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Tuesday, 5 July 2011
Page: 4072

Senator NASH (New South WalesDeputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (18:02): I rise to make a contribution to this debate very much on the basis of being a farmer living in the central west in New South Wales. There are some real concerns with the legislation that the government is putting forward before us here today: the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011, the Carbon Credits (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2011 and the Australian National Registry of Emissions Units Bill 2011. There certainly was a process of Senate inquiry, and it became very clear through that process that there was a significant lack of detail that was put forward not only for us to consider through the inquiry but for the broader community out there, particularly those in agricultural areas who stand to be the most affected.

On this side of the chamber, we are very supportive of carbon farming. There is no doubt that all that we can do to improve our soils should be done. As a farmer, I probably know as well as all the other farmers out there that, if you do not look after the land, the land will not look after you; it is as simple as that. So obviously anything we can do to improve our farming practices and ensure that we have sustainability of land into the future is something that farmers are very concerned with and certainly have a very strong approach to doing.

However, the lack of detail in this bill makes it impossible to support—apart from a whole range of other areas. Even if you agreed completely with the intent of every­thing the government is putting forward here, the lack of detail would preclude anyone from being able to support this bill. It is in a whole range of areas, and I will just run through some of those this evening.

The first and most glaringly obvious is the fact that the Carbon Farming Initiative is going to work entirely differently under a carbon tax or an ETS from how it is going to work under a voluntary market. There were a lot of submissions and certainly a lot of concern out in the community that the government should wait until there is certainty around whether or not there is going to be a carbon tax—as the government says, leading to an emissions trading scheme—before it actually moves to introduce this legislation. I note that the New South Wales Farmers Association were particularly strong in their view about this and, indeed, said in one of their media releases, dated 25 May—quoting Mr Brand, their CEO:

" Until we know the details of how those proposed schemes would work, debate on the Carbon Farming Initiative should be deferred ,"

I think he was quite right. I think that, to understand properly how this piece of legislation is going to work, we do need to know whether or not there is going to be a carbon tax or an ETS in place or whether it will be operating under a voluntary market. It is an incredibly complex piece of legis­lation that is missing an enormous amount of detail.

One of the very worrying concerns is the fact that much of the detail is going to be in the regulations that accompany this legislation. We are not going to see those regulations until we have been asked to determine our position and to vote on this piece of legislation. I do not think that is good enough for this chamber, I do not think it is good enough for the parliament and I do not think it is good enough for the Australian people, because in essence what the govern­ment is doing is saying, 'Just trust us, because we'll get it right later on in the regs.' That is certainly not good enough for the coalition and certainly not good enough for me, because the government is asking us to fly blind and just blindly agree that this piece of legislation will work as it says it will, by and large, without any supporting factual evidence through those regulations. So we should not be considering this legislation until the government has before us the regulations that are going to accompany it. One of the issues is the 'common practice' definition. There are a lot of terms in this piece of legislation that are quite compli­cated but, by and large, the common practice definition with regard to abatement through soil sequestration is that if it is something that is not common practice then it is going to be included. Quite frankly, there was not much more detail than that. I think that before people out there make up their minds on this piece of legislation and, indeed, before those of us here in the Senate actually have to vote on it, we should all have in front of us what that common practice definition is going to be. If I can take you to the Hansard of the inquiry by Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee into this bill, I said to the department officials on 20 April:

… I note that you said at the outset there are no methodologies yet for the soil carbon sequestration. What are you currently defining as common practice within the soil carbon sequestration field that will be excluded?

Ms Thompson, who answered, said:

That is a very good question. I think that is one of the things we will need to look quite hard at when we are preparing the positive list for soil.

That was on 20 April, a matter of only weeks ago. The common practice definition is pivotal to how this piece of legislation is going to deliver what it is intending to do, yet we had the department telling us just a few weeks ago that they were going to need to 'look quite hard' at it. That is just simply not good enough.

Senator Conroy: They were being polite to you!

Senator NASH: I am sure they were being polite, Senator Conroy; all those department officials are always very polite. They simply did not have an answer.

