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Tuesday, 11 August 2009
Page: 4509

Senator BIRMINGHAM (5:56 PM) —I rise to speak on this package of bills related to the government’s emissions trading scheme. At the outset I think it is important to look at the underlying motives and reasons for this package of bills, as many senators have done.

Do I know for sure that man-made actions are influencing global warming and climate change? No, I do not. I am no expert, nor do I believe that, either in this chamber or in the other place, this parliament has terribly many experts in this field. Many of us have tried to gather information. Many of us have tried to ensure that we are as informed as possible. But none of us, that I am aware, has the expert scientific knowledge to lay claim to being people who know exactly what is occurring to the planet. Indeed it is possible that nobody knows exactly what is occurring to the planet. But what I do know is that, outside of this parliament, throughout the world there are many people who put themselves forward as experts, there are many people who have the level of scientific training that perhaps, hopefully, means that they do understand what is happening to our planet and the potential impact of climate change.

It seems that the balance of the scientific opinion out there suggests that man-made actions are having an impact. I recognise and I respect the views of those who believe they are not. I hope those people are correct. Indeed it would be a far better future if those people who argue that climate change is not real were correct. However, I believe that the majority opinion in the scientific community, and it appears to still be a significant majority of those with expertise in this field, needs to be given the benefit of the doubt. It needs to be recognised as the consensus opinion. We do need to give, as our leader and others have said, the planet the benefit of the doubt when considering this issue.

Before I came to this place to give this speech today I looked back at my maiden speech. In that first address to the Senate I said:

You do not need to be Einstein to work out that continued growth using current resources will ultimately be unsustainable. You should not even need to be 100 per cent convinced of the science behind global warming to know that the environmental footprint of man across this planet must have its limitations.

Reflecting back on those remarks at that stage, to this day I still hold the view that the continuous exponential rise of emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—or of any other chemical compound—cannot go on forever without having some impact. I do not know what that impact will always be but I am conscious that every action we perform on this earth has some small repercussion. Whether it is a repercussion with very insignificant consequences on what is happening around us or whether it is cumulative—as it has been over the last 100 years, where we have gone from being a populace on this earth of about one billion people to being a populace closer to six billion people, and still growing—we have an impact.

So I come to the view that climate change is an issue that should be considered and taken seriously because of two clear reasons: as I said, we have some level of natural limitations and we have the balance of scientific opinion. Throughout the last couple of decades this has been an ongoing subject of discourse in this place, throughout the community and throughout the world. We have actually taken great steps on climate change awareness and action. Some of those steps and some of the work undertaken are all too easily forgotten in the discussions and debates that we have in this place.

The previous Howard government did set itself out from the rest of the world when it established the Australian Greenhouse Office back in 1996. It took action from day one in government to recognise that Australia needed to position itself for its place in this debate in the world and needed to prepare itself for whatever transitions to its economy and its industry were going to be required. It backed up that establishment of the Australian Greenhouse Office with a mix of measures, including the Australian greenhouse challenge, a voluntary industry measure. In my time working at the Australian Hotels Association, I assisted many of Australia’s major hotel chains to implement measures that reduced their energy consumption as part of the voluntary package of the Australian greenhouse challenge. Under the previous government we put in place programs that sought to help the transition. Indeed, we have seen many industry sectors already pick off what might be described as the low-hanging fruit—the easy gains in how you improve your energy efficiency and reduce your carbon footprint.

We introduced the first mandatory renewable energy target. It was another major step by the Howard government to position Australia for the future; to provide some market incentive for growth in the renewable energy sector. It mandated a five per cent limit and established a system where the growth of renewable energy had some value to it through the trading of the renewable energy certificates. We put in place the initial reporting frameworks for a potential carbon trading scheme as well.

So we put in place the framework to step Australia onto the pathway of having a broader carbon trading framework. Through all of these actions we actually set Australia up to be one of the very few countries in the world who will, by the conclusion of the time frame of the Kyoto agreement, have actually met its targets. Australia will have met its agreed targets under Kyoto, or will come extremely close to having met them, at the end of its time frame. It is no credit to the current government or those sitting opposite that Australia will have met those targets because all the hard yards—as it is with so many areas of the management of Australia—were done by the previous government. That is when the trajectory for success on Kyoto was put in place.

Internationally, Australia helped set up the AP6 group—the group of six Asia-Pacific countries to help develop and transfer low-emissions technologies. Setting up an international group may not sound like much except for the fact there was one major piece of significance around this group: that is, that it was—and still is to date—the only international agreement on climate change that actually brought together China, India and the United States. It put those three countries around the one table to discuss climate change matters—those three countries that are so integral to having any chance of tackling this issue.

So Australia had some great runs on the board as we come to this debate today. Did we always get it right? No. There were definitely some negatives. There were negatives particularly surrounding the symbolic. The new government has been very good both in opposition and in government at actually capturing and making hay out of the symbolism; and in particular, the symbolism in this issue of the ratification and signing of Kyoto. It was a tragedy in the end that Australia had not signed Kyoto because it was used with such great political success by the now Prime Minister in the last election campaign. Full marks to him for his political skills in turning an issue against us—where we had actually been succeeding as a country in meeting our targets and obligations—purely over a piece of symbolism. It is very clear that a political mistake was made by the previous government in not signing Kyoto.

