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Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Page: 5343

Senator FEENEY (10:23 AM) —It is a great pleasure to rise in support of the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2009 and the Renewable Energy (Electricity) (Charge) Amendment Bill 2009. These bills fulfil the Rudd government’s commitment to expand the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target Scheme to ensure that the equivalent of at least 20 per cent of Australia’s electricity supply is generated by renewable sources by 2020.

In April, the Council of Australian Governments agreed, following extensive community consultation, to the design of the Renewable Energy Target Scheme. That agreement represented a major step towards a low-emissions future for Australia. The RET Scheme, as it is known, will bring the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target Scheme and existing and proposed state and territory schemes into one national scheme, avoiding the inefficiencies and the unnecessary costs of there being nine different schemes operating around Australia in various jurisdictions. These bills are designed to ensure a smooth transition to a single national scheme. We should acknowledge the cooperative attitude of the state and territory governments in ensuring that we have an harmonious and effective transition to a national RET scheme

The RET Scheme contained in these bills will speed up Australia’s shift away from carbon based fuels and towards renewable energy technologies like solar, wind, tidal, biomass and geothermal power, and indeed, even others. It will help transform the electricity sector and drive the low-emission technology and the low-emission electricity generation this country needs if we are to tackle dangerous climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions. The Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2009 increases the existing mandatory renewable energy target from 9,500 gigawatt hours, by stages, to 45,000 gigawatt hours in 2020. The new scheme will create a guaranteed market for additional renewable energy deployment, using the mechanism of tradeable renewable energy certificates that are created by renewable energy generators. This in turn will attract additional investment and create additional jobs in the renewable energy sector here in Australia.

It is pleasing that the opposition, or at least the Liberal Party, has decided to support this bill. I am still not clear what the position of the National Party is with respect to this bill.

Senator Williams —Protecting industry and jobs, that is where we are at!

Senator FEENEY —The interjection has not created any clarity where doubt exists. During the hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Climate Policy, I listened to Senator Boswell hold forth day after day on the horrors of a renewable energy target, not just this RET but any RET. He assured us that a RET would be the ruin of every major Australian industry and every regional area. It would therefore seem to take a fairly spectacular backflip for the National Party, let alone Senator Boswell, to now vote for a RET. We will see what happens when it comes to a vote. Whatever the Nationals do, the Liberals say they are committed to the principles of the RET legislation.

On Monday, in the House of Representatives, Mr Greg Hunt, the shadow minister for climate change, environment and water, waxed enthusiastically about the great mirror fields of California, the potential of geothermal energy and the potential of wave, tidal and algal energy to contribute to Australia’s clean energy future. I agree with him about that and so does this government. So far so good. But then Mr Hunt made his fatal slip—or rather his fatal omission. He went on to say:

Clean energy is, with green carbon, one of the two most fundamental steps to dramatically reducing Australia’s net emissions.

Clean energy is certainly what this bill is about. Green carbon? Possibly. This government’s Clean Energy Initiative includes $2.4 billion for research and development of carbon capture and storage technologies. But we do need to remember that these technologies do not exist at a commercial stage at present. If they did, the whole debate about Australia’s response to climate change would be much simpler. At present, however, we do not have green carbon. We have black and brown carbon, and that is where our problem as a carbon-emitting nation lies.

But what was missing from Mr Hunt’s enthusiastic speech? What is the elephant in the room as far as the Liberal Party’s policy on climate change is concerned? Mr Hunt said that clean energy and green carbon are the two most fundamental steps to dramatically reducing Australia’s net emissions. In fact, there are three fundamental steps. The third fundamental step, the one that Mr Hunt could not bring himself to mention, is putting a price on carbon by means of an emissions trading scheme, such as the one contained in the government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the CPRS.

We all know why Mr Hunt could not mention the need to put a price on carbon. It is because his leader, Mr Turnbull, has ordered his troops to vote against the CPRS bill, a bill that establishes an emissions trading regime for Australia. Mr Hunt himself voted against the bill. Every Liberal member of this Senate voted against it. The Liberal Party has repudiated its own policy from when it was in government, as enunciated by Mr Turnbull, then the environment minister, to establish an ETS and put a price on carbon.

Why has the Liberal Party taken this extraordinary step? It is because Mr Turnbull and Mr Hunt do not have the courage and do not have the will to take on the climate change deniers in their own ranks. They do not have the courage to repudiate people like Senator Minchin, who stated flatly here last week that he rejects the scientific consensus that harmful climate change is being caused by human activity. Senator Minchin said last week:

… this whole extraordinary scheme, which would do so much damage to Australia, is based on the as yet unproven assertion that anthropogenic emissions of CO2 are the main driver of global warming.

Senator Minchin, a lawyer with no scientific training, has stood in this place and contested the scientific consensus concerning anthropogenic climate change. He has put himself at odds with Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Penny Sackett; with the eminent scientists of the Royal Society; with the academies of science of all the G8 countries and with Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. And he has put himself at odds with Lord Stern, author of the Stern report. In fact he is at odds with the overwhelming majority of qualified climate scientists in almost every country in the world, all of whom have emphatically said that anthropogenic emissions of CO2 are the main drivers of global warming.

