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Thursday, 5 February 2009
Page: 429

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (12:49 PM) —The nation faces the consequences of an extraordinary meltdown of the global economic wellbeing that has emanated from a mismanagement of the trust of people by the corporate sector based in New York and the inevitable catch-up from the spending of assets that simply could not be backed. This is not unforecast. JK Galbraith, for one—I read his book in 1995—forecast an inevitable bust because of the boom that could not be sustained, could not be justified, that even then had appeared in Western economies and was being led by the biggest finance houses on Wall Street. However, this neoliberal and rampant capitalism, based from the Reagan years on the diminution of government—government, get out of the way—now has to be fixed by government.

We are in democracies where it is the role of government ultimately to be the defender of the public good. The Prime Minister is late to this. In his recent essay—I have not read it yet—I think he has done a 180-degree turn from being a conservative economist to now saying that he understands that the role of government is to defend the public good and to work on behalf of all components of the electorate, not just the big business houses. That will take a transformation in thinking by both of the big parties in this parliament, a transformation which is contrary to their practice certainly for the last decade and more that I have been here and for years extending back beyond that. We Greens have a different approach to economic management, one which is much more responsible and which says we certainly should live within the means that there are to support ongoing economic prosperity not just at the given time but into the future.

Australia is the richest country in the world per capita in resources but has had its share of mismanagement. I watched in this place over the last years, particularly during the Howard years, as a massive amount of public money that should have gone into the public sector was poured into the private sector. As a result, we have a run-down education system in a country where everybody—from the poorest person to Rupert Murdoch, who at the turn of the century called for more spending—knows that education is the absolute staple of not just our economic wellbeing but also the general wellbeing of everybody. It provides fulfilment. It gives every individual person in society the opportunity to find their own creative genius. Through the application of that fulfilment they make a contribution to the rest of society.

However, if you look at the average spending on education of OECD nations, Australia has a spending shortfall of $6 billion per annum. We are at the back of the pack. I found it quite extraordinary that neglect of education became a hallmark of the Howard government at a time when we had massive assets and a massive ability to contribute to education. Not least here was the running down of public education stock. We have been left with schools which are way behind international norms in both infrastructure and the good teachers to deliver the education that we want for every child in Australia in 2009.

Now we are faced with this dilemma of unprecedented proportions—that is, unprecedented for those people who cannot remember back to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Greens have a very clear difference from the big parties in our approach to the rescue of the economy from this situation—that is, short-term stimuluses are not enough. We take the long-term view. In meeting this emergency, we want to see the governments in this country and around the world looking at the long term and redirecting the economies so that we do not get ourselves into this mess again. In our communications with the government on this package and on the structuring of future economies, we want to see a very clear direction as to where they expect the economy to be not just in three years time but in 30 or 50 years time.

As far as the Greens are concerned, that means following the advice of Sir Nicholas Stern when he was here in Canberra nearly two years ago. He pointed out to the closed ears of the then Howard government—and, I suspect, the current government—that those economies which take their lead from ecological excellence will be the leading economies in the coming century. Why is that? It is because there is a greater catastrophe than this economic one which is stalking not just Australians but the whole of humanity. We are in an age of cataclysmic climate change. Sir Nicholas Stern pointed out that we should redirect one per cent of gross product into tackling climate change now, and there is no evidence of that in any of the program we have before us. In fact, the Rudd government has said that it is putting off its major legislation to deal with carbon trading until midyear, as it is a secondary matter. Sir Nicholas Stern pointed out that, if we do not urgently redirect one per cent of the global economy into fixing climate change, it will have a six to 20 per cent hit on the economies of our grandchildren. All the evidence points to us having a huge responsibility to think about not just how we fix the economy now but the direction of the economy into the future. The chamber will hear a lot more about this from my colleagues and me in the coming week.

Nevertheless, we are charged with dealing with a $42 billion stimulus package from this government to meet this exigency. The opposition has decided it will not support that package and says that half the stimulus package would be a more prudent way to go. The questions to both the big parties are these. How do you decide the parameters of a stimulus package at this stage of the economic downturn? How do you justify $42 billion or $21 billion or $84 billion or $11 billion? There is a bit of a hunch involved in the government of the day delivering even such a massive package. You listen to the economists. They simply do not know what size package is required or what sort of government intervention is required to get us out of the mess the big finance brains of the world got us into because there was not enough government scrutiny of their activities over the last several decades.

Our view is that Australians are hurting and are fearful. There are predictions that, instead of four per cent unemployment, there will be seven per cent unemployment within a year or two. These are not just statistics. These are hundreds of thousands of Australians who were doing well last year but have been suddenly confronted with dire economic circumstances which may lose them their houses, their cars, their ability to go on holidays, their ability to feel good about themselves or even their ability to inject money into their children’s wellbeing to ensure they get the good education I was just speaking about. Part of the question is this. How do we inject optimism into a nation which in economic terms is feeling pessimistic about the future? I say we do that by both dealing with the economic problem and pointing to a more optimistic and secure future for everybody.

To do that you need to be able to speak to those kids who recognise more clearly than many adults in this country the dire threats coming down the line from overpopulation, resource depletion and cataclysmic climate change—and Australia is not going to be insulated from any of those things. These are huge worries stalking our society. It is up to us, as the wealthiest resource based nation on the planet, to be leading a new direction for the whole of this planet. People are looking to Obama in the United States. We must look to our democratic system in this country to set an even better lead because we are better equipped to do that. Unfortunately, government is not there yet.