Those negatives of perception of course have been played out by the Prime Minister and Minister Wong and others throughout this debate and exploited in a particularly ruthless way. In doing so, they have sadly politicised the debate around climate change to such an extent that it is hard to see a clear pathway forward for Australia now. As they have played politics with climate change they have managed to manifest a position of black and white. This is not a debate of black and white. As I said in my introductory remarks, from the very genesis of the science around climate change, there are shades of grey and those shades of grey are now very clear in the policy position we take going forward.

It is not a matter of their ETS being the only option—far from it. Their ETS is probably a terrible option. It has many flaws to it, many of which have been outlined by numerous colleagues of mine. Their ETS unfortunately will do little to help the environment in the way they are pursuing the policy, but at the same time it manages to pose a significant risk to Australia. It will do little to help the environment because they have forgotten that global warming is known as global warming for a good reason—because it is a global problem. It is not an Australian problem; it is a global problem. It is one thing taking Australia with you, but you actually have to take the world with you too, and that is where the Rudd government is failing to deliver on its climate change policy.

They were elected on a promise of introducing this emissions trading scheme by 2010. That is actually next year. It is not that far away. That was the initial promise. That was part of the politics of the debate. Why was it part of the politics? Because the Howard government had a sensible time frame in place to introduce some type of emissions trading regime. The Howard government had committed to do so, but to do it in a sensible and timely manner. But no, to win the election, Mr Rudd had to say: ‘We will do it sooner. We will rush it in.’ That was their commitment. It was a bit of political one-upmanship. It was all about posturing for the campaign.

Eventually, after much haranguing and free advice from this side of the chamber, they saw the light and delayed the introduction date. Yet now, still in a game of politics, they choose to try to push and rush this legislative package through—rush it through now even though it is not required for legislative purposes until next year and for operational purposes, beyond that. But no, they want to rush it through despite the fact that the world will come together later this year in Copenhagen to discuss the global approach to climate change. That is where the government should be applying its focus: working towards a good outcome at Copenhagen, one that builds on the work of the Howard government in bringing China and India and the United States to the table together to actually achieve a global agreement that will make some difference. Australia’s one per cent of global emissions, no matter what we do here, is not going to make a jot of difference. No matter how much I think we need to do the responsible thing and take action in Australia, it will not matter. We could shut the whole place down tonight, pass through some emergency legislation and shut the whole country down, and it still will not make a jot of difference, because the rest of the world will keep powering on and the growth we see in China and India, in particular, demonstrates how important it is for us to have them on board for any action at all to be meaningful.

So we have this ridiculous timing approach, trying to jump ahead of Copenhagen and the potential of a global agreement just because the government want to play politics. They want to wedge the opposition. They want to create a double dissolution trigger. They want to do whatever it is on a political front and they do not care about the correct policy footing.

In the United States we have the discussion around the Waxman-Markey bill that is progressing through congress. It has passed through the House of Representatives but not yet through the Senate. The US Senate will, I have no doubt, take its time, as it usually does, and give careful consideration to the proposal. It may well decide to wait until after Copenhagen before final passage of the legislation. But, notably, it is a system that is markedly different from the one proposed here by the Rudd government. It provides much clearer protection for their trade-exposed industries and ensures that they are not selling out their industries before the rest of the world is clearly on board. In fact as well as providing significant protection up till 2025 for their industries, it even then still has a trigger requiring that some 70 per cent of global output for any manufacturing sector is covered by some type of emissions trading regime before that manufacturing sector or industry in the United States faces its emissions trading scheme. So there is a protective mechanism in there for the long term, not just for a fixed date but actually to ensure that there is majority coverage of the globe in a particular industry sector.

So we see a markedly different approach. In Australia trade-exposed emissions-intensive industries have largely been sold out. Yes, you hear lots of numbers thrown around about free permits and what proportion of permits they might get for free, but the truth is that those permits and the value of those permits diminish over time under this government’s ETS and by diminishing they will increase year upon year the pressure on those industry sectors. And if the rest of the world is not on board or the major competitors and the major trade competitors of China and India are not on board, then those industries will move offshore.

Senator Furner before me mentioned carbon leakage. He mentioned it, but his government has failed to comprehensively address the potential threat of carbon leakage, of our going through all this economic pain in Australia and of the job losses that Senator Bernardi spoke about earlier, only to see these industries move offshore to less efficient countries where we may well end up seeing higher emissions outputs in net global terms. And this, I come back to, is a global issue we are meant to be tackling.

We also see some specific, detailed problems in this legislative package. The capacity of industry to pass through costs is an issue that none other than the Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, has raised with the Rudd government. It is about the capacity of mining companies and those who have international trade agreements, signed and in place, to pass through their industry costs at either a domestic or a trade level of doing business. Santos, a major South Australian company, has made strong representations to the government about the need for the package to be changed in this area. But each time it has done so, it has been greeted by a door being shut in its face. When Premier Bligh cannot get changes and major employers like Santos from the minister’s own home state cannot get changes, you have to wonder at the recalcitrance of this government. They are clearly unwilling to listen to the concerns of stakeholders in this sector.

This is a bad package, but there are no lack of alternatives. Yesterday Mr Turnbull released one alternative suite of packages. It is well modelled. It is does not churn as much funding as the government’s scheme does from selling permits through the economy. It provides for higher targets. It is a cleaner, greener, smarter model of emissions trading—one that could give us more bang for our buck. Better still, we could and we should take the time over the next few months—past Copenhagen—to consider the model provided by Mr Turnbull. We could come back here in January or February next year to have this debate. We should have this debate when we know what direction the rest of the world is going in and when we have given full consideration to the much better policies that the Liberal Party have outlined, as we have historically always done in this key policy area.