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Wednesday, 3 March 2004
Page: 25885

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (4:03 PM) —Today's ACNielsen poll shows opposition leader Mark Latham to be the most popular opposition leader since Bob Hawke. It also shows that if an election were held today Labor would win easily. I believe this is because many Australians want to get on Mark's ladder of opportunity and because they grow increasingly tired of a government and a Prime Minister who have been in office for over eight years now and have nothing new to offer the country. Indeed the Prime Minister gives every indication of wanting to stay in office forever. What must Treasurer Costello be thinking?

I believe it is time that the Liberal Party looked seriously at generational change—at getting rid of a tired, stale, old Prime Minister and stale old ministers and seeking to refresh and reinvigorate the Liberal Party with new blood and new challenges. But let us not forget that Treasurer Costello had his opportunity. Way back in 1995 when the then Leader of the Opposition, Alexander Downer, had lost it, the Treasurer could have fought the previous leader, John Howard, for the leadership. He chose not to. Do you know why? Because he looked at the next election and he thought to himself: `I might lose. Better to wait.' In a comparable situation, Mark Latham chose to fight Kim Beazley, the member for Brand, for the leadership because he looked ahead to the next election and he said to himself, `I might win.' That is the difference between Mark Latham and Peter Costello. They say no guts, no glory.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Barresi)—The member for Wills will refer to members by their correct titles.

Mr KELVIN THOMSON —Sorry, I mean the Leader of the Opposition and the Treasurer. They say: no guts, no glory. I make the prediction now that the Treasurer will never, ever be Prime Minister. This Prime Minister will suck the lemon dry. He will only discard the leadership when the government's time is well and truly up. The Treasurer might get to put in a couple of heartbreaking years in opposition, but if things start to get interesting he will be mown down by the present Minister for Health and Ageing or by Malcolm Turnbull.

This government's eight years in office have been a disaster for health care in Australia. In my electorate of Wills and right throughout Australia, bulk-billing has declined every single year since the Howard government won office, and families have had to pay more for essential health care each year. Last week the Howard government approved a 7.5 per cent average premium increase for the private health insurers—that is triple the inflation rate—which will mean another cost impost on millions of Australian families. They will be forced to pay an average $150 a year extra for their health insurance. That is last year's tax cut gone in one fell swoop.

I have to say that I am disgusted at the cosy relationship between this government and the private health insurers. I do not know the detail of what private health insurers do for the Liberal and National parties or for individual coalition MPs and candidates, but it must be a heck of a lot because this government is prepared to give $2.4 billion of taxpayers' money directly to the private health funds rather than spend that money promoting bulk-billing or promoting direct hospital services, where it could do so much. They claim that the taxpayer subsidy keeps premiums down, but have a look at the evidence: premium rises of 6.9 per cent in 2002, 7.5 per cent last year and 7.5 per cent this year—way above the inflation rate.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Is the member for Boothby seeking to ask a question?

Dr Southcott —Yes.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Will the member for Wills allow a question?


Dr Southcott —How would the member for Wills propose to spend the $2.4 billion that is currently spent on the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate?

Mr KELVIN THOMSON —I have no doubt that much of the money has been spent in a wasteful way and that we would be far better off if we were to provide money directly for bulk-billing, directly for services and directly for hospitals. There is no doubt that we can do a great deal better than this government has done.

Private health insurers are the one group of people in the health system who do not contribute anything to it—unlike doctors, nurses and hospitals, which provide real services. They do not contribute anything, yet they are the one group of people this government is in love with and will do anything for. When groups of workers ask for pay increases, the Liberal and National parties go spare. Have you heard the hysterical rhetoric from the Victorian Liberals about pay claims in Victoria? In Victoria, the Liberals simply cannot be satisfied. If the Victorian Labor government settles the pay claims, the Liberals say they are giving in to the unions. If they do not settle the pay claims, the Liberals say there is chaos and industrial anarchy and the government should do something about it. The message is that pay rises will lead to inflation and ruin us all—yet, when it comes to the private health insurers, money is no object. They do not care if ordinary families have to pay another $150 per year.