Senator Conroy: They were just humouring you!

Senator NASH: Minister, I think it would be quite useful for you to actually listen to this because you are going to have to vote on it as well. I will bet pounds to peanuts this is not a piece of legislation that you are across, so perhaps for your own peace of mind you might want to pay a little attention to some of the discussion. Then you might have a rather more informed view.

We have no advice from the department. We have no idea from the department what that common practice definition is going to be. So how can people determine whether or not they support this piece of legislation when they simply do not know how it is going to work? We simply do not know. This government is being at best presumptuous, at worst arrogant, asking the Senate to vote on this legislation without the necessary detail.

I also note that, during that committee inquiry process, the department put forward their current determination around the methodologies. Methodologies are, quite simply, what farmers are going to be able to do to sequester carbon in the soil that will be counted, that they will be able to get a credit for. What Ms Thompson put forward on that day was:

The government is working with stakeholders to develop methodologies for soil carbon, reduction in livestock emissions and applications in the rangelands.

This was on 20 April, only a few weeks ago. So, as we have discussed, we have no idea what the common practice definition is going to be and we have no idea of the methodologies, of what farmers are actually going to be able to do that will be counted. As I said, that was as little as just a few weeks ago. And we certainly do not have it in front of us in the chamber today to be able to determine the efficacy of the legislation: to determine whether or not this is actually going to work and whether or not people out in the regional areas are actually going to be able to gain a benefit from this.

When officials were again asked about the common practice definition, the department put forward the view that it might be region by region. When asked if a farming practice is going to be common practice if it is something that is common across the country, if it is going to be something that is determined on a state basis or if it is going to be something determined in another way, the department said that it might be on a region-by-region basis. From that we took it that if it was not really well used in one region then it might count; if it was used primarily and overwhelmingly in another region then obviously it would not count. But we had no information given to us on what the definition of the regions would be and how that would work, or of what the cut-off figure would be for what is common practice. Is it 10 farmers out of 100, or 10 farmers out of a thousand, or one farmer out of a thousand? We simply do not know. And the fact that we do not know is the reason we cannot support this bill. We simply cannot support it because we do not know what is contained within the bill, because we have not seen the regulations.

In relation to the positive and negative lists, the positives are the things that the government is going to include and the negatives are things that, in essence, are not good for those communities so they will be excluded from being able to be counted. Again, we have very little by way of information on how these lists are going to look. We simply do not have the info­rmation. The positive list is going to be of the abatement activities or types of projects that are determined by the minister not to be common practice. The negative list is going to be of those excluded projects which have significant adverse impacts, and the govern­ment has said they will include adverse impacts on prime agricultural land, water availability and biodiversity. That sounds fine, but when you actually get to the legislation—

Senator Conroy: And they say I can talk under wet cement!

Senator NASH: You can, but not without your laptop, I notice, Minister—you need prompting. For the benefit of the chamber, section 56 in the legislation, 'Excluded offsets projects', says:

(1) For the purposes of this Act, an offsets project is an excluded offsets project if it is a project of a kind specified in the regulations—

which I again point out we have not seen—

(2) In deciding whether to recommend to the Governor-General that regulations should be made for the purposes of subsection (1) specifying a particular kind of project, the Minister must have regard to whether there is a significant risk that that kind of project will have a significant adverse impact on one or more of the following:

(a) availability of water;

(b) conservation of biodiversity;

(c) employment;

(d) the local community;

in, or in the vicinity of, the project area, or any of the project areas, for that kind of project.

All this legislation says is that the 'Minister must have regard to whether there is a significant risk'. That is it. That is the sum total of the security blanket the government is giving us to determine whether or not there will be an adverse impact on any of our regional communities. Now that is not good enough. This detail may well be contained in the regulations, but who would know? Who would know how this particular section of the bill is going to work when all we have is the 'Minister must have regard to whether there is a significant risk'?

