this life-saving medication means it is unavailable to those who need it most. This comes at a cost to the individual, their family and society as a whole. It is clear to me that Australians who find themselves in this type of situation deserve our support and compassion. Fundamentally, this is a debate about priorities and values.
The PBS forms part of the government's National Medicines Policy. This policy was developed to:
… meet medication and related service needs, so that both optimal health outcomes and economic objectives are achieved.
Given the overwhelming economic cost of untreated mental illness and the central objective of the National Medicines Policy to provide timely access to medicines that Australians need, at a cost that individuals and the community can afford, I believe it is fundamentally important that government revisit PBS approval for this life-saving medication. We cannot afford not to.
I will briefly touch on another issue, that of promoting international commercial arbitration in Australia. As we know, the Prime Minister has declared Australia 'open for business' and in the House of Representatives today it is 'repeal day'. Disputes are an inevitable part of commerce. Their efficient resolution has been an essential underpinning of our commerce. Where this is compromised, it has the capacity to generate damaging commercial uncertainty. International commercial arbitration is a form of dispute settlement where commercial parties to a transnational contract agree to refer disputes arising out of that contract to a tribunal, as opposed to a court. They can nominate the juridical seat of the arbitral tribunal, its place, governing law and procedural laws.
Arbitration is not new. For centuries, traders have turned to impartial tribunals, independent from government, to resolve their disputes. Arbitration is regarded as offering a number of benefits over traditional, judicial dispute resolutions. In 2010 Patrick Keane, now Justice of the High Court, said:
At the practical level, there can be no doubt as to the importance of international arbitration to global commerce. Arbitration as a method of dispute resolution is seen to offer the major benefits of enforceability, neutrality, speed and expertise over court based determinations; and, because arbitration is quicker and more expert, it is likely to be cheaper than the lengthier and more elaborate proceedings in court. It is a private proceeding which may be held in private. And international arbitration offers traders a mode of dispute resolution which is not skewed by local policies, peculiarities or prejudices.
The use of international commercial arbitration can mitigate the uncertainty involved in international contracts that can span multiple jurisdictions and legal systems.
Successive Commonwealth and state governments continue to express their support for international commercial arbitration. In a media release dated 26 April 2007, then Commonwealth Attorney-General the Hon. Phillip Ruddock stated:
Given the expertise in Australia, there is no reason why more arbitrations should not take place in Australia. In fact parties will now have a cheaper and more efficient avenue for the resolution of such disputes.
These comments were echoed by Mr Ruddock's successor, the Hon. Robert McClelland in 2008, when he said:
Australia is well placed to meet the growing demand for first-rate, cost-effective arbitration services in the Asia-Pacific. Australian arbitration practitioners are among the world's best.
Central to arbitration is the exercise of freedom of contract by sophisticated commercial parties in agreeing to submit disputes to arbitration; however, the success of arbitration as a dispute resolution mechanism requires that domestic legal systems respect and uphold that choice. As Professor Adrian Briggs of Oxford University states, a principal objective of international commercial arbitration is to 'keep the resolution of disputes as far away from the court as practicable'.
Australia's reputation has suffered in this regard. Our judicial system has been perceived as interventionist. The primary problem has been the application of protectionism and parochial public policy—firstly, in displacing the commercial parties' nominated choice of law; secondly, in depriving an arbitral tribunal of jurisdiction to hear a dispute in favour of curial dispute resolution; and, thirdly, in the failure of courts to recognise and enforce awards of foreign arbitral tribunals.
Our parliament and policy makers must be conscious of laws that may have this effect. Legislation like the Australian Consumer Law Act—formerly the Trade Practices Act—the Insurance Contracts Act and the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act pose threats to Australia's objective to be seen as a pro-arbitration jurisdiction. For example, a court may regard the prohibition of misleading and deceptive conduct contained in the Australian Consumer Law as a mandatory law that must be applied regardless of the choice of sophisticated commercial parties in nominating a particular legal system to govern their contract.
