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Wednesday, 11 December 2002
Page: 10239

Dr EMERSON (12:48 PM) —This debate on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2002 gives me the opportunity to reflect on the philosophy underlying the whole challenge of meeting the global greenhouse gas problem and on the ways that the government and Labor have approached this issue. I go back to 1989, which was the release date of a major statement on the environment, Our country, our future, by the then Hawke Labor government. That environment statement dealt with World Heritage listing, mining in Antarctica and a range of other very important environmental issues, and for the first time put clearly on the agenda the challenge of dealing with the greenhouse effect here in Australia and globally.

That document committed the government to playing its part in the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, citing the scientific evidence that was available even at that time—more than 12 years ago. There was a very clear caveat in the commitment made by the Hawke government in terms of contributing to the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions. That caveat was that nothing would be done that weakened Australia's international competitiveness.

From those early days, Labor had recognised that there is no inevitability at all in a clash between jobs and the environment. It really should be a case of jobs for the environment and jobs and the environment, not a choice between the two, yet that is the approach of the present government. It always portrays environmental issues as costing jobs. The pursuit of environmental goals, from the point of view of the coalition government, inevitably leads to job losses. It is in the government's interests to portray it that way, because that is the way that this government operates. It is always pitting one side against the other, one goal against another. Not long after the statement in question—Our Country Our Future, in 1989—the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke organised a very small roundtable discussion for community representatives to discuss the challenge of ensuring compatibility between jobs and the environment. I recall it clearly because I helped organise the meeting, and in attendance were Rob Bain from the National Association of Forest Industries; Lauchlan McIntosh, who then represented the Australian Mining Industry Council; Judy Lambert from the Wilderness Society; Phillip Toyne from the Australian Conservation Foundation; and Simon Crean, who was then head of the ACTU. That meeting was small but very productive and it spawned the entire process that became the process of ecologically sustainable development—a series of roundtable meetings that, in the end, involved some 90 organisations around this country. Although it was an exhaustive and an exhausting process, it helped instil in the decision making of public servants and governments the notion that we can have jobs and the environment, that any development should be ecologically sustainable. It is a notion that says that we should be living off the environmental interest, not eating into environmental capital, and it is a notion that says we should not, as a community, be imposing environmental burdens on future communities by our activities today.

Since the election of this government, the notion of ecologically sustainable development has been swept off the table completely. That is a great pity because, as I said a moment ago, the government wishes to pit the environment against job creation. There is, in fact, no inevitability at all in such a conflict and I think it is incumbent on any government of any political persuasion to embrace the philosophy of jobs for the environment, not jobs against the environment.

In the philosophy of that time and in greenhouse parlance, there was a series of initiatives called insurance initiatives and others called no regrets policies. I would like to add to that lexicon the notion of low regrets policies—that is, while there may be some financial cost associated with, for example, the setting of targets or some of the policies that can be implemented by governments, they do make good sense because they mean that we are not borrowing the environment from future generations. I was dismayed to learn that the Parer review on the national electricity market actually recommended the abolition of the mandated renewable energy target. The value of that target is that it focuses the community's attention on the challenge of coming up with viable renewable energy sources. We on the Labor side are now advocating a lifting of that target to five per cent. In the same way as caveats were applied back in 1989, I think it is totally legitimate for Labor to be saying—and I do say—that, in pursuit of the five per cent mandated renewable energy target, we should not be imposing large additional costs on consumers of electricity who are low-income consumers.

We on the Labor side in fact opposed the GST, as is well known, and at the last election we brought a policy before the public to take the GST off electricity. Why did we do this? We did this because we recognised that electricity, amongst all the goods and services consumed by families, is consumed disproportionately by low-income families. Therefore, you would get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of equity by removing the GST from electricity. Labor came to that conclusion based on good, solid quantitative analysis based on household expenditure survey work. Therefore, to be consistent and to be fair, it is valid for Labor to be indicating that we would not wish to see large new additional imposts as a result of the pursuit of a larger mandated renewable energy target being imposed on low-income consumers in this country.

That is why the pursuit of mandated renewable energy targets should be focused on renewable energy sources for the future and the emerging technologies. Very importantly, from a Labor perspective, it should also be focused on clean coal technologies. We see a future for coal. We see a big future for coal in a greenhouse friendly Australia. But that big future for coal is a future for clean coal. There are exciting developments in clean coal technology. We support those workers who are employed in the industry and their families, who depend on coalmining in this country. We believe that a great deal more can be done and should be done to ensure that our coal production and the export quality of the coal is such that it is clean and minimises greenhouse gas emissions.

We are absolutely bemused as to how the government can justify a decision not to sign the Kyoto protocol but at the same time commit to achieving Australia's Kyoto target. That, to us, is the worst of all possible worlds. If the government is right—and we do not believe it is—and if the government's argument that achieving the target would lead to job losses is correct, then why would you say, `We are going to achieve the target anyway but we are not going to ratify the Kyoto protocol'? We are saying that it will not lead to job losses, which we know the government actually believes. In reality, it is railing against any international organisation—that is the purpose of this. Its political purpose is to say, `We are not going to sign up to any international agreements at all, but we are going to meet the targets.'

The consequences of that have been very adverse for Australian businesses because Australian businesses are now looking overseas and overseas businesses are saying, `Australia is not a good place to locate when many countries of the world have signed the Kyoto protocol.' Why do they say this? Because they will not be able to trade in greenhouse credits. Foreign investment could be coming into this country in terms of growing trees—that is, greenhouse sinks. Australia is a great place to grow trees; we used to have a lot more trees. Our land will sustain a lot more trees. If we did grow more trees and if Australia was a signatory to and had ratified the Kyoto protocol, they would be counted as greenhouse credits.

Projects are being put on hold in Australia involving foreign investment in the growing of trees in this country because the government will not ratify the Kyoto protocol. There are lost opportunities there not only for investment but also for the environment. So the government are saying, `We are not going to ratify the Kyoto protocol. We are going to risk the environment of this country. We are going to pose an additional hazard to the global environment and we are going to deter investment in carbon sinks. We are going to deter investment in the growing of trees.'

I visited the BP site in Sydney recently, and there are as many people in BP employed in the research and development of photovoltaic cells as there are employed in oil refinery operations. Such is the great potential of this country to create jobs for the environment, not jobs against the environment. So if the government would embrace that philosophy, if it would ratify the Kyoto protocol, this country would be in a much stronger position—we would remain internationally competitive, we would attract additional foreign investment and we would improve our environment through foreign investment in carbon sinks.

In closing I make this prediction: in the next few months the government will ratify the Kyoto protocol. It will swallow its pride and its reluctance to do anything multilateral by signing any international agreement. It sought to extract the maximum political advantage out of beating up on the United Nations and any other international organisation it possibly could in its agenda of instilling fear in this country and capitalising on that fear. It will swallow its pride. Why? Because investment in these industries is being stymied in this country. The industries themselves—businesses both Australian and foreign owned—are putting pressure on the government to ratify the Kyoto protocol. This is a great opportunity for the government to swallow its pride and ratify that agreement in the coming weeks.