Monday, 13 August 2018
Matters of Public Importance
I inform the Senate at 8.30 am today two proposals were received in accordance with standing orders 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Siewert:
Dear Mr President, pursuant to standing order 75 I give notice that today I propose to move that, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of public importance : the devastating drought affecting parts of Australia and the need to address the causes of climate change to mitigate future droughts.
Is the proposal supported?
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.
I'm pleased to be speaking on the devastating drought affecting parts of Australia and the need to address the causes of climate change to mitigate future drought. New South Wales is 100 per cent drought declared. Queensland is 50 per cent drought declared. We have farmers shooting their stock—unable to feed them—crops not growing and the land turning into a giant dust bowl. We have communities struggling. We have our environment under extreme stress. Some farmers are calling it the worst drought in generations. In April, I visited Swan Hill in northern Victoria and met with local farmers, Indigenous people and community members. I saw a river system that is in crisis and a government that's turning a blind eye. The Murray, and the Victorian communities that rely on it, are at tipping point. There are no jobs, no businesses and no thriving communities on a dead river, and that's where it's heading. That's the Murray in Victoria; the impacts of the drought in the catchment of the Darling are far, far worse. This is a crisis.
The Greens welcome and support the financial assistance for farmers, their families and the communities who are struggling with drought in the government's extension of the farm households allowance payments from three to four years. This has gone a tiny way to addressing the worst impacts of the drought, giving farmers a bit of support to enable them to buy in and pay for feed and water. But it's a bandaid. The drought relief package and the farm households support extension are inherently short term. They don't address the long-term structural changes that are needed in our agricultural environment to deal with the reality of drought and, in particular, to deal with the reality that droughts are increasing in intensity and frequency because of climate change. Even the Prime Minister acknowledged recently that droughts are going to get worse because of climate change. Only eight short years ago, Mr Turnbull supported Australia rapidly shifting our energy sources to 100 per cent renewable energy. At the launch of the Beyond Zero Emissions' 2010 report into 100 per cent renewable energy for Australia, he said, 'The science tells us that we have already exceeded the safe upper limit for atmospheric carbon dioxide.'
In June, the Greens put forward a motion that passed the Senate and was surprisingly but commendably not vocally opposed by the Turnbull government. The motion called for protection for Australian farmers and our agriculture industry by implementing the Paris Agreement, which requires us to reduce emissions so that we get a temperature that is fewer than two degrees warmer than preindustrial levels. It called on the government to support the findings of the Garnaut climate change review, which found that, without concerted action on climate change, by 2100 there would be a 92 per cent decline in irrigated agricultural production in the Murray-Darling Basin and that reducing our carbon pollution is the cheapest and most cost-effective option for reducing climate change impacts on both our agricultural industries and rural and regional communities. This is because we cannot just adapt to four degrees of warming. We can't just adapt to a scenario where the climate of our wheat-growing areas has become the climate of the central deserts. You can't grow wheat when you have perpetual drought.
So what the heck are Mr Turnbull and his government doing? We heard this morning that Mr Turnbull and his government are looking at underwriting a new coal-fired power station, for goodness sake! His government wants the Adani coalmine, the largest coalmine in the Southern Hemisphere, to go ahead—incidentally, with an unlimited water licence in areas of Queensland that are currently going through this drought. It's almost like he now doesn't believe that climate change is real enough to warrant proper action.
The coalition's response to climate change was demonstrated by former Deputy Prime Minister and agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, last week. He said:
If I thought that there was something that we could do in Canberra, that we'd all go into that big wonderful chamber and vote on an issue that would actually change the climate and make it wetter, then I'll move the motion and we'll do it.
But it's not. What we're doing there is people saying this is a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction and somehow that's going to affect global climate. It won't.
This is Barnaby Joyce from New England, a region suffering dreadfully in this horrible drought. There is a tiny element of Mr Joyce's climate change denialism that is in fact correct: it is going to take a global effort to fix climate change. But Australia needs to pull its weight. Australia needs to be a team player.
Let me refresh the minds of the coalition on what it means to be a team player. We're coming up to the AFL grand final soon. Each team has 18 players on the field. Each player contributes to that team. The team will get nowhere, will not succeed unless they all work together to achieve their common goal, which is kicking goals. What happens if you have a few players not pulling their weight? What happens if you have someone saying: 'Oh well, I'm not the star player, I'm not Buddy Franklin, so whatever I do doesn't matter. I'll just relax here and let all the others do the work.' That's not how teams work. On the global team of polluters, Australia is actually one of those big players. As part of the same global team that has to work together to tackle climate change, we need to pull up our socks and contribute.
