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Tuesday, 11 August 2009
Page: 4526

Senator HUMPHRIES (7:47 PM) —I also want to contribute to the debate on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 and related package of bills. In doing so, I want to first of all put both my credentials and those of my party on the table for that purpose. It has been suggested by senators opposite in this debate that coalition senators are ignorant about climate change, are unsympathetic, do not understand the imperatives facing the world and do not have any affinity with the needs of the environment. I remind all members of the Senate that the party I belong to has a long and proud history of protecting and acting on the needs of the environment. It is the party which introduced Australia’s first pollution control legislation at the state level, the party that ended sandmining on Fraser Island, the party that, a little over a decade ago, set up the world’s first greenhouse agency, the party that ended whaling in this country, the party that introduced a renewable energy development scheme for the first time and the party that sponsored the Global Initiative on Forests and Climate. It is also the party that, over the life of the Howard government, was able to ensure that Australia was one of only five or six countries in the entire world which actually met its Kyoto emissions targets. It was not Spain, Canada, Japan, New Zealand or the United States of America but Australia, under John Howard, that actually did reach those targets.

Personally, I can also claim a commitment to action of that kind. As the Australian Capital Territory Minister for Environment, Land and Planning, in 1997 I travelled to Nagoya in Japan, where, on behalf of the ACT community, I signed the Cities for Climate Protection charter. In doing so, this territory became the first in Australia to sign up to Kyoto-like targets for greenhouse gas reduction. I will inform the Senate what those targets were, because they will make an interesting contrast with the policy of the present federal Rudd Labor government. More than a decade ago, the ACT Liberal government committed to reduce our greenhouse emissions in this territory to 1990 levels by 2008 and then to further reduce those emissions by 20 per cent on 1990 levels by 2018. It was a leadership signal from a territory that has often provided leadership signals in public policy. It was universally applauded by this community at the time, including by the ALP opposition. It put a heavy emphasis on community or householder action in dealing with climate change and it encouraged and stimulated investment in the sorts of things that we would all like to see, such as new green technologies. Incidentally, that commitment was torn up by the present Stanhope Labor government in 2005 and replaced by a much less ambitious greenhouse target.

So the Liberal Party generally are entitled, and certainly I am specifically, to enter this debate with a sense of commitment and understanding of the needs of the environment. I acknowledge that climate change is a key issue for our generation—some would say it is the biggest issue in our generation. It is more than a campaign tagline, more than a bumper sticker and more than an opportunity to argue who is greener than the next person. It is a complex interlacing of science and politics and it deserves all the careful consideration we can muster based on all the available evidence. It deserves detailed analysis of economic and social impacts of various climate change responses and, in all those terms, it deserves bipartisanship.

But we will not see bipartisanship on this issue. The question is: why? The reason is that the Labor government in this debate at this time is committed to not achieving bipartisanship. It is committed to achieving, in fact, conflict on this issue. Why? Because it wants a trigger in its pocket to fight the next election with a double dissolution and the opportunity to make political advantage out of the disagreement in this place on climate change. It sees more political advantage in conflict than it does in consensus.

I want senators to consider some of the features of this debate to illustrate the point I have just made. All the parties in the Senate, other than the government, have expressed serious reservations about the government’s CPRS. It has no supporters, apparently, in this chamber other than the members of the government, and one wonders what some of them privately think about the scheme. The chorus of critics outside the parliament, on the other hand, are legion. Bodies like Greenpeace, the Australian Coal Association, the Wilderness Society, Woodside, Tim Flannery, the Minerals Council and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry are all against the bill. Even the government’s own premier carbon scheme architect, Ross Garnaut, has stepped aside from the bill that has been presented in its current form.

What would you imagine that a government faced with such a difficult position in the Senate and with such opposition from other senators and outside the chamber might do to deal with this legislation, particularly given that it did not go to the last election with a particular form of legislation? It said it would develop its legislation and scheme after it got to government, so there is not even a mandate to rely on. It now has this opposition to its present scheme. You would imagine it would want to negotiate. But the Rudd Labor government is not interested in negotiating on this issue, even given that it has an opposition which is saying that it is willing to support an emissions trading scheme if it is properly designed, which indeed set in train an emissions trading policy when it was in government, which has even now offered to help the government double its emissions target from five per cent to 10 per cent unconditionally. You would think in those circumstances negotiation might be sensible, might be a rational move in favour of getting its legislation through. Yet it has eschewed negotiation as comprehensively as is possible. At every chance it has had the government has branded any mention of alternatives to its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in its current form as the sabotage by climate change deniers. Instead of taking the extended hand that has been offered by the opposition, Senator Wong, the relevant minister, has said she is not interested in that. Indeed, she plays politics at every opportunity.

I also want senators to note the language that has been used in the course of this debate. I have sat either here or upstairs listening to the contributions of, I think, all of the government senators who have contributed so far to this debate. It is full of references to the blocking of this legislation by the coalition, to the coalition deniers, to the coalition sceptics, to how the coalition is short-sighted, to how the coalition are dinosaurs. Isn’t it interesting that there is no reference in these oft repeated remarks to the position or the bona fides of the crossbenchers, particularly of the Greens? I have heard not one reference in the course of this debate. The reason is very simple. The politics of this debate are not about attacking the Greens or Senators Fielding or Xenophon. The politics are about positioning the coalition for what the government anticipates and hopes, perhaps, is an election around climate change. Deliberately stepping away from constructive negotiations in these circumstances is more than a missed opportunity; it is a disgrace. A world at risk of serious change, I believe, deserves better than that.

