Senate debates

Thursday, 17 October 2019


Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019, Emergency Response Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019; Second Reading

9:31 am

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to deliver a contribution on behalf of the opposition today. I'll flag at the outset that the opposition will be supporting the Emergency Response Bill 2019, with amendments. Those amendments reflect some important commitments that we have secured from the government overnight, and I'll detail them over the course of this contribution.

To begin with I think it's worth re-emphasising the importance of governments of all persuasions, at all levels of government, not only taking action to deal with the consequences of natural disasters but also taking steps to minimise the impact of those disasters before they occur. Unfortunately, as a result of climate change, we do face the certainty of increased frequency and scale of natural disasters into the future.

Already this year we are seeing bushfires strike many parts of our country, including my home state of Queensland, in areas that have not traditionally experienced them. Of course, every summer that comes round we see floods, cyclones and bushfires right across the country. As I say, as a result of climate change, it is likely that these types of disasters will occur.

We can have a debate at another time about other steps that the government should be taking to address climate change, but I just want to focus today on the matters before us with this bill. The bill, as it was originally framed, would have provided an increase to funding by the federal government for disaster recovery efforts, but a concern that the opposition has had from the time we saw this bill was that the bill in its original form was inadequate in providing funding for what's known as mitigation, or resilience, infrastructure and efforts—things that can be done to minimise the impact of disasters when they do hit. I'm talking about things like flood levees, seawalls, firebreaks and higher dam walls, along with a range of other activities that can be undertaken to minimise the impact of natural disasters when they hit.

Labor has had concerns for some time that the government has not adequately invested in disaster mitigation—that is, works to reduce the impact of disasters before they actually hit. In fact, in Queensland there's been a debate going on for some time to build a flood levee in the city of Rockhampton, which has experienced, I think, three floods over the last seven or eight years. Obviously, building flood levees in areas that are prone to natural disasters reduces their impact. It doesn't mean that the flood doesn't occur or that rain doesn't fall, but it does mean that when we do experience floods—and, as I say, they are likely to be more frequent in the future—businesses don't get wiped out, homes don't get inundated and people don't experience a massive emotional toll, and that's not to mention the financial toll that homeowners, businesses, insurers and taxpayers incur in rectifying the damage that results from natural disasters.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And premiums then come down.

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take the interjection from Senator Smith. One of the other benefits that are very often said to arise from investing in mitigation is that it is something that can put downward pressure on insurance premiums. I know Senator Green in particular has done a lot of work recently in northern Australia to highlight the exorbitant premiums that northern Australians have to pay. In fact, many people in North Queensland have difficulty even getting insurance in the first place. The more that we can invest in mitigation and reduce the impact of disasters, the more it is likely that some moderation will be put on insurance premium rises into the future.

As I say, Labor has called for further investment in mitigation for some time. We're not alone in doing that. A range of stakeholders have called for the government to make greater investment in disaster mitigation—everyone from insurers through local governments to the Productivity Commission, which handed down an important report on this matter in 2014. Just in the last fortnight we heard the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, APRA, also call for greater investment in helping communities prepare for and protect against the effects of natural disasters.

I'm happy to foreshadow that the opposition will be moving a number of amendments to the bill which have been agreed with the government. Under the commitments that we have extracted from the government, the government will increase the funding available under its proposed Emergency Response Fund from $150 million a year, which is what was in the original bill, to $200 million per year. As a result of that commitment, we have an increase of $50 million per annum to be spent by the government on disaster matters. More importantly, the government has agreed that that extra $50 million will be dedicated to improving disaster preparedness by funding a range of risk reduction works. That's a 33 per cent increase in the funds available that Labor has secured. This guarantees funding for mitigation works before the disasters hit. That extra $50 million could be used to pay for flood levees, seawalls, firebreaks and other infrastructure, which would reduce the financial and emotional toll of future disasters on residents, businesses and taxpayers.

Just to be clear, the bill in its original form established a new emergency response fund which would allocate up to $150 million per year for disaster recovery payments, for disaster recovery works. That will increase to $200 million as a result of the commitments that Labor has secured. The extra $50 million will go towards disaster preparedness or mitigation. That's an important improvement on the original bill, because, although the bill as it was originally structured did allow for spending from the Emergency Response Fund for mitigation works, that spending would occur only after a disaster hit. It always seemed to the opposition to be an absurd proposition that this fund would be used to build flood levees, cyclone shelters, fire breaks and other kinds of things, but only after a flood or cyclone or a bushfire had hit. By making these amendments we're making a distinct improvement to the bill by making sure not only that more funds will be available but that those funds can build the flood levees, seawalls, firebreaks and other things before a disaster hits, and therefore actually save money and save the emotional toll of these disasters into the future. Labor believes that, as a result of the commitments that we've extracted from the government, Australian communities will be better prepared to face the threats from natural disasters both this summer and summers—or winters, for that matter, if natural disasters hit then—into the future.

The other commitment that Labor has extracted from the government is a commitment to a new $50 million investment to upgrade TAFE facilities, to be matched by participating states and territories. Labor, along with a range of other stakeholders, has obviously been critical of this government's cuts to skills, to TAFE funding and to TAFE infrastructure across the country. We've managed to extract a commitment from the government to a new $50 million investment to upgrade TAFE facilities. That will be matched by participating states and territories. After years of federal government neglect, this funding which has been secured by Labor will be an important shot in the arm for TAFE facilities around Australia.

