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Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Page: 8170

Senator BIRMINGHAM (11:10 AM) —I rise to make a contribution on this package of bills related to the government’s so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, which I shall hopefully more appropriately refer to throughout the course of my remarks as an emissions trading scheme. I speak noting that there is some difficulty in addressing these issues today because, of course, negotiations between the government and the opposition about the details are still continuing and are some distance from being finalised. But I want to take this opportunity to outline my approach to these issues and what I hope will ultimately emerge from the government’s approach to them, from the discussions and negotiations and from the consideration by this chamber.

I want to start, however, by revisiting some of the comments I made in my 11 August speech on this same package of bills, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 [No. 2] and related bills. Back then I noted that I do not know whether climate change is real. I do not know whether human impact on climate change is real. I am not a climate scientist. I have never pretended to be so. I also note that, so far as I am aware, nobody in this place or the other place pretends to be a climate scientist or qualified in such fields. I note that many come to this debate with opinions that are doubtful of the veracity of climate science. And, as I said back then, I hope that they are right, because if they are right then the future for the planet looks much rosier than it does for those who take a far dimmer view of what climate science and climate change could possibly mean.

I recognise and respect the opinions of all of those who come to this debate, from whatever diversity of views they come to them. I personally accept that the overwhelming opinion of scientific study and research around the world suggests that there is change. It suggests that human activity is having an impact on that change and that the impacts of such change could be mitigated by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Furthermore, I believe today, as I did when I made my first speech to this place, that, with the exponentially increasing global population of people around the world, all of whom quite rightly aspire to have ever-improved lifestyles, we must be aware that this growth of populace and growth of consumption with it will of course have some impact on the environment in which we live. I am reminded of Newton’s old law of motion: that for every action there is always an opposite and equal reaction. In my mind, continually emitting ever-increasing volumes of any one chemical compound into the atmosphere must ultimately have some impact, whatever that may be.

For these reasons I believe, as I said in my previous contributions on these bills, that we should give the planet the benefit of the doubt and opt for action ahead of inaction when it comes to climate change mitigation. It is, however, a case of making sure that we get that action right. I believe that my opinion on these matters is one that is shared by the vast majority of Australian people—people who I speak to in schools, at shopping centres, when doorknocking and at community functions—who made some of their views known at the last election. They think that climate change is an issue that should be addressed, but I know that they also believe it should be addressed responsibly and appropriately.

These are also opinions that are shared worldwide. While I acknowledge there are people—and they exist right around the world—who question the science around climate change, it is equally true to say that leaders of the world have discussed and supported action around climate change over many, many years. Some, of course, would say too many years. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher, a great leader and a great woman, spoke at the Second World Climate Conference on 6 November 1990. Margaret Thatcher said at that stage:

The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.

The classical definition of sustainability is encapsulated there in the words of now Baroness Thatcher. Her modern-day successor as leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, has equally taken a very strong line when it comes to climate change and the need for action. Just this year, indeed just last month, on 8 October, David Cameron said at the Conservative Party conference:

... to be British is to have an instinctive love of the countryside and the natural world. The dangers of climate change are stark and very real. If we don’t act now, and act quickly, we could face disaster.

To paraphrase David Cameron, to be Australian is also to have a love of country, but it is a love balanced by an understanding of the dangers and fragility of our country—for ours is a country that is, yes, full of fabulous wonders, profoundly rich in resources and yet also dogged by inhospitable elements. It is, I think, both this love of our country and the understanding of its fragility, made evident through a range of other environmental challenges we face, such as salinity, the scarcity of water, the effects of erosion and the threats to our biodiversity, that guide the Australian instinct to adopt at least a precautionary approach in responding to the threats potentially posed by climate change.

This balance of scientific opinion and the global acceptance of it will, I hope, ultimately lead to a global agreement to act. Global action is essential, for unilateral action by Australia will not make any notable difference. A fact that it is important to understand is that Australia contributes 1.4 per cent, it is estimated, of global greenhouse gas emissions. On a per capita basis our contribution is high but on an overall basis our contribution is quite low, and we could, as some like to say, shut Australia down tomorrow and it would be of no difference to the impact of climate change in the longer term if no other country took no other action. Global agreement is not easy and the pathway or processes towards it are messy, and we have seen that in recent weeks in the lead-up to Copenhagen.

