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Tuesday, 23 May 2006
Page: 85


Mr MURPHY (8:06 PM) —In tonight’s debate on the appropriation bills, I am going to speak about two matters that I feel very strongly about, and which I have previously raised in this House. The first is global warming and the second is capital punishment. I believe that the government has a duty to spend more of its huge budget surplus to do everything to arrest global warming and to do everything to eliminate the death penalty throughout the world through education and even more vigorous diplomatic efforts with those countries that impose capital punishment.

I turn first to global warming. At this time, in this House, two weeks ago, the Treasurer had just handed down his 11th budget. Nowhere in the 2006 budget is there even a skerrick of recognition of the seriousness of the global warming crisis, which is growing, while at the same time the government continues to promote the growth of carbon dioxide emissions, all the while undermining the renewable energy industry. I want to mention a few of the most recent reports concerning the damaging effects of global warming and carbon dioxide pollution, and then go on to detail some of the consequences of the government’s more inept responses to this critical issue.

Most of us have heard of the Gulf Stream—that ocean current in the North Atlantic Ocean that flows from the Gulf of Mexico to the Norwegian Sea. In fact, the Gulf Stream and its continuation, the North Atlantic Drift, is part of a worldwide thermohaline circulation system of ocean currents that carry heat from the equatorial regions to the poles. The evaporation of water vapour from these warm currents in high latitudes produces an increase in salinity and density that causes the cool, salty water to sink to the ocean depths and it is this mechanism that largely drives the circulation of the oceans.

Recent measurements have suggested that the melting of the Greenland icecap and the Arctic Ocean icecap have diluted the waters of the North Atlantic to such an extent that the warm currents that carry heat from the Gulf Stream have been reduced by 30 per cent. The heat carried north by these currents raises the average temperature of Europe by five to 10 degrees. Were the circulation to collapse, the European nations could be plunged into a mini Ice Age.

The apparent slowdown in these currents, which has long been predicted as a possible consequence of global warming, will give added impetus to the efforts of European nations to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions. I do not need to emphasise tonight the threat that this finding poses to Australian coal exports, let alone other measures such as trade sanctions that may be imposed by the Europeans on countries such as Australia that refuse to curtail carbon dioxide emissions.

Closer to home, the CSIRO’s Marine and Atmospheric Research division has reported that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations has risen sharply over the last four years. According to Dr Paul Fraser, the division’s chief research scientist, last year carbon dioxide levels grew by two parts per million, which is twice the rate of the early eighties. The CSIRO said:

2005 was a record for increases in greenhouse gas heating, the main driver of increasing surface temperatures.

So it now appears possible that we have reached a point where the earth’s environment can no longer easily absorb emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. We could be fast approaching a point of no return, and what does this government do about it? Nothing, except promote the consumption of fossil fuels while refusing to increase the mandatory renewable energy targets for electricity generation, and connive in schemes to block the construction of wind generating farms that threaten the fossil fuel industries. Dr Fraser warned:

We are in line for the carbon dioxide future that we hope to avoid, a one to three degree rise in [average earth] temperatures over the next century.

Dr Fraser said that the only solution was ‘emitting less carbon dioxide’. I suppose that after making these statements, Dr Fraser will discover that the government will make sure that his grant applications are rejected and that the CSIRO’s Marine and Atmospheric Research division will be closed down—such are the consequences for public servants who dare to speak out against this government’s policies.

In 1956, Roger Revelle and Hans Suess, geochemists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, pointed out the need to monitor the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the oceans and atmosphere. At that time, it was thought that carbon dioxide emissions would be benignly absorbed by the seas and taken up by growing plants. What the measurements taken by Dr Revelle soon showed was that not all of the carbon dioxide was being removed from the atmosphere by plants and that the carbon dioxide that was being absorbed by the oceans was changing the chemistry of sea water and making it more acidic. Fifty years have passed since Dr Revelle started taking measurements and it now seems that 40 per cent of the carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels remains in the atmosphere. It is this gas that has been dumped into the air that is driving global warming. The rest has been taken up in about equal proportions by vegetation on the land and by the oceans.

The acidification of the oceans by carbon dioxide may not have attracted the same level of attention that greenhouse heating of the atmosphere has received, but the consequences for marine life are severe. The increase in ocean acidity threatens organisms such as the molluscs that build hard parts out of calcium carbonate, because the more acid sea water attacks their shells. Corals are also among the creatures that are affected by more acid sea water, as are the tiny snails that form a key link in the marine food chain of the Southern Ocean that supports large populations of fish, whales and sea birds.