On the basis of those commitments around the amendments to this bill regarding disaster mitigation, and on the basis of the additional commitment in relation to upgrading TAFE facilities, Labor will support the government's Emergency Response Fund Bill in the Senate today, with those amendments that I have foreshadowed.

The other point that I should make is that this bill, as well as establishing the new Emergency Response Fund, among another things abolishes the Education Investment Fund. This is not something Labor is happy about. In fact, this is the third attempt that the government has made to close the Education Investment Fund, having previously tried to do so to establish the Asset Recycling Fund and to fund what it said were shortfalls in NDIS funding. The Education Investment Fund was an important creation of the Rudd and Gillard governments which did fund university and TAFE facilities around the country. We remain extremely disappointed and we think it's a retrograde step for the government to abolish this Education Investment Fund. But in light of the commitments that we have secured from the government in relation to disaster mitigation funding and an increased quantum for the emergency fund overall, in addition to the new commitment around TAFE investment, on balance we believe that the bill should be supported, with those amendments that I have foreshadowed. I look forward to making additional contributions later in the debate.

9:41 am

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak to the Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019. This bill really does lay bare the Liberal-National government's logic-free approach to the wicked problems of our time. With this bill they are attempting to abolish Australia's only—I repeat, only—TAFE and university infrastructure fund, to create an opaque Emergency Response Fund, without a cent for disaster resilience or any action on the climate crisis. What a mess!

Of course we must fund disaster relief, but the Greens will not be party to the government's long-running campaign to cut our universities and TAFE to the bone, while their climate inaction endangers all of us. In early spring we've seen bushfires rage across New South Wales and Queensland, destroying rainforest habitats and homes. As former Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins identified this year, what we are seeing is the effects of climate change putting more and more people and homes at risk. We cannot shy away from the fact that communities are hurting because the government isn't acting on the climate emergency. People are hurting. Lives and homes are being tragically lost. Animals are suffering and dying in droughts and bushfires and the intense heat. I'm frightened by the thought of what this summer will bring. The Australian seasonal bushfire outlook reports that the entire New South Wales coast in my beloved home state has above-normal fire potential for this coming summer. We've had long periods of very low rainfall, drought in almost the entire state, and high temperatures are expected statewide.

While the government persists in doing nothing to address the climate crisis, we know that unseasonal catastrophic weather events will only happen again and again with more intensity and more terrifying consequences. This throws into stark relief the lack of attention to mitigation and disaster resilience in the government's efforts. My colleague Senator Rice put it well last year when she said that, if we throw money at the consequences of the climate crisis without addressing the cause, we might as well be putting a bandaid on a bullet wound. As it stands, only three per cent of disaster relief funding is spent on prevention. It is important that we are equipped to respond to disasters when they happen and support communities during and in the aftermath, but to so massively underfund mitigation and resilience gets the entire approach wrong and makes disaster relief efforts less effective when they are really needed.

We just heard that Labor have done a deal with the Liberal Party to put some funding in the ERF for resilience. But $50 million is a drop in the ocean. They are giving up $4 billion of the Education Investment Fund that our TAFEs and universities desperately need in exchange for a mere $50 million, which is not going to go far at all.

I note the Insurance Council of Australia agree that a focus on disaster preparedness is appropriate and sorely needed. They've called for funds to be redirected to mitigation and resilience infrastructure projects to actually prevent natural disasters and make our homes and businesses more resilient. But what's in this fund for climate change action? Zero. The government has gone right ahead; it has ignored this advice and the Productivity Commission's recommendation that the Commonwealth invests at least $200 million a year in mitigation and resilience projects. They've said $200 million; $50 million is but a small portion of that.

I want to be clear: natural disasters and emergencies cause immense suffering, and responding to that suffering quickly and properly is absolutely vital. But instead of committing to resilience and well-managed disaster response, or actually acting on the root causes of why these disasters are occurring, the government has brought forward this bill, which fails on the resilience front, fails on the climate action front and lacks all of the appropriate transparency and safeguards in its spending on disaster response.

Having seen the government's mismanagement of the drought relief fund and the embarrassment of their so-called drought envoy, are we meant to trust that a fund administered by Minister Littleproud, who seems to be in two minds as to whether climate change is human made or not, is going to be the right thing for the community? I think not. The government cannot escape the fact that natural disasters are being fuelled by their big fossil fuel donors who are destroying our planet. If the government had a shred of decency, of care for generations to come, they would fund disaster response by making the polluters pay instead of once again gutting our education funding.

Equally as galling as the government's willingness to roll over backwards for their big polluting mates is their continued cut after cut of vital education. Universities Australia are right to call this a raid on Australia's last remaining fund for building education and research infrastructure. In fact, the government is using this bill to abolish the Education Infrastructure Fund altogether. I foreshadow that the Greens will be moving amendments to try to make sure that this doesn't happen, that this vital fund is not abolished by this government, which attacks public education every single day. We saw just this week the passing of the bill that puts extra onus, extra tax and extra levies on universities and students.

The Education Infrastructure Fund is dedicated to providing ongoing capital funding for infrastructure in universities, vocational education and research. During its lifetime, the Education Infrastructure Fund supported more than 200 projects and allocated $4.2 billion in funding, including significant grants for regional universities, and I note that the Labor Party has come to some agreement with the government on some funding going to TAFE. Fifty million dollars, though? Of course they desperately need money, but $50 million in exchange for losing $4 billion? That is a bad deal!

