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Monday, 22 August 2011
Page: 4983


Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (12:55): Because this has been a very long and drawn-out debate, before we proceed to vote on these carbon bills I want to ensure that the coalition's position on this is well understood and is clear for those who have attempted to follow this debate which, given the parliamentary recess, has stretched for not just hours or days but indeed weeks.

It is with deep regret that the opposition casts a vote against this legislation but, sadly, this has been a botched process by the government from day one. The coalition supports the principle and has long been a champion of it and an advocate for the concept that we should pursue and encourage the increased abatement of carbon through our soils, through our landholders and through better practices of our farmers. We believe that is a sensible approach. But we regret that the development of this legislation has been terribly mishandled by the government of the day. We need only look at the fact that, from the very early days of these bills being released for comment and being considered by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Com­mittee, it was clear that there were a lot of gaps pertaining to the regulations that underpin these bills. There were a lot of gaps as to the methodologies that would be applied to different areas of abatement. Those gaps are serious matters that should have been resolved before this matter came to a final vote.

We should have seen the final copies of the regulations as they relate to the composition of the positive list, the list that will determine what activities will definitely be included within the scope of this carbon farming legislation. We should have seen the final copies of the regulations as they relate to the negative list, the list of those areas of activity that will not be allowed to participate in or proceed under the Carbon Farming Initiative. Sadly, we have not seen either of those. We saw some draft regulations tabled just last week by the Minister for Agricult­ure, Fisheries and Forestry in this regard. At the last minute he brought in some draft regulations around the positive and negative lists. That is just not good enough. Those regulations should have been there for the committee to consider. They should have been there for stakeholders to comment on. All along, we should have been looking at a complete and final package. But, no, we have been looking at something far from a complete and final package. Instead, we have been looking at a package that, as this government so often says, is simply built on the basis of 'Trust us.'

Well, we do not trust the government. We do not trust them to get things right. We believe that if legislation is going to pass through this place with so much that is so dependent on the regulation and that if an approach is adopted within that legislation under this government, then we need to see everything in detail beforehand. We need all the i's dotted and all the t's crossed. We need to see it all, because we cannot trust the government to deliver things that they promise they will deliver.

In this regard we need to see certainty around the methodologies that are to be applied. We had an extensive debate, stretching from last week into today's debate, about the landfill gas sector, a sector that has abated more than 4½ million tonnes of carbon equivalent in 2009. They make a huge contribution in terms of the work. Many of those businesses and activities were early movers. They were people who got into this industry, got into the sector and started to do their bit to abate carbon emissions at the very early stages. And yet they are at risk under this legislation, at risk under this approach, of suffering adverse consequences, of being left stranded high and dry. They are at risk, which we will see, particularly in regional areas, of landfill gas processes being shut down that have been there for a long, long period of time. That would be a very perverse outcome.

The minister has provided some comfort and some assurances to the industry and to the chamber that that will not be the case, but, again, that comfort and those assurances came just at the last minute. They came only by discussions with industry at the end of last week that were reported back to the chamber today. They were discussions that would not have happened were it not for the work of Senator Xenophon, the opposition and industry in bringing it to the attention of the government and the Greens and ensuring that there was a discussion and a dialogue to try to provide some certainty. The industry is willing—dare I say it?—to trust the government on this matter. I hope the landfill gas industry's trust is validated. We cannot provide such blank cheques or open-ended trust to the government, but I hope their trust is validated. I hope that they do get the outcome that will ensure those important projects can continue into the future. I hope they do get that outcome in the time line that the government has promised.

But they are not the only ones who are waiting for a methodology determination under this. They are not the only ones who would have been far better off making sure that we got this right—if all those matters had been resolved before this came to a final vote in this place. We just cannot sign these types of blank cheques with the 'trust us' approach. It is not that the opposition and the Australian community have been once bitten by this government—far from it; the opposition and the Australian community have many times been bitten by this government and are many times shy of the 'trust us' approach of this government. We have seen a litany of failures. These are not just failures such as their chronic failure of budget management and the failures of infrastructure projects such as the school hall scheme; there is a chronic litany of failures in the very space that this legislation pertains to, a chronic litany of failures in the space of climate change programs and their operation. We can rattle off a long list of them. The gold star award for these failures goes to the pink batts scheme, the home insulation scheme which wrought havoc on an industry and which had severe consequences for homeowners, industry, individual lives and for taxpayers who saw not just hundreds of millions of dollars but billions of dollars wasted under the program.