As shadow environment minister, I lament the way this government has been going up and down on one spot over action to tackle climate change. The need for action gets more urgent with every passing year. Back in August 2002, after the government announced that it would not be ratifying the Kyoto protocol on climate change, it announced the climate change forward strategy. It indicated that the strategy would be developed over the course of the next 12 months. We are still waiting for it. The Minister for the Environment and Heritage, the Treasurer and others took to cabinet a proposal they had developed for a greenhouse emissions trading regime. It was a very modest scheme. It talked about introducing emissions trading by 2013. But the Prime Minister simply knocked it on the head. The aluminium industry and the power industry had got to him. Those who had been working on the climate change forward strategy fell off their chairs. The government has not announced the climate change forward strategy, because it has nothing to announce. There is no climate change forward strategy. We are going up and down on the one spot, and all the while the effects of climate change get more serious.

Then there was the long-awaited national energy policy. I am told that the Energy Task Force is just confusing matters further. At the last budget the Treasurer said more than he was supposed to say about the government's intentions in taxing LPG. This threw the LPG industry into a tail spin and caused six months of utter confusion on excise arrangements. The government finally issued a statement on this late last year, but it does not know where to take energy policy from here. The fact is that taxing LPG will increase greenhouse gas emissions, and those working on the energy policy have no bright ideas as to how to offset this. So business, consumers, motorists and environmental groups are all in the dark. There is no national energy policy and no climate change forward strategy. It is a government which is clueless when it comes to greenhouse and energy policy.

This brings me to an article in the Canberra Times back in January by Simon Grose. This article contains many errors. It is a bit hard to know where to start, but I want to deal with one paragraph in particular. It says:

Despite what Thomson may say in Opposition, there is little he would do differently on greenhouse emissions if he were in the minister's seat, and he would have inherited a country in a pretty strong position.

Firstly, Australia is not in a pretty strong position. Projections of emissions to 2020, prepared by the Australian Greenhouse Office, show that greenhouse gases produced by the generation of energy will have shot up to 160 per cent on their 1990 levels. To the extent that we are on track to meet our Kyoto target—and in fact we are presently tracking for 110 per cent of 1990 emission levels, when our Kyoto target is 108 per cent—this is due to the impact of one-off changes to land-clearing arrangements. This cannot be done more than once.

The statement that there is little I would do differently as minister about greenhouse gas emissions is arrant nonsense. Had Mr Grose bothered to contact me before writing his article, I could have spared him the embarrassment of making a mistake by pointing out several things. Firstly, I would ratify the Kyoto protocol and have Australia play a constructive role in international negotiations, rather than try to scuttle and undermine them. Secondly, Labor would develop a system of emissions trading. The Kyoto protocol may not be happening in the absence of ratification from the US or Russia but the European Union is developing an emissions trading regime, which will come into effect from 1 January next year. We would develop a regime which would be recognised by and compatible with that, because to do otherwise would see Australian businesses frozen out of a huge market. Thirdly, Labor would increase the mandatory renewable energy target by an additional five per cent by 2010. In contrast to this government's do-nothing approach to renewable energy, to clean energy, we would promote it. Fourthly, we would introduce a greenhouse trigger into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. So there is a great deal that I can and would do about greenhouse gas emissions.

And we do need to act. Climate change is hitting Australia already and will hit us harder in the future. I saw the tree decline in the midlands of Tasmania, where that area is drying out and trees are dying of thirst. Similarly, in south-west Western Australia there have been many years of reduced rainfall and we have seen a drier climate for that part of Australia. We face the prospect of losing our snowfields in Victoria, of coral bleaching in the Barrier Reef, of species diversity in the wet tropics declining by anything up to 50 per cent, of dengue fever spreading further southwards and even of malaria. We face the prospect of extreme weather events—droughts, floods and bushfires becoming more frequent and more severe.

All of this means that I was astonished to hear recently of the National Farmers Federation telling a Senate committee that they do not support ratification of the Kyoto protocol. This idea is absolutely in the teeth of the best interests of Australia's farmers. Farmers have much to lose from extreme weather events. The recent drought, for example, was the most severe in history. That was not only because the country was very dry but because our temperatures were of the order of two degrees Celsius higher than they had been during previous droughts. That led to more evaporation, less moisture availability and a more serious drought. So the position that the Farmers Federation are taking is astonishing.

Kyoto is about getting other countries to do the right thing. It is about addressing those 98 per cent of emissions that come from the rest of the world. How on earth can it make sense for a farmers organisation to say that while Australia is going to meet its Kyoto target—and that is what the government says—we are not interested in international action to make other countries meet their targets? It is like turkeys asking for an early Christmas. Beyond Kyoto, Australia's role as a spoiler in international environmental forums has become notorious. Indeed, at a recent conference on biological diversity in Malaysia, the environmental organisation Greenpeace thought Australia's performance so bad that we, together with Malaysia, were the joint winners of the 2004 `Champion Assassin of Life on Earth' award. Good grief!