Before it was punitively frozen by Tony Abbott's Liberal government, the EIF helped keep our education and research at world-class levels around the country, contributing to laboratories, teaching and learning facilities, and providing seed funding that attracted significant other investment in research and infrastructure. It's particularly interesting to see the government talk up their support for regional universities while abolishing the Education Investment Fund, which has meaningfully built research and teaching capacity outside city centres. Personally, I've seen the impact of the Education Investment Fund in my academic career, and in Port Macquarie where I lived and worked. The fund contributed to the Port Macquarie Joint Health Education Facility, which is training doctors to meet demand for care in rural and regional areas. While travelling around New South Wales, from Newcastle, to Lismore, to Bathurst and to Wollongong I hear from the sector the same thing they told the government the last time they tried to abolish the Education Investment Fund: this funding is necessary. The Liberals and Nationals ignored them then and they're ignoring them again now—and so is the Labor Party.

The Greens are committed to reopening the Education Investment Fund as part of our plan to make world-class TAFE and university free for all, throughout people's lives. And let's make no mistake: the government's malice towards universities and the vital research and education they conduct is not a new phenomenon. I note with particular bemusement Minister Littleproud's attempts to boast of the government's education spending while introducing this bill to cut education funding. The reality is that unis, TAFEs and research have all suffered under this government. We have seen a cut of $2.1 billion in real terms in funding for student places in the last two years alone.

Not satisfied with cuts which have dashed the hopes of young Australians wanting to attend uni, this government has taken the hatchet to research funding. After $3.9 billion in cuts between 2011 and 2012, and 2016 and 2017, the Liberals went on to cut $345 million in research funding from universities over the four years from the 2017 MYEFO. This cut hit regional universities the hardest, including $91 million in cuts to universities in my home state of New South Wales. At the same time, we've seen TAFE being slowly destroyed by the government's neglect, a lack of funding and privatisation, with the latest data showing student numbers have dropped two per cent and that training hours are down six per cent at a time where we're meant to be addressing the skills crisis and the jobs shortage.

The bottom line is that pitting vital education funding against disaster relief will compound the harms this government has already done to our disaster readiness and education. We need disaster relief funded by big polluters, real investment in resilience and solutions to the wicked complex problems of the climate crisis that only university research can provide. For them to do that vital work, they need infrastructure and funding. The Greens will oppose this bill, and I move the following second reading amendment:

At the end of the motion, add:

", but the Senate

(a) notes that the fossil fuel industry is contributing to climate change, leading to more frequent and more intense natural disasters;

(b) notes that imposing a 10 per cent royalty on projects subject to the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax would raise $5 billion in real terms over two years;

(c) is of the opinion that the Education Investment Fund should not be abolished and should only be used for education and research infrastructure; and

(d) calls upon the Government to introduce legislation to place a Commonwealth royalty on oil and gas projects to create a resilience and emergency relief fund for natural disasters."

9:53 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019 and the Emergency Response Fund (Consequential Amendment) Bill 2019. And here we are again, with a government that does not accept climate science raiding a fund that was set up for other good purposes in order to mop up after crippling disasters while refusing to take action on what is causing those disasters. What an absolute insult to those communities that are already facing the ravages of extremely damaging bushfires. In my home state of Queensland these were a week out of winter and in areas that had never burned before. This government doesn't even have the decency to have a consultation with some climate scientists and actually fund a climate action plan. Instead, what they're now doing is trying to bribe people by raiding a fund that was set up to support regional universities to build institutions to help invest in the skills for those regions. The gall of this mob! Just when you think they can't find a new low, they manage to find one.

Of course we support funds for disaster relief, but this bill is not the way to go about it. Why do they have to raid funds for higher education to do disaster relief, when they're doing absolutely nothing about disaster prevention or about resilience and preparedness or about adaptation and mitigation?

My colleague Senator Faruqi will be moving some very important amendments that ensure that we can do disaster relief whilst not raiding education funds. I urge the opposition and members of the crossbench to support those amendments. We have a chance to get this right. We have a chance to not only help prepare for but respond to natural disasters, which we know are going to get more and more frequent, more severe, more damaging, more wild and unpredictable, and we also have a chance to keep supporting those regional universities.

I want to begin formally by just acknowledging the seriousness of the issue we're debating today. Hundreds of people have lost their lives in this country dealing with these disasters, not only firefighters but all of our emergency response personnel. They are absolute heroes in our eyes, and I'm sure everyone agrees with that—not just the paid folk; of course, the volunteer firefighters and the other volunteer relief emergency personnel. Many of our community members have lost their homes. Some have lost their lives. People have lost their businesses, and communities have been ripped apart.

We know that these disaster events, these extreme weather events, are only going to get worse. We know that. The climate scientists are telling us that, but the government just will not listen. It's got a tin ear when it comes to science. I wonder what's blocking their ears? Gee, I think it's probably the millions of dollars in donations that flood into their pockets from the oil, coal and gas industries. We know that's why that they don't have a climate policy: they're being paid to not have a policy. It's absolutely disgusting, and that's why of course we're moving to abolish donations from the coal, oil and gas sector—a longstanding position of the Greens.

Resources being made available to support communities in crisis are of course critical. We want these communities to have the help and support they need, but this bill is not the right way to go about it. What this bill actually does is fulfil a long-held government promise to abolish the Education Investment Fund. This was a Tony Abbott idea back in that horror budget of 2014 where frontline services, community support services and help for the vulnerable—all of those things—were slashed, and remember: they sat there and smoked their cigars afterwards. This was one of those promises. This is an Abbott-era attack on the higher education sector that this government has continued, and now they're trying to deliver on. What is incredible and very disappointing is that it seems they've now got Labor Party support to do just that.