We saw the Green Loans program, another classic failure. If it were not for the home insulation scheme, the Green Loans program would have been the gold star winner for failure in terms of climate change policies by this government. Once again, the Green Loans scheme wrought havoc on the lives of thousands of people who wanted to do the right thing and provide environmental assessment but who saw a government get it so wrong. The government's 'trust us' approach simply let those people down.

We have seen the government's flawed judgment in its other policies in this space. It was not so long ago—in fact, only 12 months ago—that the Australian people were being asked to re-elect this Gillard Labor government on a platform of policies such as the cash-for-clunkers scheme and the citizens' assembly on climate change. These ridiculous policies show the flawed judgment that those opposite have and what errors they are capable of making. They show the ridiculous decisions this government wants to put in place. That is why we cannot just sign a blank cheque and accept the 'trust us' approach of this government. We cannot go along with the approach of 'We'll fill in the blanks later when it comes to the regulations and methodologies that apply under this legislation,' because the judgment of this government is flawed, and it has been proven time and time again that when it comes to the crunch it gets these things wrong. And the consequences of getting this wrong will be too great.

We have just had a debate about matters of permanence during the committee stage, and that highlighted the fact that projects undertaken in the scheme will, in instances, be subject to 100-year time lines. It is not often in this place that we debate 100-year projects. It is not often we look at things with consequences that will stretch so far into the future. That is why we need to make sure that we get every aspect of this right. Should the government get it wrong, the conse­quences—consequences to access to land for agricultural production; consequences to water rights, water access and water availability; consequences to biodiversity management and land management; conse­quences to employment and economic activity in local communities; the conse­quences in all those areas that have been debated during a very lengthy committee stage—would be serious and have long-term implications. That is why we cannot just allow this government to go through and fill in the blanks later.

As I said at the beginning, we support efforts to encourage farmers and landowners and others to increase abatement of carbon. We would like to see, and hope, that ultimately this scheme works. We hope that is the case. We would have liked to have seen a scheme that, when we walk out of here today, we could have had 100 per cent confidence in, and we cannot have that; we do not have that. We do not know about too many aspects of this. It is the lack of that 100 per cent confidence that sees us having to vote against this scheme, with regrets. Even at the end of the debate we had during the committee stage, the final amendment that we debated and voted on addressed the review of the operation of this scheme. The government proposes that that review be undertaken by the Climate Change Authority. Senator Xenophon wisely pro­posed with the support of the opposition that instead it should be undertaken by a joint task force coopted from the CSIRO and the Productivity Commission. We felt that was the right way. Why? Because the CSIRO and the Productivity Commission are proven experts, have proven independence, have proven skills, have a long track record and enjoy the trust of legislators, the Australian community, policymakers, commentators and others. They are the people who could, of course, have ensured that we actually had a review that was comprehensive, that balanced the scientific and environmental aspects with the regulatory and efficiency aspects, and came up with advice to ensure that this scheme worked effectively in the long term.

But that sensible amendment was rejected and rejected in favour of the as yet unestablished, unproven and untested Climate Change Authority to instead under­take the review—an authority the opposition believe is part of an unnecessary $400 million new bureaucracy that the government are going to create as part of their carbon tax regime. Of course this is just more gross waste by this government in their approach to the expenditure of taxpayers' money. We think this is another example of government legislation that is based on a wrong approach by the government and another example of their flawed judgment.

In closing, let me restate that it is regrettable and disappointing that we find ourselves in this position. Had the government taken a more thorough and more diligent approach from day one, it would not have come to this. Had the government ensured that there was adequate consultation and engagement with all stakeholders from day one, it would not have come to this. Had the government provided final copies of all the regulations required by this bill for consideration throughout the process, it would not have come to this. Had the government provided certainty to those sectors such as the landfill gas sector about the methodologies that would be applied, it would not have come to this. But they have failed on all those counts. They failed to address a number of recommendations that their own senators made in the committee inquiry into this report. There has been a litany of failure and a botched process from day one by this government. We will see this bill pass—and I accept the numbers in the chamber. It will pass with our best hopes that it will work out, that it will not have adverse consequences and that it will not have perverse outcomes. Sadly, it will not pass with our confidence that all those things will occur and that is why we cannot support its final passage.