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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16549

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (8:24 PM) —One of the things that I think the leadership debate in the Labor Party has focused attention on is the question of policies. Simon Crean made very clear in his response to the budget that Labor has indeed got some very significant policies which we believe will address issues which are of real concern to ordinary Australians. Simon talked about Medicare and promoting bulk-billing, he talked about affordable higher education and he talked about saving the Murray River. In picking up that theme of saving the Murray River, I want to take the opportunity tonight of the debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 to talk about Labor's policies in my own portfolio area of environment. There are five policies in particular which we have developed and released in opposition during the course of this parliament which I want to speak about in a little detail.

First is the issue of water. I think water is the key environmental challenge facing this country at this time. The most pressing issue in relation to water is the health of the Murray-Darling river system. In response to that we have committed a Labor government to finding 450 gigalitres during our first term of office—450 gigalitres of extra water in environmental flows, which is necessary to keep the Murray mouth open. We have committed ourselves to finding over the course of 10 years some 1,500 additional gigalitres of water, which is what scientists tell us is necessary to maintain a healthy Murray-Darling river system. In order to do that we have said that we will establish the Murray-Darling River Bank, a Commonwealth corporation, with an initial injection of $150 million to be the vehicle by which we deliver those additional environmental flows.

The second policy I want to refer to is our policy to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change. There is no doubt in my mind that climate change is the most serious environmental issue facing the globe. There is no doubt that we need collective international action to deal with that problem. No one country can solve it on its own. The Kyoto protocol, whatever its sins and shortcomings, is the best available vehicle—effectively the only game in town—and we ought to be part of it. A Labor government would ratify the Kyoto protocol.

Thirdly, to meet the challenge of climate change in the longer term, we need to shift more to renewable energy sources, with the consequent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In order to achieve that, we have promised that a Labor government would set a mandatory renewable energy of five per cent by 2010. The fourth policy I want to refer to relates to land clearing and the need to get a halt in that year in, year out decline in our native vegetation cover.

The final policy I want to talk about this evening relates to the Great Barrier Reef and the need to extend the Great Barrier Reef region out to the borders of the exclusive economic zone in order to ensure that we do not have oil and gas exploration and drilling, with the consequent risks that that might pose for the Great Barrier Reef.

So there are five clear policies, indicating our concern for environment protection in the areas of water, climate change, renewable energy, land clearing and protecting the Great Barrier Reef. I will come back to each of those in a little more detail. I said before that water is the greatest environmental challenge that we face in this country. The health of the Murray-Darling river system is a matter which must be of great concern to all Australians. The mouth of the Murray River closed and it would not be open now if it were not for the dredging that is currently being carried out. This dredging may prove to be ineffectual but, without it, the Murray mouth would close, which would be an ecological disaster for the Coorong.

We have the blue-green algal blooms, we have native fish species declining and at risk of extinction, we have river red gums dying in many parts of the river system and we have increasing salinity. Everywhere you look, we have a Murray-Darling system which is in crisis. That is a matter of great ecological concern. It is a matter of great concern to people in South Australia. We have the prospect of the drinking water in Adelaide not meeting World Health Organisation standards two days out of five by the year 2020 if we continue at the present rate. It also has to be a matter of concern in terms of agricultural production because ultimately, if that system is not sustainable, the agricultural production will not be sustainable either.

The scientists tell us that we need something like 450 gigalitres in additional environmental flows, and it is environmental flows which are at the heart of the problems facing the Murray-Darling Basin. The fact is that in an average year 12,000 gigalitres flows into the Murray-Darling system and 10,000 gigalitres of that is extracted, principally for irrigation, and not returned to the system. That has been a massive change to the Murray-Darling environment. It has not been a sustainable change. The scientists tell us that we need an extra 450 gigalitres put into the system to keep the Murray mouth open, but they estimate that, if we want a healthy river system overall, the system needs something like an additional 1,500 gigalitres. That will not be achieved readily, but Labor believes and the scientists tell us that, if we can achieve that over the course of a 10-year period, we will be able to restore the health of the river system. That means putting back into the river something like an additional two per cent each year. We believe that can be done, and our willingness to put forward $150 million for the creation of a Murray-Darling Riverbank is evidence of our bona fides in addressing that issue.