The Education Investment Fund was created by Labor in the Rudd years for good reason: to provide ongoing capital investment in regional universities, in vocational education, in research and in all of those job-creating skills investments. This fund has already provided funding for a range of really important projects, a joint health education facility at Port Macquarie; the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Education at Charles Darwin University; a new space at Newcastle CBD campus; and, in my home state, at JCU, The Science Place. How interesting that we see an investment in a science place by a fund, and of course the government wants to abolish that very fund. This government really doesn't like science much. But the point is that this fund has been providing essential funds and essential infrastructure to those regional cities and towns to help us be ready for this century's economy. This government, of course, wants to gut it.

It's no surprise that Universities Australia have called this a raid on Australia's last remaining fund for building education and research infrastructure. Well, why is the government forcing the parliament to make a choice between two noble aims? Why are we being asked to choose between support for the higher education sector and for investing in those skills that we know our regional economies need to be ready for the economy that's changing under our feet? Why are we being forced to choose between that and vital disaster relief funding? What kind of amoral government would actually stand here and propose that?

Sadly, this is not the first time they have done this. We saw the same strategy with the drought fund where they're raiding infrastructure funding—again, another worthy objective—to put into drought funding. Of course it is only going to trickle out in a tiny amount while the government continues to ignore the climate crisis, which is driving the drought and making these natural disasters worse.

With that investment we could actually achieve the objectives of supporting higher education and regional communities and being ready for natural disasters and responding to them, if we simply raised the rates of the PRRT. Why are we not making the big oil and gas companies pay their fair share?

We all know that the PRRT, the petroleum resource rent tax, is one of the most rorted taxes that we have on our books, with many billions of credits outstanding. They effectively don't pay a cent. What an absolute joke! With a mere 10 per cent increase and a new Commonwealth royalty regime on those oil and gas companies, you could raise $5 billion in two years. That's more than this fund in just two years. Not only would you be reducing the inputs to the climate crisis; you could do the real investment in community resilience and preparedness, as well as response, for these incredibly cruel and indiscriminate natural disasters. It's the concept of actually making the polluter pay to prevent the problem that's causing so much heartache for everyone that we have always backed and that we think could have been employed really usefully here.

The other point is that this fund is solely focused on mitigation. It doesn't do anything about preparedness. I acknowledge that Labor say they will move an amendment. Unfortunately, I haven't actually seen it yet, and neither has our spokesperson on the matter. Hopefully, we will see that amendment soon, but I understand that in it they have an extra $50 million a year to do what I think Senator Murray Watt explained was some prevention works. That's a step in the right direction, but what an absolute drop in the ocean it is. You're not going to be able to do anything with fifty million bucks. The phrase 'cheap date' comes to mind. We need a serious investment in community resilience and disaster preparedness and in genuine prevention and mitigation of what's causing this, which of course is the climate crisis.

The stakeholders to the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill didn't think much of the bill either. The Insurance Council, who are of course experts in analysing and managing financial risk, particularly in relation to the extreme weather events that are climate driven, said:

Whilst a cliche, the phrase prevention is better than the cure, is the rule in most policy areas, except it would seem in disaster management, where spending levels for mitigation account for 3% of spending compared to disaster response at 97%.

But we know that a commitment to trying to prevent these sorts of natural disasters would require this government to take the climate emergency seriously. Don't hold your breath, folks. It would also require a genuine commitment to public infrastructure spending. But, whilst they have all of the ingredients laid out before them—with record-low interest rates it's a perfect time for government to borrow and invest in infrastructure to provide the community with the services they deserve, and what a fantastic stimulus and job-creating measure it would be—the government will not touch public infrastructure funding. My point is proven by the fact that they just gutted the infrastructure fund to service their drought fund, again setting up a false dichotomy. They're two noble things which both should have been funded.

The climate emergency is real. It is driving these extreme weather events. Rainforest in South-East Queensland was on fire a week out of winter. That is unprecedented. Northern New South Wales is still on fire. This is happening earlier than it ever has before, and the scientists are telling us this is a harbinger of what's to come, and come more severely, frequently and erratically. It's not like we haven't been told. Why is this government still refusing to act on the scientific advice that could keep our community safe and protect our natural world? It could generate more jobs, not just through a public infrastructure boom, which the Greens support, but through investing in the energy transition that's already underway. It's already creating fantastic jobs in those regions, particularly here in Queensland, where we desperately need those jobs. Why on earth would you gut funding for the skills those communities need as that transition continues to happen?

That's why we're seeking to amend this bill today—and my colleague Senator Faruqi has outlined the nature of our amendments. We don't think the money should come from this education fund. We think it should come from increasing the take from oil and gas companies. There are myriad other sources of revenue for this natural disaster resilience fund; higher education should not be one of them.

Again I note that we haven't yet received Labor's amendments relating to the additional money that they say has now sweetened the deal for them. They used to not like this legislation, before the election, but it seems they've changed their mind. We're very keen to see the actual detail of what's got them over the line, because I would have thought that funding higher education should have been something that the Labor Party stood by, although I do recall then Prime Minister Gillard seeking to cut, I think it was $2.3 billion, from the higher education sector, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

I also recall that before the election the shadow minister for education described this bill as pitting two worthy aims against each other. I'm not quite clear on what's changed and why you've decided to throw education under the bus just because this bill has got a scary title, but I would urge you, at this late stage, to consider supporting our amendments. We can achieve both objectives here. We can have a natural disaster resilience fund and strong support for the higher education sector. Don't let them make you choose. Don't play right into their hands and just facilitate their agenda. The idea of being an opposition is to oppose. We really do encourage you to see that you can achieve two objectives here and you don't simply have to be Liberal light.