Although Australia might account for a relatively small percentage of global carbon pollution, we're actually the 14th-biggest emitter overall. Out of 196 countries, despite having a population of only 25 million, we're really close to the top of the league table of highest polluters per person. We are out rated only by the oil-producing states and by Trinidad, Tobago and Brunei Darussalam, who are not great role models. None of the big emitters above us on the league table have the massive per person pollution that we have, not even the US. Let's have a think about our exports. We're the biggest liquid natural gas exporter in the world. We are the biggest net exporter of coal in the world, providing a full one-third of global coal exports.
If Australia is to be a team player, we need to act on climate change. We need to embrace renewable energy and create the jobs and the industries of the future, not stick with last century's energy systems because the fossil fuel mates from the big end of town have donated to both the government and the Labor Party. If the Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce and the coalition really want to protect our farmers, our agricultural sector and our nation's food security, they need to stop supporting polluting coal and the fossil fuel industry and start getting serious about reducing Australia's carbon pollution. In the words of Prime Minister Turnbull eight years ago, 'We as a human species have a deep and abiding obligation to this planet.' (Time expired)
I've said here before, as I've opened contributions in this place, that I always get very nervous when the Greens take an interest in agriculture and the plight of farmers. But it is good to see, at least, that their awareness has now peaked in an interest in our farming communities during this terrible drought. I haven't heard them mention it in this place before. If you just listened to the senator's contribution, you'd see that not one second of her contribution was devoted to providing any form of a solution for the here and now for our tens of thousands of farming families who are battling these current circumstances.
Before I get into the substance of my speech, let me share some particularly inconvenient statistics with the senator. This current drought is the 17th declared drought of significant size that this country has had since we commenced recording climate conditions in 1864. Of those 17, there have been 10 major droughts, six of a lesser degree and, of course, the current drought we have. Out of the total 154 years, large tracts of our land have been declared in drought for 81 of those years. These have had names like the Federation drought, the great drought and the millennium drought. This isn't our first rodeo dealing with difficult climatic conditions in the west.
I have good friends who live south of Hughenden, and I stayed with them during a visit to the west a couple of years ago. My colleague here, Senator McGrath, would know them and, I suspect, has been hosted by them on the verandah of that very same homestead. You can walk down the back steps of that homestead and go no more than 10 or 12 feet and turn over any piece of shale found in their backyard, and you will see a crab, a mollusc or a starfish. They are 1,300-odd kilometres from the high water mark of any ocean in this nation. So this business about changing weather patterns and the resultant impacts it has on the environment have been around for centuries. Only one cow is going to get fat during the course of this drought, and that's the cash cow upon which the environmental movement and the left-wing movement in this country will embrace. They will do anything—anything—to support their cause, with little or no regard for the people in country Australia.
I don't think I have stood up in this place in the four years I've been here without making mention of the circumstances confronting the people in rural Australia. I've had debates out in the open with our friends in the Greens movement and other movements in relation to what's happening. But nobody has put one foot forward with a plan that will help people in the agricultural sector to get through this current challenge. People in the bush are well aware of the conditions in which they operate, and they make provision for it. Most of them are able to make their way through these very long and debilitating periods of dry and come out the other end. There are families who have been on the land, on the same properties, since 1864. They have survived that whole time. They know how to manage this. What they don't need is for this to be politicised and turned into some climate change debate. What they need are policies that will assist this nation to support those people who support our national economy.
I've said it before and I will say it again: every single thing in our lives comes from primary production. The chairs we're sitting on, the clothes we're wearing, whatever we had for lunch, this building, this structure, the energy that comes out of the lights—everything—all start, in most instances, from primary production. What the people in the bush need is for this entire parliament and parliaments generally—state, federal and local government levels; and they're much better at it than the rest of us are—to be in tune with what their needs are during these difficult periods of time.
I also note that not one mention has ever been made about the suspension of the live cattle trade that drove hundreds of thousands of heads of stock into the domestic market of this nation at a time when many of these enterprises were trying to build their resilience for the dry periods they anticipated they would go through. The market had a 120 per cent reduction in the domestic price of the commodity of beef in particular. As they went into this drought they had nothing. There was nothing in the cupboard because we, as a parliament, had ripped away their opportunity to prepare on that particular occasion. That's why we're seeing such a significant impact on their lives now, as we move along six or seven years after that event.
So I urge my colleagues in this place not to use the people of the bush as some sort of political stick for them to pursue their causes. I know that my friends in the Greens won't be happy until all my poddy calves are sitting on the lounge with me, taking turns with the remote control. Until we can have a big juicy burger that I see them hoeing into down at McDonald's with a wrapper that says there were no little cattle slaughtered in the process of making this juicy hamburger, you have to leave the politics out of this. We as a nation need to recognise the contribution of primary producers and people who live in provincial Australia. We are a provincial nation—less than five per cent of our land mass is under metro. The rest of the people are out there working to deliver for our national interests and deliver our clothes, our chairs, the cars we drive and the fuel that goes in the tanks. What they need is less politics and more interest in how we will assist them to do what they need to do in a country that will always have these variations in the climate.