Australia is a party to both the New York Arbitration Convention and the UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration. These two key conventions are designed to facilitate certainty for commercial parties to international agreements where they have 'by their own bargain, chosen arbitration as their agreed method of dispute resolution'. Both conventions are given force of law in Australia by the International Arbitration Act 1974.
In a recent submission, the Australian Centre for International Commercial Arbitration stated:
It is therefore of critical importance that Australia is both seen to have, and does in fact have, a modern and consistently applied international arbitration law and system which at least meets world’s best practice in the international arbitration community and embraces, and is underpinned by, the most current international conventions and instruments.
As Justice Patrick Keane notes, the embrace of international arbitration by Australia's principal competitors, Hong Kong and Singapore, has been 'energetic and unequivocal'. He said:
In Australia, however, our attitude may perhaps be described as two steps, forward and one step back.
Australia should embrace international commercial arbitration, as our Asia Pacific neighbours Singapore and Hong Kong have done.
Commercial parties to an international agreement should be free to nominate how they would like disputes to be resolved. Parties must have confidence that their commercial agreements will be respected by our courts. While Australia's reputation is improving in this area, we must not be complacent. More work must be done. This is a significant aspect of our trade and economic policy.
The pressure is on Australia to become a team player in international commerce. We need to be mindful of parochial legislative policy, which can fragment the efficient resolution of commercial disputes. It is critical that our legal system facilitates commercial certainty, instead of impairing it. The freedom of parties to choose both the law governing their contractual arrangements and the way in which disputes will be resolved provides commercial certainty necessary for those involved in international commerce.
Australia is well placed to become an attractive centre for international commercial arbitration and provide first-class legal services to the rest of the commercial world, particularly in our region.
In reflecting on, and responding to, the Governor-General's speech I want to start by borrowing some insights from Tim Colebatch, which occurred in Melbourne's The Age newspaper some time ago. In an article entitled, 'We simply can't have our cake and eat it too,' Mr Colebatch observed:
… events are moving far more rapidly than public opinion. And rather than use their positions of influence to persuade the public to catch up with reality, as Paul Keating did, the politicians are lining up with public opinion as if to defy it. That makes short-term sense, but also makes it impossible for them to tackle the long-term challenges.
I do not agree with everything Mr Colebatch wrote in his article but I intend to agree with that.
The policy and legislative program of the new government, as outlined in the Governor-General's speech, resonated with politicians lining up with public opinion as if to defy it. There was much in the speech that sounded as if it would make people happy. However, sounding as if you are doing something good can be very different from doing the things that are actually needed to make this country and our people more prosperous.
I start by asking: how will fast-tracking free trade agreements with South Korea, Japan, China, Indonesia and India make more Australians prosperous and happy? There is no level playing field when it comes to global trade, yet successive Australian governments defy that fact. On the altar of free trade we have exposed our economy and our manufacturing industries to be slaughtered by those countries who subsidise their industries, who dump goods here or who use low-paid and even slave labour. We expose our industries to countries that are damaging their environments.
On the altar of free trade we are killing off our manufacturing industries by failing to provide them with non-tariff protections and supports. I say we need to be much smarter about industry policy. Politicians need to stop mouthing the words they think will make people happy and start providing leadership and intelligent solutions. Here is one example. Countries we share free trade agreements with have economic trade zones. These zones provide non-tariff support and assistance to their manufacturers. Australia does not have one economic trade zone on our shores, yet collectively our trade partners use hundreds of trade zones to support their manufacturers.
The whole of Australia's car and component manufacturing industry could have operated within Australian based economic trade zones and enjoyed an advantage equal to that enjoyed by their overseas competitors. Overseas car and component companies operate within economic trade zones established by their governments, giving them a significant cost advantage. Why didn't the Australian government accord the Australian car industry this cost advantage? This is not about giving handouts; it is about producing and enacting effective policy settings that will create lasting improvements to assist and sustain our industries, grow jobs and create wealth. Why doesn't the new government embrace the effectiveness of economic trade zones and establish some right here in Australia to assist our manufacturers? This approach would be consistent with the new government's approach to reducing regulation and red tape. Economic trade zones epitomise reducing red tape and removing unnecessary cost imposts from productive, wealth-producing industries.
