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Wednesday, 25 November 2009
Page: 8809

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) (11:57 AM) —Can I acknowledge the contribution of all senators to this debate and make some comments in closing the debate, which has been going for some time. There are moments in our national political debate when, I believe, we should and can do better. There are moments when we should set aside partisanship, set aside game playing and look to the national interest. There are moments when perhaps we should pause and not focus on the next election but consider the next generation. This bill, this debate, is one of those moments.

This is a difficult issue for politicians. It is a difficult issue because it is a problem which, whilst it is manifesting now, will primarily and most heavily fall on those who probably do not yet vote and maybe are not yet born. So we in this chamber are asking this generation of Australians to do something because we wish to reduce the risk for our children and our grandchildren, and it is that time frame issue which often causes politicians to fall short, to look to the near term rather than the future. Regrettably, there have been many contributions in this debate which fall into that category. So I want to go through quite clearly again why it is that I believe and the government believes that we should act; why it is that Australians rightly demand that we take action on climate change; and why it is, in a strange way, that this Senate is in fact behind so many Australians who not only voted for climate change action at the last election but continue to believe that that is the right thing to do.

The case for action is clear, and it has in fact been clear for some time. We know what the scientists are telling us. We know what the advice to politicians and political leaders for many years has been. For example, we have been told that irrigated agricultural production in our food bowl—that is, the Murray-Darling Basin—could drop by over 90 per cent by 2100. We know that there is a risk of 20 per cent more drought months over most of Australia in the next 20 years. We know that in the years beyond that—for example, up to 2070—we are looking at up to 40 per cent more droughts in eastern Australia and up to 80 per cent more in south-western Australia. We know that rising sea levels continue to be a risk. We know what the CSIRO tells us about the risks for the Great Barrier Reef. These are a few facts amongst many that we as political leaders, as elected representatives, have been presented with over years. I have to say that it may be worth thinking about how we, this generation, this crop of senators, will look to those who come after us and to future generations. I suspect what they will say is: ‘How could they not have done something? How could they have engaged in political war over this? How could they have been so irresponsible as to not act?’ That is what I think they will say if we fall short here.

There have been many speeches in this place expressing quite extreme views. I want to start at the outset by saying that the debate against action on climate change is not new. For years we have seen in this country a number of people and a number of organisations who will do and say anything to avoid taking action on climate change. We know that. We saw it for a decade under the Howard government until even John Howard came to the view that he should act. We have continued to see it in this place and elsewhere as this government has moved forward in delivering on our election commitment.

Much of the debate from those senators who oppose action on climate change frankly has been quite extreme. It is interesting in this debate that they tell those who want action that we are full of hyperbole, but if you actually listen to the language and the facts and the accusations you find it is very much those on the other side who are prone to that.

One of the discussions in this debate thus far has been of a conspiracy theory—that somehow climate change is a conspiracy invented by the Left or others, rather than recognising the science. Senator Minchin’s comments on Four Corners I think were very clear in his views about how this was some sort of conspiracy. We have also seen a discussion about some suggestion, again in the conspiracy category, that this is a secret plot to get a world treaty—a global agreement, a world agreement. Senator Adams, who is in the chamber, usually makes very measured contributions in this debate; but I would say to her that, really, some of her contribution was not worthy of her. The reality is that that is a scare campaign created on the basis of no fact. Some of what is quoted is simply a proposal from one country. It is not a draft treaty, it is not what Australia has agreed to and, of course, no Australian government would ever sign up to something that was not in the national interest. It is simply another extreme conspiracy theory that is about clouding this debate so that we focus on what is difficult, not on what we must do.

Another of the arguments is that we should wait because others have not acted or others will not act. Of course, this completely disregards what is happening and what will happen. For example, one of the arguments is that we should wait until the United States acts. If people looked at what President Obama said yesterday, where he reaffirmed that an agreement in Copenhagen should be comprehensive and that we resolve to take significant national mitigation actions—that is, actions at home to reduce emissions—would that change their minds? Does it change their minds that Japan has pledged to introduce a scheme, that the conservative government in New Zealand has legislated a scheme, that the European Union already has a scheme in place and that the G8 economies have all endorsed cap-and-trade schemes as the way forward? Does that change their views? No, it does not, because those views are put forward to hide the real issue, which is that these are people who do not want to act, and that is what much of this debate from those who oppose climate change has been about.

Then there has been another discussion in this chamber—that we should delay because we in Australia have not thought about it enough. It is regrettable that now, it appears, in that camp are also the Australian Greens, who have focused very much in this debate on good slogans but appear to find it difficult to move from theory to action. At times in this debate, when there has been an argument for delay at that end of the chamber, one could almost have closed one’s eyes and thought it was Senator Fielding again arguing for a delay in this debate. I would remind senators that delay has been one of the last refuges of those who oppose action on climate change. They have tried to deny the science, they try to scaremonger and they try to delay—three very obvious tactics. Yet they seem to forget that we in this country have been talking about this issue for almost a decade.

The first report to the Howard government on the prospect of emissions trading was handed down in 1999. Consider what you were doing in 1999. I know there are some who were in this place. I was not. It is 10 years on and, since that time, under Prime Minister Howard as well as at the last election and subsequently, there has been a comprehensive consideration of what we have to do. I am told by some in this debate that the Senate has not had enough time. So leave aside what has occurred with government and in the community; I am also told that the Senate does not have enough time.

I asked my office to compile how many House and Senate inquiries there have been since I think the last election that relate to climate change. We counted 13, including a Senate inquiry on the draft legislation—that is the core of what is before the chamber—as well as subsequent committee inquiries. Understand that we have considered this. The question is: will we now act? In many ways the sadness in this debate is that we know we have to act and that every time we delay we know we are only increasing the costs. I could not put it better than Peter Shergold, who served the former Prime Minister very well. His advice to the Howard government after considering emissions trading and the issue of climate change was: ‘Go soon because it will not cost you as much.’ I come back to where I started, which is that there are times in our political debate when we should and can do better. This group of senators should and can do better. We should not fall short because this is about starting what we know we have to do, starting an adjustment that we know we have to make and taking responsibility here and now, not saying: ‘Let’s make it someone else’s problem; let’s respond to a scare campaign; let’s respond to another delay; let’s respond to the various conspiracy theories.’ Those are not options we should take. We should take responsibility for the future, look to the future. There are a great many views around this chamber and there are some very strongly held views. What I say to the Senate is that the facts are clear: we know climate change is real and we know what it will mean. The question is whether we are now willing to take action or whether we simply want to fall short. I believe that the Australian people want us to do better. I commend the bills to the chamber.

Question put:

That the amendment (Senator Bob Brown’s) be agreed to.