Before I turn to the issues I was going to address, I think it's important for me to address the comments made by Senator O'Sullivan. Whilst I respect Senator O'Sullivan's connection with the bush and his genuinely-held views on support for people suffering drought, as are mine, I think there is an inconvenient truth that Senator O'Sullivan omits, and that is that people on the land do accept that climate change is real. In fact, I'm looking at a submission from the Queensland Farmers' Federation from last year to a Queensland parliamentary committee. They said:
QFF acknowledges that climate change poses a substantial challenge for all Queenslanders and the industries on which they depend. It is already evident that Queensland’s climate is changing and that many aspects of everyday life are also being altered by these changes.
That is the view of the peak organisation representing farmers in our home state. Let's take that issue out of the equation.
Also, I would like to agree with Senator O'Sullivan's comment that the issue of drought and the impact that it's having on regional communities is not something which should be the subject of partisan political debate. People want to see the major parties coming together to work out a solution. That doesn't mean that we can't be critical of the government, because, if we feel that what they're doing to assist people on the land in these desperate situations is not sufficient, then it's our responsibility to make some comment about that and to advocate for policy changes. We don't resile from that. That's not making it a political football; it's about our genuine concern and, having listened to people on the land, understanding what it is that they're seeking and trying to respond to that.
I congratulate the many people and organisations that are out there right now on the ground helping drought-affected farmers in a range of ways, including donating food for families, donating food for stock and raising money. People are deliberately making purchases at the supermarket to assist farmers. I particularly want to pay tribute to the Rural Aid Ltd program called Buy a Bale which has delivered 160,000 bales of hay over the last five or so years across four states. This is a program I would encourage people to get on board with. Go to buyabale.com.au. Twenty dollars can buy a small bale of hay and assists with the costs of transport, which is a huge part of the issue. Getting the feed out to farmers is a considerable expense. If you want to go to $100, that will cover the cost of a large bale of hay. I also want to pay tribute to the young schoolboy from Freshwater in New South Wales who came up with the Fiver for a Farmer campaign, which raised $20,000 in 48 hours. So there are some inspirational stories. People are genuinely concerned about people on the land.
We are a nation of battlers and it is getting harder on the land to make a living, but what happens in hard times is that Aussies get together and support each other. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit areas affected by the drought in Queensland, just outside of Longreach. I joined Bill Shorten, the federal Labor leader, the shadow minister for agriculture, Joel Fitzgibbon, and our Labor for Regions local executive member, David Kerrigan. We met with local councils, community leaders and drought affected property owners. I note that Mr Shorten has recently made a contribution in the other place, talking about his visit and the conversation he had on Latrobe Station, speaking directly with drought affected farmers. We met with the Longreach Regional Council. They made the point to us that assistance is needed for restocking. Many of the properties have essentially destocked as the drought has progressed and there is a considerable need to look at ways to support restocking when the time is right.
This is a devastating drought and those affected need our help. What is our response to this? Labor is calling on government to allow farmers full access to the $12,000 assistance payment now, instead of half now and half in March of next year. We know that this would be of great assistance to people on the land. We say: let's give the farmers the option as to how they spend that $12,000 household relief payment so that people don't have to wait till next year to get some of that money; let's let them make the decision. I know the government is looking at a review of the farm household allowance. This is a good opportunity for suggestions to come in, although the government has already done some work in this area, and I acknowledge that, in the extension of time for the allowance.
Labor have also come out and said that, if elected, we would have a $20 million regional economic development fund. This recognises the fact that it's not just the farmers in regional communities who are suffering—although they are on the front line and they well and truly deserve our attention—but communities that depend on the farmers are also feeling the pain. We would create a $20 million fund to stimulate local economies and support local jobs. This would continue the work of the existing Drought Communities Program, which the government has failed to fund beyond this financial year. It would be redesigned to provide local communities with the support they need.
This fund is targeted at providing funding to local government. They are the ones who are on the ground with shovel-ready projects, and they know how to spend money in the most efficient and effective ways possible. This might well go to things such as road and street infrastructure. It might go to small-scale capital developments like community facilities and sporting fields. These are the types of things that can make all the difference for local communities. They're not huge amounts of money but they provide jobs and economic activity, which is exactly what these communities are looking for.