From an economic perspective alone, it is clear that the potential danger to the Great Barrier Reef and the Southern Ocean fisheries from carbon dioxide acidification of the oceans should be cause for alarm. Unless carbon dioxide emissions are rapidly reduced, the acidification of the oceans will increase to a level that poses severe threats to the biodiversity and productivity of the marine environment.

We now hear that the Prime Minister, while on a taxpayer-funded discovery tour, has suddenly found that nuclear power is the answer to all of these problems caused by carbon dioxide pollution.


Mr Baldwin —What about your study tour?


Mr MURPHY —I suggest that the member for Paterson hear what Mr Albanese has to say about the disingenuousness of the Prime Minister tomorrow.

Apparently, we can expect that nuclear power plants will start to spring up in Australia in the near future. The problems associated with the deployment of nuclear reactors are considerable. Among the most serious are the disposal of nuclear waste; the illicit production of materials such as plutonium for nuclear weapons during the normal operation of reactors; the safety of the reactors from the release of radioactive materials by accident or by terrorist attacks; the decommissioning of old reactors; and the safety of reactor workers. None of these issues has been properly resolved. In particular, the disposal of the nuclear waste produced by the reactors that the Prime Minister is promoting is an intractable problem. High-level radioactive waste that was produced 60 years ago during the Second World War Manhattan Project is still in so-called temporary storage awaiting a decision on the long-term safe disposal of this and other reactor residues.

The Deputy Prime Minister has recently suggested that somewhere in Australia should become a repository for nuclear waste. Does he have a preferred site for this dump? How about somewhere in his own electorate of Lyne? If not the North Coast of New South Wales, where?

The Deputy Prime Minister’s foolish proposal underlines the seriousness of the problems that are associated with the generation of electricity from uranium fission. The uranium that comes out of the ground is principally made up of two isotopes—that is, atoms that have the same chemical properties but different masses. The two most common isotopes of uranium are uranium 238, which is 99.3 per cent of the naturally occurring element, and uranium 235, which is just 0.7 per cent of the natural element.

It is the uranium 235 that is split to release energy in nuclear reactors and it is the uranium 235 that is separated by enrichment from uranium 238 to produce the nuclear explosive for atomic bombs. Atomic bombs such as the Hiroshima weapon are made up of highly enriched uranium, which is uranium enriched to 95 per cent uranium 235, whereas the uranium used in the pressurised water reactors that are widely used in the United States is enriched to only about three per cent to five per cent uranium 235. This reactor fuel is referred to as low enriched uranium.

In its haste to cash in on the apparent renewed enthusiasm for nuclear power by selling uranium, the government is potentially threatening one of the most important recent nuclear disarmament initiatives. In 1993 the United States and the Russian Federation signed an instrument of cooperation entitled the Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation Concerning the Disposition of Highly Enriched Uranium from Nuclear Weapons. The purpose of this treaty—termed the HEU agreement—was to arrange for the orderly dismantling of 20,000 Russian nuclear weapons and the conversion of the highly enriched uranium from these weapons into low enriched uranium suitable for use as a nuclear fuel for power stations. As of September 2005, 250 tonnes of highly enriched uranium, equivalent to 10,000 nuclear weapons, had been converted into reactor fuel. By 2015 a further 250 tonnes of weapons grade uranium will have been converted to reactor fuel, eliminating the threat from another 10,000 nuclear weapons.

Approximately 25 tonnes of low enriched uranium is typically loaded into the reactor of a thousand-megawatt power station. This charge may be replaced every two years with fresh uranium, and the spent fuel is then placed in temporary storage. Assuming that the remaining 250 tonnes of highly enriched Russian uranium is diluted down to three per cent low enriched uranium suitable for reactor fuel, there is at least 15,000 tonnes of reactor fuel presently available in the form of dismantled nuclear weapons. This is sufficient to fuel a dozen reactors for 50 years.

Instead of the Howard government pushing the sale of fresh uranium onto a world still threatened by nuclear weapons, the right thing to do would be to press the nuclear weapon states like China and India to dismantle their nuclear weapons and turn the uranium into reactor fuel. That way they could fuel their nuclear reactors and at the same time reduce the threat posed by atomic weapons. After all the Russians and the Americans are doing just that. Is there any good reason why the Australian government should not be supporting such a policy?

