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Monday, 24 February 2014
Page: 626

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (19:21): It is not often that I begin a speech with a quote from Ronald Reagan, but here I think it is particularly apposite because Ronald Reagan said that the first duty of any government is to protect its people. If that is right, it means protecting a country's people, their lives and property and their way of life. It is against this test that in particular conservative governments, but I think any governments, and their programs should be assessed. It is clear that the Abbott government is failing this test and failing it miserably. In fact, the Prime Minister, his government and its program stand condemned not just because they are failing to protect Australians and their way of life now but because the policies of this government will endanger Australians into the future.

The recent fires in Victoria are not over. The city of Morwell remains shrouded in a dangerous cocktail of smoke from the Hazelwood coalmine fire. Suburbs of Melbourne were threatened. Hundreds of brave firefighters supported by the community are continuing to battle the fires to protect their communities. These same firefighters and their organisations tell us that the worst could be still to come as we face the prospect of more bushfires influenced by climate change. These fires and the fires in South Australia come on the back of an unprecedented year of heat across much of Australia and a devastating early start to the fire season in New South Wales. The Victorian fires also follow an unprecedented period of heatwaves in the south-east of Australia. That heatwave itself killed people. In the north of Australia, the country is in the middle of a severe drought.

We know that global warming is already starting to have an impact and that climate change will make fires, heatwaves and droughts worse. We know that only strong and urgent action to cut pollution will lessen these impacts. That is why this government and its program stand indicted. Instead of protecting the Australian people and taking strong action against global warming, this government has set out to systematically dismantle the action Australia is taking to fight climate change.

First the government abolished the Climate Commission. Then it scrapped the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. Then it sought to scrap the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Then it moved to abolish the Climate Authority. Then it moved to cut the price on pollution. Now it is coming after the renewable energy target. Along the way it has continued to peddle misinformation and, in the case of the Prime Minister, lies about the link between extreme weather and global warming. There is very clearly a direct relationship between extreme weather and climate change. It is common sense that as ocean and land temperatures rise there will be an impact on weather conditions. Scientists are telling us that what we are starting to see is consistent with their predictions.

When I say there is a direct relationship, it is absolutely crystal clear that according to the science global warming is influencing extreme weather events. The Climate Council, including one of Australia's most eminent scientists, Professor Will Steffen, released a report earlier this year entitled Be Prepared: Climate Change and the Australian Bushfire Threat. The report outlines five key facts about bushfires, which I will outline because amongst the chortling and interjections from those opposite it is concerning that there is a complete unwillingness from the coalition to do what other conservative governments around the world have done, and that is to say we accept that there is a link between global warming and the extreme weather events we are facing.

As I said, the report outlined five key facts. Fact one, climate change is already increasing the risk of bushfires. Extreme fire weather has increased over the last 30 years in south-east Australia. Hot, dry conditions have a major influence on bushfires, and that is just common sense. Climate change is making hot days hotter and heatwaves longer and more frequent. In fact, according to a report released in the past few days, it is clear that in places like Melbourne, in Victoria, these heatwaves are now commencing on average 17 days earlier and they are between 1.7 and two degrees hotter on their hottest days. Some parts of Australia are becoming drier. These conditions are driving the likelihood of very high fire danger weather, especially in the south-west and the south-east. Australia is a fire-prone country and has always experienced bushfires. All extreme weather events are now being influenced by climate change, because they are occurring in a climate system that is hotter and moister than it was 50 years ago.

Fact two, in south-east Australia the fire season is becoming longer, reducing the opportunities for hazard reduction burning. The report made it clear that these changes have been most marked in spring, with fire weather extending into October and March. The scientists tell us the fire season will continue to lengthen into the future, further reducing the opportunities for safe hazard reduction burning. One analysis indicated that, under a relatively modest warming scenario, the area of prescribed burning in the Sydney region would need to increase two- to threefold to counteract the increased fire activity. Under a more realistic scenario, the report predicted an increase of fivefold would be noted.