Sadly, this is not the first time that we've seen the Liberal government's agenda being waved through this chamber. We saw the $158 billion of tax cuts, most of which went to folks that didn't really need the help. That was waved through by the so-called opposition. They caved in on the temporary exclusion orders, which gave yet more powers to the home affairs minister. Boy, is that going on to his head. They caved in on the ag gag laws, which put in place draconian antiprotest laws, which have been backed in by our Queensland state government, because apparently protest is illegal now. No-one's allowed to have an opinion that opposes the government—certainly not on climate change. And of course they caved in on the drought bill, which was funded by raiding $4 billion from the national infrastructure budget. It's very disappointing that we now see that, once again, the so-called opposition are going to cave in and raid a very worthy education fund, which has already provided some great investment in regional Australia. They're going to cave in and wave this through.

Please reconsider, and please have a close look at the amendments proposed by Senator Faruqi for the Greens. We can have natural disaster preparedness and resilience and response funding, and we can also have a strong higher education sector. I'm not quite sure what parallel universe we're now in, where you think that's a choice that you need to make.

We here at the Greens will always be strong supporters of not just mopping up after a disaster but actually investing in preventing them, investing in not only community resilience and preparedness but the mitigation of what's causing these natural disasters. We are in a climate emergency. We are sleepwalking to our own demise. We are losing species at a rate that is just criminal, in my view. We've lost half the coral cover of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the largest and most ancient living structures on this planet. I don't think we have the right to wreck the natural world in the way that we have been just to make a few rich people richer. It is absolutely disgusting. It's not just about the impacts on nature; it's also about the impacts on communities: people's homes being flooded and burned; communities ripped apart; the suicide rates for our land managers off the charts.

What on earth is it going to take for this government to get with the program, accept the climate science and do what's necessary to protect the community, not to mention nature? We know you're not keen on nature, but for goodness sake: regional Australia is desperate for a climate plan. We just heard the head of the National Farmers Federation calling for climate action on national radio this morning and pointing out that renewable energy might be an additional income stream for farmers, which the Greens have long supported and proposed. But this government is so in the pocket of big oil, coal and gas that it just will not see reason. It will not see the science and it will not stand with what those communities desperately need—a real drought plan, a real climate plan, and real investment in educational institutions in those regional areas that create jobs and create the skills that we are going to need.

As the rest of the world continues on its journey to become a clean energy economy, we are getting left behind. We are now on fire and this government wants to raid an education fund to do some mop-up work after the fact while doing absolutely nothing to prevent what is causing these natural disasters in the first place. I believe that this is criminal; I think it's criminal negligence. And when we see other countries and governments around the world, even of conservative persuasions, accepting climate science, the government have no cover anymore. There is no excuse for them to try and say that this is a political issue. The climate crisis is so far above politics, it is ridiculous. For heaven's sake, please stop being blinded by the dirty money that you're getting from these big multinational oil, coal and gas companies to fund your re-election campaigns—and that goes for both sides of politics. Both sides, sadly, took $4 million over the past five years as part of the broader $100 million from big corporates since 2012. Dirty money is ruining the policymaking potential of this parliament, and it is blinding the government to where their real obligations lie. They should be protecting communities, protecting the planet and actually planning for the future. Surely the job of government is to plan and prepare?

This bill is all about mopping up whilst raiding another fund that would actually help communities develop their skills. This is an abomination. We will always support disaster response funding, but you don't get it from wrecking and gutting higher education and you don't stop those natural disasters by ignoring the climate crisis that we're facing and trying to just pray the problem away. Each to their own, but that is not a climate policy. The government can't just pray for rain and pretend that climate change isn't happening and that it's not anthropogenic. And they can't pretend that they don't have the power, as the government of Australia, to actually do something to fix it. Please wake up.

I have been so impressed by the community response to the climate crisis. People are starting to feel their power. I hope the government are paying attention. We've got more and more folk hitting the streets. They can see what these natural disasters are doing to our communities. They can see what it's doing to nature and to our biodiversity. They can see the potential for prosperity and fairness and job creation in a clean energy economy. They want action on climate change. They don't want the big coal multinationals to be making decisions about the whole country anymore. They want their democracy back. That's what we support, and we will continue to stand with those folks who are hitting the streets, desperate for their government to do the right thing. The government has a chance today to vote to not gut education, to invest not just in natural disaster response but in mitigation, prevention, preparedness, resilience—all of those things that our communities deserve from its national government. Please give the dirty donations back and please start looking at the evidence and doing the right thing.

10:12 am

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a pleasure to follow my colleagues Senator Faruqi and Senator Waters in contributing to this debate on the Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019 and Emergency Response Fund Bill (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019—even if, after quite a detailed investigation, it seems that Senator Waters is in fact the source of my current deep morass of man flu which I'm struggling against. Yes, 'morass of man flu' is now in the Hansard. We can all be happy! I noted during Senator Faruqi's contribution the very apt observation that this seems to be the embodiment of the logic-free approach to politics that is pursued by this government and its coalition partners. Not a surprising occurrence given, I believe, last time I checked, logic-free politics was the dictionary subheading to the National Party of Australia. You can see the intellectual vacuity dripping throughout this entire legislative proposal with the National Party's particularly distinctive pen all over it.

