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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 595


Senator MILNE (11:38 AM) —I rise today to support the flood levy. I want to talk about the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and the Income Tax Rates Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 in the context of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The government announced the levy as a one-off levy in order to restore so much of the infrastructure damaged throughout Australia but particularly in Queensland, New South Wales as a result of extreme weather events—in this case, massive flooding and cyclone damage. The problem I have is that it is being described as a one-off event. What that fails to recognise is that we are living in a world which is warming. We have just lived through the warmest decade ever. We have seen record sea surface temperatures off Northern Australia and, on top of that, a La Nina event. Together, they have meant warmer atmosphere absorbing more moisture and, therefore, heavier rain events.

A recent paper by Professor David Karoly on cyclones says that the result of global warming is that you get the added intensity. What might have been previously a category 3 cyclone will become a category 5 cyclone or thereabouts because of climate change. His paper also shows, and I think this is particularly pertinent, that the genesis—that is, where these cyclones actually begin or form—has moved two degrees latitude further south. So we are now finding that these cyclones are capable of being generated further south and, with the warmer ocean temperatures, these cyclones will hit the Australian coast possibly as far as two degrees further south than they have ever hit before. This means that in some parts of Queensland and northern New South Wales, people will to have brace themselves for events that they have not been prepared for previously.

If we look at this in the context of where we have been, even in the last five years in Australia, we had the most appalling and horrendous fires in Victoria. As Matthew England, a leading Australian scientist, said:

The bushfires in Victoria were another good example of where the temperatures weren’t just broken by a little bit ... they were smashed. And when you see that, you’ve either got a freakish weather event well above the average or there’s a climate change signal to that.

I do not think there is any doubt that the intensity of those fires in Victoria was a result of years of intense drought, leading that event to be as bad as it was. At the same time as the fires, we had record high temperatures. A large number of people died from the heatwave in South Australia and Victoria, because the elderly, the sick and the young in particular are the most vulnerable to those extreme weather events. When we get an extreme heatwave like that, people often cannot afford air conditioning and then we get a resultant tragic death toll. We have had a decade of drought in the Murray-Darling which was far more intense than anything we have experienced before and now we have had these absolutely intense flooding events in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and fires in Western Australia.

You cannot say that restoring infrastructure is a one-off if that is the pattern. It is going to be the pattern in Australia because that is what is happening with less than one degree of warming locked in. What we are trying to do is constrain global temperature to less than two degrees and to do that we have to take action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Also we have to recognise that, with that amount of heat locked in, we are going to experience extreme weather events, which means we need a long-term plan, not just a one-off.

I am supporting this levy but I am also supporting the idea that we need to have a national discussion about how we are going to do this. What is going to be the responsibility of the Commonwealth? What is going to be the responsibility of the states in terms of how they insure themselves and also prepare themselves for these events? But it also means that some responsibility has to be taken to run the three-dimensional mapping over the coastline, to show that to local government and to say: ‘Right. It’s now up to you to change your planning schemes to make sure that the buildings you are allowing to be built actually conform to the highest standards where there is an increasing threat of cyclone intensity.’ It also means that, where people have been given planning permission to build before on flood plains, that is re-examined in the light of what we have experienced. Further, it means that when state and federal governments plan infrastructure, whether it is roads, railways, sewerage works, waterworks or port facilities, they are built taking into account the risk of sea level rise, storm surge and intensity of weather events so that we are building with the recognition of what we have already locked in and the risk associated with what is coming in the future.

The Greens went into this negotiation on the flood levy saying it is really important that we do what we can to help restore the infrastructure in Queensland, but it is equally important that in the future we have a plan that looks at adaptation and a plan that looks at prevention. That is why, unfortunately, Senator Macdonald does not seem to get the connection between prevention and cure. At the moment we are dealing with cure and we are recognising that this was a terrible tragedy in terms of human lives, property infrastructure damage and crop losses. There are just so many aspects to it which have been heartbreaking, but that is curative. We are trying to restore what has happened, but we equally have to prevent it getting worse and, hence, we are moving on all fronts to try to reduce the risk associated with climate change.

In terms of what we were able to negotiate, the Greens recognise that a number of the programs that the government chose to axe as a result of trying to find the money for this package did not have a great deal of merit in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but one that is really critical is the Solar Flagships program. We need to make sure that, in moving to the low-carbon future, we have large-scale renewable energy facilities built and online. If you are going to move from a coal-fired economy to a low-carbon economy, you need to get those renewables built in a fast time frame and the Solar Flagships program is essential to do that. I am very pleased that, in the course of these negotiations, the Greens were able to get the Solar Flagships program back on track. We managed to get $60 million and an additional $40 million back into the program, but we also got—which is incredibly important—agreement to a roundtable with the government and industry representatives to look at the rules that currently govern the Solar Flagships program.

Industry has been saying for a long time that the problem with the program is that the rules are written in such a way that they do not really do what industry needs the program to do. Industry does not want huge large-scale facilities funded on a one-dollar-for-two-dollar basis because investors will not go from a laboratory situation to a large-scale facility. What investors want to see is something on a small scale working, and if they see that working then they will invest to scale it up. By building a smaller scale facility, you learn better what works most efficiently and then you can scale it up. So I am hoping that, as a result of that roundtable, we will have rules written for the second phase of the Solar Flagships program that will make sure that the renewable energy industry gets the kind of government support targeted at what it needs.