I am not a big fan of the catchcry evoked in the new government's policy program that decries so-called red and green tape. I advocate economic trade zones because they would reduce unnecessary cost imposts on our productive industries and help put us on an equal footing with our competitors. However, I also support robust regulation of industry, particularly when it comes to preventing the environmental and social harms that unregulated or under-regulated industries can cause. Politicians should not line up to encourage the public to support weakened and lax regulation in such important areas. The new government's so-called state based one-stop shop approach to regulation is a recipe for weakened regulatory arrangements.
I would like to provide my fellow senators with some real-life examples of the failures of the state based one-stop shop approach to environmental and planning regulation. This approach has been in place between Victoria and the Commonwealth for the last four years. Throughout much of that time, I have been trying to assist communities invaded by large industrial wind-energy facilities. The state based one-stop shop approach has accorded the Victorian planning minister the power to veto Victorian environment and planning laws and Commonwealth renewable energy law. In the case of ACCIONA's Waubra wind farm, since 2010 Minister Matthew Guy has been repeatedly advised by his department and the EPA that the Waubra wind farm is breaching the conditions of its planning permits regarding noise nuisance for local residents, yet he has repeatedly refused to make the call and formalise this non-compliance by calling it what it is and enforcing the conditions of the planning permits.
In the state based one-stop shop approach, state based ministers, departments and authorities can sit on vital information. They can withhold decisions and render Commonwealth laws impotent. Non-compliant wind farms are racking up multiple millions of dollars in renewable energy certificates paid for by energy consumers. They are being financed by our banking and superannuation industries. They are receiving public grants and subsidies. All of this is creating a huge financial risk in our financial sectors. These power stations are not eligible for any forms of financial assistance until such time as they can show compliance with their planning permit conditions of approval. All of that risk is developing because of the state based one-stop shop approach to under-regulation. This is not an example of federalism working well; quite the opposite. This approach eats away at a balance of powers between state and Commonwealth governments—a balance that exists to ensure accountability between governments and protections to taxpayers, the Australian community and our environment.
I am reminded of important information on bird habitats and other species disappearing off the public databases of the Victorian Department of Environment and Sustainability. This is happening in the locations earmarked for wind farm development. The disappearance of this information is important when it comes to the referral process under the Commonwealth Environment Protection Act and the way it interacts with the Victorian environmental effects statement process. For example, information about brolga nesting sites, growling grass frogs, southern bent wing bats or golden sun moths either disappears or is ignored at a state level. That is most convenient when it comes to considering the impact of the Mount Gellibrand wind farm proposed for south-western Victoria. The site is surrounded by Ramsar listed wetlands and is home to a whole variety of critically endangered and nationally important species. There was no environmental effects statement or EES prepared for this site at a Victorian state level. Instead, the Commonwealth and the Victorian governments conspired to allow a huge industrial facility in the midst of a high-value conservation site without any conditions of approval.
In my experience, a state based one-stop shop approach to environmental regulation means no regulation. It means government acting as a facilitator that allows industry to do what it wants, regardless of the environmental or social consequences. When the new government says that Australia is open for business, that should not mean we do business at any price, regardless of the cost to our people, their communities and their environment. On those terms, such business is bad business.
I am alerted to a further example of this in the Governor-General's speech about the new government's focus on the resources sector. Australia is now facing a gas crisis. This crisis is not because we do not have enough gas or because we are running out of gas. This crisis is the creation of bad government policies accruing over the last 20 or so years. Australia is facing escalating gas prices that might see our domestic price for gas quadruple over the next few years. The flow-on effects for households and industry will be devastating.The reason for this is the amount of gas we are exporting. Governments have overreached the amount of gas available for export and have not protected Australia's domestic interests.At the same time, high electricity prices are driving people to use gas, and environmental considerations are encouraging people to prefer gas as a lower emission fuel.At a time when our gas reserves are of high strategic importance, governments are allowing them to be sold off as fast as they can be exported.