Recognising there is a problem is always one thing but agreeing on how to respond to such a problem is proving to be somewhat more difficult altogether. It is clear that developed countries need to agree to reduce the extent of their emissions and that there are some positive signs. In the United States we have seen positive signs from the Obama administration, and just in the last 24 hours President Obama has once again made strong and encouraging statements on this issue from China. We see similar legislation—although I would say better than this legislation—before the US congress that hopes to address these issues. In the EU we see that a scheme similar to this has been in place for some period of time, albeit with varying degrees of success and many lessons that need to be learned in the implementation of an emissions trading scheme in Australia.

It is equally clear that developing countries need to contain their emissions as much as possible. The importance of India and China cannot be understated in this debate, as the two most populous countries on this earth and the two countries which are aspiring to the higher standards of living that I spoke of earlier. But, once again, China joined with President Obama in his comments in the last 24 hours around the need for strong global action, and that follows on from comments made by President Hu at the UN General Assembly just a few months ago.

The upcoming Copenhagen discussions are very important, critical, to such an agreement. Personally, I welcome the abandonment over the last week of the draft treaty that had been circulated—a treaty that I believe was clouding the issues, clouding the prime objectives of the conference and certainly exacerbating concerns, mistrust and mistruths worldwide. My hopes lie in an agreement being produced from Copenhagen nonetheless, but an agreement that produces a clear and simple heads of agreement between the developed and developing countries at Copenhagen to both reduce and contain emissions to ensure that they produce something that can provide or lead to clear targets for all countries within a quick period of time, enabling each country to take, as is appropriate for its circumstances, the unilateral action that is necessary to work within a defined multilateral framework.

Some say it is better to wait until after Copenhagen to discuss this legislation and for this parliament to make its decision. Personally, I would prefer that that were the case. It is sad that this government have sought to force upon the parliament very cynical timing in the consideration of their legislation relating to an ETS. Their desperation to create a trigger for an early election by, firstly, forcing a vote on this legislation back in August, just on four months from the Copenhagen summit, and, secondly, by bringing it back to this place for these last two sitting weeks of the year, exactly three months later, smacks of exactly what it is: rank political opportunism. Dealing with this in January or February would have provided for a far more preferable outcome. Hopefully, it would have provided for far more informed debate. But that is not a choice the government has given us.

We face the choice of either voting this down again, and risking that the government will ultimately get its way through a joint sitting enacting a flawed ETS that would be harmful to so many sectors of Australia, or attempting to fix this legislation to get the fundamentals of the scheme right, knowing that its real enactment in a practical sense will come with the setting of targets that will flow from Copenhagen in any agreement that is made there rather than from the simple passage of this legislation in this place. Anyone who understands the ETS framework and how it works should recognise that it will be the targets the government sets to reduce emissions that matter the most in the practical impact the ETS will have on Australia in the years to come. What we need to get right at this time in this place are the design principles and the framework within which those reductions can ultimately be achieved if global agreement can be reached.

Some question the commitment of the coalition to action on climate change—and, to be fair, some within our ranks have questioned whether we should be committed to action—but I am happy to let our record in this area be judged by our actions in this area. The Howard government very early in office established the Australian National Greenhouse Office. It was an action undertaken by one of my South Australian predecessors in the Senate, Robert Hill—a good friend and former boss—as the then environment minister. The Australian National Greenhouse Office went on to establish the Australian greenhouse challenge, which through much of the nineties was responsible for voluntary action in reducing emissions by thousands of large, small and medium businesses around Australia.

The Howard government introduced the first mandatory renewable energy target in Australia, a target that we committed to increase at the last election and a target and a legislative framework that this government used to introduce its policy, supported by the opposition, of increasing in just the last few months. The Howard government supported a range of clean energy initiatives, such as support for solar installations around the country. The solar industry is an area that was so well supported by the Howard government and that has been stuffed around so much by the policies of today’s Labor government.