I am appreciative of the fact that the government has agreed that a feed-in tariff can be on the agenda for discussion. That does not imply that anyone is accepting that idea at this point. The Greens have been arguing for a long time that what we need in Australia is a national gross feed-in tariff in order to bring on those large-scale renewables such as solar thermal and geothermal, for example, because we know that any carbon price is not going to be high enough of itself and the renewable energy target is not going to be designed in such a way as to bring on those technologies that are more expensive at the moment. So I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to sit around a table and talk about what might be possible in the future and at least getting that kind of discussion started is the beginning, hopefully, of a serious policy outcome.

On the National Rental Affordability Scheme, again the Greens have recognised that it made no sense to get rid of a scheme which is assisting people with cost-of-living pressures in the rental market. When you consider how much infrastructure and how many housing areas were devastated in Queensland by both flooding and the cyclone, it is incredibly important that the National Rental Affordability Scheme stays, as well as the ongoing commitment to the Australian Learning and Teaching Council. We have managed to have a good discussion with the government about not only making sure that the cuts proposed in the budget do not take out programs which are very important in the current context but also supporting the government’s very keen commitment to see the infrastructure rebuild that is so necessary after these devastating events.

The coalition’s position on this is, in my view, inexcusable. They say that they think the government should pay the full cost of the reconstruction. When they say the government should pay the full cost, they mean all taxpayers should pay the full cost—that is, everybody who pays taxes, from the lowest income earners who go across a tax threshold right up to the highest income earners. How would they pay? Because you take all that money out of the budget, which means you cut programs. So you would be asking all Australians to lose services—and often those services are the critical services to the low-income earners across the country—in order to refund Queensland.

The way this is being done now is to say, ‘Let’s target this at the people who can better afford to pay.’ It is a very progressive levy. I think that is an appropriate way to go. Having said that, however, what are we going to do next summer and what are we going to do the summer after that? How are we going to prepare ourselves for the reality that is climate change? How are we going to get people to actually sit down and look at those maps of where the extended coverage of a cyclone belt will be and at sea level rise and storm surge around the Australian coast? How are we going to get state and local and federal governments working much better together to plan schemes?

Mr Windsor, the Independent in the lower house, is talking about a long-term levy, which is exactly where the Greens are coming from, and if not a levy then a long-term plan of some kind for disaster. Senator Xenophon has been talking about insurance, and I have some sympathy with that. I have a motion on the books today saying, ‘If we have a situation where the Commonwealth pays two-thirds and the states pay one-third, what about the fact that some states don’t pay insurance and therefore have nothing and there’s a bigger bill to pay?’ They can say, ‘We actually won’t worry about it because the Commonwealth will come in and help us.’ Surely we need to have a national commitment from the states either that they reinsure or that they have some capacity to meet the inevitable consequences of disaster in the future so that the Commonwealth is not effectively coming in to rescue poor state government management. I have a lot of sympathy with looking at that big picture insurance question as well.

In my view, what this comes down to is calculating the risk. To me, from the science, the risk is so obvious. As Professor Karoly said, there is a potential for tropical cyclones to develop during the next 50-year period that are more intense than reported hitherto in the Southwest Pacific Basin, including supercyclones with central pressures below 900 hectopascals. An increase can be expected in the number of strong tropical cyclones impacting the Australian coastline. Some of these cyclones are likely to produce damaging winds, extreme flooding and destructive storm surges. Tropical cyclone formation and impacts in the Queensland region should slowly extend further southwards, as in towards the poles, with increasing numbers and severity of impacts over South-East Queensland and the New South Wales northern coast.

When you get leading scientists telling you that, you cannot say ‘one-off’. You cannot say, ‘We are not going to deal with climate change,’ because, if you are ignoring these risks, you are exposing hundreds of thousands of Australians in the future to exactly the same consequences that occurred in Queensland this year. What sort of irresponsible legislators would we be to say that we are going to ignore what the overwhelming body of science says and just say, ‘She’ll be right, mate; it’s not happening’? In my view, ‘She’ll be right, mate; it’s not happening. We don’t have to deal with it. Let the government pay. Just take it out of the taxes and we’ll just get on with it,’ is totally irresponsible. It shows no leadership whatsoever. In fact it is cowardly, popularist and expedient, and it does not take this country forward.

I want to see some real leadership in this parliament. I want to see the damage from this last summer rebuilt, but I want to see Queensland, New South Wales and other flood damaged areas around the country rebuilt with future risk in mind so that we do not make the same mistakes over again. People living in areas that are vulnerable should be made aware of the risk so that they can make the choices for themselves, their families, the way they look after their properties, where they buy, how they live and what they think, and local government can have no excuse for building their infrastructure right on the coastline. In rebuilding these bridges that go down and railways and so on, we have to look at how we take these risks into account.

I commend the government for facing up to the cost and for recognising that the cost should be borne not by everybody equally but by those who have the greatest ability to pay. But I would urge the government to think again about calling it a one-off. Let us recognise that we are in a warming world. We are in a world where we have less than one degree locked in and are on track to go beyond two degrees, at the current trajectory, with the misery that will come with it. So I want to see us dealing not only with the curative after-effects of extreme weather events. I want us to have the courage to face facts and to work to see what we can do to prevent these extreme weather events in the future.