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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 7535


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (13:29): When I was in grade 5, I had a very forward-thinking teacher who taught us about what was known then as the 'greenhouse effect'. A number of years later—I am not prepared to say how many years—it gives me great pleasure to be standing in this chamber talking about a package of bills which will do something about climate change, as we now know it. I am also very proud that the Greens have been at the forefront, driving policy initiatives and policy change in this country that will have long-reaching, positive impacts not only on how we address climate change but also on the economy of this country. Far from the position that Senator Macdonald just put about the Greens destroying industries, this is about generating new, clean, green industries that will take us well and truly into this century and into the century beyond. What the dinosaurs of the past think about where we are going in the future in fact reflects a misunderstanding of not only the science and impacts of climate change and how we need to adapt and change our economy so that it meets the needs of our community into the future but also a planet with a low-carbon economy. The way that we do that is by changing things now so that we have those clean, green jobs or green collar jobs, as some people like to put it, in the future. Those industries that Senator Macdonald was talking about are industries of the past. They are not what is going to deliver us an economy into the future. That economy will also not be the thing that determines how we live, but how we live will determine our economy.

I would like to go to some of the issues of climate change. As I said, I have been aware of the issues around the greenhouse effect or, as we now call it, climate change for a very long time. You cannot help when you live in Western Australia but to know that the impact of climate change is real and is happening now. I was at a hearing not long ago of the grain inquiry that the Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee is conducting. We asked an infrastructure provider—in fact, it was CBH in my home state of Western Australia—whether they had been noticing the impacts of climate change and were planning to deal with it. They said, 'Not only are we planning to deal with it, we are dealing with it right now.' They are changing their infrastructure and investment in infrastructure and moving it because of the impacts of climate change on agriculture in Western Australia right now. This is not something that has happened over eons. It has been a shorter time frame in which humans have had an impact on our climate. This has happened over a generation. I come from an agricultural background. I studied agricultural science at university. I know what was happening to our agriculture then and I know what is happening now. This impact has happened over a generation in Western Australia.

I have raised some of the impacts of climate change innumerable times in this chamber. But just to remind people, we are seeing a rapid decline in rainfall in the south-west of Western Australia. We are in our third step-down in decline in rainfall in Western Australia. Fortunately, in the mid-1990s the Water Authority of Western Australia, as it was then called, and the government at the time recognised that something serious was happening to our rainfall and started planning for that. However, we are constantly having to play catch-up because we just do not have the resources to continue to manage the decline in rainfall properly. This has resulted in some catchments having a decrease in run-off by up to 60 per cent. We have seen average temperatures in Western Australia increasing significantly over the last 40 years. We have seen rainfall decrease and our run-off to dams decrease. We have seen the average sea temperature in Western Australia in the south-west region increase substantially over the last 30 or 40 years.

There is absolutely no doubt for those of us who live in Western Australia and pay attention to these things that our climate is changing. This has profound effects for everybody in Western Australia. It has profound effects for our forest ecologies, our ecosystems, our agricultural systems—and I will come back to that in a minute—our rainfall events, the way that we manage our rainfall in the north, the agricultural systems that we will develop in the north and health in the north, with the recognition that diseases are going to move further south. For example, encephalitis is going to move further south. We are stupid if we do not recognise, accommodate and plan for it now. It makes no sense not to.

While we are looking at our agricultural systems in Western Australia, it is acknowledged that Western Australian farmers are some of the most adaptable on the planet. They have had to be because they have had to cope with low fertility in their soils and the types of rainfall events that we get, with virtually all winter rainfall in the south-west. It is generally acknowledged that they are very adaptable, but it is also now acknowledged that they have passed the point of being able to adapt to the impacts of climate change without significant change to, for example, research to develop more crops and different ways of farming to adapt to the fact that they are suddenly getting frosts in some areas and their crops cannot cope with that and that in other areas they are not getting frosts and the stone fruits, for example, cannot cope with that. This is real and it is happening now. Those who do not acknowledge it have their heads in the sand. This is about moving into the future and giving our farmers and our communities a future. I am extremely concerned.

While I am focusing here largely on Western Australia, I was at the opening of CHOGM last week and it brought home again to me the impacts that our Indian Ocean island neighbours and Pacific island neighbours are facing. They are facing the real impacts of climate change now. On several occasions—and I will probably hear it again today, tomorrow or the next day—Senator Boswell has come in here and said that he has not seen the sea level rise. Maybe he should take a trip to Kiribati or Tuvalu and have a look at how their agricultural systems are failing because of salt water egress and to see the sea level rise and people's homes being washed away. I can recommend a very good documentary where he can see islanders having to move their homes off islands to other areas of Papua New Guinea. It is only about 12 minutes long. It should be a very informative time for Senator Boswell and his colleagues, who think that climate change is not real and that rising sea levels are not having an impact. Climate change needs to be addressed now. These bills will establish the framework to get that going.

