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Thursday, 21 November 2013
Page: 995

Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (10:51): As with all my fellow members of the House of Representatives, it is my privilege to again have the opportunity to be part of the consideration of laws and policies in this place. But I am sorry that the first time I speak on legislation in the 44th Parliament is in relation to a set of bills as short-sighted as the ones we debate here. These bills can only be described as backward. They take the Australian economy backward; they stand to undo the very significant progress that has been made since 2007; they put us in retreat from the global challenge of addressing climate change, of reducing our reliance on finite hydrocarbons and building a world-class renewable energy and energy efficiency sector. And they do so without any reasonable claim to logic or reason or science or without any claim to consistency of position, and when the one claim the government will make—that the election provides a mandate for undoing some apparently intolerable electricity price increase—is without basis.

Those opposite know that the carbon price impact was both minimal and fully compensated for low- and middle-income households. Inflation in Australia under the Labor government, like interest rates and unemployment, settled and remained at historic lows. It is absolutely right to say that in Western Australia between 2008 and 2012 electricity prices increased by something like 60 per cent, but they did so courtesy of the state Liberal government without the faintest upward influence of a price on carbon and without a cent of compensation.

When Mr Abbott was the Leader of the Opposition he claimed that putting a price on carbon would mean the death of the steel and aluminium industries and said that it would swing like a wrecking ball through the Australian economy and spell the annihilation of the domestic coal industry. Andrew Crook from Crikey wrote in January this year:

Australia’s leading resources stocks have spiked since the Gillard government’s introduction of the carbon tax, despite doomsayers from the conservative side of politics predicting share market carnage in the wake of the impost.

…   …   …

The best performing individual members of the index over that time were Bluescope Steel (+91%), Mirabella Nickel (+84%), Papillon Resources (+77%), Linc Energy (+70%), Northern Star Resources (+60%) and Beach Energy (+57%).

Global miner BHP Billiton soared 21% while rival Rio Tinto saw a 19% rise. Alcoa partner Alumina had its shares increase by 49%.

So there is the overheated rhetoric and then there is the reality. It is understandable that a government built on slogans will feel compelled to deliver on them, hence the matching of simplistic slogans with simplistic policy.

I also note that the new government has it in mind to make repealing the price on carbon its first grand symbolic gesture, but it would be a terrible shame if such a gesture had the wholly negative effect of wrecking the transition Australia is in the course of making to a low-carbon economy and tearing down the contribution Australia has made and is making to a global change that can occur only if nations turn aside from narrow self-interest and if political parties turn aside from hollow, hip-pocket populism.

I do not believe that symbolism is without value or that symbolism and substance exist separately from one another. I am very proud that in 2007 the Labor government commenced with the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and with an apology to Indigenous Australians, including the stolen generations. One act looked responsibly and with regret at our past and resolved upon a long-awaited and profound gesture of healing that has already proved the basis for greater reconciliation. From that symbolic and substantial act has flowed renewed commitment and action when it comes to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and that commitment is shared. The other act, ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, looked responsibly and with apprehension at our future and resolved upon a course of action that puts the Australian economy and Australian households on the least-cost path to addressing climate change.

By contrast, the coalition government has chosen the unravelling of action on climate change as its first symbolic and substantial gesture. This is profoundly nihilistic. I want to mention the damage that will be done by these bills if they were to become law by referring to three categories. The first is the effect that these bills will have on the burgeoning renewable energy and energy efficiency industry and on the amazing growth and innovation we have seen in the last six years when it comes to household sustainability.

When Labor came to government there were fewer than 8,000 household solar PV cells installed across Australia as a result of incentives provided under the Howard government. Today there are more than 10,000 household solar PV systems in my electorate of Fremantle alone and more than one million across Australia. This is one example of how leadership by government and the strong enthusiasm of the wider community can bring sweeping change. Over time the scale of the subsidy has decreased because the scale and viability of the Australian solar industry have increased. Households, streets, neighbourhoods and suburbs are being transformed and this transformation is lessening the demand for coal- or gas-fired power, it is decreasing household carbon emissions and it is reducing electricity costs.

The same work on a larger scale has been occurring through the Clean Energy Future reforms, through the funding that a price on carbon enables. In my electorate of Fremantle alone we have seen support provided to promising endeavours like the Carnegie wave energy project, a technology that uses underwater buoys fixed to the ocean floor to generate electricity and emission-free desalinated water at the same time. We have seen the family garden supplies company Richgro in Jandakot supported in their move towards 100 per cent on-site electricity generation through a two-megawatt anaerobic digestion waste-to-energy plant. We have seen Magellan Powertronics in Bibra Lake develop an innovative grid power support system that will boost the capacity, reliability and efficiency of electricity networks in regional Australia. We have seen the city of Fremantle become the first carbon neutral local government in Western Australia and South Fremantle Senior High School become the first nationally accredited carbon neutral school in Australia.

All of these investments, all of these business and community actions are only the beginning. Imagine what we would see if the clean energy reforms continued, if the funds derived from the price on carbon pollution could continue to move us towards a properly level playing field between high-carbon and low-carbon technology—between coal, gas and oil on the one hand and solar, wind and wave on the other.