Considering how I would approach my contribution to this debate, I couldn't seem to go past a moment that I experienced a couple of weeks ago while taking the flight from Perth to Canberra to reconvene for the first parliamentary sitting week of the year. I'm a proud Western Australian. I live upon the land of the Noongar Whadjuk people and I always am cognisant that, as I move from WA to the ACT, I pass over thousands of hectares of land the sovereignty over which has never been ceded and that was sung, curated and cultivated for countless generations before any white person stepped foot on the shores of this ancient continent. On the recommendation of a good friend, at this particular time I had downloaded and was listening to the, I think it's fair to say, seminal work by Bruce Pascoe: Dark Emu. I would recommend it to anybody in this chamber who hasn't had the opportunity to explore it. In his work Pascoe explores in great detail the intricate agricultural arrangements particularly used by First Nations peoples in cultivating and propagating the land on which they have lived for almost 100,000 years.

Just before I'd taken off, news had come of a fire that had broken out in Perth, and we were staring down the barrel of that first wave of what turned into horrific bushfires across the states of New South Wales and Queensland. I could not escape the realisation of the damage that we have done to the delicate ecosystems of our ancient continent. Nor could I escape the profound learnings about that ecosystem, held by First Nations peoples, that we so arrogantly and ignorantly dismissed upon the arrival of settler populations in Australia. For hundreds of years, Australia has played catch-up to that ignorance and has borne the cost of that ignorance. And we see that playing its part too in the various natural disasters which now plague our communities. It is the price we pay for being a nation in some ways founded upon a baseless belief in the superiority of the white imperial British class.

As a former university student, as a young person—although I'm now informed that, as a 25-year-old, I no longer technically fit the category of young person—and as somebody whose friends and family members will experience the brunt of climate change and the natural disasters that are so intimately linked with it, I've got to look upon this bill and just wonder where the hell we've come to in this country on this question. I mean, fire and flood, natural disasters, are so intimately part of the Australian experience. The devastation they've wrought upon communities is so well known that nobody in the Australian community would resent a government taking action to address those issues. But that's not what this bill does.

This bill seeks to ram-raid education infrastructure spending in this country and funnel it into an opaque scheme which doesn't do a thing to address mitigation or to address the great big flaming elephant in the room: climate change. The National Party might not like to hear it, the Liberal Party might not like to hear it and their donors most bloody certainly don't like to hear it, but climate change is driving these natural disasters. That ain't a question of political position; it's a question of scientific fact. So, to put forward a bill such as this, which seeks to address the issue of natural disaster emergency response and funding but does not address climate change, is rather akin to putting a really expensive bandaid on the crack in a dam wall. It just won't do the job.

We have many debates in this place on climate and many debates on the influence of corporate donations on the major parties. Senator Waters is absolutely right to draw the chamber's attention to the reality that the tin ear of the major parties when it comes to climate change is due to those canals being stuffed with the cash of their fossil fuel mates. There will come a time when each of you, in your own ways, will have to confront and come to terms with the reality that you were warned, that you were told, that people made great effort to present to you the evidence of the dangers inherent in your inaction and you decided to nothing, simply because you wanted to retain your own personal position of power.

You will have to look your kids in the eye—you will have to look your grandkids in the eye—and explain to them why you decided to make the problem worse, why you decided to walk alongside the great conflagration of global climate crisis and, instead of pitching in, instead of doing what you could to make the situation better, decided to make it worse. And those members of the Nationals who so often proclaim their undying service to the rural and regional community of Australia will have to look farm family after farm family in the eye and explain just why continuing to take money from the gas giants and the coal merchants, continuing your cosy bedroom relationship with the Liberal Party, was more important to you than protecting the viability of farmlands that they've worked for generations. That will be the explanation that you'll have to give.

On the other side of the chamber we've got a party that is caught between their pre-election flirtations with political courage and their current imbibing of that swill of post-election defeat, compromise based miasma. You don't look like eels, but you're doing a really good impression of them—you can almost hear the jellied spines jiggling. I've seen some crappy deals made in my time in this place, as brief as it has been. But I've got to say, $50 million in return for $4.5 billion is one of the more badly calculated. Imagine the debate you could be having in this place if you weren't undermined by Fitzgibbon in the other place.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! You should refer to members in the other place by their appropriate title.

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I can't remember the seat he represents.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

You don't have to; you can refer to him as Mr Fitzgibbon, with appropriate courtesy.

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Fitzgibbon, that'll do—that's all right?

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

If anyone wants to tell me the seat he represents, I'll send him an apology basket. It's just a really sad thing at this particular moment in our history to see an opposition, so-called—and Senator Waters is right to remind you that the primary function, you'll be shocked to find out, of an opposition is in fact to oppose. It's a crazy, really strange notion. Can you guys actually remember what that's like? It's when the government, the Liberal Party, say something and, instead of saying, 'Yes, of course we'll go along with that,' you actually say no and you oppose. It's a fascinating concept. You should try it. You should give it a crack. You might like it. You might find it's not to your taste, but give it a go; it's fun to try new things every now and again. I am wearing a rather outrageous tie today, for instance. If I can do that, surely you could give being an opposition a go. We're rather enjoying it—Senator Di Natale is doing a fantastic job—but you could pitch in. You could give us a hand every now and again, just in that spirit of mateship and working together that we so often claim to be part of the Australian spirit. I'll leave it with you as a proposal.

