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Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Page: 595

Senator MILNE (1:15 PM) —I rise today to comment on the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and associated bills, which deal with the economic stimulus which has been put to this parliament by the Rudd government in the face of the global financial crisis. I would begin by saying that Einstein reminded us that problems are not solved at the same level of thinking that created them. The fact of the matter is that people are simply thinking about the financial crisis and failing to recognise that we are actually in a triple global crisis: we have a crisis of global warming, we have a crisis of oil depletion and we have a financial crisis, and they are all coming together. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that, in responding to the financial crisis, we do not make the climate crisis and our vulnerability and dependence on foreign oil even worse. That is my real concern about the thinking behind the stimulus package—thinking simply to deal with the fact that the world is going into recession. All our major trading partners are going into recession and Australia is doing everything possible, in every quarter, to trade in the black, to try to keep us technically out of a recession. In so doing, there is no consistency in the policy settings being applied.

It is very clear that there is a fantastic opportunity, in addressing the global financial crisis, to accelerate our response to global warming and to our vulnerability on peak oil, and that has been labelled the ‘green new deal’—that is, to make sure we invest in the infrastructure, skills training and new jobs which will take us from heavy dependency on fossil fuels to the renewable energy economy, towards a net zero emissions target by 2050, to accelerate training and uptake in jobs in this new green economy. Australia is vulnerable and has been for some time.

In response to the 2006 Howard government budget—and contrary to the view that this was all manna from heaven, tax cut after tax cut, and that the country has never been wealthier and never been better—I stood here and said that we were extremely vulnerable because for a decade we hollowed out the manufacturing sector, our brightest went overseas and took their technologies with them and we became increasingly dependent on digging up, cutting down and shipping overseas. I said there would come a point when we could no longer sell Australia, the quarry, its product, overseas and that we had to invest in manufacturing, in innovation and in education. For a decade we underfunded education—we underfunded investment in skills training and in our universities. If you underfund your human capital, if you underfund education and health services and if you hollow out manufacturing you are left with an economy very little better than what we had when we were riding on the sheep’s back in the 19th century. Ours was a task to convert the Australian economy using the profits from the resources with which we are blessed to make a more sophisticated economy that is more resilient, more diverse, and therefore able to de-couple our economic growth from unsustainable resource use. That is the key to making this transition to the low-carbon economy. We have to de-couple growth from basic raw material resource use.

Last year, we were told that the Rudd government wanted to be a leader on climate change, that there was a new Department of Climate Change in Prime Minister and Cabinet and that that Department of Climate Change would oversee a whole-of-government approach, but we have not seen a whole-of-government approach when it comes to this package. There is no green new deal as such. Let me give you an example. If you were serious about using the economic stimulus to reduce dependence on digging up and cutting down, on coal exports, and instead move to a renewable energy future then you would recognise that, to complement the mandatory renewable energy target, to drive the rollout of the new technologies, you would invest in the infrastructure that would do that. So there would have been a massive infrastructure injection into upgrading the energy grid, the electricity grid in Australia, so that you could have an intelligent grid capable of bringing on renewable energy sources wherever they were being built. You would also pass the gross national feed-in tariff because it complements the notion of increasing the skills based training and manufacturing capacity in renewable energy and it would bring on new renewable energy from the smallest generation with roof-top photovoltaics through to the large-scale solar arrays and solar thermal, to large-scale wind. It would bring on geothermal, it would bring on all the new technologies and create thousands of jobs.

There is no disputing that there are thousands of jobs in the green-collar economy. Last year the CSIRO came out with a very substantial report pointing out that there were hundreds of thousands of jobs to be had in the new economy and identifying the skills gap we have in Australia in moving from where we are to where we need to be. I spoke to the CSIRO and I asked them: ‘Have you also done an audit of the skills base in the Hunter Valley and the Latrobe Valley, for example? You could include in that those people employed in logging primary forests in Tasmania. Have you actually done a skills audit to see if there is a capacity to retrain people working in those jobs, to move them into the green-collar economy?’ In deploying energy efficiency and renewable energy, you need people to be involved in the supply chain. You need people to deliver the materials, to install the materials and to maintain them. You need people in the service sector to sell the industries. You also need to have your manufacturing plants in order. You would have anticipated, for example, the collapse in the car industry and would have moved to a green car plan much earlier. You would also have looked at retooling some of those plants to be solar manufacturing plants.

There is no consistency in this package. I am very pleased that there is an investment in retrofitting Australia’s houses to provide ceiling insulation. That is incredibly important. But we need not only two million homes but all of Australia’s dwellings to be upgraded. We need full insulation—wall insulation as well—solar hot water and instantaneous gas right across the whole of the Australian housing estate. We also need a building code which increases the standard so that we do not continue making the same mistakes. That is why the Greens have to welcome, in this package, the insulation assistance, and the solar hot water assistance if people already have ceiling insulation, for two million homes.

We are also saying that, if the government is going to spend $6.6 billion on new social housing, that social housing must have the highest standards of energy efficiency. Why? Because it is good for the climate. It reduces our emissions. It is also good for the people who move into those houses because it permanently reduces their energy bills by permanently reducing their demand. It gives them a more comfortable house to live in. Those houses should also be attached to a public transport route. We know that the poorest people live the furthest from the centre of the city, have the least access to public transport and are likely to drive the oldest, most gas-guzzling cars. If you build people affordable housing which is energy efficient and water efficient, and if people have access to public transport, then you take out the poverty trap that will be caused by increased energy prices as we go into the future. We know we are going to have increased energy prices when we introduce the carbon price that is essential to dealing with climate change.