This is one of the easiest points of comparison between the Labor government's reforms and the current government's retreat. Under our scheme polluters paid a price for carbon emissions; under their scheme the government will pay polluters to reduce emissions. Under our scheme the funds raised from the carbon price supported renewable energy production and energy efficiency innovation; under their scheme taxpayer funds will be used to pay the polluters themselves for pollution reduction. So it is polluter pays versus paying polluters.

I was very interested to read in Monday's Australian the National Generators Forum Executive Director, Tim Reardon, note that electricity demand had declined by about 10 per cent since 2008 and was near 2005 levels. What is more, the news on emission reduction is even better. As Mr Reardon explained:

The decline in demand for electricity combined with the growth in renewable energy has resulted in carbon emissions from electricity falling to levels last experienced in 2002.

This is a fantastic outcome and proof of the value of the reforms of the Labor government and proof of the terrible risks involved in the bills before us.

The second point I want to make in terms of what is being put at risk relates to the issue of climate change and health. In 2009 the world's leading medical journal, The Lancet, stated that climate change is the biggest health threat of the 21st century. The World Health Organization warned of the fundamental threat to human health from climate change, including extreme heat leading to deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular disease, especially for vulnerable people, including the elderly; increases in air pollution; extreme drought and its impact on farmers and food security; as well as other extreme weather events, such as floods and cyclones, that can result in increased hospital admissions. There is no doubt that a warming climate, and a climate with more frequent and more severe extreme weather events, will present serious health consequences. It is no accident that representatives of Australia's firefighter unions were at the GetUp! rallies around the country in support of action on climate change last Sunday. They spoke of the impact on their work and on their local communities of more frequent storms and bushfires.

Experts in the field note the risk of an increase in the rate and range of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever, Ross River virus and Murray River encephalitis. Under certain modelled scenarios it has been suggested that by 2050 we may experience a considerable southward extension of the dengue infection zone. I fear that the government's intransigence on this issue means there are no plans to assess our health vulnerabilities and to build health capacity and infrastructure to reduce health vulnerability to climate change. While Australia is in a position to ameliorate some of the health impacts of climate change as they occur, it will do so at considerable expense and with the usual opportunity costs that apply when an increased disease and injury burden makes a call on limited health resources and funding. We are conscious, too, that the most acute health impacts of climate change will be upon the world's poorest people, including our regional neighbours, and these will be impacts whose toll is also felt in Australia.

Which brings me to my final point, a point I have made on a number of occasions in this and other areas of policy consideration: the need for all countries, including Australia, to find more and better ways to look beyond our own self-interest in forming genuinely global responses to problems that can only be solved through coordinated global action. There is no better example of such a problem than climate change but there are others, including the management and protection of shared environmental assets, especially the ocean, the Arctic and Antarctic, and the use and stewardship of key resources like water. If we cannot be part of concerted effort and cooperation in tackling these challenges we can be sure they will go unsolved.

Australia has always been an agent of cooperation, a leader of concerted action; that too is at risk with these bills and with our recent actions in the international arena. The Australian government has not only failed to send ministerial representation to the UN's annual climate summit in Warsaw, it has also refused to support the UN's Green Climate Fund. As Giles Parkinson has noted in a Crikey article this week entitled 'Australia a "wrecking ball" at UN climate summit', the Green Climate Fund is 'a crucial piece of common ground between developed and developing countries'. It is the mechanism intended to help poor countries adapt to the major development challenges posed by climate change. Australia and Canada have also now refused to commit to a similar fund agreed to at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to help poor countries of the Commonwealth, including those in our region, adapt to climate change. Australia's good reputation as a constructive participant in helping to solve global and regional challenges is being diminished by the day, and I would hope this matters to at least some in the government.

The Prime Minister once described himself as a 'weathervane' on the issue of climate change. He did not mean, unfortunately, that his view was based on some responsiveness to climate data. He meant that his position blew this way and that according to his sense of the politics and his sense of the political advantage that might be had, both in relation to the internal politics of the then opposition and in relation to the broader public view. And so here we are, debating a set of bills designed to swerve the Australian economy and the Australian way of life dangerously away from pursuing action on climate change, away from an emissions trading scheme that all the experts agree is the best means of allowing the market to find the least-cost way of reducing emissions and leaving us instead with a system that shifts the cost of carbon pollution from those who produce it and profit from it to the Australian government, the Australian taxpayer, the Australian people. Here we are debating a set of bills designed, quite carefully, to make achieving carbon emission reductions less likely and more expensive; bills designed to make the burden on polluters smaller and the barriers to low-carbon technologies larger; bills designed to take out of our market economy a price marker that (1) reflects a real and serious cost and (2) that acts to encourage and reward the millions of Australians who want to reduce their carbon footprint.

This is one of those truly fundamental issues: we are dealing here with an existential issue for the planet, not just a series of political debating points. We are aware from the reports of many scientific bodies of the severe damage that a two-degree temperature rise will cause, and this is the reason for the international consensus over a number of years now to try to contain the global temperature rise to two degrees. However, the more recent science points to temperature rises of between four to six degrees if urgent concerted action is not taken to reduce carbon emissions. That will be, without any hint of hyperbole or exaggeration, catastrophic for life as we know it. I therefore cannot support the kind of retrograde, short-sighted approach that these bills represent to Australia's climate and energy future, to our social and economic future, to the future of the planet we share with other people and other species.