We've also just recently come out and suggested that there should be 100 new Centrelink community response officers, including local outreach services. One of the things we know is that there are 15,000 eligible farmers—that's about two-thirds of all eligible farmers—missing out on the farm household allowance. That is an amazing figure. It could well be that there are some farmers who don't want to apply for it, but we all know the concerns about the difficulty of applying for the farm household allowance. The application process has been the subject of many complaints, so we're concerned about the fact that there are people falling through the cracks. Busy farmers don't have the time to wade through the bureaucracy, so having community response officers on the ground to help provide quicker access to income support with better links to financial counselling and mental health services is going to be a very concrete, practical way to assist people on the land.
I also want to make a point about water conservation. When I visited St George recently, which I've previously spoken about in this place, I saw how farmers use government incentives to conserve water. We know that the vast majority of farmers are the best stewards of the land. They know how to make use of these precious resources. These are all factors that need to be addressed when it comes to considering climate change, but we need to help our producers to implement better irrigation and conservation methods, and we need to support them to switch to less water-intensive industries where possible. I also want to highlight the fact that I have a regional inequality hearing of the Senate Economics Committee in Emerald on 29 August.
Over the past few weeks, I've spent quite a lot of time in places like Echuca and Wang and Shepparton, with Sam Kekovich, and Sale, Warrnambool and Morwell. The last time I was in Morwell was about 30 years ago, in a paddy wagon—that was interesting. I've learned about the green drought. I've learned a lot of what the farmers are up against. They claimed that the assets test from the federal government was too low and too hard. It has been lifted, of course, from $2.6 million to $5 million now. A lot of them were not aware of that.
I hope that the Victorian government will take on what the New South Wales government has done, and that is offering interest-free loans to farmers. Droughts are cyclical, and this one has been going for five years. Droughts in farming life are cyclical. I hope that the federal government will also consider that law for interest-free loans. To be fair, some farmers and especially their wives said: 'We don't want any more loans. We're drowning in debt. We don't need any more.' But at least, over seven years, it gives them time to decide what they're going to do, whether their family is going to take over the farm, whether they're going to stay on the farm and what's going to happen.
I agree with Senator Ketter that it should be the farmers' right to get the $12,000 now, if they want it all now, rather than $6,000 now and $6,000 later. I was surprised that people scoffed at the fact that it seemed such a measly amount of money, but at least the farmers I talked to were pretty happy about getting some money to pay for some food.
The other thing I think we have to look at is getting water from reservoirs in the affected states so we can try to anticipate or at least prepare for a better way for the next drought, because they do come and they will keep coming.
I want to also thank Woolies and Bunnings for what they have done for the farmers. The young boy you mentioned with his 'A fiver for a Farmer' is terrific. The Buy a Bale scheme is terrific. Farnham and his concert will be terrific. But the things we have to look at are getting the money to the farmers as fast as we can. You've seen that the price that they're selling their animals for at the moment has dropped. I think I saw one time that it was $2,000, suddenly dropping to $150 or something like that.
I was, as you always are, impressed by their resilience, by the backbone of the Australian farmers. I just hope that everybody in the city—and we are becoming more aware of it—gets behind it, puts some money into it and tries to help the farmers out and that we get somewhere.
The devastating drought is having an impact on rural and regional Australia, particularly south-west Queensland and western and north-western New South Wales, at the present time. It's good to be able to enter this debate to again highlight this very devastating drought. I'm always pleased to follow my Queensland colleagues, and I'm pleased that Senator Ketter made reference to those who are doing so much to try to help those in difficult circumstances by donations of food and money and other support across a wide range of organisations. I won't repeat them.
Senator O'Sullivan, of course, is one of perhaps only two senators—perhaps Senator Williams as well—who really understands farming. Senator O'Sullivan really understands western Queensland and south-western Queensland. I know that Senator Williams, who has just joined us, knows what it's like in the drought-affected areas of New South Wales.
The government has responded to this calamity as the government always does. I've been in this parliament a long time now, and there are any number of regrettably too-much-occurring droughts in this country, but the government will always step up to help those in real need. I was delighted that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, with Senator O'Sullivan and with the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Mr Littleproud, whose electorate encompasses much of the south-western Queensland area that is drought affected, recently visited there.
New initiatives were announced by the government, which has invested almost $1.3 billion in delivering support to farmers since 2013, when this government came into power. Just recently we announced an extra—and I emphasise extra—farm household allowance payment of $12,000 to recipients. This brings the total payment for a couple to around $37,000 and for a single to around $22,000. That will apply shortly, subject to passage through the parliament. The farm household assistance income test threshold has been increased from $2.6 million to $5 million net, and that's again effective from later this year. Both of these supplementary payments and the threshold increases apply while a review of the whole farm household assistance program is undertaken.
