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Tuesday, 4 November 2003
Page: 21968


Ms BURKE (6:40 PM) —The ozone layer occurs in the upper atmosphere about 15 to 30 kilometres above the earth's surface. It is an important part of the global atmosphere-climate system in which present-day living organisms have evolved. It protects life on earth by absorbing ultraviolet—or UV—radiation from the sun. As is quite well known, UV radiation is linked to skin cancer, genetic damage, damage to aquaculture and damage to the entire food chain. Any significant change to this layer can and will have far-reaching consequences for human and global health. It is therefore greatly satisfying—for once, in this place—to give my support to proactive and forward looking legislation like the ozone bills before us today. These ozone bills are the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Legislation Amendment Bill 2003, the Ozone Protection (Licence Fees—Manu-facture) Amendment Bill 2003 and the Ozone Protection (Licence Fees—Imports) Amendment Bill 2003. These bills are not backward looking—for once—or aimed at curing past wrongs. They are progressive, with the intention of maintaining a level of control upon dangerous ozone depleting substances and synthetic greenhouse gases.

The Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Legislation Amendment Bill 2003 implements the recent amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which bans the trading and manufacture of bromochloromethane and the trading of hydrochlorofluorocarbons with countries not committed to phasing out these substances. It will also establish a national regulatory system for the management of ozone depleting substances and the synthetic greenhouse gases that are replacing these substances. The ozone protection bills, on the other hand, impose the current payments on the manufacture and import of ozone depleting substances onto some synthetic greenhouse gases and allow for an increase in these payment when appropriate.

These bills before us are amendments to the progressive legislation in this area introduced by the Labor Party way back in 1989. The ultimate aim of this group of bills is to ensure that as a nation we are environmentally responsible and nurture our country and planet for future generations. Since that Labor Party initiative in 1989, Australia's consumption of ozone depleting substances has reduced by over 80 per cent. It is with some pride that I can say that Australia continues to be a world leader in the phasing out of ozone depleting substances, so much so that in many regards we exceed the Montreal protocol requirements.

However, it is sad that as a society we are in a quandary. Ironically, we are phasing out ozone depleting substances because of the catastrophic damage they have caused and continue to cause, but we are replacing these with synthetic greenhouse gases which are far from ideal—a prime example of having to choose the lesser of two evils. Even so, there has been support by various industry and environment groups, from tacit or conditional support to wholehearted approval of the measures that the bills will put in place. They are widely recognised—as they should be—as the logical step forward in this area. But if the government think that the support of these bills by the Labor Party is a pat on the back for them or some type of endorsement of their environmental policy then they are grossly mistaken. You see, as with everything that comes into this House—and, I dare say, life—it is important to see them in perspective and in context. Without context, we lose sight of what we are doing and why.

As alluded to earlier, these bills are in fact about the environment. They impose fees and alter what corporations and governments can and cannot do, but these activities are aimed at environmental sustainability and protection. It is within this context that I am extremely disappointed with the government. I have nothing but disdain for the government's past and present policy in this area. Let me demonstrate what I mean by making a few points. First, Ventura Bus Lines operates in my electorate of Chisholm. This is an innovative company which introduced the first two totally renewable fuel buses in Australia in 2002. These buses operate with 100 per cent ethanol, which has various advantages over diesel. Let me repeat: they operate with 100 per cent ethanol. Ethanol safeguards air quality, eliminating up to 50 per cent of greenhouse gases. It reduces the use of fossil fuels and utilises renewable fuel sources. It adds value to a waste product, since the ethanol would otherwise be dumped. It creates rural employment through the growth of sugar cane and/or wheat for ethanol production. Most importantly, it is an Australian made fuel, as opposed to an imported product.