The Howard government supported international action. It may not have ratified Kyoto—and that may have proven to be a political mistake if not possibly also a policy mistake—but it nonetheless supported very strong international action, brought together major emitting countries in the Asia-Pacific region and was particularly focused on the very important area of combating deforestation, a leading contributor to global emissions. And, yes, the Howard government was committed to developing an emissions trading scheme. On 10 December 2006, the then Prime Minister announced the establishment of a joint government business task group to report on an ETS. On 31 May 2007, Prime Minister Howard received from the then head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Peter Shergold, the Shergold report on emissions trading.

On 3 June 2007 at the Liberal Party Federal Council, the first federal council that I attended as a member of this place, Prime Minister Howard said:

I announce specifically that Australia will move towards a domestic emissions trading scheme, that’s a cap and trade system beginning no later than 2012.

That was a clear-cut commitment made by the then Prime Minister. He followed that up a month later on 17 July announcing the establishment of an implementation group within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet that would be responsible for key design features and administrative arrangements for this crucial piece of national economic architecture. Then on 20 September 2007 the first piece of legislation important to the introduction of an emissions trading scheme was passed by this parliament. The National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act 2007 passed through this place on 20 September 2007—I note, without so much as a division being called.

A Liberal Party government, had we been re-elected, would have proceeded to implement an emissions trading scheme in line with Mr Howard’s commitments that he took to the election, but we would clearly have protected Australian jobs under such a scheme. Our scheme would have been one that minimised the impact on the Australian economy and on Australian families. It would have also minimised the risk of carbon leakage—the risk of shutting down industries in Australia and pushing their carbon emissions offshore to less protected countries.

That is why the opposition have launched into good faith negotiations with the government. We have done so to try to fix their scheme, to try to ensure that it better reflects what we hoped to achieve had we had the opportunity to be the ones to implement an emissions trading scheme in the life of this parliament. If accepted by the government, our amendments will prevent the close-down of important industries and will save thousands of jobs in trade-exposed sectors, such as aluminium and natural gas. Our proposals will also cushion the impact of power price increases on small businesses and consumers in particular, cutting them by at least half and ensuring that the churn of money through this ETS is minimised. We would ensure—and I welcome the fact that the government has flagged this—that agriculture is excluded and offsets like soil carbon are allowed. That it is a win for farmers and the potential offsets provide a greater win for the environment. We would recognise voluntary action and ensure that it is encouraged and facilitated within the scheme.

I hope that our sensible, sound amendments to fix this legislation are accepted—because, ultimately, I hope to be voting for this legislation. I hope the government will agree to change their plans—to save jobs, to reduce the economic impact and to provide for more mechanisms to reduce the level of carbon in the atmosphere—because I hope to ultimately be voting for action on climate change.

I recognise that a number of my colleagues have different views on this matter. I for one have always been proud of the right of Liberals to vote according to their conscience, unlike those opposite. I have always championed this right and I know that one day I may feel the need to exercise it myself. I therefore respect the rights of my colleagues to vote according to their conscience and if, on this issue, we ultimately find ourselves voting on different sides of this chamber, I will respect their right to have done so. I hope the government recognises the importance of the changes we propose. I hope we see them implemented and I hope that that potentially leads to the passage of this legislation if the government insists on a premature vote. I remain optimistic of the future in this area.

I again return to the comments of David Cameron and note that he has said in the past that he wants to recapture climate change from the pessimists. He recognises that there are huge challenges and that the issues are complex, and he says:

But when I think about climate change and our response to it, I don’t think of doom and gloom, costs and sacrifice. I think of a cleaner, greener world for our children to enjoy and inherit. I think of the almost unlimited power of innovation, the new technologies, the new products and services, and the progress they can bring for our planet and all mankind. And I think of the exciting possibilities that may seem a distant dream today—changing the way we live to improve our quality of life. We’ve all got to get positive about climate change.

I hope that is what we see from the government through this process. (Time expired)