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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 769

Senator MARGETTS (11.00 a.m.) —I have listened to some of the most extraordinary debate today, especially in relation to international treaties. One treaty that springs to mind, which has some of the least democratic elements of almost any treaty Australia has signed in recent times, was put together by a council of multinational corporations whose only real interest was their profitability. This is a treaty which has more rules which affect more elements of every aspect of Australian life than any other treaty we have signed. This treaty is GATT—the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

  This treaty has taken more of our sovereignty than any other treaty that I can think of in terms of rules that we must adjust for industry. The horticultural industry, which Senator Panizza was defending yesterday, is more affected by GATT than most other primary industry because of the rules that are imposed on it and its inability to fight for its own interests in Australia. GATT includes environmental rules about what we can and cannot accept in Australia in terms of the level of pollution, the level of radiation in food and clean produced products. If one wants to see a treaty that imposes rules, one should have a look at GATT.

  Again and again I have called on government and opposition senators to open their eyes and look into the implications of that treaty. They have not been willing to do it. I find it extraordinarily hypocritical that a treaty which requires Australia to do nothing gets this kind of reaction, when the most important treaty that has been signed in recent times—with the most devastating impact on Australia's sovereignty—went by without an inquiry. It is gross hypocrisy from the other side.

Senator Coulter —They voted against an amendment.

Senator MARGETTS —Exactly. The irony is that we have also seen a great deal of discussion from the opposition in recent times—even today—on drought. During the last couple of days, I have mentioned in this place that even the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) now refers to drought as no longer just an accidental phenomenon but as a symbol of the oncoming climatic change which Australia and other countries in the world are experiencing.

  I would like to point out the impact of floods. Senator Chapman said, `We've had floods in parts of the world and, therefore, that means the theories on desertification, and perhaps climate change, are not as valid.' One needs to look only at the detailed information that international organisations like Greenpeace are putting together in relation to climate change to find that climate change does not just mean droughts or a slow change. It means destructive weather patterns—damaging wind patterns, floods and the greater occurrence of droughts in various parts of the world.

   It is true that there is not just one reason for desertification. It results from human usage of the land, overstocking in various parts of the world, inappropriate land use and clearing patterns and the impact of climate change, not just in Africa but Australia as well. If 76 per cent of the Australian continent is likely to be affected—as has been quoted—that means it is not less important for Australia to be taking firm action, it is more important.

  A country in southern Africa which is very aware of any impacts of climate change—and it has a greater proportion of desert land than Australia—is Namibia. Rather than the people of Namibia suggesting that they ought to be hiding away from the impact of ecology versus economy, they have actually realised very clearly what the connection is between their lives and their environment. So much so that article 95 of their constitution—under `Principles of state policy: Promotion of the welfare of the people'—states:

The State shall actively promote and maintain the welfare of the people by adopting, inter alia, policies aimed at the following . . .

This includes:

. . . maintenance of ecosystems, essential ecological processes and biological diversity of Namibia and utilization of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all Namibians, both present and future . . .

This has been copied by Botswana—which has some similar climatic problems—because of its relevance, and it is now being looked at as a model for South Africa. One cannot say that South Africa has grasped onto the ratbag image of the far green movement. In fact, they are very aware of the impact of people and the equity involved with people versus the environment, and they are also very keen to look at the impact of including ecological sustainability in their constitution.

  If we are going to look at changes to our constitution, we must look not at employing a minimalist position but at writing these changes into the constitution so that the matter is not beaten up, or seen to be beaten up, as a states rights issue. It is the people's right to have a fair environment and a sustainable lifestyle, not just now but in the future. I doubt whether some honourable senators on the other side know what ecological sustainability is or what the precautionary principle is. The precautionary principle says, `You do not wait until it is so darn obvious that everybody can see what the implications are because if you do wait, it is probably too late.'