Australia has had an education investment fund in one form or another since 1957. It has enjoyed bipartisan support all the way back to Menzies as a recognition of the inherent difficulties of funding higher education infrastructure, particularly on a needs basis or through other mechanisms. To trash it in this way is an absolute disgrace. It has to be said—and I'm sure my colleague Senator Faruqi will agree—it's a bipartisan cultural approach, this trashing of higher education. I do not forget that, during their last dying days of government, the Gillard administration took the bold step of cutting $2.1 billion out of higher education in order to fund other forms of education—and if that policy decision doesn't send you the message that you really need to go back to school then it damn well should.

Higher education is a vital part of Australia's economic and cultural future. It's within these institutions that we as a community have the opportunity to gain new skills, to reflect on who we are and to build greater depth and breadth into our society. They are bloody great things. I know that's a radical statement for some people in here. There seems to be a reflexive disdain towards university students and university institutions from some quarters of this place, which I just think is absolutely ridiculous. If you look at the economic future of this country, it is in the investment of our community in our brains, in the thinking and caring economy. We can do that work only if we have high-quality institutions and infrastructure. We've spent too long banging around education in the higher education space as a political pinata. It has spent too long as a piggy bank to be raided when something more politically fortuitous comes along. We have to re-elevate higher education to a position of sacred political status. It should be bipartisan that we strive to have the most expert and inclusive higher education system in the world.

And, while we're at it, we should do that commonsense and most fair of things and remove tuition fees from our university system and structure, because they are not fair. It should not be countenanced that future generations are forced to go into debt for hundreds of thousands of dollars while seeking an education from institutions which, thanks to pieces of legislation like this, are of poorer and poorer quality and when they are educated by staff who, despite their excellence and passion, are undermined continually by a system and culture of contract work which increasingly seeks to atomise our national higher education system. In saying that, I want to pay tribute to the wonderful work done by the national higher education union in advocating for the staff who make our higher education institutions what they are.

Climate change is the fundamental test. On that question and on the action that comes from that rides whether or not we are able to look future generations in the face—whether or not we are able to pass to them a community, a society and a land that are worth passing on. There are often howls of faux outrage when Greens in this place mention the connection between climate change and extreme weather events, such as fires. 'Oh,' it is said, 'Now is not the time, as communities are burning.' We see the spectre of that NRA-esque argument which says that, in the aftermath of a school shooting, it's not the time to support or consider gun law reform. I fundamentally reject that. It is precisely the moment: when communities are suffering, we are called to act—not just to speak, not just to pray but to act. It's not just in the immediate moment, in the immediate relief of suffering, but to show by our actions that we're doing all we can, that we're expending every effort that we can, to prevent these kinds of disasters.

This bill does no such thing; this bill is testament to the logic-free politics that rule this place in relation to climate change and extreme weather events. We shall proudly oppose it. I thank the chamber for its time.

10:32 am

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

This Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019 and the related bill are very much a positive move to help fund recovery and relief efforts after natural disasters in Australia which have a significant and catastrophic impact.

I might point out, though, as others have, that climate change is predicted to cause more frequent and severe storms, cyclones, droughts, floods and bushfires. So this fund will definitely be needed and, indeed, might be tapped out in future years. But, in creating this fund, the government is simply supplying a bandaid when it also needs to be doing far more to avoid the cause of catastrophes and to be more vigilant on climate change itself.

So, yes, my colleagues and I are 100 per cent supportive of building up an emergency fund—of course, provided that processes are put in place to ensure equitable distribution across Australia when it's needed most. I'm glad Senator Watt has spoken about the amendments Labor has negotiated with government, because we, like others, haven't seen them yet. He indicated that Labor has secured a deal to increase the funds disbursements by $50 million. Labor: surely you could have done much better than that! It's better than nothing, but as Senator Faruqi said, it's not a huge amount to deal with the substantial needs of the VET sector.

As Centre Alliance has made clear, we do not believe it was reasonable to create a fund which repurposed money from the lapsed Education Investment Fund without dedicating a good component of this $4 billion to boost vocational training. In fact, in my state of South Australia in particular, we very much have a dire shortage across many trades, and a lot of this could have been alleviated with a good proportion of this fund going to vocational education promotion, training and mentoring—and I know the situation that we have in South Australia is certainly not unique; it is in the rest of Australia as well.

So, yes, we do support a degree of repurposing of this fund. But we are disappointed that Labor didn't flex its muscle a little further and that we had no opportunity to move more funds towards vocational training.

10:35 am

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I, of course, endorse the comments my colleague Senator Griff made to the chamber. I did want to expand on a couple of things. The first thing I'd like to do is talk about the abolishment of the education fund. As Senator Griff suggested, we have some grave concerns about the state of our vocational training system here in Australia. We would have hoped that there would have been more money allocated to education so that the split between the emergency fund and education was better proportioned. So I feel as though I do have to say something here in relation to the abolishment of this fund.

I note that Senator Carr is in London at this point in time, with the leave of the chamber. Senator Carr is a gentleman, in my view. He's a good man. He's old school. He's a man you can take on his word. He has been a great supporter of manufacturing, and his support for education has been strong and enduring. I want to make sure that the chamber is aware of his position. I do so because I know how strongly he feels about it. I know how strongly he feels about it because he wrote to me. Not only has he written to me twice this week, he called me from London at some ungodly hour of the morning. So I think it's proper that I at least let his views be known. In fact, he did put something out into the media recently, and I'll just read from that article. He wrote:

The Educational Investment Fund was created by the former Labor government in 2008. To date it has funded the development of research infrastructure and provided for the refurbishment of universities and TAFE colleges through 71 projects worth $7bn in new investment.