The Greens offer an alternative to the old big party thinking in this country, which is really, ‘The big end of town does have the nous and does know what is good for this country.’ There are good-hearted people in the big end of town but their ideology is not a wider one which says that we have to be aiming for quality of life, improvement of happiness and particularly optimism among us citizens, who are seeing ourselves as part of a global community which is facing gargantuan problems into the future. The Greens are prepared to look at those problems, to reset and reconfigure Australia’s role and its domestic policy, to ensure that we take a lead in giving future generations the security, the peace on earth and the stable environment which they all should be inheriting but are not going to inherit in the boom and bust capitalist age which we have just seen deliver to us this extraordinary financial problem.

What do we do with the $42 billion stimulus package? The opposition has decided to oppose it. We Greens would have said it very differently. We will go into this in the coming days of debate. The first thing we have done is to join with the opposition and other members of the crossbench to ensure the Senate gives this package at least basic scrutiny through the committee hearings which have been set up. The Greens have extended that, with the acceptance—we are in a cooperative mood—of the other non-government members of the Senate, to a second committee to ensure that we sit through, if necessary, until next Thursday at midnight to give this package due scrutiny. We will have a lot more to say in the meantime.

I flag this with you, Mr Acting Deputy President. We will run critical scrutiny over this massive amount of money, but we are not here just to criticise; we are here to bring forward positive and helpful suggestions that the government may take into account. I ask the government to accept that it is the role of the whole of parliament, not just the government, to work out what is best for the Australian community. If good ideas come out of other components of the elected parliament then the government should be flexible enough to adopt those good ideas into this package before we get to the final vote next Thursday. In the United States, the Obama administration has proposed a bigger package than this one—we know the United States is a much bigger economy. It is a US$50 billion green stimulus package to ‘create jobs with clean, efficient American energy’. President Obama has said:

To put people back to work today and reduce our dependence on foreign oil tomorrow, we will make investments aimed at doubling renewable energy production and renovate public buildings to make them more energy efficient. America’s energy shortcomings present a huge opportunity to put people to work in ways that will transform our economy.

Senator Milne has our portfolios for both education and climate change and her staff are working very assiduously, looking at the $14 billion part of this package which is for new school buildings right across the country. We would want to see not just that we are renovating buildings but that new buildings being built with this massive amount of public money are highly rated for energy efficiency and for environmental outcomes. That creates jobs and stimulates new skilling in such fields as building, plumbing, carpentry, insulation placement and the electrical trades—right across the board, that stimulates new jobs, giving people new skills which they then carry on into the future, building industry in the private and the public sectors.

In Obama’s package, there is $11 billion for research and development, including pilot products and federal matching funds for a smart grid investment program to modernise the electricity grid, making it more efficient, secure and reliable and building new powerlines to transmit clean renewable energy from sources throughout the nation. There is an $8 billion program for loans for renewable energy power generation and transmission projects. There is $6.7 billion for renovation and repairs to federal buildings, including at least $6 billion focused on increasing energy efficiency and conservation. There is $6.9 billion to help state and local governments make investments that make them more energy efficient and reduce carbon emissions. Might I add that the component of the Rudd government’s package which goes to local government is well directed. Who better than the administrators at the local level to know where best to target expenditure of money to stimulate the economy. There is $2.5 billion in the Obama program for energy efficient housing retrofits and a further $2 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy research.

There is $2 billion going into renewable energy research in America, when we in Australia, this sunny country, have starved our solar researchers of money. When you starve researchers of money, you then starve the pilot programs, the implementation of the technology, the manufacture and the science. So, after 12 Howard government years, we are in the extraordinary position where, for example, in putting a solar hot water system on our house last year, I found that the technology was Australian but it was imported from China. Well, good on the Chinese! But ought not we be manufacturing the Australian technology, which is world’s best, here in Australia? The answer to that is: of course we should. The Obama government is putting $2 billion into energy efficiency and renewable energy research. Where is that in this package?

There are also a range of other measures, and here I point to the fact that Australia is way behind the greening of the economic direction that we see in Germany, the UK, the United States and Spain. Where in this package is there refurbishment, renewal, or at least a national overview, of our public transport system? The Spaniards, with their very fast trains travelling at 350 kilometres an hour—it is now 3½ hours from Madrid to Barcelona, and the other major cities are connected—are taking thousands of people out of the air to slow down the release of greenhouse gases. The Spanish government has just allocated €50 billion to extend this fast, efficient train system, which is 99 per cent on time. What do the people of Sydney or Melbourne think of that? Where is that in this program? Where is even a thought about that in this program? That is the sort of program which, in an age of cataclysmic climate change, sets the course for an efficient transport system into the decades and the century ahead, creating jobs, stimulus for local business and world’s best expertise.

I have a lot more to say about this legislation, but my colleagues will be following me in this debate. We are excited by the opportunities that arise here. We will be talking with the government wherever we can to make this package more job rich, more environmentally cohesive and more long term, leading to the skilling of this generation so they will be assured of jobs for decades to come in this lucky country of ours.