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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1224

Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (10:12 AM) —Minister, can I say first of all that the Democrats are very supportive of this move. In fact, investing in infrastructure was the first item on our platform at the last election, where we called for a national sustainability commission to coordinate investment in infrastructure to meet future growth needs and ensure consistency between sustainability policy and implementation. So, at the outset, I say that we think this a long-overdue reform.

However, I was dismayed when I saw the bill and the extent to which climate change has been downgraded as a function of this organisation. It does not appear in the list of primary functions for providing advice. I know, Minister, you said earlier that we do not want to see duplication by others, but it seems to me that climate change is absolutely central to the decisions which will be made and the advice which will be given by this body to the government. I would have put it at No. 1—or A—in terms of the primary function of this organisation. But, no, what your government has done is bury it away under the additional functions and limited it to providing advice on infrastructure policy issues arising from climate change. I can only assume that ‘arising from climate change’ means, ‘What do we do when the sea level rises and our ports no longer function? What do we do when the roads get clogged with cars because there is inadequate public transport?’ Is this government truly anticipating that this body will virtually ignore climate change on the basis that others are thinking about it and giving government advice?

Well, no, Minister. This is the opportunity for the infrastructure of this country to be determined with climate change not as a kind of add-on, side-effect down the bottom of the list of priorities but at the top. Decisions which will be made, presumably by government acting on advice from this organisation, will be on things such as: do we build more roads and freeways assuming that there is going to be an endless flow of oil and that we do not have to worry about the greenhouse impacts, even though greenhouse emissions from transport, for instance, have now overshot 1990 levels—I do not have the exact figures with me—by close to 30 per cent, as I understand it, and are projected to overshoot 1990 levels by a great deal more than that? So I find it unbelievable that climate change, greenhouse impacts and global warming would not be part of the primary function of this organisation. How is it going to make recommendations and give advice on any of that list of items without taking into account the very dramatic and possibly disastrous effects of climate change not in 50 years time but in two or three years time? How can this organisation possibly function without that advice being central to absolutely everything it does?

Minister, I urge you to put climate change as the primary function and make it No. 1 because that is going to be what will affect not only infrastructure but the future of this country and the way in which we deal with our very serious obligations to reduce emissions. It needs to have the highest—and I cannot say this often enough—priority. In fact, our proposal is that transport funding, for instance, should be pooled and the No. 1 criteria for who gets that money should be: does it help us reduce our emissions or does it not?

So I agree that we need to worry about infrastructure, particularly around our coasts because the sea level is going to rise metres. We now know that there is an enormously increased rate of melting of ice sheets in the Antarctic and in the Arctic. We know that sea levels are going to rise not by a matter of a handful of centimetres over the next hundred years; it could be metres—it could be 25 metres. We need to listen to the scientists who are telling us now that the matter is absolutely urgent and much more serious—as of just a matter of months ago—than we thought. With sea level rises of metres, I can understand why you would want to receive policy advice from this body on those matters. But before we get to that point, surely this body should be looking at reducing greenhouse impacts. Not only is it item (g) under part (2) of additional functions; it is not even something that Infrastructure Australia can decide for itself if it sees fit to investigate, report and give advice on. It can act on climate change policy issues which arise from climate change only if the minister instructs it to do so. That is a ludicrous situation. Minister, I ask you to respond to this and I urge you to assure us that this is a mistake in the legislation and that you really meant to put that under the first list of high priority items.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Senator Bartlett)—Senator Milne, this is similar to the subject of your first amendment. Do you want to move onto that now and give focus to the debate or do you have other questions?