We received that award for our insistence on introducing trade issues into the Convention on Biological Diversity, undermining the precautionary principle of the convention and questioning agreed targets. At one stage, the Australian delegation, presumably acting on the authority of the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, decided that if it did not get its way on the definition of the precautionary principle it would try to bring the conference to a dead end by random objections, objecting to already agreed texts and abusing the conference's rule of procedure, which requires all decisions to be taken by consensus. Australia proposed to delete a sentence as innocuous as, `Respect for land tenure, prior informed consent and Indigenous territorial rights were critical in this regard.' Australia argued against recognising a range of governance systems, including traditional knowledge and practices of Indigenous peoples. Australia argued against a proposal to have a thorough framework for assessing protected area system gaps. Australia pushed to have two of the targets previously agreed to in Montreal in November reconsidered. That was the kind of action which earned us such an unfortunate award.

Just today we have seen the government again show its hostility to environment protection by announcing that its land-clearing promise has been broken. Minister Truss in question time announced, in an embarrassing reversal for the environment minister, that the government does not intend to honour its promise to pay $75 million to Queensland farmers in compensation for a ban on land clearing of remnant vegetation in that state. I will just take the House through some of the history of this. On 16 May last year, the Queensland government introduced a moratorium on broadscale land clearing in Queensland. The federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage, David Kemp, said that the Howard government had acted to stop land clearing in Queensland. He said:

We've worked with Queensland closely and today I'm delighted to announce that a moratorium has now been imposed on new applications and permits on land clearing in Queensland.

He boasted:

This was a result of the fact that the Howard Government has been working in close partnership with the Queensland Government to ensure that we can bring into place a proper framework to govern vegetation clearing in Queensland and to protect native remnant vegetation.

A week later, on 22 May, he followed this up by announcing a joint Commonwealth and Queensland assistance package of up to $150 million, with $75 million to come from each level of government. During the remainder of 2003, the Commonwealth government failed to follow through on this commitment, and at the end of last year, after numerous unanswered letters, the Beattie government decided that the Howard government was not serious at all about a halt to land clearing. On 18 January this year, Premier Beattie announced that he would increase Queensland's contribution from $75 million to the full $150 million. Notwithstanding that, in a subsequent press release dated 30 January, the environment minister still claimed that the Howard government `has committed $75 million to achieve an end to broadscale land clearing in Queensland'. Today we find the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry telling the parliament that the Howard government is no longer committed to paying the $75 million.

Action is urgently needed on land clearing. Land clearing has three strikes on it: it is the principal cause of salinity; it is the principal threat to endangered species of birds, plants and animals; and it is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Land clearing in Queensland kills around 100 million native mammals, birds and reptiles every year. Both Queensland land-holders, the farmers themselves, and those people who are concerned to protect the environment will be disgusted at the federal government's withdrawal of financial support for needed action there.

The other area I want to return to as a conspicuous example of government environmental failure is its handling of the defence land at Point Nepean. First, it said it was going to sell part of Point Nepean. The member for Flinders thought that was all right. He said, `I accept full responsibility for fighting for such an outcome.' He told the Mail newspaper that on 30 July. Later on the government decided that it was not going to sell it; it was going to lease the land to a group involving Queensland developer FKP. The member for Flinders thought that was all right too. He told Barry Cassidy on 3LO radio, `This is a fantastic outcome.' Later on he decided that he had been a saviour of Point Nepean. In fact, he is one of the executioners of Point Nepean, pretending to be its saviour. The result at Point Nepean has been achieved over the strenuous objections of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence, the member for Flinders and, indeed, some personnel in Environment Victoria who sold this issue out a long time ago and who left it to the likes of Kate Bailleau, Chris Smythe and others to fight on and establish a community campaign of such strength that the federal government could simply not ignore it.

The government has said it is going to establish a trust when what it should really do is hand the land over to the Victorian government to be declared a national park. Why should the community have to wait five years before Point Nepean is handed over to the Victorian government? We also ask: will the trust be independent when its chairperson was the spokesman for the consortium that was looking to commercially develop the site—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 4.22 p.m. to 4.34 p.m.

Mr KELVIN THOMSON —In conclusion, I call on the federal government to hand Point Nepean over to the Victorian government so that it can be declared and managed as a national park, not in five years time but right now. I further call on the federal government to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding its Point Nepean decisions so that the community and particularly the residents of the Mornington Peninsula can have a greater involvement, a proper involvement, in its future.