I mention in this very short debate an extra $5 million to go to the Rural Financial Counselling Service to cover increased demands. Importantly, droughts and natural calamities always play very big in the mental health of those affected, and the government has provided an $11.4 million package towards mental health, including an Empowering Communities program; removing face-to-face consultation requirements to allow farmers who need additional support to access Medicare's Better Access through telehealth; and a youth awareness-raising initiative in drought-affected communities. We're also investing some $15 million in the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal to facilitate small-scale grants to not-for-profit community groups to address immediate community needs in drought-affected areas.
These announcements made recently by the government bring the government's current commitment to farmers in drought to $576 million, and, as the Prime Minister made clear, we're not done yet. Managing this drought requires agility, and we will continue to review the measures that need to be taken.
Senator Ketter spoke about a $20 million regional economic fund. It's good that the Labor Party are at last following the government in helping rural and regional communities. Our Drought Communities Program facility has worked in the past. I was recently in Julia Creek. Julia Creek, fortuitously, is not in drought just at the moment, but it was a few years ago. This money was given not to the farmers but to the community, and they built some very, very interesting tanks that you can sit in that bring tourists to Julia Creek, would you believe. They're too difficult to explain, but it's a wonderful initiative of the McKinlay Shire Council. Congratulations to the mayor and her councillors on using that drought communities funding so well to help communities and the workforce in their communities.
It is unfortunate that the Greens always continue to try to make political capital out of drought. Senator Ketter even mentioned that the Queensland Farmers' Federation were talking about climate change. As Senator O'Sullivan pointed out, there are crabs from 15,000 years ago in the backyards of properties near Longreach. Once upon a time the centre of Australia was covered in rainforest, so clearly the climate's changing. Nobody denies that. You've only got to look back through history; the world was once covered in ice and snow. Clearly, the climate has changed all along, but unfortunately the Greens continue to try to make political capital out of that. I despair at that and condemn them for it.
We need to try to drought proof the country—you'll never do that—by getting some more water storages in the country. Regrettably, the Greens political party won't let the state governments—in my case, the Labor government of Queensland, who are only in power because of Greens preferences—actually build dams. The coalition, the federal government, have funded feasibility studies. We've encouraged the Rookwood Weir. Regrettably, the Labor government because of pressure from the Greens political party feels that it cannot enter into these drought-mitigating measures.
Australia could be much better prepared for droughts if there were some additional storage. I'm fortunate. I live in the Burdekin delta, where we have the Burdekin Falls Dam built by the Fraser government. In Emerald, we have the Fairbairn Dam, another coalition government initiative. We need more of those to try to help people through these difficult times. But, until we can get that, this government will continue to make funds available to give every assistance possible to help drought-affected families get through their days.
There is a devastating drought that is gripping many parts of Australia. We've seen media coverage of this recently, and it includes heart-rending imagery of people on the land managing their properties, managing their stock, managing the economic impacts on their families and managing and responding to the economic impacts in their towns. These scenes move Australians here in the chamber and out there in our communities.
More Australians may live in the cities than ever before—we are a fundamentally urban place—but our sense of national identity is still tied up with the outback and with the people who live and work in it. It's difficult to see those images of struggling farmers and not ask the questions: why is this happening? Why is it like this? Why now? The answer that is offered a lot by people who don't want to come to grips with our present reality is to quote Dorothea Mackellar, 'droughts and flooding rains'. They say: 'It's always been like this. It always will be. Nothing's changed.'
Senator Williams interjects and says, 'That's true.' We have had droughts and flooding rains—that is true—but they are getting worse. It is no longer the full story to point to historic variability, because climate change is affecting our weather. It is affecting our weather, our long-term climatic patterns and our agriculture sector. It's intensifying the variability that has always been a feature of the Australian landscape. Included amongst the many people who are paying a price are our agricultural producers.
Earlier today, over in the other place, the opposition leader spoke of a conversation that he'd had with a farmer who runs sheep and cattle out near Longreach. She told him that a lot of farmers—people close to the land—feel like the drought cycles are getting longer and longer and the periods of relief and rain are getting shorter and shorter. And she is right. That is what the scientists are telling us. We are starting to see the impact on Australia's climate, which the scientists have been predicting for years.
We are a land with variable and often harsh weather, but the effect of climate change is to make our weather more variable and more harsh and it's our farmers, often, who pay the price. In 2011, Professor Ross Garnaut updated his review. He commented:
While it is difficult to attribute specific causes to individual severe weather events, climate change is expected to increase the risk of extreme events. The changes include greater frequency (heatwaves, bushfire conditions, floods, droughts), greater intensity (all of these plus cyclones) and changes in distribution (average rainfall).
More recently, the State of the climate 2016report by the CSIRO, our science body, found evidence of exactly that in our weather conditions.
It's a shame people on the other side aren't listening, because these are actually important facts that people may need to engage with. It is a warming of one degree since 1910.