  Despite the beaten up fears of the opposition, we have a number of national policies which have been signed and agreed to by all parties—including all states—but we do not necessarily see those being kept to. We have forest protection strategies. We have signed the international climatic change convention. At the moment, the Australian government has not done the very little that it is obligated to do under that convention. The reality is that the desertification convention is another great example of Australian negotiators going into the international arena and telling other countries what to do. The only possible implications are that Australia would do things or transfer technology to other countries.

  Having just come back from southern Africa, I can say that there does not seem to be a current desire for Australia to assist southern Africa or Saharan Africa in any way. In fact, the Minister for Development Cooperation and Pacific Island Affairs (Mr Bilney) has recently stated that Australia is not keen on increasing its aid to Africa. I wonder whether or not the two parties—the people involved in signing the treaty, and the people involved in aid in the Australian government—have actually talked to each other and worked out whether they are both going in the same direction. I would like to see some real moves to look at the needs of southern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, but I have not seen any great evidence of that at the moment.

  The Greens did consider supporting this motion, but only if it included a balanced viewpoint which looked at the implications of desertification. In our view, if we are going to look at the implications of signing the treaty, we also need to look at the implications of desertification. If we are going to get an analysis of the impacts on the Australian environment, economy and social system, we need to have a balanced view. The opposition refused that balance.

  We asked for the extent of desertification of Australia's rangelands and its causes; the environmental, social and economic impacts; actions required to halt and reverse desertification in Australia and overseas; the capacity of the convention to contribute to Australia's efforts in those actions; and the means of monitoring the progress of programs directed at reversing desertification in Australia. The opposition has not included that in its motion. It has refused to accept that as part of the motion. So there was no way that we could support this motion when it was designed simply as a means of point scoring in relation to the convention and the treaty. We need to look at these considerations if there is to be any real examination of the way the environment is directly related to our future.

  It is also important to realise that, unlike the Democrats, the Greens were prepared to accept a reference of this matter to a select committee. I am quite curious about the pressure that has been put on us recently because a number of people have said that agreement has been reached between the major parties that select committees will no longer be set up. I do not know whether such an agreement exists. I would certainly like to see exactly what has been agreed upon by the other parties because no such agreement has been reached by the Greens. If such an agreement exists, I would certainly like to see the details.

  Generally, there might be a lesser need for select committees if the new committee system works as expected. At the moment, the Senate has the ability to refer to select committees for inquiry matters which do not fit into the present structure or matters which cannot be dealt with by the appropriate committee because of the workload of that committee. It would be very easy and convenient for a government to fill up a committee with references so that it could not take on any more and then say, `We don't have the ability to have select committees, therefore, we cannot have this inquiry.' It would be a very sad thing for the democratic process in this place if there was an agreement by the major parties to remove the Senate's ability to establish a select committee when required.

  I point out to Senator Chapman that it is very convenient to find tame scientists who are prepared to stand up against the majority. I am not talking about a lunatic fringe; I am talking about the majority of people in society who are concerned about the future and ecological sustainability. One has only to look at well-funded institutions like the Tasman Institute, which is funded by the mining and oil industries to present papers to the community to try to argue against the existence of such things as the greenhouse effect, to realise just how threatened very large corporations are by this growing awareness of the need for ecological sustainability.

  It is always possible to find the oddball out, the person who is prepared to stand up on behalf of corporations and argue that these things are mythical. Pointing to the oddball out simply indicates what the real wealth of information is saying. One would have to be blind not to see the changes that are being made to our society and our environment. Farmers and others who make their livelihood from the land are well aware of any changes to climate and to their land. Quite often they need more help than the government gives. However, they will be the ones who will feel it most.

  If we do not recognise the connections between the environment, the economy, employment and the future, we will all end up sitting here without an economy at all. If we destroy the environment we will not have an economy. It is about time some of these connections were recognised by those people who are standing up and saying, `Yes, the government should do something for farmers. We cannot do anything about desertification because it will be the end of the world.' Such people forget that changes to the climate and to our environment will destroy farmers a lot more quickly than the absence of any positive moves to try to address their problems.