Fact three, recent severe fires have been influenced by record hot, dry conditions. Australia has just experienced its hottest 12 months on record. New South Wales has experienced the hottest September on record, days well above average in October and exceptionally dry conditions. These conditions mean that fire risk has been extremely high and we have already seen severe bushfires in New South Wales, on the Central Coast and in the Blue Mountains. The Black Saturday fires in Victoria were preceded by a decade-long drought with a string of record hot years, coupled with a severe heatwave in the preceding week. The previous record for the Forest Fire Danger Index was broken by such an extent that it was revised and, of course, as you would know, Deputy Speaker Broadbent, we saw the category 'Catastrophic' or 'Code Red' added. Since 2009 there have been a number of subsequent declarations of catastrophic conditions around southern Australia in step with the hotter and drier climate.

Fact four, in the future Australia is very likely to experience an increased number of days with extreme fire danger. Fire frequency and intensity is expected to increase substantially in coming decades in many regions, especially in those regions currently most affected by bushfires and where a substantial proportion of the Australian population lives. Australia has always been a country that is prone to bushfires and extreme weather events. So why on earth would you wish more of them on us and the population? Because those who deny that global warming is having an impact right now are doing exactly that.

Fact five, it is crucial that communities, emergency services, health services and other authorities prepare for the increasing severity and frequency of extreme fire conditions. As fire risk increases, disaster risk reduction and adaptation policies will play a critical role in reducing risks to people and human assets. Increased resources for our emergency services and fire management agencies will be required. One estimate of the future economic cost of bushfires indicates that, with no adaptive change, increased damage to the agricultural industry in Victoria by 2050 could add $1.4 billion to existing costs. By 2030 it has been estimated that the number of professional firefighters will need to approximately double compared to 2010 to keep pace with increased population, asset value and fire danger weather.

The heatwaves which we have been experiencing in recent months are not only exacerbating bushfires they are thought to be directly responsible for the loss of life. A report in The Age newspaper has outlined the impact of the recent heatwave. According to the report:

Hundreds of Victorians died … during the [January] heatwave and there are fears the death toll could match or exceed the lives lost during the 2009 heatwave that occurred a week before the Black Saturday fires.

As doctors called for a review of how heatwaves are managed across the state, the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine said it had recorded 203 deaths between last Monday, January 13, and Sunday—double its historical weekly average of about 98. The institute works with the State Coroner to investigate reportable deaths.

The deaths, which so far amount to an average of 29 per day, far exceed the average of 19 per day recorded over two weeks during 2009's unprecedented heatwave, believed to have killed about 374 Victorians.

The deaths in Victoria are the most horrific impact of the heatwave, but countless other Victorians have suffered through these heatwaves too. For vulnerable people living in my electorate, and especially those living in public housing, these increased heatwave days mean a constant search for shelter from the heat. Many people have been forced to crowd into air-conditioned spaces in the bottom of public housing to deal with the heat.

Many people here will know the public housing blocks in my electorate. As you come in on the CityLink freeway, as you hit the yellow and red sticks, if you look to your right you will see some of the big concrete public housing blocks that were built around the sixties that are not air-conditioned. When you have three days when it is over 40 degrees consecutively and when it does not drop below 30-odd degrees at night, they become hot boxes. It is getting to the point where one constituent rang me to say that, in her flat with her family, she was measuring the temperature and it was nudging 50 degrees. It got to the point after a couple of days of this where the housing just did not cool down. They have taken to going downstairs and sleeping on the oval. Families with their young kids are now sleeping on the oval in the middle of Melbourne because the heatwaves are rendering their homes uninhabitable.

Community agencies and local councils have done their best to assist but it is clear that the state government must do more to lead all levels of government and community agencies in a plan to deal with this crisis, which will grow year after year. This is what global warming looks like. We have been talking about the dangers of global warming for some time now, but now we are experiencing them.