The oceans around us are also warming and ocean acidity levels are increasing. Sea levels have risen around Australia, and the rise in mean sea levels are massively amplified when we get a high tide or a storm surge. We see significantly more impactful events, like we did in North Queensland through Cyclone Yasi and some of the other big events we've had up there. But most telling, if you're a farmer and you're facing drought, is this:
The duration, frequency and intensity of extreme heat events have increased across large parts of Australia.
… … …
There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia since the 1970s.
… … …
May-July rainfall has reduced by around 19 per cent since 1970 in the southwest of Australia.
There has been a decline of around 11 per cent since the mid-1990s in the April-October growing season rainfall in the continental southeast.
These are observed changes to the Australian climate. They are observed by the CSIRO. They are observed by the scientists that we engage, on behalf of the Australian public, to measure and assess our climate. But they're facts that people on the other side of the chamber consistently and persistently deny in this place.
Australian farmers actually live day to day with the truth of those statistics and, more than most, they have a firsthand understanding of the need to take meaningful action on climate change. Back in 2008, a decade ago, the National Farmers Federation made a submission to the Garnaut review. They said:
The NFF recognises that it is in the interests of all Australian farmers that appropriate actions are taken to reduce the risk of increased climatic variability or adverse climatic changes occurring in the future.
They haven't resiled from this position. Nearly 10 years later, in their response to the Department of Environment's review of climate change policies, they said:
Australian agriculture has always operated in a varied and challenging climate. What we now know from the scientific community is that we face a rate of change much faster than was previously expected. The continued success of the agriculture sector will depend on our ability to continue to innovate and adapt to best manage future climatic risks.
Agforce's statement on drought on their website says:
Australian farmers do take the primary responsibility for managing their climate risks, but they need government policies that facilitate and support their efforts to do so.
But that support is sorely lacking, because the government does not take climate change seriously—it is missing in action.
One of the first things the government did was defund the Climate Change Authority, the body set up to look at Australia's emissions, to look at the impact of climate change, to look at what other countries were doing in terms of reducing emissions, and to provide advice to government. The government defunded it because they didn't want to hear what it had to say—because there is a fundamental distrust of science on the other side of the chamber. This is a government that wants to be free to choose its own facts. In 2016 the then environment minister told ABC radio that Australia's emissions had peaked. That's not right. The latest update to the government's own tally of emissions, released in May this year, showed that Australia's emissions had climbed for the third year in a row despite electricity use falling. This is a government that has no intention of seeing our emissions reduce. It's a party whose backbench energy committee is chaired by the member for Hughes, a man who has material on his social media that suggests that the real climate threat is global cooling. I asked the Minister for Finance, Senator Cormann, at estimates whether his government agrees with this proposition from Mr Kelly, and I look forward to receiving a proper answer from Senator Cormann in the coming weeks.
Climate scepticism bleeds into the government's policies across the board. Their decision to limit emission reduction in the electricity sector to its pro rata share means that other sectors will have to work much harder if we are to meet our targets. And I tell you what: it's a lot cheaper and a lot easier to reduce your emissions in your electricity sector. We know that we have very, very cost-effective options in renewable energy. What we don't have are cost-effective options for emissions reduction in the agriculture sector. One of the things the National Party might wish to think about is how they are going to go back and explain to their constituents that they want to see a lot of heavy lifting done by the agricultural sector in terms of emissions reduction. What does that actually look like—destocking sheep and cattle? It is a ridiculous proposition and one that has yet to be adequately explained by the government. At the same time that farmers have to deal with extreme weather events caused by climate change, they'll be asked to contribute much more to emission reduction efforts than is necessary, because the government doesn't have the guts to take on the climate sceptics around emissions in the electricity sector.
Proper drought relief isn't just about providing financial assistance, although that is absolutely critical. It's also about doing what we can to reduce the risk of droughts being bigger and harsher than ever before. It requires us to take climate change seriously and act in partnership with the international community. I am proud that Australian Labor have been deeply committed to this for more than a decade and demonstrated that commitment through our actions when we were last in government. And I am proud that we approach the next election with a very clear plan to take serious action on climate change. We will reform the electricity sector. We will reform the transport sector. We will reduce emissions across the board. We cannot afford to do nothing and to let our agricultural sector pay the price. We will all regret it if we continue as we are.
I rise today to speak to this debate. In relation to thinking about the impact of climate change on drought in this country, you can't go much further than looking at what on earth is going on in the Murray-Darling Basin. We know, of course, because there is a royal commission going on in South Australia right now that is gathering evidence from right across the board that, even with a plan that's been put on the table along with billions of taxpayers' money to deal with the Murray Darling Basin and try to put that river back on to a sustainable footing, climate change was never included in that plan. Here we are at a time when we should be focused on the impacts of climate change, what we can do about reducing carbon pollution and not making climate change worse, but when we also need to deal with the realities that confront us.