The other issue is the intelligent grid. There are fantastic opportunities for using that. We recognise that there is a loss of jobs in the mining industry as a result of the collapse in demand overseas. There is an opportunity in the Pilbara, for example, to upgrade the grid—that is, to have an intelligent grid in the Pilbara, which will allow us to bring on a solar thermal plant.

There is nothing in the package which sees a massive investment in public transport. In Victoria in the last month or so we have seen a collapse in the public transport system. We have seen the old energy virtually collapse under the strain. We need investment in public transport. We also need investment in major cycleways. Cycleways, together with public transport, mean that you get improved amenity in cities. You get improved public health, so you get very personal benefits—a good thing when we have an obesity crisis as well—but you also get a reduction in congestion and you get better urban design. So there are many reasons why you would invest in a public transport system and why you would complement a public transport system with a greater investment in cycleways.

I will go on to talk about other long-term planning. The Greens have argued for a very long time for a massive investment in education. If you do not educate your people, you are not going to get anywhere. You are not going to upgrade your skills base. Again, we have argued for energy efficiency not only for public housing but for new infrastructure. We are arguing that, given the $14.7 billion that is going into new school buildings, those new school buildings should be energy efficient. It reduces the cost of operation to the schools. It is better for students for the buildings to be efficient and it is less of a draw on the environment. But that could have been complemented by a rollout of renewable energy in schools as well, which would turn school buildings into power stations, effectively, in a modern grid which is capable of managing the energy load through both efficiency and renewables.

There are a whole lot of ways in which this package could have maximised the benefits, such as by looking at the policy settings, looking at the mandatory renewable energy target, introducing the gross feed-in tariff and investing in upgrading an intelligent grid across the country, and then you would have seen a self-perpetuating investment. What is needed for jobs in the renewable energy sector is long-term certainty for the venture capital that is involved. People are ready to build in renewable energy right now, but there is not the policy setting to support it. If you wanted to maximise the jobs aspect of a stimulus package, you would go not only with energy efficiency but with the policy frameworks that roll out long-term certainty. The mandatory renewable energy target, because it is limited in the way it has been designed, only gives you five years. There is no certainty after that. Who is going to invest in building this technology in Australia, in rolling out solar hot water systems, when they only have a four-, five- or six-year time frame?

One of the issues the Greens have difficulty with is the cash payments part of the package. We would like to have seen those being much more targeted. We understand, however, that the design of the package is to make sure that money gets into the economy fast and circulates quickly and that that has to be done in the first quarter. We would like to think that, recognising that there is going to be greater unemployment coming down the line because of this global financial crisis, we would better support people who are going to be unemployed. We should also be thinking about ways of stimulating new jobs in the economy that help us to deal with the climate crisis.

One of the ways to do that is for government to seize the opportunity to employ people in repairing ecosystems around the country. It is desperately needed. Our national parks are run down from one end of the country to the other and they need to have better infrastructure support. We need to better conserve and manage our natural resources in this country. We have a huge weed problem. There are many ways of looking at creating employment in ways that go back to the fundamental assertion that we need to have a far lighter footprint on the planet. We need to reduce our emissions and our dependence on foreign oil. We need to create jobs, improve our investment in education and roll out the manufacturing that goes with innovation in our universities.

Again, one aspect of the package that is missing is support for our universities. I am fully aware there are universities struggling at the moment to keep the staff they have. Now is not a time to be underinvesting in our universities. Now is not a time to be underinvesting in the human capital. Whilst it is very important for us to be putting in new infrastructure in schools, that is only part of the answer. There is no point in having a new school library if you do not have a trained teacher librarian to maximise the educational opportunities for the students in the school.

The same goes for teachers. The same goes for health professionals. We need to make sure that we are investing in upgrading the skills of people such as our tradespeople so that they can operate better in the green economy. There are many opportunities for people now—for plumbers to get new green skills so that they can install a solar hot water system, for example. There are many opportunities now to consider restructuring the Australian economy in a transformative way. The concern I have is that we are looking at this in an ad hoc way with the single aim in mind of keeping Australia out of recession. In fact, Prime Minister and Cabinet were asked: ‘What is the philosophy underpinning this package? Is it the philosophical view that this is the opportunity to transform the Australian economy from a resource based economy, which is unsustainable with greenhouse gas emissions increasing in transport and energy? Is this an opportunity to transform the Australian economy whilst addressing the financial crisis?’ The answer was no. There was not that philosophical underpinning, and that is why it is not internally consistent.

I am concerned that with undirected consumer spending from the cash payments you could in fact make matters worse. As Professor Alan Pears said, if a million Australians buy a large plasma TV, each year they will generate around 500,000 tonnes more greenhouse gas and increase their energy bills by around $100 million for the lives of those TVs. By contrast, if the same number of people replace their old fridges with high star rating new ones, they will reduce emissions and energy bills by about the same amount. Both options stimulate the economy now but one is equivalent to an ongoing tax cut whilst the other adds to future living costs, makes achieving greenhouse gas targets tougher and adds more pressure to our overloaded electricity supply system.

So that is what I am saying about making sure that whatever we spend money on not only creates jobs and addresses the financial crisis but also addresses the climate crisis. While people think that we are in a global crisis with the financial crisis, I want to reiterate to the Senate that the climate crisis that we are now in, that we are now seeing around the world and in Australia—and I do not have to emphasise that point in the context of our own experience in this country in the last month—and the climate crisis that is coming are going to make the financial crisis pale into insignificance unless we act to seriously make deep cuts and make this transition away from a fossil fuel based economy.

That is the challenge. That was the opportunity and, whilst I welcome some of the infrastructure parts of the package, greening the package is essential if we are going to make the best use of the investment. The last thing we want is to not have the money when we need it to address the financial crisis. People in this country must realise that we must spend to address the climate crisis because spending now is cheaper than suffering the consequences as we will experience them.