The EIF has lain dormant since the election of the Abbott government. Coalition governments twice have tried to abolish it, without success.

But now, for the third time, the Morrison government wants to shut down the EIF and transfer its $4bn balance to a new emergency response fund, no doubt calculating it can take advantage of high public awareness of recent natural disasters in Queensland and NSW.

The need to fund emergency responses properly is not disputed. This does not mean, however, that the right way to do it is to grab whatever pot of cash lies conveniently to hand, especially when it means punishing universities that are so vital to the economies and resilience of regional Australia. Raiding the EIF is the fiscal equivalent of raiding a piggy bank without thought for how its owner will be deprived by the loss of its contents.

That was Senator Carr. I would also like to seek leave of the chamber to table a letter that Senator Carr wrote to me on this topic, again just so his views are known.

Leave granted.

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

He didn't send it to me.

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, I'm not sure why he didn't send it to you, Senator Gallagher, but he was clearly concerned. I think it's appropriate to make sure his views are represented. I'm not even sure, when we divide on this, whether Senator Carr might have crossed the floor on it. The fact that he rang me twice in one week at 2 am or 4 am his time tells me he cares about this quite a lot, because he doesn't ring me often.

I'd like to go now to a point. We are abolishing an education fund for good purpose. I want to talk about what Senator Waters said when she talked about the oil and gas industry. Basically she said we have two noble aims here. I think she's correct. I think most people would agree she's correct. I want to go to her point about oil and gas not bearing the load. Of course, in the oil and gas industry, there are two tax elements. We have both the company tax and PRRT. I want to advise the chamber that, in terms of corporate tax—a bit of a shocker really—according to tax transparency data, over four years ExxonMobil earned $33 billion in revenue and—

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

Bugger all! Sweet bugger all!

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry, you're wrong, Senator Whish-Wilson. I won't repeat the terms you are saying, but it's not nothing. There was zero tax paid in that time. That's not a good return for the taxpayer. Origin Energy earned $51 billion and paid about $108 million in tax—that's over four years. Revenue for Shell was $52 billion and they paid $1.1 billion in tax. If I go to figures for 2016-17, the three large entities of ExxonMobil Australia, Chevron Australia Holdings and ConocoPhillips Australia Gas Holdings had a combined turnover of $11.6 billion and they paid—let's guess; maybe Senator Whish-Wilson would like to interject how much corporate tax they paid.

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

Bugger all!

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

It was zero. In terms of PRRT across these three entities, again, Senator Whish-Wilson, maybe you can interject and tell me how much tax they might have payed.

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

Sweet bugger all!

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Zero is the answer. Thank you, Senator Whish-Wilson. They get to take our finite resources—they extract it and export it—and Australians get pretty much nothing in return. Compare that to what happens with Equinor in Norway. They are a Norwegian state-owned company. In 2018, Equinor paid $22 billion into consolidated revenue. They also paid environmental taxes and fees of about $1 billion. And, because it's a state-owned company, the dividend Equinor paid to the Norwegian government was about $3 billion, which is a huge amount of money. This dwarfs the quantum being talked about in this chamber today.

If we had a proper tax arrangement in respect of oil and gas, we wouldn't be having this debate about how we split education and how we split emergency relief funding, because we would be swimming in money. The finance minister is sitting there; he's listening intently. I say: if Senator Cormann brings any legislation to this chamber that seeks to get more of what Australians deserve from their oil and gas, I will happily co-sponsor that. That's one of the problems we have. We are mucking around, playing around, moving money around, moving a very small pie around. I want a bigger pie. I want a tastier pie. While we spin our wheels while shifting around the size of the very small pie that we have, we are missing out on opportunity. We could have had both, is my point.

The new emergency fund is $150 million going to disaster recovery work. I welcome what Labor has put forward—not the quantum but the idea that $50 million will be put to preventative measures in respect of emergency funding. That is a good idea. Once again, I'm disappointed at the quantum, and I will be asking at the committee stage how it is that that money for the pre-emptive work will be distributed. You heard my colleague Senator Griff talking about the need for equity in respect of that.

Then we move to the $50 million to upgrade TAFE facilities. This is the area where Labor should be disappointed. I am happy to invite Senator Gallagher to crossbench negotiating school, because she desperately needs it. Think about the fact that a few months ago Senator Lambie secured $144 billion, just for Tasmania. In listening to Centre Alliance, the government is restructuring the oil and gas market—particularly the gas market—here in Australia, which is something that will benefit people on Newstart, retirees and people who are employed in jobs. It will also help businesses, small and large. In this $4 billion discussion, you managed to squeeze out $50 million. So, free crossbench negotiation training for you. If you want to pick up the phone, I know you've got—

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Patrick, could you please address your comments to the chair?

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Through you, Chair, I advise that I am open to having Senator Gallagher call to get some assistance in how to properly get a good outcome in respect of dividing up pies, because we didn't get one here.

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

You got nothing.

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, I'm hoping that South Australia will get something out of this. We will be supporting Labor's amendments because it's the least of two bad outcomes. But don't for a moment think that the quantum is wrong. There is a greater need in education than the $50 million that you have suggested. Senator Griff and I will certainly be advocating strongly to government to make sure much of that goes to SA, or as much as is properly distributed. We will be supporting Labor's amendments on this, but we are disappointed in the quantum that is going to education. It could have been much more, and for that we are disappointed.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the Senate and I commend the bill to the Senate.

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment moved by Senator Faruqi be agreed to.