We have a Murray-Darling Basin that is being managed appallingly. The plan has not been based on science. We've heard that over and over again from the evidence from this royal commission. It's setting the whole country up to fail. The Murray-Darling Basin is the lifeblood of this nation. It waters our nation's food bowl, yet it has been mismanaged for decades. Now, even though there's seemingly a plan in place, that plan is riddled with errors, mismanagement and corruption.
There are heartbreaking stories coming in from all over the country in relation to drought hitting rural Australia and communities incredibly hard. I tell you one group that isn't suffering so much, and that's the owners of Cubbie Station. With their dams full of water, they're not feeling the pinch much at all. They take water to fill their dams, their tanks and their channels for a not-so-rainy day; meanwhile, downstream the rest of the communities suffer. If we're serious about dealing with climate change and drought in this country, we can go no further than looking at the absolute failure of managing properly the environmental and community needs throughout the Murray-Darling Basin.
I want to put on the record today that I'm disgusted as a South Australian that the Liberal Party and the Liberal government in South Australia is now looking to end this royal commission as quickly as possible when, in fact, they should be fighting for the federal government and the department to front it and give evidence. (Time expired)
I rise to contribute to this debate. It's a serious and severe drought. I remember the drought of 1977 in South Australia, when my father said I could have my first paddock of barley. Sixty-three acres I sowed into barley. It was a drought when we harvested the barley. It just covered the freight, the contract harvesting and the fertiliser bill. There was nothing left—my first lesson on farming.
I remember so well the '82 drought and the '94 drought, where grain prices went through the roof. We had a piggery and were paying $240 to $250 per tonne of wheat and barley. When we sold our pigs at the end of each month, we didn't have enough money at the pig sales to cover the grain prices, let alone the work, the electricity and everything else my brother Peter and I had to contribute. How well I remember the 2002 drought.
I've been very lucky where I'm situated, where my wife, Nancy, and I farm near Inverell. We had 39 inches of rain last year and average rainfall of around 29 inches. We had 36 inches the year before. We had hay in the shed. Sadly, we've only got two bales left. With rains in March this year, I got oat sown. We fluked some further rains after that—a couple of inches. It is amazing how patchy the rain was. My good friend, Storm Baldwin, just 10 kilometres down the road, when I had two inches of rain, had not a drop. We were lucky to get another 43 mils about five weeks ago and a few more crops sown.
What amazes me is that people in this chamber think that we're going to change the planet. No, we are not. If Senator McAllister is serious about reducing carbon emissions, team up with the Greens and your left wing. Go across to China and protest in a couple weeks time about the extra 299 units of coal-fired power generation being constructed to add to 2,107 units already in action. Those extra coal generations being built in China will produce 670 million tonnes of CO2 a year. We produce a total of 550 million tonnes a year in Australia. Just those extras in China will produce more than the whole of Australia. Somehow we think if we reduce our emissions from 550 million tonnes to 500 we're going to change the planet. Senator McAllister says that Labor in government will have cuts right across the board—the transport industry and the generation industry. They'll probably attack the agricultural industry as well.
I remember well, when we had the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, about 90 million tonnes of CO2 were put into the atmosphere. I said to the department, 'What goes here? Do you count that?' and the department said: 'No. When the grass burns, it grows again and absorbs the CO2, so we don't count that.' That can be the same for the farmers and graziers as well: when the cattle eat the grass, the grass grows again, and that will neutralise it. That's how the department works with bushfires; it can do the same with agriculture. If you think winding back our cattle and sheep numbers is going to change the planet, you are off this planet, seriously.
The number of coal-fired generation plants being built is amazing—32 units in Indonesia, 34 units in Vietnam, 10 units in Japan and 130-odd units in India. Guess what they're going to burn in those coal-fired generation plants. They're going to burn coal. Will they burn more efficient, Australian coal? Of course they won't, because the green movement and the Labor Party are opposing coalmines. So they won't buy the more efficient, blacker coal in Australia, the older coal that puts out fewer emissions; they'll choose the less efficient brown coal from Indonesia, China et cetera and, on a global scale, produce more CO2. And you think, through this motion here, you're going to do away with droughts! This is just amazing.