I turn now to the death penalty. Many Australians went into collective mourning on 2 December last year when Van Nguyen was executed in Singapore. His execution by hanging was, and remains, a cruel and inhumane act with no redeeming features. What Van Nguyen was thinking in his final moments is unimaginable. Many of us spoke out in this House against the execution of Van Nguyen, sadly to no avail. I am still making representations to the Singaporean government about that country’s mandatory death penalty.

Only a few months after Van Nguyen’s execution, we find two more young Australians, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, on death row in an Asian jail. Both young men—like Van Nguyen—are much loved by family and friends who are now faced also with an unimaginable outcome. What happened in the Van Nguyen case must not be repeated in the case of these young men. These young men were extremely foolish and irresponsible; their conduct was of a kind that demands stern punishment, but not their death. Their offending should not result in their death. The disproportion between the offence and the punishment is so vast that it is shocking and clearly wrong. This time the Australian government cannot fail in its attempts to ensure that these two young Australians are not executed. All diplomatic avenues must be pursued.

Importantly, there is a significant difference between the legal systems of Singapore and Indonesia in terms of when the death penalty is imposed. In Singapore the death penalty is mandatory for certain offences while in Indonesia it is a matter of judicial discretion. Within the space of this judicial discretion the Australian government has a significant opportunity to utilise all diplomatic means possible to prevent the execution of these young men.

It is undeniable that the deliberate cold-blooded killing by the state of a healthy person with an unyielding desire to live is cruel. It is fundamentally contrary to all that is human. The end of life and its means is a matter that should not be determined by the state by means of capital punishment. The matter of death and its finality means that the state should never intervene to hasten the end of a life. It is simply too precious to be dealt with in this manner. That is why the Indonesian government ensures that the identity of the executioner is never disclosed, even to himself. This recognises that those matters are beyond the executioner. What this should mean is that they are beyond the actions of any nation in whose name they are done.

In Indonesia the death sentence is carried out by a firing squad of 10 to 12 men, all of whom simultaneously fire a shot at the victim’s heart. Only two members of the firing squad fire bullets, while the others discharge blank cartridges. It is not known to the marksmen which of them fired the bullets. This ensures that none of them has to live with the horror that they are responsible for such an inhumane act. This reveals the ultimate inhumanity of the act of capital punishment—that the person responsible for the extinguishing of a life be removed from the death that he or she has caused and all the normal emotions that would accompany such an act. Thus the wrongness of the act of capital punishment is revealed dramatically by its process. Execution by a firing squad is one of the most barbaric forms of killing. Rarely does the victim die quickly. It normally takes the victim three to five minutes to die, sometimes longer. Sometimes the victim does not lose consciousness during this time. Accuracy of the firing squad cannot be assumed, nor can an assumption be made that the death will be quick or free of enormous pain.

Should these young men be executed by a firing squad, they will be taken to a secluded forest. It will be at night, and there will be little warning. Their families and friends and legal representatives will not be notified and have no right to be present. They will not even have the dignity of an opportunity to say goodbye. Once at the place of execution, they will be blindfolded and, more than likely, restrained to a tree. A mark will then be placed on their heart as a target for members of the firing squad. They will then be shot and their bodies released to their families for their tragic return to Australia.

Despite the cruelty involved in executing prisoners, Indonesia is one of 74 countries in the world that continues to impose the death penalty. It has been abolished in the other 122 countries, and the colonial power which introduced the death penalty to Indonesia—the Netherlands—no longer imposes the death penalty for any offence. There is only one reason Indonesia retains the death sentence: it is assumed that the death sentence will send a strong message to other people to not engage in criminal conduct. The supposed crime deterrent effect of capital punishment is meant to enhance community safety. Commonsense suggests that there is merit in this argument. No-one wants to be executed and hence most rational people would presumably want to make sure that they do not commit criminal acts that would place them in such a position. But commonsense assumptions are often disproved by research. That is why governments and private organisations spend billion of dollars daily undertaking research based activities. When it comes to capital punishment, commonsense again lets us down. It simply does not work. There is simply no proof of its effectiveness.

Armed with this information, the Australian government must employ the strongest possible diplomatic pressures to ensure that Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan are not executed. It should also encourage Indonesia and every other country to abolish capital punishment. (Time expired)