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Tuesday, 5 July 2011
Page: 4008


Senator BACK (Western Australia) (13:50): I rise also to speak on this bill and to put on record the coalition's very strong support for the practice of storing carbon in our soils and in the landscape. For those who did not have the benefit of listening to the data provided by my colleague Senator Williams, with his permission I am going to repeat it. For every one per cent that we can increase the carbon in soils in Australia, in our soil profile, in our low-phosphate soils, we capture 15 tonnes per hectare of carbon, which is the equivalent of 50 tonnes per hectare of carbon dioxide. As Senator Williams went on to say, there being 450 million hectares of arable land in this country, if we could raise the level of carbon across that soil profile by three per cent, we would be looking at 65 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. That is 65 times 109 tonnes of carbon dioxide stored in our soils. If ever there was a time when we needed to improve the fertility of soils across this country, it is now. Senator Williams went on to say that 560 million tonnes of carbon dioxide are produced by Australia each year and that if we could achieve merely that three per cent figure of which he spoke we would be dealing with this issue for the next 100 years.

I come from a family of pioneer farmers whose clearance practices were by today's standards radical; but at that time, of course, the farmers did not know that. Most of Western Australia is light land which is deficient in trace elements in many areas, and I and my colleagues during my young days as a veterinarian in the department of agriculture watched soil fertility decline in the wheat belt areas of our state. We used different tilling techniques then that, whilst appropriate for the killing of weeds, were clearly leading to a decline in soil fertility, mainly because we were killing soil microbes. We then saw, through the late 1970s and 1980s, the introduction of minimum tillage. I was part of the Muresk Institute of Agriculture at Northam, where there was a process of research over some years, during which we watched the improvement in the quality of the soils as measured by soil microbes and earthworms. In control areas in which tillage was still conducted according to the old, traditional means such as ploughing, scarifying, seeding and scarifying back, we saw soil fertility continue to drop. For example, the number of earthworms, an indicator of fertility, dropped. But in other paddocks and plots, through the use of minimal tillage along with chemicals such as Roundup and through sowing into areas that had not previously been disturbed, we saw a radical increase in soil fertility.

What an opportunity we now have to work collaboratively—imagine that!—across this parliament to achieve an outcome. If ever there has been validation of the direct approach to the question of carbon in soils and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it has been expounded today in this place by Senator Williams, and I support it. It is the common-sense approach, and it is going to achieve an outcome.

Why am I so distressed that this legislation is coming before the chamber today? It is deja vu; in October and November 2009 we were debating the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme prior to the then Prime Minister and his then climate minister going to Copenhagen. We pleaded on this side of the chamber—and a colleague sitting in front of me made this point last night on national television—for there not to be a debate on the issue until we knew what the world was doing. We were ignored—our plea was not listened to—and, of course, the rest is history. If only we had been able to defer any further discussion of the topics raised by that legislation until we knew the outcome of Copenhagen and until we knew what the rest of the world was going to do, including our competitors and those in our region, how much better would this place be today?

I plead that we not go forward with this legislation until we have heard from the Prime Minister on Sunday about what her carbon taxing program is. We are being asked in this legislation to address one element of her program—that is, carbon farming—which is critically important and could have a very significant effect on our country. Dare I say it, this is an area in which Australia has always excelled. As I said in the CPRS debate, we have always excelled in undertaking research and development to prove up our technologies in this country and then make them available to others. We make technologies available at a price that developed countries can afford to pay and give to developing countries the technology and the wherewithal so that they themselves can utilise this technology in a way that can benefit them. Having worked in the Middle East and in India, I can assure you that there is a demand for knowledge in those places—there is a demand for the results of research and development—and any positive impact that Australia has, producing as it does a mere 1.5 per cent of the world's carbon dioxide, will be through the research and development that we undertake in this country and pass on to others, whether for fee or for free. But anything we do to the exclusion of other countries will be negative—in fact, it may even add to world carbon if you believe the leakage issue—and may place our industries and the employment prospects of the workers of this country at a significant disadvantage because we will be at a loss compared to our trading competitors, who will continue to be able to put products onto Australian shelves without having to reckon with the imposition of a carbon tax.

We have heard it said here this afternoon—and I repeat—that we do not yet possess sufficient information on the basis of which to be able to make decisions attendant upon this legislation. The point was made that we still do not have access to, for example, the ABARES information which was so important when this issue came before a Senate inquiry. Most importantly, we do not yet know what will be in the Prime Minister's carbon statement on the weekend. She must know what she is going to say—surely she is organised enough at this stage on Tuesday afternoon to know what she is going to say on Sunday—and she should therefore stop treating the Australian people and this chamber with the arrogance with which she is treating it and come out and tell us what is in this legislation before we are asked to judge, act and vote on carbon farming, which is a very small element in it.

Again I say that the coalition is strongly supportive of the practice of storing carbon in our soils and in the landscape. We want to be part of that process. The Greens are engaging on it and the Australian Labor Party—the government—is acting upon it. But do not treat this place like a mushroom; do not treat this place the way that the government of the day treated it with the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in 2009. We begged Senator Wong to not bring that legislation forward until you had been to Copenhagen. But you came home with your tails between your legs, having failed. If only that legislation had come before this place early in 2010 you would not have been made to look so foolish and, more to the point, you would not have made Australia look so foolish.

Debate interrupted.