The big drought of the late 1800s and early 1900s, from 1897 to 1902, was a drought that so many of our grandparents talked about, the severe one. Drought has been going on for a long time. If you think you're going to change drought by upping our CO2-emissions reductions in this country when the rest of the world, the big emitters such as China and India, are producing more and more—Dr Finkel told Senator Macdonald at Senate estimates that Australia could reduce all of its emissions, the whole lot, and the change to the planet would be virtually nothing. We're going down this costly road for energy, shifting our industries overseas and shutting down manufacturing. Those industries are going overseas to countries where it's cheaper to produce and manufacture, and they are actually producing more CO2 than they would have if they had stayed here. The cement industry is a classic example. If you produce a tonne of cement in Australia, you make 0.8 of a tonne of CO2; if you produce a tonne of cement in China, it will be 1.1 tonnes of CO2. Under that stupid carbon tax of the previous Labor government—which we're never going to have—which threatened to shut down our cement industry and shift it to China, we would actually produce more CO2 for the 10 million tonnes of cement we produce in Australia.
I'm amazed at the poisonous gases in the atmosphere. When you see the pollution in places like Vietnam and Hong Kong, that is not CO2. CO2 is odourless, colourless and non-toxic. But what are we doing to reduce the poisonous gases—the carbon monoxide, lead, sulphur and smoke? We don't hear any complaints about that. The poisonous gases are all right; just keep them going up and up around the world. You go to countries where you don't even see the sun and you don't see any stars. Luckily, I live out on a farm where you can see the stars, sadly too often at the moment because there's no cloud at night. But to think that you're going to change the planet—go to those countries, Greens senators. Line up with your left-wing Labor senators. Go there and protest about the building of new coal-fired generation and see how you get on. You won't get on very well at all.
This is still not my first speech. I rise to say a few words regarding the baseless and, frankly, offensive effort by the Greens to co-opt the tragedy of the severe drought affecting many parts of Australia to promote their obsession with climate change. Belief in climate change as the cause of all climatic ills is superstition. Like seizing on coincidental good fortune to support your belief in horoscopes, belief that every hot day is somehow further evidence of climate change is confirmation bias of the most ridiculous type. Despite the evidence of repeated fraud amongst researchers who have purported to show climate change, the Greens' belief in their superstition remains unshakable. Their unending demands for expensive and unreliable power are like a snake oil cure for illness that you don't have or like a broken record playing the same off-key tune again and again.
A country like Australia is always subject to periodic droughts. It is not climate change; it is just geography. Next to Antarctica, Australia is the driest continent on earth. The solution to drought is not to bleat about climate change and frantically build windmills everywhere. The real solution is to build dams and irrigation projects. The best form of drought relief is water.
If North Queensland were a country, it would be the wettest country on earth. The problem is that monsoonal rains just pour down rivers and run out to sea. If we turn those rivers back and capture the water, dry cattle country and deserts would suddenly be lush green fields. This would not only ensure our own food requirements are met but also provide food for many hundreds of thousands of others in other countries as well. To imagine the benefits, we only need to see what has been achieved in places like Israel and California. Both are places in which virtual deserts have been transformed into enormous food bowls which help drive their respective economies. There is a proposal to do this. It's called the Bradfield scheme, and I'll have more to say about it tomorrow.
Drought is a terrible scourge, but in Australia, especially in rural and regional Australia, it is as certain as night follows day. The millennium drought, the Federation drought and the terrible consequences they've had for people living on the land are fixed in our history. Now the resolve, the grit, of country people is being tested again. Ordinary Australians have risen to the challenge, too, dipping into their pockets to support those less well-off than themselves. I encourage others listening to join the effort if they have not already.
Drought is hitting much of eastern Australia again, with New South Wales and Queensland bearing the brunt. But parts of north-eastern South Australia, my home state, have not escaped the ravages of this drought. Parts of South Australia have had their lowest rainfall on record, as have many places further east and north. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, there's only been one Australian autumn drier than this one, and that was in 1902, the year the Federation drought peaked. The Darling River all but ran dry at Bourke, in New South Wales, and the Australian wheat crop was all but lost. This time, many farmers are better placed than their forebears were a century ago. They have adjusted their farming practices to the fact of climate change as the country gets hotter and more extreme. The 20 warmest years on record have all come in the last 22 years, and our droughts only stand to get worse in a warmer world.
It is most heartening, too, to see the National Farmers' Federation acknowledging the reality of climate change. As president Fiona Simson puts it, 'people on the land can't and won't ignore what is right before their eyes'. The attitude of farmers' representatives is not only welcome but has implications for policy, not just for agriculture but also for water and energy. Put simply, the lower the requirement for the energy sector to reduce emissions, the more has to be done by other parts of the economy—for example, agriculture—where the cost of action may be greater. And then there is water. Drought means even less water in the Murray-Darling system, and that means South Australia may once again suffer disproportionately.
That is just one of the reasons the Senate deserves to be able to get to the bottom of what's really happening in the system, and that is why we must find a way to allow Commonwealth officials and advisers to appear before South Australia's Murray-Darling Basin royal commission. The more we know, the better people affected by drought now and in the future will be able to act to ensure the impact on their lives and incomes can be managed. Prevention is always better than cure.