I was very concerned to hear today the agriculture minister indicating that he does not support returning 1,500 gigalitres to the system and asking really silly questions like, `Where is the water going to come from?' when what is needed is a partnership between the federal government and the states—and that includes a financial commitment from the Commonwealth. The Prime Minister was asked a question by the Leader of the Opposition today concerning the Murray-Darling Basin, and he said that we need to fix up water property rights and we need to have the states doing the right thing. This is a failure of national leadership. The fact that there was not an extra dollar in the budget for the Murray-Darling Basin and that we are seeing cuts in the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality is evidence that the government is not interested in a genuine solution to this problem. All they are interested in is a political solution to this problem. They say, `Yes, the Murray-Darling is in trouble, but we have to leave this matter to the states; they are responsible for fixing it.'

I indicated that Labor supports the ratification of the Kyoto protocol on climate change. In the last day or two, I noticed that in a submission to one of the inquiries regarding the bushfires in January an American scientist, Professor Karoly, said that the reason the bushfires were as severe as they were was because the Australian continent was hotter and drier than it had been on previous occasions. He attributed that to human induced climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, which caused the severe drought which has been devastating for many farmers and rural communities and has damaged Australian business and agriculture. In turn, this drought was responsible in part for the severity of the bushfires that we went through in January this year.

That is the sort of thing that is in store for us if we do not tackle climate change. We have the prospect of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. We have the prospect of a loss of snow cover in the Alps. We have the prospect of tropical diseases becoming more prevalent and more serious as our climate changes. We have the prospect of more frequent and severe droughts, floods, cyclones, bushfires and those types of extreme weather events. For that reason, Australia cannot afford to sit back and allow climate change to happen. We have to act. We have to be part of the collective international action to deal with it. I am confident that the Kyoto protocol will come into force later this year when Russia ratifies it, and we ought to be on board that train.

Indeed, if we are not on board that train there will be costs for Australian business. Australian business will not have access to the clean development mechanism; we will not have access to the emissions trading regime that will be established; and there is a prospect that the nations that are part of the Kyoto protocol will meet and say, `What can we do to punish those nations that aren't doing the right thing?' You have the prospect of the Kyoto protocol effectively being used as a trade barrier against Australian exports. So we need to be part of that collective international action.

That in itself is just a first step. In this I agree with the environment minister: the Kyoto protocol is just the first step. It is a necessary first step, but if we are going to go further we need to look to encouraging renewable energy. There are a range of things that will give us action on greenhouse gas emissions but an important one is renewable energy. There is no doubt in my mind that, if we lift the mandatory renewable energy target, we will get a greenhouse gas emission dividend.

A study done by Origin Energy showed that, if we were to lift the mandatory renewable energy target to five per cent, we would get a one per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the next few years—during what is known as the first commitment period. Doing that would take us one-third of the way towards meeting the gap between the eight per cent target we have and the 11 per cent increase we are tracking for, so it would be a significant thing in the first commitment period. It would be even more significant in years to come, because through setting up alternative energy industries like wind power and solar power and getting into things like fuel cell technology we would be well placed to reduce our emissions still more—and all the scientific evidence shows that we need to make those greater reductions.

I also want to make further mention of our policy to produce a halt to net land clearing. We have had something like half a million hectares being cleared in Australia each year over the last few years. Land clearing is the principal cause of our salinity problems, a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and the principal threat to our endangered species of plants, birds and other animals. We have to take action to put a halt to it; otherwise the damage to our soil and to our threatened species will be great indeed.

I note that the Howard government is now in discussions with the Queensland government, which has enacted a moratorium on land clearing. I welcome the enactment of that moratorium, but it is regrettable that the Howard government has taken so long to get us to this situation. Indeed, recent evidence shows that so many permits have been issued for land clearing that, even if those arrangements are put into place now, we can expect to see more land being cleared in the next few years than we have seen in the last few years. So the rate of land clearing is likely to increase, based on the failure of past policy and on federal government inaction leading to those permits being granted.

Labor has a policy to extend the Great Barrier Reef region out to the exclusive economic zone. We all love the Great Barrier Reef and understand that we have on our hands an asset of international proportions—I am told that it is one of the few things you can see from space. It also supports a massive tourism industry. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Main Committee adjourned at 8.39 p.m.