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Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Page: 6400

Mr BILLSON (10:03 AM) —It is a pleasure to talk about the Environment portfolio and to see the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts here. I did fear that maybe he was not the person we should be speaking with, as he has been doing cover versions of the answers that the Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Wong, has been giving him for years. I understand how difficult that must be, as his passion for this area has been proven over the years, only constrained by the lack of commitment by the Rudd government. I did say, and maybe it was unkind, that he is the Milli Vanilli of the environment ministry, as he is mouthing words that are not his own. But we will have a go anyway. We will see if we get some answers. The questions cover a broad range of portfolios but they do go to the issue of a lack of connectedness in the environmental activities of this government. You see bits of activities and, in fact, there are more announcements than you could possibly imagine—and probably much of that budget that we have just talked about was spent on repackaging and reannouncing things.

I was flabbergasted to see in this budget the cancellation of programs that were announced in the last budget but never actually started. They were superseded before they even commenced. That is a gift; you cannot coach that kind of political spin. The Rudd government gets away with continually talking about issues related to and touching upon matters of the environment yet does so little to actually bring about change and implement action.

Many of my questions go to what is actually going on. They start with an interesting example of where the actions seem to be too significant for the Rudd government to cope with. The government were trying to encourage people to embrace photovoltaic and solar technologies, and the Australian public actually welcomed that encouragement, but what did the Rudd government do? They shut the program down early. I thought the whole idea was to encourage that investment with some incentive.

One of the questions I would like the minister to respond to is about the Solar Homes and Communities Plan. I particularly refer to Budget Paper No. 2, page 206, which stated that the funding for the program would continue ‘until the program transitions to solar credits under the expanded renewable energy target on 1 July 2009’. We are not quite there yet. The people who are ringing my office and offices right across Australia are wondering how something written in black and white in a budget paper could have such a short use-by date. That would be an interesting question and I would like to know what the answer is. Is the transition to the new program designed to be less attractive than the old program? Was the overattractiveness of the old program the justification for it being cut in the first place? It is quite a bizarre strategy that you are seeing here.

Also, there is the government’s plan to provide a $1,600 rebate for solar hot water systems. There is the plan by the Queensland government to offer 20,000 solar hot water and heat pump systems for $100 to low-income earners and pensioners and $500 to others. Is the Queensland government’s program reliant on the federal government rebate? We have received information that the federal government has not confirmed that it will fund the Queensland government program. Who is paying for this commitment?

There are concerns about the Solar Schools Program. How many schools have had their solar panels installed? What is the actual number? This program was announced nearly two years ago. Another favourite of mine is the Green Loans Program. It should be called the ‘stealth loans program’. Never has something been talked about so much with so little activity. We were supposed to have had it going last year. It was announced in May 2008. The green loans were to be available early in 2009. Has anything actually happened? We were being told as recently as earlier this year that those programs would be available in the middle of this year. What is the truth about this issue?

I move on to other areas. There is the energy efficiency program. Never has a COAG declaration substituted for action so much as in the built environment. Who is responsible for the built environment? Does the minister have any influence over a smattering of programs that seem to pop up all across the Commonwealth, with no coordination, when the challenges about the efficiency and performance of our built environment, particularly our cities, are so embraced by interconnecting these bits of activity? Instead, we have a scattergun effect of bits and pieces going on all over the place—the industry portfolio is having a go, there are some remnants from the Howard government about water-resilient cities, transport is having a crack about urban congestion that is going the wrong way, and the built environment is saying, ‘Give us some incentives like the announcement of the Turnbull opposition’s green credit scheme.’ What is going on? What is clear is Senator Kim Carr’s assessment that if you do not have someone specifically responsible for cities and the urban environment you are not for real. The opposition does have such a person—a shadow minister for sustainable development in cities. The Rudd government has not. So on Kim Carr’s assessment the Rudd government is failing. We have more announcement than action. We would like some answers to those questions. (Time expired)