What i s the answer to this problem? Both state and federal levels of government are saying we should open up more of Australia to coal seam gas development , or ' fr acking'. I do no t agree. I think we need a lot more information before we can even begin to consider going down that path. If governments want to resolve the problem of over committing Australia's gas resources for sale and export , then we need to change that policy. It will not be solved by opening up a whole new set of problems associated with fracking.
We also need to be more efficient and smarter with our use of gas. On that note, I want to conclude with an example of a clever Australian company . C eramic Fuel Cells Pty Ltd has just sold 45 BlueGen micro combined heat and power units into the largest virtual power station project in Europe that will support a region in the Netherlands to achieve zero ca rbon dioxide emissions by 2020. The same company has just sold 10 BlueGen units to a UK social housing organisation to help al leviate the fuel poverty of low- income households. In November last year , it sold another 1 , 000 Blue Gen u nits into the Baltic region, it s single biggest order.
C oming out of research and development by the CSIRO, this micro combined heat and power technology is the most efficient small heat and power generator on the planet, operating at 85 per cent energy efficiency. A BlueGen reduces household electricity and gas bills from about $2,000 per year to about $200 per year , a 90 per cent saving o n energy bills. Operating 24 hours a day, it can produce enough electricity for tw o homes and create heat as a by- product that is enough to meet the hot water needs of a family home. It does all this with about one - ninth of the gas used by an instant gas hot water heater.
T his technology does not burn gas and it does no t create emissions. It splits gas into its various parts and runs it through an electro- chemical process to create electricity and heat. This clean, efficient and socially responsible technology is an example of Australian ingenuity at its very best. Wh en Ceramic Fuel Cells is doing exactly what we want our Australian manufacturing companies to do, why aren't Australian governments supporting the uptake of this technology here in Australia? Why isn't BlueGen attracting a feed- in tariff? I suggest there is far too much ideology in Australia's energy and manufacturing policies and too little common sense and scientif ic and technical understanding. We are making poor decisions as a country about the energy technologies we will and will not use, the manufacturing industries we do and do no t support, the ways we are exploiting our precious resources and the communities and families w e are leaving behind in our two- speed economy.
We should be implementing a strategic policy to support our innovative technologies industry and its manufacturers at a time when we are losing thousands of manufacturing jobs and our electricity prices are sky rocketing. We should be introducing economic trade zones to support our manufacturing industries. We should be supporting sensible exploitation of our resources in our interest, in Australia's interest. We should be maintaining and bolstering our regulatory systems to protect our communities and our environmen t. Our role in this chamber and in the other place is to provide leadership that persuades the public to catch up with the reality. We can only deal with the challenges that confront us by telling the truth, by being smart and by caring for ordinary Australians. That is the sort of business I a m open to.
It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak today in the address-in-reply debate and it was with great pride that I watched the Governor-General outline the policies and priorities of the new coalition government. I look forward to working with my colleagues as we continue to deliver a stronger, more prosperous Australia. It is timely that we resume this debate today as the Governor-General carries out her final actions in that role. She has this morning laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier and, as I speak, she is on her way to her Brisbane home. We wish her well.
Last night I had the privilege of attending the official farewell for the now Dame Quentin Bryce here in the Great Hall of Parliament House. Heads of missions, ambassadors, leaders of our defence forces, our country's leading legal identities, leaders of our nation's migrant communities and business leaders from around the country, to name but a few, were gathered there to recognise the contribution made by the Governor-General over the last six years. As Prime Minister Abbott said yesterday, Dame Quentin Bryce has served our country in an extraordinary and pre-eminent way and has been a very elegant and dignified Governor-General. I thank her for her unyielding service to our nation and wish her the very best in her future endeavours. I particularly pay tribute to Dame Quentin Bryce for carrying out her role as the first female Governor-General seamlessly, selflessly and with great honour.
On Friday we will be welcoming a new Governor-General, General Sir Peter Cosgrove. The term is still a bit new to me. I wish him well in his new role.
