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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 3490


Senator MILNE (12:04 PM) —I rise to make some more remarks, because I am still waiting for the government to answer my questions on this. I will keep asking them until I get the Minister for Climate Change and Water in here to answer them. We were told yesterday by Senator Conroy that this bill does not put environmental constraints around these tax deductions for so-called carbon sinks. That relies on the minister for climate change setting the guidelines. We are told: ‘Buy a pig in a poke. Just vote for this now, and you will get guidelines later which will tell you whether or not these trees can be cut down.’ It defies common sense to say that you get a tax deduction for planting a carbon sink, but there is no requirement for it to stay in the ground. It is clear to me that the wording has been done very carefully. All you have to do is say at the time you plant it, ‘I intend for it to be a carbon sink.’ After that, you can change your mind or sell it to somebody else who does not have the same intention.

There is a line in the explanatory memorandum which says that you do not have to have any connection with the land to be able to benefit from this. That is clearly for the coal industry, the aviation industry, the cement industry—everyone who wants to offset their carbon rather than reduce emissions at the source. But it was also very clear to me that this is a rort for the forest industry. This is MIS on steroids. I have done some more research on that, and I have found that to be true. I have looked at what the Australian Greenhouse Office now accredits as a carbon sink. I can harvest a forest and still generate greenhouse-friendly abatement. You might think, ‘How could it be that, if you cut it down, you still get carbon credits?’ This is somewhat confusing to someone who is trying to reduce emissions. The answer is that you pool your forests and you manage them for a certain volume of carbon. You might plant a thousand hectares of forest. You say, ‘I am managing that for the equivalent of 700 hectares of equivalent carbon.’ Then you go through your forest rotations so that you still get the money for your woodchips, your product, and you get the money for the carbon abatement while those forests are growing. You get to double dip here, and you get the Commonwealth to help you out doing it. They even specifically say that decisions on when to sell carbon could be based on considerations around wood product and carbon prices.

As I said yesterday, you will work out, ‘Wow, the woodchip price is $90 a tonne and carbon is so much a tonne on carbon market, so at the moment it is better to reduce my volume of carbon and go with the chips,’ or it may go the other way. If you are allowed to pool all the managed forests under your control—if you are Gunns, Great Southern or any other company—you have now got a scheme which gives you double the money for nothing, essentially. This is outrageous and it will drive people off the land. Senator Conroy told us yesterday, and I will just read it out from the explanatory memorandum:

The Climate Change Minister must, by legislative instrument, make guidelines about environmental and resource management in relation to carbon sink forests.

So the minister has to make these guidelines for the management of these forests. I just want a simple answer from the government to this question: do you intend to make the guidelines the same guidelines as those currently in this greenhouse abatement accreditation scheme? If you do, it is nonsense. We are not going to get an increased take-up of carbon; we are just going to get a double whammy for the forest industry—a double whammy in the sense of a double bonus for the forest industry because it is money for jam for them.

I would also like to put on the record a letter from the Mayor of King Island. I draw this particularly to the attention of Senators Abetz, Barnett, Polley, Carol Brown, Sherry, Watson, Bushby, Parry, O’Brien and Colbeck. You are the 10 Tasmanian senators apart from Senator Bob Brown and I. The Mayor of King Island has written this:

I am the Mayor of King Island. We were able to fend off the planting of forest trees on our grazing lands some two years ago. We realised that the risk of having plantation forests for harvesting as chips or logs would be low due to the heavy infrastructure costs and the remoteness of our island. The matter of MIS schemes for the planting of trees as carbon rebates is another matter. The experience of Kangaroo Island causes us to take up the cudgel to protect our island. The King Island brand is very dependent on the maintenance of the areas of agricultural land available at this time. We are unable to replace any lands lost to forests as we have a very finite boundary to our island. To lose the King Island product due to the inability of the population to support itself is not a tenable idea and would be stupid. We only exist because of the quality of our product, which allows an adequate return to compensate for our remoteness and the added costs of transporting these products to market. All of our products are value added by industries on the island which will be lost.

Kind regards,

Charles Arnold.

That is the Mayor of King Island putting it absolutely on the record specifically for those 10 senators to listen to. If you do this, you will destroy the King Island brand because there will not be a critical mass of people left on the island to sustain the industries. I do not want any of you standing up in Tasmania and putting out press releases saying how bad this is, that it should not have happened, that you did not know it was going to happen and so on. I am telling you now. The Mayor of King Island is telling you now. In this Senate, I am showing you now that the guidelines are not in place and there is nothing to stop these trees being cut down and managed as a pool by the forest industry, the coal industry, the airlines or anybody else. You know what you are doing.

