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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 662

Senator XENOPHON (4:39 PM) —I can indicate that I will not be supporting the censure motion and I will outline my reasons why. I can say at the outset that if the Gillard government was a majority government I might be inclined to support this motion, but that is not the case. In what some have called the new paradigm after the election result, which very few foresaw, we see a minority government for the first time in something like 70 years. That has obviously caused a rethink of policies and priorities.

Let us look at the wording of this motion. I can understand and respect the opposition’s right to move this motion, but it uses the words ‘gross deception’. ‘Deception’ is an act of deceiving. It is a state of being deceived. It is intended to deceive. It is a case of fraud or artifice. In other words, it is something that is quite deliberately intended. In ‘gross deception’, the adjective says it is unqualified, it is complete, it is rank, it is flagrant and it is extreme. I think that if the Gillard government had been returned in its own right then this particular censure motion would have a lot of merit. Clearly as a result of being in minority government compromises have been made, and I think we on all sides know about politics sometimes being the art of the possible, of compromises being made if they are justified, and that they have to be justified in the context of circumstances.

It also is important to put on the record that the leader of the government said there has been consultation with Independents and the Greens. I am not one of those Independents. I am not on that committee, much as I would have liked to participate in that committee—

Senator Abetz —They didn’t want you.

Senator XENOPHON —I was not wanted for whatever reason. I am sure there were a couple of seats at the table. But I understand that. So I want to make it clear that not all Independents have been part of this committee process, and that is something that I regret.

We also need to look at the broader policy issues here. We will be debating this week the issue of the flood levy as a result of the catastrophic natural disasters that Queensland has faced in recent weeks. When you have some of the world’s biggest reinsurers, Munich Re, Swiss Re—and I do not think either of them could be accused of being wholly owned or part-owned subsidiaries of the Greens—predicting that there will be more natural disasters because of climate change, that there will need to be a rethink about how we deal with natural disasters, prepare for them and fund the reconstruction costs of those natural disasters, then I think we need to listen to the hard-headed bean counters of some of the world’s biggest reinsurers. There are compelling policy issues that need to be dealt with.

In terms of a carbon tax, I want to put on record that I am not supporting this motion because I do not believe that the government at the time that they made the promise sought to deceive the Australian people but by virtue of being a minority government they have entered into this arrangement, this agreement. I can understand the political realities of it. But I do have real problems with the idea of a carbon tax. I think that there is a lack of certainty at the moment for the government to say that this will give certainty. There is no certainty in the absence of a specific price for the carbon. There is no certainty in terms of the impact it will have.

A much better mechanism is to look at an efficient emissions trading scheme, which is something I unapologetically worked for through the report, through the research, through the work done by Frontier Economics which the coalition for a while seemed to be endorsing as a cheaper, cleaner, greener alternative way of reducing emissions, a way that was much more efficient on an intensity based approach. Having said that, I acknowledge that does not appear to be anyone’s policy at the moment apart from mine. But I think it is important that if we are going to look at reducing greenhouse gases we need to do it in a way that is efficient and that reduces revenue churn. My concern with a carbon tax is that there could be an enormous amount of revenue churn. There are huge direct and indirect tax costs to the economy if you have a system in place where you are recycling revenue as part of a compensation mechanism, but if you have an efficient emissions trading scheme you can actually maximise the environmental benefits whilst minimising the economic costs. So I have real concerns about a carbon tax.

I do not have an issue with using natural gas as a transitional fuel to achieve those targets; I think that needs to be looked at, whereas a carbon tax will not give the right price signals for that. Natural gas could be a good transitional fuel because, notwithstanding that it is a fossil fuel, it is much cleaner than coal. I also think we need to have some price mechanisms in place that would be consistent with some of the aims of Beyond Zero Emissions and the work they have done with the Energy Research Institute at the University of Melbourne about Zero Carbon Australia. We are now seeing in Spain the rollout of solar thermal plants which can provide baseload power for 17 hours a day. But in order for that to be economic and efficient you need to have incentives and signals in place, not necessarily a carbon tax, to provide for it. The more of these you build, the more prices will come down. That provides long-term baseload power.

Those are some of the issues. The issue here is: did the government intentionally deceive the Australian people at the last election? Given the result of the election, I cannot say in good faith that was the case. Is there a debate about whether we ought—

Senator Abetz —Delete the word ‘gross’; would you vote for it?

Senator XENOPHON —Senator Abetz asks about deleting the word ‘gross’ from the motion. The word ‘deception’ implies an element of intent: that at the time of the last election there was an intent to deceive the Australian people, that there was no intention of keeping that promise. The government is a minority government. I was in the state parliament when there was a minority Liberal government and when there was a minority Labor government, and I am aware of the policy compromises that are made in order for governments to be formed. That does not mean that there will not be or ought not to be a robust debate about the whole issue of a carbon tax—that is the best way to deal with this issue and to find the best way forward to reduce greenhouse gases in a way that is efficient and is economically and environmentally responsible. I am sure we will have debates in this place in the coming months and years about how we get the best policy outcome, but to censure the government in the context of its being a minority government is not, I believe, the right thing to do. I welcome an opportunity to debate this matter further, because the way that pricing of carbon is constructed in this country will have huge implications, not just for the environment but for the economic future of this nation.