If there is any doubt in anyone's mind about what we are experiencing, just look at the tumbling records of the last year. I want to go through a few of them. 2013 began with the hottest January on record, and it was smack bang in the hottest summer on record. We then had a record-breaking heatwave in March in Melbourne and the hottest March on record in Tasmania. January to June was the hottest start to the year on record and this was followed by the warmest July for Canberra and a number of other regions in the south-east of Australia. August saw the warmest winter on record in South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland—a factor in the early and devastating start to the fire season in New South Wales. September was the hottest on record across the country, starting what became the hottest spring on record. December ended a scorching year, which was the hottest on record in total and which brings us to the last month of scorching temperatures, heatwaves and bushfires in the south-east.

This is what global warming looks like and it is only going to get worse and worse if we do not act. This is where the Abbott government is failing to protect the Australian people. Not only is it failing to protect the Australian people, it is in fact making it worse with its campaign to junk any meaningful action to halt Australia's pollution. If Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the government get their way, future generations will look back on this government as a bunch of shameful cowards in the thrall of special interests. Last year a number of people took exception to my criticism of the Prime Minister for wearing a firefighter's uniform while enacting policies that will make risk of dangerous bushfires worse. It was clear that my criticism touched a nerve. But if the truth hurts, deception and obfuscation will hurt us more.

The signs are clear: if the last year of record heat tells us anything it is that we are running out of time. What is at stake is whether, when you go on holidays every year at Christmas, you are going to have to be worried about whether bushfires will threaten you and your family where you are. If you want to go fishing, the question you will be asking is whether ocean acidification has meant the fish are not there to catch in the same way that there have been in previous generations. The signs are clear and we are running out of time. Severe climate impacts are starting to be felt now and they will get worse year after year. Scientists are telling us this is the critical decade when we need to urgently turn our pollution downwards, but the Abbott government is set to squander years of work and squander even more of this decade with its campaign to smash renewable energy. When the scientists are telling us that this is the critical decade, what they are saying is that in the whole of human history this has to be the decade in which our pollution is at its highest and that we need to start cutting now to become a zero pollution economy in the next couple of decades. And the tragedy in all of this is that it is completely possible.

The adviser to the German Chancellor and to the G8 said: 'We look at you Australians and we wonder, with all your sun and wind and wave power and with all your incredible manufacturing capacity and your high level of smarts and intellectual capability, why aren't you leading the world in renewable technology? Why is it being left up to cloudy Germany to do it?' In cloudy Germany a couple of years ago, according to recent figures, they had 382,000 jobs in their renewable energy sector. To put that in the Australian context, that is about 102,000 jobs; and, to put that figure in context, that is more than twice as many as in coalmining, oil and gas combined. In Germany they also have some very straightforward mechanisms that are helping boost their economy and cut their pollution: if you build a renewable energy power station above a certain size, then the electricity grid is obliged to connect you to it, and so there are people building offshore wind and large solar plants and building wind farms.

This is all within our wit to do here in Australia as well. There are people at the University of Melbourne in my electorate, together with universities in other electorates, who have developed printable solar cells. They are on the verge of being able to commercialise that. Just think for a moment about being able to print a solar cell. At the moment they are doing it with the polymer technology that makes banknotes. If you are able to print a solar cell, you could print one onto the cover of your laptop so that the lights in any room could power it. If you could print solar cells directly onto your corrugated iron you would not need to install a solar panel on your roof because the roof would be a solar panel.

It is exactly these and similar kinds of technologies that could set Australia up for the 21st century, that could ensure that our manufacturing base thrives, that could ensure that we have something to sell to the rest of the world in 15 years time that is not just coal or woodchips. But all of this is under threat from this government as it seeks to rip up all the laws that are having an effect to drive Australia to a clean energy future. It is incumbent on all of us in this place and throughout the Australian community to stand up. We need to have the courage to look reality in the face and connect the dots between what we are experiencing and the impact of global warming. We need leadership that has the courage to do what is necessary to combat the climate crisis. The Greens stand ready to protect the Australian people from global warming. The government clearly does not, so it should get out of the way.