I also want to say that people have stood up in here and said it is a rort. Senator Heffernan in particular described it as bottom-of-the-harbour scheme and as a rort. He knows full well that it is a rort. The Nationals know it is a rort; they have stood up and said so. We have the numbers in this Senate today to stop this rort, if the people who recognise it is a rort get rid of it. But no, that is not going to happen because those for the forest industry—Senator Abetz; Malcolm Turnbull; the member for Wentworth, and others; Senator Minchin is no doubt amongst them—are in there saying the Liberal Party will vote for this rort. That is what is going on. They will vote for it today. They will knock out my amendments which require mixed species and require the trees to be in the ground, even though the government has not said, and will not say, you cannot cut down the trees, because they intend the trees to be cut down through managed investment schemes. There will be pooling of trees by the forest industry under your very own greenhouse abatement program scheme to manage pooled forests.

As I have said time and time again, there is nothing here at all—and I would like to know from Senator Wong why there is not—about a rebate for protecting standing carbon stores. If the government is serious, why don’t we have that in there? All we have got is a tax bill and another rort for the forest industry. It is a rort for people who just want to put in the trees, get the tax deduction and sell or lease them to somebody else who can then decide what they want to do with them—whether they want to manage them for carbon or logging or both. It is not putting any pressure on the coal industry or the airlines to reduce their emissions to just say, ‘Let’s plant the trees and offset them over time.’ You think about the volume of emissions we are talking about that need to be offset. If those coal-fired power stations cannot get their emissions down at the source—carbon capture and storage is nowhere to be seen and will not be here for 20 years—they will have to take up hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to go anywhere near it because, when these trees are planted, they have got virtually no carbon in them. It is going to take years to get any kind of volume of carbon. To get anything like it, you need hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land, and that will be agricultural land with water. They will buy water rights and land.

I think it is disgraceful that the minister for climate change is not here confirming for this Senate that these trees can be cut down, that there is no requirement for them not to be cut down and that they will allow them to be managed by forest companies in conjunction with their plantations for fibre. I want to put very clearly on the record that I have no confidence whatsoever in the minister for climate change setting guidelines that will guarantee these are carbon sinks into the future, nor do I have any confidence whatsoever that we are going to see permanent carbon reductions because of this. There will be no plantings on marginal land because the trees will not grow on marginal land. The only land these plantations are going to go on is land with water, where the trees will grow, and that will take it out of agricultural production.

Let us be very clear: the contempt of the Senate being shown by the government is real. Senator Conroy has not answered the questions. Senator Wong, the Minister for Climate Change and Water, even though she is the one who will set the guidelines, has not come here and said anything about it. I bet she does not even know herself what the guidelines are going to be, and what she will revert to will be these foolhardy guidelines in this Greenhouse Friendly Forest Sink Abatement Projects Scheme they have going. And if anybody thinks that people around the country are going to take this scheme seriously as being a reduction in carbon emissions, they have another think coming. It is not worth the paper it is written on, to be frank, as an abatement scheme. Get real and have an abatement scheme for protecting standing vegetation, standing native forests. Then we will start talking about real carbon sinks.

I would like to have an explanation from the government on those matters. Are the guidelines that the government is talking about the guidelines that are in this current scheme? Yes or no, Minister Wong? Where are you, Minister Wong? Are these the guidelines? Because they allow for them to be cut down. That is all there is to it. A rort is going through this parliament. The Liberal and Labor parties know it is a rort going through this parliament, and they are going to sit and let it go through. And if anyone is stupid enough to think that we are going to be pacified by the promise of some sort of inquiry after the event, don’t insult our intelligence. Once it is law, it is law. The opportunity is here today to knock it off, to kill it, to end this rort. If you do not do that then you do not have the courage of your convictions and it is your intention to drive people off the land, to take land out of agricultural production—and there is nothing else that can be said for it. I would like someone from the government—there is not even anyone in the chamber; there is only Senator Webber sitting on the government benches.


Senator Webber —No, Senator Conroy is over there.


Senator MILNE —Oh, Senator Conroy has just wandered back into the chamber. Could Senator Conroy please tell me now: can these trees be cut down? Can they?