In my portfolio areas I have been particularly concerned about the impact of climate change on families and households, in particular on low-income households, and how they will be able to adapt to the impacts of climate change, including the inevitable increases in the price of electricity, which has risen substantially in Western Australia—before people start carrying on about how these measures will increase the price of electricity and the cost of transport, because low-income households are very often on the fringes of metropolitan areas, many of which are served poorly by public transport. Excellent work on mapping some of those lower socioeconomic communities and their ability to access transport has come out of the University of Queensland. We need to address these issues. Access to food security is also a very important issue. Food is the most vulnerable area and it will be affected first by climate change. That is why I am very pleased that, in this package of bills, there is a package to assist families, and in particular low-income households. I am particularly pleased that low-income households will be eligible for assistance that at least offsets the expected average cost impact.

The package also includes support for individuals with a concession card or who have a medical condition resulting in a higher electricity costs. They will be eligible for extra financial resources. We know that half of the revenue from the sale of permits will be distributed to households. There are also the Community Energy Efficiency Program, the Low Income Energy Efficiency Program and the Household Energy and Financial Sustainability Scheme, which will help low-income households find more sustainable ways to manage their energy consumption, and the Remote Indigenous Energy Program. There are a number of these packages available to help low-income families address the energy efficiency issues that we absolutely need to be addressing.

We know that energy use is a high proportion of everyday expenses for low-income households. This package has enabled us to take a much closer look at the energy use of low-income households. We have a better understanding now about it—for example, people used to think that age pensioners used less electricity, but little thought was given to the fact that they are actually at home all day, so they are using power all day. We know that single parents with teenage kids use a large amount of electricity, because like any other household with teenagers they use TVs and computers. They need a different form of support to enable them to use energy more efficiently. We also know that it has been hard for low-income households to be able make changes such as using more energy efficient products, generating more electricity power on their own and taking advantage of the schemes that have been in place in the past. This new scheme will enable those low-income households to be able to do that.

What does concern me, however, and we have been very upfront about saying it, is that while this package does assist low-income households, and I am very pleased that it does, there is an issue around fairness. While the package does provide assistance to people on low incomes who will be exposed to price increases, it is not fair to unemployed people, sole parents and students. That is because of the inequitable way that income support payments are made now. There are issues around different payments to particular groups on income support, and we believe they absolutely need to be addressed. As part of this discussion process for these bills, it was raised with the government that the difference in payments needs to be addressed, because people will get different benefits out of this package. For example, the buffer for unemployed households without children is $101 per year for singles and $108 for couples, which is much less than it is for age pensioners, for whom it will be $134 and $226, respectively. That is a concern for us, because we know that the impact on those unemployed households will be just the same as for other households. We asked for that to be addressed in this package. It has been argued that the right place to discuss that was at the tax summit. We took it up at the tax summit. We have raised the issue on many occasions and will continue to. We are deeply concerned that those on Newstart, single parents and students will be disproportionately impacted because of the disproportionate approach to income support for those groups. That approach needs to be addressed. We have put on record our support for the call by the Australian Council of Social Services and other groups for the government to address that. I understand the argument that this particular package is not the right place in which to address an entrenched problem with our income support system, but I cannot understand why that issue is not being addressed as a matter of urgency elsewhere, because it is a systemic approach in our income support system at this stage. We support ACOSS's call to address this. We support its call for a $50-per-week increase in the allowance. That was recommended by the Henry review. It is an issue that has been raised repeatedly, because this differential in payments for those on income support in this country is becoming increasingly unfair. These families are going to have cost increases, and we believe these need to be recognised fully by addressing this differential between payments. We will continue to advocate that this issue be addressed.

Having said that, I am very pleased that this package includes support for low-income households. The cost to households across Australia will be more than adequately compensated for; in fact, there is a buffer in there. Not only is that issue addressed but, when you look at the big picture, this is about creating a better world for all Australians. It is about providing a solid, sustainable base for our economy into the future, and that will benefit all families—all Australians. So we are benefiting on both counts. We have families, individuals and households getting support through this package, and we also have a future in which we will be more confident that we can address the impacts of climate change and have a clean, green economy that is at the forefront globally.

Rather than just being behind this issue globally, we are at the forefront of this. We are positioning ourselves to be at the forefront of driving the new technology, of capturing the benefits of the new technology in a clean, green economy. We are at the forefront of that. If we continue to position ourselves well, we will gain maximum benefit for this country and for future generations in that new economy, rather than following behind and picking up the dregs after others have taken advantage of this particular time in history. This is a time that future generations will look back on and say: 'They actually made the change when they needed to make the change. They recognised that climate change is real, they recognised the need for change and they made that change at that time.' I commend these bills to the chamber.