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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 4679

Senator MARK BISHOP (12:35 PM) —Rarely in the parliament are we confronted as elected representatives by issues of such huge moment as contained in the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 and related bills. Mostly, the matters which routinely come before us for consideration and approval are mechanical by nature. Alternatively, they deal with refinements to existing legislative regimes. They are important in a domestic sense for the operation of government on a relatively apolitical agenda—mostly—effecting changes to policies and programs in a short-term sense. They are not what anyone would call momentous in their long-term implications. Nor are they global in their implications. Nor are they derived from millennia of change upon the planet, affecting the future so dramatically. Yet of course we debate them energetically, often depending on the extent to which political advantage is perceived or seen—sometimes according to a particular philosophical position, whether that be opportunistic, vague or ill considered. Indeed, we are obliged to vote on the relative merits of legislation according to our political positions, which we freely adopt and carry out.

In most cases, the legislation passes through, rarely ever to be repealed in full. When it is repealed, it is always in response to public outcry, as reflected at the ballot box. A recent experience is the opposition’s Work Choices regime. That, of course, represents a healthy democracy at work. The extent to which this process is easy or difficult depends on the degree to which the matter is considered to be of real substance, on the research and evidentiary analysis which precedes it, and on the level of understanding in the community about both its intent and its effect. The poorer this process the greater the controversy. However, as we will see and are seeing in this case, there is no real limit, it seems, to political opportunism of the most venal kind.

So it is with this legislation. There can be no doubt that around the world and in Australia there is a very, very strong perception that the climate we live in is changing, albeit in the very short term of one generation only. Consequently, both major political parties have drawn the link between carbon emissions and the environment. Both have given an undertaking to do something about it by way of using a carbon trading scheme as a brake, not just to slow the growth but to reduce the level of those emissions. Around that there has developed a controversial and mostly healthy debate about causal link and the science behind it, with a whole lot of claims by way of doom and gloom about the consequences either way. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

I think it is worthwhile trying to put this debate into some form of context. I do not pretend to be able to resolve the conflict concerning the science around the link between alleged global warming and carbon emissions. With issues such as this, there are still many questions to be answered, including some that have not yet been asked. This legislation, as I said, is global in its implications. It is derived from a millennium of change upon the planet. It is not derived from any short-term policy surrounded by domestic political politics or vested interests. People naturally evidenced the extended drought, violent storms and the disruption of agricultural production. It is affecting rural economies and food production.

We all know that the environment of planet Earth has been suffering in many ways now for probably a thousand or thousands of years. Let me cite some of the more well known and graphic examples. The spread of deserts in Africa and the Middle East has continued unabated for thousands of years—in fact, it is now accelerating. Potable water is becoming more difficult to secure, threatening the human species and all other living organisms. Many rivers have ceased running and many others have become so polluted as to be hazardous to human life. Forests are being removed at an alarming rate, reducing biodiversity and causing extensive salination problems, not just by direct human activity but by the pollution of acid rain. Ocean resources have been depleted by overexploitation and by land based pollution. Large areas of land have been lost to food production due to poor management practices over many centuries and through simple and continuing overexploitation. There has been the disappearance of countless species of animal and plant life and the increased risk to human life of toxic waste in soil, water and the atmosphere. This, of course, is not an exhaustive list, but its cumulative effect is now quite clear to all those who want to see it; although I perceive the debate, apart from the subject of climate change, has lost much of its intensity in Australia.

But that is not to say that those massive problems I identified are not being addressed. In the developed world, they have been attended to with remedial action, often with outstanding success. In the three key areas of water, air and soil quality, much has been done, including in Australia. Air pollution, for example—which has a continuing focus in this legislation—has been a problem since the industrial revolution. Relatively speaking, however, in some Western economies it has been ameliorated by regulatory means. Water quality, not quantity, has also been addressed. We are all aware of the return of marine life to many rivers and harbours around the world. The Thames in England and Sydney Harbour are very obvious examples.

In Australia we pride ourselves on the dramatic improvement in land-use management, particularly by our farmers. Most interestingly, these land-use changes have come about through education. Unless we sustain our soil, production will decline. To that extent, programs such as Landcare are invaluable and deserve significantly more support. We need to realise that the future of productive capacity of the environment and the future health of our society are dependent upon the increasing care of each of these three basic elements: air, water and soil. This is very important in the context in which I speak because too often in debates such as this we lose sight of the real issues. We become blinded by vested interests and short-term impacts which, indeed, are threatening for some. We understand that, as with many other reforms of the past, there will be some painful adjustments as we go through the process.

If we accept that reform is necessary—and there is at least some consensus on that—the real question becomes: how should that reform be managed? Perhaps the best example of such reform has been the control of the production, distribution and disposal of hazardous chemicals. For many the prime concern, as I recall it, was the growing hole in the ozone layer and the implications then of global warming. I mention this example specifically because amongst those chemicals are greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases are targeted by this legislation as carbon equivalents, remembering that, while they only form one per cent of the carbon emission equation, their effect on the atmosphere is said to be 1,000-fold.

But, as we have seen, regulation to date has been patchy and ad hoc. We are all familiar with the changes made to refrigeration gases and the disposal of used products containing heavy metals, chlorofluorocarbons and polyvinyl chloride, otherwise known as PVC. We are getting better with our practice of disposal of batteries, computers and mobile phones. We have long banned chemicals such as DDT and restricted others which have terrible effects on mankind, like 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, not to mention, of course, nuclear waste. This regulation is now part of our daily life and we accept the need for it.

Debate interrupted.