However, these buses also have a lower energy rating than diesel buses, so the consumption of ethanol is proportionally greater. Consequently, the company approached the government to see whether ethanol could be automatically included in the Alternative Fuels Conversion Program, along with LPG and CNG, and whether the Diesel and Alternative Fuels Grant Scheme—now the Energy Grants Credit Scheme—could be reviewed to ensure that the rebate on ethanol is set to make it competitive with diesel, since the rate was set before ethanol was used on a commercial basis for transport in Australia.

What did the minister have to say to this organisation taking environmentally responsible initiatives? He said: `No, you can't have it. No, we won't do it. No, you can't go and use ethanol.' For all the ranting and raving on the other side of the House about the Labor Party being opposed to ethanol, it is quite ironic that it is the current minister who said no to this phenomenal use of ethanol. Instead of encouraging and promoting this behaviour, the government is trying its hardest to wipe it out before it even gets started.

The government should stop pretending to do the right thing and, for a change, should actually do it. Ventura Bus Lines has done its share; it has gone to great expense to be environmentally responsible, with little or no help. This is not a massively large company. It is run on a shoestring and it has gone out on a limb. Sadly, it has gone out on a limb and has not been able to get back off it. It now has three buses and has installed ethanol-only bowsers, and it can now accommodate up to 50 ethanol-only buses. But where has this initiative got it, even after personally meeting with the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, whose electorate benefits from the toing-and-froing of Ventura buses up and down the suburbs? What has he done? He has given nothing but a fake smile and has said, `Don't call us, we'll call you.'

Ventura buses has now reluctantly shelved its plans on the back of having had no answer to its request and will not pursue what was and is a great initiative. This is a tragedy. It is forced to continue using diesel buses, all because this far from green government would not even look at the equalisation of cost between diesel and ethanol. It thus chose money over what would have been encouragement to other companies to do what is best for the environment and this country.

My second point is the empty announcement made by Minister Kemp earlier this month. He proudly announced that 15 national `biodiversity hot spots' had been identified. Great. But did he take the further and essential step of listing them on the Register of Critical Habitat? No. Prior to the last federal election, the Howard government promised that the coalition would aim to ensure `that critical habitat is identified and entered in the Register of Critical Habitat for priority endangered and critically endangered species'. As usual, that was an empty promise which may never be more than minutely fulfilled.

Since April 2001 only two ecological communities have been listed, despite the fact that the Threatened Species Scientific Committee has been considering 500 ecological communities since November 2000. This government has the environmental agenda so low on the priority list that it is likely to see the extinction of some birds, animals and plants—all of which could have been prevented. The Howard government must have the Threatened Species Scientific Committee make recommendations about appropriate listings for the Register of Critical Habitat and take action to implement those recommendations instead of sitting on its hands as it always does.

My third point is the disturbing research finding coming out of the University of East Anglia. It has confirmed the presence of climate change as a significant driver of global temperature increases over the last 25 years. I think anybody could look objectively at the weather we have been having lately and conclude that this is going on. Although bad, it is predicted to get even worse over the next century, which will have severe environmental ramifications for Australia. But, as previously pointed out by my colleague the member for Wills, this makes the reports filtering out of cabinet that it has rejected a submission on emissions trading prepared by the Treasurer and the Minister for the Environment and Heritage very surprising. Although the submission has not been made public, it was said to have recommended that the government announce that Australia will introduce a greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme early in the next decade.

But what does this all mean? It means putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions so that large corporations invest in efficiency. Expert advice suggests that the European Union Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading Scheme will drive a current $60 billion carbon reduction market to a staggering $600 billion market. The 1999 report of the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council identified a $750 billion market and recommended aggressive action to ensure Australia's participation. But what has been done? Par for the course: nothing. Why? Because the government has its policies driven by big businesses, and often they are the same big businesses that are the worst environmental offenders. For once, Prime Minister, take a stand and do what is right: endorse a submission that has been made to your cabinet and introduce these schemes.

