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Wednesday, 17 August 2011
Page: 4617

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (10:27): I cannot allow the minister's suggestion that we oppose carbon abatement to stand. The minister well knows that the coalition has long talked about—longer than the government, in fact—the great potential for soil carbon and for abatement through advances in soil carbon farming technologies. The minister well knows that they are issues that are being highlighted and that have stood consistently in the coalition's policy since it was released at the beginning of last year. They were also highlighted prior to that not just by our current leader but also by our former leader. Our consistency in supporting this concept is strong. Our consistency is shown in a policy document that has stood from the beginning of last year.

During that time the government has moved all over the place in relation to how it wants to tackle climate change issues. At the time we released our policy document outlining our support for the concept of soil carbon—this is like a trip down memory lane—Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister of this country, the government was arguing for an emissions trading scheme and we outlined an alternative way forward. As the weeks turned into months, at some stage Ms Gillard managed to roll Mr Rudd on the emissions trading scheme and knock that out, and so you no longer had a policy supporting an emissions trading scheme.

Senator Milne: On a point of order, Mr Temporary Chairman: again, I draw the chair's attention to standing order 144(5). There is a question before the chair. It is the government's amendment agreed by the coalition and the Greens. I would ask that the current contributor confine himself to the question before the chair.

Senator Colbeck: On the point of order, Mr Temporary Chairman: Senator Birmingham is clearly being relevant to this debate. He is actually responding to a point made by the minister and is contributing to what is generally accepted, during the committee stage, as a wide-ranging debate. Senator Birmingham has been quite specific in responding to some points made by the minister. So I submit that there is no point of order.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN ( Senator Ludlam ): I draw Senator Birmingham's remarks back to the amendment before the chair.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Chair. I think the arguments around consistency of approach and how these matters are handled are reasonable ones to be explored during these debates. In the end, the minister stood there and made a statement that the coalition did not support abatement through soil sequestration of carbon. I have been attempting to refute that claim, as is perfectly relevant within this debate. I have been attempting to refute that claim by highlighting that we have a consistent position of support. That position has stood the test of time, unlike the government which has flip-flopped on policy and leaders on this issue over the last year and, of course, has lied outright to the electorate over the carbon tax. Those outright lies and the flaws in the policies that the government adopted before are entirely relevant to the issues we are considering.

Let us look at the policies which the government took to the election. They took policies not for a carbon tax and not for an ETS; instead, they took policies for a cash-for-clunkers scheme and a citizen's assembly on climate change. Remember those two beauties? They were ideas of this government. Whatever happened to them? We worked out that the only citizen's assembly Ms Gillard needs is her weekly meeting with Senator Milne's leader, Senator Bob Brown, and we worked out that cash-for-clunkers was likely to be as disastrous a public policy as the home insulation scheme or the green loans scheme, both of which were other flawed policies in this area of climate change policy. So why is it that we are spending a long period debating this issue?

Senator Ludwig: Because you won't sit down!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: We are spending a long period debating it because everything else you touch you get wrong, Minister. Everything this government has touched in this space has just gone wrong. We want to make sure, so far as we possibly can, that what you do here, first principle, does no harm. That is a key part of the amendment before us.

The minister in his response described this as a clarifying amendment—I am sure the minister will correct me if I am misinterpreting him—and said that this amendment does not necessitate in and of itself any change to the regulations which were presented in draft form to the chamber yesterday; that adding a fifth area of consideration for what adverse impacts there could be does not change what the regulations outlining those adverse impacts may be. I find it quite remarkable that each of the five areas of consideration—the availability of water, the conservation of biodiversity, employment, the local community and land access for agricultural production—should be considered equal factors, that each of them would have equal relevance under law, that each of them would have equal relevance in the drafting of these regulations. If we are adding in a fifth area but the minister now says it has no bearing, relevance or interact on these regulations, I find that quite astounding.

It seems to me that the government is utterly ignoring what would be the will of this chamber and the will of this parliament in inserting an extra criterion for consideration here. This list of excluded offsets projects is important because it is critical to the do no harm principle of this legislation. It is critical to making sure that in pursuing projects that allow for carbon abatement they do not negatively impact on the availability of water—the flow of our rivers, our watercourses, our groundwater supplies and all of those critical areas—that they do not negatively impact on the conservation of biodiversity and on maintaining critical wildlife corridors within our communities; that they do not negatively impact on employment prospects by closing down industries; that they do not negatively impact on local communities by causing harm to those communities, be it economic harm or social harm of some kind; and lastly, for the amendment we are debating now, that they do not negatively impact on land access for agricultural production, because we genuinely think that food security issues and Australia's agricultural output are vital and critical for the nation's future. They are things which should be taken into consideration.

We see a burgeoning world population, a burgeoning middle class in the growing superpowers of China and India. They are leading to dramatically increased world demand for food production and food capability, and quite reasonably so. We think Australia should continue to play a key role in that. We think that this country, which has such a proud history of agricultural production and which has done so much not just to feed Australians but to feed parts of the rest of the world, should continue to do that. Nothing should stand in the way of that absolute imperative.

Few issues generate the kind of public emotion, support and response as does the issue of food security and food production—and quite understandably so, because in the end the core, basic principles of life are that we as a species need food, water and shelter. Everything else you can debate, but food, water and shelter are the key ingredients. This country has not just an opportunity but a responsibility to make sure that we are at the absolute forefront of the production of food into the future.

That is why this amendment is so critical and that is why this amendment should be more than tokenistic. It should be more than a clarification; it should mean something. Seeing that this clause of the bill is entirely about setting up a framework by which regulations for the creation of the negative list are drafted, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that, if you were inserting a fifth criterion—a serious fifth criterion, not a meaningless one—relating to agricultural production, it would have some bearing on what is in the regulations. It would be reasonable to expect that it would impact on the regulations and that there would be some level of protection in those regulations for land access for agricultural production.

If the minister says that it is a clarification and that it does not create the need for any further amendment to these regulations, I would invite the minister to show the chamber and to demonstrate to the Australian people how it is—in these regulations or elsewhere in this bill—that there is protection for those key areas of agricultural production. How and where do we find that protection? Where, in black and white, do we find it in the regulations or in the bill? We are putting this statement in here and it is meant to provide that protection, but what areas of Australia's farm production base will actually be excluded? What areas will be protected? Show us, tell us and give some reassurance to those who come back and look at the Hansard records of these debates. Give some reassurance that this is not just a meaningless amendment, that it addresses the concerns of many people—many of my colleagues and many of the farmers groups who want to do the right thing wherever possible. Those farmers groups want to increase the carbon content of soils because they know that that will provide, potentially, not just global benefits but practical benefits for the farmers themselves through enhanced water retention in their soils and therefore enhanced production capabilities.

There is an opportunity there for them, but what is in this amendment to make sure that those farming areas, particularly those of high value, are clearly protected from being taken out of agricultural production? What is in this amendment to ensure that we do not see the loss of the potential to fulfil our responsibility, and to take our opportunity, to be and continue to be a part of feeding the growing demands of the world?

How, Minister, are you going to effect this amendment in the regulations? How is the intent of this amendment effected in the existing regulations or elsewhere in the bill? If it is just a clarification, show us, demonstrate to us, that it is, in fact, just a clarification by showing us that the concerns which have led to this amendment being put forward have already been addressed elsewhere. Show us where that is the case.