What does that mean? Will he think one day: I think this is going to be a problem? Does he have an advisory group? Are there going to be people within the community to advise him on this? Is he just going to make a ministerial direction about how all of this is going to work under his own interpretation of what 'significant risk' is going to be? It is simply not good enough and, if the way this government has dealt with the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the 'community consultation' that was taken there and their understanding of 'community impact' is anything to go by, then I have absolutely no confidence that this government can deliver any kind of surety to our regional communities that there will not be an adverse impact as a result of this legislation. I simply do not have that confidence.

Senator Williams: You can't trust them.

Senator NASH: I will take that interjection, thank you very much, Senator Williams: you can't trust them; you simply cannot trust them. Under that Murray-Darling Basin Plan we saw this government say that removing one-third of the irrigation out of our basin communities would result in the loss of 800 jobs. If the government can get it so wrong through lack of consultation and lack of understanding of impact on regional communities, I have absolutely no confidence that they are going to get it right when it comes to the impact of the Carbon Farming Initiative bill.

One of my significant concerns about this is the potential change in land use and the potential skewing of land use as a result of this piece of legislation. What I mean by that is the skewing of prime agricultural land for tree planting instead of food production. I do not think that there is going to be a more serious issue for this nation over the coming decades than food security. It is one of those issues that is sort of under the radar at the moment; people are fairly used to walking into supermarkets and food being on the shelves and they really do not think about it very much.

But I have to say, Madam Acting Deputy President Crossin, they should. People across this country should indeed be thinking about food security. In the future it will mean our ability to feed ourselves, and not only our ability to feed ourselves but our obligation to do our bit to feed those on the rest of the planet. By 2050 there is a predicted global population of nine billion people and we are going to have to feed those people. At the moment the population is only around 6½ billion. We need to be absolutely sure in this country that we make the right decisions now to ensure our agricultural productive capacity into the future, and it is absolutely vital that we do that. If we theoretically look down the track and we do not have the control over the productive land that we need to ensure that we can feed, as I say, not only ourselves but those around the world, then we are going to become a nation of importers. That comes with two very significant issues. One is that there is no quality assurance to the level that we have here and two is that there is no security of supply. The only reason we have security of supply is because we have a domestic production capacity that underpins it. When we lose that—if we lose that—then heaven help us. I do not want to be in the situation where this nation has to be reliant on importing food over the decades to come. This is why we have to be so very certain that this piece of legislation is not going to skew land use in such a way that is going to have an adverse impact on that ability to have our prime agricultural land producing food.

I go back to section 56. The only thing between that scenario—and I admit that it is a hypothetical scenario, but it is still a scenario that needs to be considered—and this piece of legislation is this line:

...that the Minister must have regard to whether there is a significant risk.

That is not good enough. That is not nearly good enough for this chamber, for this parliament, for the people of Australia. We need to have certainty around how that will work. We need guarantees that prime agricultural land is not going to be bought up by companies looking to offset their emissions, who do not perhaps particularly care about the productive capacity of the land or even the financial benefit from that land. These are all scenarios that need to be considered. If this legislation does allow that outcome, then that is going to be a very significant risk for this country. We have to ensure that our farmers across this country have every opportunity not only to maintain their current productive capacity but also to grow it. There are going to be enormous responsibilities in ensuring that we can feed ourselves and those around the rest of the planet.

But there is also a huge opportunity over the coming decades for our farmers to be able to increase their productive capacity, to grow more and to do even better. Our farmers are some of the most technologically advanced, savvy and innovative in the world. There is no doubt about that. As a nation, we should be very proud of the contribution our farmers make to this country, very proud indeed. Indeed, they are not recognised nearly enough for the work that they do and the contribution they make.

So Madam Acting Deputy President, certainly on balance I think anybody that has been able to take the time to look closely at this piece of legislation will realise that the detail is simply not there to the level required for this chamber to be able to support this bill. It is simply not there. I would say that while it is a complex bill, it does not take much determination and much investigation to realise that a lot more needs to be put in front of this chamber by this parliament before we can possibly agree to consider supporting it. I would suggest that it is flawed enough that without many amend­ments we would not even get close to considering it—and I note that the coalition will be moving some amendments—but certainly from the coalition perspective, the lack of detail in this piece of legislation simply makes it impossible to support as it stands.