Faced with this extraordinary display of climate change scepticism, what did Mr Turnbull have to say in response? I can answer that very succinctly—nothing is the answer, not a thing. What Senator Minchin said was an outright repudiation of Liberal Party policy and of the frequently stated views of Mr Turnbull and Mr Hunt that climate change is real, that it is being caused by human activity and that the Liberal Party does in fact believe in it. A leader with any courage would have sacked a frontbencher who so boldly defied party policy on a matter of such fundamental importance. But not Mr Turnbull; he dared not sack Senator Minchin, nor contradict him or even remind him of his own party’s policy. He has meekly allowed his party and its policies to be hijacked by climate change denialists like Senator Minchin, by the troglodytes of the National Party and by the right-wing populists of the Murdoch press such as Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman.

Mr Turnbull does not have the reputation of a meek and modest man. So why has he allowed himself to be walked over so dramatically in this manner by Senator Minchin and by fellow members of the coalition flat earth society opposite? We all know the answer to that. He is a leader whose approval rating is 31 per cent, whose preferred Prime Minister rating is 24 per cent and who has only 17 per cent of his own party’s voters wanting him as their leader. He is a man who is much less preferred as Liberal leader than someone who has insisted he is retiring from politics, and he is in no position to take a strong stand on anything. Mr Turnbull is a leader on sufferance. He is tolerated only because there is at present no-one else. Australia and future generations of Australians must pay the price for Mr Turnbull’s recklessness and poor judgment in the forged email affair, which has now fatally undermined his public standing and his standing within his own party, and has meant that he has failed the test of leadership action on climate change.

I hear senators opposite cry: what has the tragic spectacle of Mr Turnbull’s humiliation at the hands of his own party got to do with the RET bill which is before us, a bill which the Liberal party is supporting? It has a great deal to do with it because the RET bill in fact could be characterised as a complementary measure to the CPRS legislation. It is a bill that will only be effective and ultimately achieve its purpose if there is a price put on the use of carbon based energy sources. The whole point of an ETS is to raise or create the price of carbon so as to create an economic incentive for individuals, companies and communities to make the shift from carbon based energy sources to renewable energy.

I would have thought a party which believes in the superiority of market forces over government prescription would readily grasp the point that the best way to get people to shift to renewable energy sources is to create a genuine market incentive for them to do so, not to simply bribe them with taxpayer dollars. For most of its history Australia has had some of the world’s lowest prices for carbon based fuels, particularly coal. Senator Joyce made this point moments ago. That has had its advantages but now we see its disadvantages as well. The main disadvantage is that a low carbon price destroys any incentive to move away from carbon, no matter what the long-term cost of burning carbon based fuels may be.

It’s not good enough for Mr Turnbull and Mr Hunt to tell us how much they support renewable energy and how much they support the RET scheme contained in this legislation. That support is meaningless unless it is accompanied by support as to an ETS, because without an ETS the RET bill will not be effective. It will not achieve its ultimate mission. Senators opposite cannot clothe themselves in virtue because they are supporting the easy part of the government’s strategy to combat climate change while dodging shared responsibility for the difficult part. They cannot claim in the parliament to be supporters of renewable energy or of effective action against climate change while at the same time they travel around the regions whipping up opposition against the very idea of an effective ETS, against the CPRS legislation put by this government into this parliament. Of course those opposite certainly cannot clothe themselves in the guise of people interested in action on climate change or interested in a renewable energy sector while they continue to do nothing against those articulating climate change denialist views within the coalition; and we know there are many.

The Australian people are not impressed by the Liberal Party’s double act on renewable energy and climate change. They are not fooled by the tactic of supporting the easy part while blaming the government for the hard part. The tactics of delay and obfuscation by those opposite have gained them nothing. What does this week’s Nielsen poll tell us about the Australian people’s views on this very important matter and, indeed, their views on this national debate? It tells us that 55 per cent of Australians want the government to reintroduce the CPRS bill into this parliament in November, while only 29 per cent share Mr Turnbull’s view that we should wait until early next year to see what happens at Copenhagen. Popular support for the Liberal Party’s strategy of delay, delay, delay is, of course, being fatally weakened because the Liberal Party has failed to articulate a view, a rationale, a plan. Only 12 per cent of Australians want the CPRS scheme abandoned altogether. Those opposite can be certain that we, the government, will be doing what 55 per cent of the Australian people want us to do. We will be bringing the CPRS bill back to this Senate in November. We will force those opposite to face up to their responsibilities. We will force them to stand up and be counted where the Australian people can see them—right here in the Senate.

Come November, the Liberal Party will have the unenviable choice of executing a humiliating backflip or of putting themselves in opposition to the express wish of the majority of the Australian people, putting themselves in opposition to action on climate change with all of the political consequences that will flow from that. These are consequences that I am sure those opposite are increasingly beginning to comprehend, political consequences that many a commentator in our newspapers is becoming ever more enthusiastic about modelling—modelling the political consequences of a Liberal Party decision to oppose action on climate change because they know it will shatter them. But I will have no sympathy for them as they face the unpalatable choice of either doing what they cannot stomach doing or facing the wrath of the electorate. This is a rod they have made for their own backs. They have chosen to play cheap populist politics with this issue, they have chosen to move around Australia undermining support and understanding of the government’s proposals in terms of action on climate change, and these factors have come back to bite them. The simple fact is that the Australian people are not as gullible as those opposite seem to think. In passing this legislation, we are passing what can be categorised as a complementary measure of our CPRS legislation, and the real test will come when we pass the CPRS itself.