In contributing today to this address and in making the contribution I want to make I wish to take us back to last September, 2013, when we achieved a Liberal-National Party victory at the federal election. It was a positive result for all Australians who had become tired of the chaotic Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era. Working with an Abbott-led Liberal- National Party government gives Australians an opportunity to get our nation going again, to allow business to flourish and to allow everyone across the country to reap the benefits of a stronger, more prosperous economy. The Liberal Party and the people of South Australia delivered a stinging blow, by taking the seat of Hindmarsh and significantly reducing Labor's margin in the seat of Wakefield and in other strongly held Labor seats.
It is notable and quite fitting that you are sitting in the chair, Mr Acting Deputy President Fawcett, because Wakefield was your former seat when you were in the other place. But now I am patron for that seat.
The campaign success resulted in a 7.13 per cent swing towards the Liberal Party. Unfortunately, it was not enough to wrest it from Labor's hands. However, it was a major revolt against the sitting member, Mr Nick Champion, who, despite writing to everybody in his electorate, telling a blatant mistruth about him having saved General Motors Holden until 2022, suffered a major backlash and will continue to serve his time in parliament on the opposition back bench. The member for Wakefield will now be a little-heard voice in that place. The member for Wakefield's comment about securing Holden until 2022 proved to be farcical when, on 11 December last year, Holden management announced they would close the Elizabeth factory by the end of 2017. What a cruel hoax the member for Wakefield's empty promise turned out to be. But I digress.
I congratulate all South Australian House of Representatives Liberal candidates on their honest and engaging campaigns throughout that period. I also congratulate my Liberal South Australian lower house colleagues who were successful in being re-elected and welcome Mr Matt Williams, our new federal member for Hindmarsh.
Congratulations also to my South Australian Senate colleagues who were re-elected and hearty congratulations to Senator Birmingham, who has subsequently been appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment. This is a well-deserved promotion for my colleague, who has done a lot of work around the Murray-Darling Basin through supporting regional communities and championing the environment and its economic balance. It is such an important issue, certainly in our home state of South Australia.
The challenges facing the South Australian community are significant but certainly not insurmountable. The Abbott coalition government is taking a strong, mature and informed approach, which is being welcomed in South Australia as a genuine opportunity to help get my home state and indeed our nation back in the realms of fiscal responsibility. We can only hope that the series of events which led to the Labor Party taking a minority government in South Australia this week will mean a change of tone from the premier towards his colleagues here in Canberra. Also, that we can actually get on and start ridding that state of the millstone which is the $14 billion worth of structural debt in the budget and the further $14 billion worth of unfunded liabilities, which also remain somewhat quiet in the Labor Party's plan for a bright and vibrant economic future for South Australia.
Because of 12 years of mismanagement by Labor in South Australia we now have the unenvied economic ranking of all mainland states in Australia. Whilst South Australians believe that the Liberals won 53 per cent of the vote, which is quite right, and received over 90,000 more votes, out of 1.142 million votes—a very high percentage indeed—the Liberal Party was unable to form government. But there were some fantastic success stories in that state election.
Mr Corey Wingard, who has been a very prominent part of the political scene over the last 18 months on the federal side of things, will now take up a role in state parliament. He won the seat of Mitchell in Adelaide's south, David Speirs won the neighbouring seat of Bright and Mr Vincent Tarzia won the seat of Hartley in Adelaide's east. I congratulate these men.
We also welcome to the parliament in South Australia, Mr Stephan Knoll of the Liberal Party, who took over the seat of Schubert from the long-serving Mr Ivan Venning. Troy Bell took out the seat of Mount Gambier and obviously won a prize for the Liberal Party there, because it had been in the hands of Independents for some time. Well done, Troy! We also see the addition of a great brain and also great wit in Andrew McLachlan joining the legislative council.
The now re-elected Premier of South Australia, Mr Weatherill, and indeed the member for Wakefield, Mr Champion, know how bad youth unemployment is in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. It has steadily grown since Mr Champion took over as the member, and it has now risen to be one of the highest rates in the country—it is pushing 45 per cent. After nearly 12 years and six years in government, respectively, they have no capacity to arrest this dysfunction.