I want Australia to take a strong position on climate change. I want us to be in the vanguard of action in this area of policy, and I think we can be. I want a partnership with the Australian people, who have shown such enormous commitment to action on climate change in recent years. And I oppose these bills before the Senate tonight not because they take us too quickly or too far down the path of climate action but because they simply do not do the right things; they simply do not do enough. They are ill-conceived. They are too damaging for the gains that they propose to make. They do not engage the Australian people, individuals and communities enough in the process of change. They are a lost opportunity. They are a political vehicle more than they are a vehicle for action on the environment.

The original listing—and this is a further point to illustrate how politically this government is driving this process—of these bills assumed an implementation date of 2010. We were told categorically that there was a timetable the government wanted to meet and that the timetable was inflexible—it had to be met. Senator Wong said in February this year, when opposing any changes to the government’s timetable for an ETS:

... the longer we delay, the higher the costs. The longer we delay in making this economic transformation, the higher the costs … the Government remains committed to the 2010 start date.

A great deal changed between February and May, when the Prime Minister announced:

... the start date of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme will be delayed one year to commence from 1 July 2011.

But, as Senator Minchin has pointed out, there has been no change to the timetabling of this legislation. Despite a further year before it is due to commence, despite the fact that there are important meetings taking place in Europe at the end of this year on these very issues, the government has not budged at all on its original timetable. It still says it has to be passed as soon as possible.

The question is why. The reason is not the requirements of the scheme. It is not that there is some imperative to have the scheme in place by August or September or December of this year. It is that the politics of the electoral cycle make it imperative that the government has its position staked out on the ground as soon as possible.

We know that the government’s timetable is entirely false, based on what the United Nations itself—which is running the conference in Copenhagen—has said about what it is necessary for states taking part in that conference to do before the conference itself. The UN climate office head, Yvo De Boer, was asked recently if it mattered if Australia arrived at Copenhagen in December for the climate change talks without an ETS in place. He responded, ‘Quite honestly, no.’ He went on to say:

What people care about in the international negotiations is the commitment that a government makes to take on a certain target …

Again, in those circumstances, why does the legislation have to be passed right now? Why does a scheme which does not start for two years need to be passed by the Senate at this point in time? The answer is that it is not about climate change and it is not about protecting the environment. That is extremely sad.

The other point which I think is distressing to the point of being tragic is that the government’s approach with this legislation runs the very serious risk of draining the support and enthusiasm of Australians for positive, realistic, effective action on climate change, because it will be very clear to Australians that it is such a blatantly political instrument rather than an effective public policy tool. As Australians, we should have a plan that is based on action by industry, action by major polluters and also action on a community level that allows people to participate and be part of change. It should be a plan that rewards green choices, that provides incentives for research and development in green industries, that promotes green technologies and green jobs and that promises not just a top-layer tax but a shift in thought and action nationwide which results in a new generation of environmentally conscious Australians who are willing to act in an appropriate way. The Leader of the Opposition said this week that we as a nation can be world leaders in this field. I think that is absolutely true, but it does depend on engagement with the Australian people.

What could government do to stimulate that community involvement? It could, for example, offer rebates to Australians to install solar panels. It could fund research and development to improve existing land, water and vegetation management. It could invest in low emission technology. But, of course, we know that in all these areas the government has a track record already—a track record of failure. The solar panel rebate is the most visible example of that. Without ceremony, the $8,000 solar panel rebate was means tested, its effectiveness was reduced, thousands of people who had made plans to install solar panels withdrew those plans because of the new means test and the rebate itself was ultimately and prematurely axed.

In the case of the Renewable Remote Power Generation Program, Minister Peter Garrett emailed solar and wind companies on 22 June this year, three minutes after the program had actually been cut, to advise them of their fate. That program had provided rebates to more than 7,000 installations, with a further 1,100 in the pipeline. It had commenced in 2000 and a total of $300 million had already been invested. It had all made a difference to the environment, but the government decided to axe it. Why? Because its objectives are not about the environment.

We heard in Senate estimates this year about how the government had taken a very successful agency, Land and Water Australia—which had invested in the management of Australia’s land, water and vegetation resources in a way that had produced real dividends for the environment—and simply axed it, despite the very handsome return it had made on management of the environment and control of emissions. The Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund has not being left alone either by the Labor government. The program supported projects such as carbon sequestration into underground aquifers, drying and gasification of coal to reduce electricity generation costs by 30 per cent, carbon by 30 per cent and water consumption by 40 per cent and new solar electricity generation with panels 1,500 times more efficient than is currently the case. The program was cut in 2007, and I really wonder what those opposite hoped to achieve by way of action at the community level to take up those technologies and make a difference.

I think that what we will see with the passage of this legislation, if it becomes effective in Australia, is people seeing higher energy costs, lost jobs, a decline in the viability of many rural industries and a great deal happen that is not good in their communities; but they will not see a difference made to global emissions by virtue of those steps. If they were to see a great deal of pain for not much gain, it would be perfectly understandable for them to say that this was a plan that did not deliver what was promised. Climate change fatigue and cynicism will grow, and that would be, I think, a tragic consequence.

I believe that Australia can and ought to be in the vanguard of action on climate change. I do believe that we need to act and that Australia has a role to play in that. I believe that an effective, strong emissions trading scheme as part of a plan for emissions reduction in this country is possible and achievable on a bipartisan basis.

It is regrettable in the extreme that, because of this government’s determination to use the issue of the environment for other purposes, that is simply not possible. Nonetheless, the coalition is perfectly right in opposing this legislation—in sending a signal to the government that it will not accept its posturing and posing on the environment as a substitute for real policy. We owe Australians more than that. Indeed, that is the decision that we have taken and will carry through with the decision to oppose this legislation tonight in the Senate.