My fourth point is the MRET, or mandatory renewable energy target, which aims at increasing the use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. In 1997 the Prime Minister committed to a two per cent increase to this target—a paltry sum to begin with—but, instead of reaching it, the contribution of renewable energy since the announcement has actually fallen by two per cent. If this government wanted any credibility in the environmental arena, it would adopt the Labor Party pledge to increase Australia's use of renewable energy sources by an additional five per cent. This increase would ensure that this sector will be a growth industry of the future, which in turn will create jobs and assist Australia to meet its Kyoto protocol target.

This brings me to my fifth point about the context of these bills within the government's environment policy, and the matter of what is being done and what could and should be done. In May this year, this side of the House introduced a private member's bill to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change. Aside from the environmental damage resulting from not meeting the Kyoto protocol target, this lack of government conviction locks Australian industry out of global trading mechanisms and emerging new markets. This means that Australian companies are missing out on opportunities—a case of others being punished for the Howard government dragging its feet and keeping up an abundant level of inactivity.

But, aside from the economic benefit of ratification, by committing to this important protocol and meeting its objectives there would be a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of some 17 million tonnes. This staggering amount is three times the amount claimed by the bills before us today. So, put in this light, the government is actually underperforming and should be doing very much more in this vital area. This would be far better than its self-congratulatory attitude for a job that has, to all intents and purposes, barely started.

Actually, even without mentioning the Kyoto protocol, the Howard government should be ashamed of itself even in relation to these bills before us. Methyl bromide is classified as a powerful ozone-depleting substance, but after its phasing-out date there may still be transitional access required. This has resulted in a critical-use exemption in rare cases. However, even though the exemption is clear and unequivocal that the case needs to be exceptional, it appears that the government may be set to allow dubious exemptions. Such irresponsible treatment of the phase-out, which is due by 1 January 2005, will compromise the very intent of the phase-out.

Additionally, it is true that these bills deliver progress in this area, but the government is again guilty of dragging its feet. This government committed to introducing ozone protection legislation in 1995, but it has taken it a whopping nine years to live up to this commitment. Nine years is an exceptionally long time. This just demonstrates the vote-grabbing mentality of the Liberal Party. It demonstrates that the environment is an afterthought that is thrown in occasionally to try to win over some votes from those with a greener disposition.

Well, it doesn't work. It does not take a great investigative mind to see that on the other side of the Tasman the New Zealand government has already ratified the Kyoto protocol and introduced even tougher environmental safeguards than are required. As a matter of fact, those South-East Asian and Pacific countries that the Prime Minister so proudly wants to be the sheriff of have also been moving forward at a steady rate. These countries, which the Prime Minister so arrogantly thinks he can treat as lesser entities, have done what he has failed to do. Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam have all ratified the protocol, but Australia is still woefully lagging behind.

But this is not just about other countries, foreign protocols or seemingly obscure targets. The Kyoto protocol will more than affect this wonderful country. It will be the first critical step to help save our Great Barrier Reef from coral bleaching, which could be as frequent as 100 days per year within the next 50 years. We have already heard from the other side that Australia is on track to meet the Kyoto protocol target. Any such statement should be treated with scepticism, as there is something decidedly suspicious about the claim. You see, if we are on target, why will the government not ratify the protocol and allow Australia to enter the markets that ratifying the protocol will open up? I and every other Australian will be waiting for what excuse comes forward from the Howard government. The truth of the matter is that the Howard government treats the environment as it treats Medicare, pharmaceutical benefits and social welfare—as mere vote-grabbing bait and not as an important issue.

The government should seize the opportunity to now pass the bill introduced into the Senate to ratify the Kyoto protocol. I applaud the action taken by the member for Wills in introducing the private member's bill in May and Senator Kate Lundy for introducing an identical bill last week. The government should pass the bill and take the necessary steps in making Australia a better international environmental citizen. For the present, I commend the ozone bills before us and believe they should be supported. They are an important step forward in the efforts to save our environment. But simultaneously I condemn the government for its overall lack of action on the environment front and for the manner in which it is calmly sitting back while there is so much that needs to be done.