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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 7730

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (5:42 PM) —I also support the motion. I acknowledge and give credit to the submissions we have just heard and the power of the National Party’s stand on this important issue. I also want at the outset to thank my colleague Senator Milne for having drawn the Senate’s attention to this matter last year, because otherwise it would be through and done and dusted without the very important debate it is getting at the moment. The minister and the government cannot say they were not told about this insidious process that we are dealing with here today. The hand of the big end of town, particularly the National Association of Forest Industries and the big polluters, is all over these regulations. Minister Wong is an intelligent and resourceful character, and I am surprised that she is hosting such a shoddy and hopelessly inadequate piece of regulation in this parliament.

I was in Bermagui on Friday night for a public meeting about the logging of forests on the doorstep of that town and in south-east New South Wales more generally. Of course, that problem applies in Tasmania as well. A lot of issues were raised at the meeting. People are concerned about the tourist amenity, they are concerned about biodiversity, they are concerned about recreation and they are concerned about the feeling of place that they have. The Indigenous people there are totally opposed to that logging taking place, and the oyster growers pointed out that other local clean water areas have been lost because of siltation following deforestation. One of the few forests left in the Bermagui region is now threatened by logging that is to occur in the new year. On top of this came repeated questions from the public about carbon. The public is astute on this and seems very much better versed on it than is the cabinet.

Effectively built into this proposal is a public subsidy for planting carbon-sink plantations, which is a perverse outcome. Here we have the government and the Liberal Party supporting the destruction of the biggest carbon banks living on terrestrial Australia—that is, the native forests—and, as a consequence, contributing nearly double  the pollution of the whole of the transport systems of Australia into the global atmosphere. The woodlands and native forests of Australia, from the Tiwi Islands to Tasmania, are being converted into greenhouse gases at an extraordinary rate. It is estimated that that accounts for 17 to 20 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas output—and that is in the world’s biggest coal exporting country. That is incredible, and it is not even measured by Minister Wong’s greenhouse office. We will hear that that is because internationally we do not have to, and that is because Australia, amongst others, fought very hard under the Howard government not to have it included. But the reality is that that is part of the greenhouse gas output in Australia.

Here we have a system to establish plantations to sequester carbon and to effectively cover the fact that these great forests, which store massive amounts of carbon, are being logged. This is, in my book, culpable behaviour. This is a gross misdemeanour at the highest government level against the interests of the planet, future generations and the biodiversity we share on this planet. Here we have big business effectively getting a Labor government to bring forward a set of guidelines that are going to aid and abet the process. This will have the perverse effect of having more and more land that currently has woodland or forest on it converted to plantation and will result in a massive loss of carbon. You will get a tax break for some future carbon sink that will never again replace what was lost.

I noticed that in the regulations there are words like ‘may’ and ‘should’. One regulation says:

1.   Carbon sink forest establishment should be based on regionally applicable best practice approaches for achieving multiple land and water environmental benefits. Compliance with this guideline may be achieved by, for example:

  • avoiding clearing land of remnant native vegetation as determined by the relevant state or territory legislation …

Well, look at the performance of the New South Wales, Victorian and Tasmanian governments on that score. They are ripping down state owned forests that are massive hedges against climate change and discounting it all as nothing. These regulations put into the hands of those same people a request that they ‘may’ look at whether taxpayer subsidised carbon-sink plantations under this scheme ‘should’ be restricted in places where people are going to cut down forests and woodlands or even clear scrublands to achieve a process that will, at the end of the day, hold less carbon in it. It is extraordinary that the dollar imperative here is riding over not just commonsense but the decency to be honest, which is required of all governments.

Today, the National Party is making a stand against the inevitable takeover of food-producing lands—lands where farmers get no subsidies for producing that food—by a scheme driven by the people at the big end of town who can see a get-rich scheme. They will be getting the investors in for their tax deductions for plantations that are supposed to be carbon sinks and that will replace food lands. I have not heard an answer from anybody in government or elsewhere as to whether the current carbon stores in the food lands are going to be replaced by these plantations. Is there a necessity for an assessment? No, there is not. Is this used land, the so-called back blocks of farm lands, the hills where there are currently woodlands that are the maximum carbon storage and which are the naturally best attuned ecosystems for maximising the storing of carbon, now going to be knocked down? Because they are considered marginal farming land, are they to be replaced by plantations that will never ever contain as much carbon? There is nothing in these regulations to say that cannot happen.

Unless you regulate with ‘musts’—and you have to—and leave no option but to abide by a system which ensures you are actually going to increase the carbon-sink facility on land, it will not happen, because the driving motivation here is going to be making dollars and achieving tax deductions. The motivation is not going to be the good of the land; it is not going to be the wellbeing of the human community, either locally or globally, in terms of food production; and it is certainly not going to be hedging against climate change. This was driven by money makers and the Labor government has rolled over and said, ‘Yes, we’ll have that’ to this inherited legislation from the former government, and that is why we have this extraordinary perversity where there will be an actual loss of carbon sink. This will be subsidised by taxpayers through schemes coming from the big end of town, where they could not give a damn about what is happening in rural and regional Australia, its productivity or its ability to be a hedge against carbon. They will be interested in get-rich-quick, money-making schemes to be sold to people wanting to avoid taxation.

Currently, they are onto an issue of great concern to people right across Australia: climate change. It will be very easy to sell to people. ‘This is win-win. You get a tax deduction and you help save carbon from going into the atmosphere and you actually take carbon out of the atmosphere.’ The reality on the ground is quite different. If this goes ahead, we are going to see perversity of that aim and carbon stores—carbon stores bigger than will ever be replaced by this scheme—will be lost through the get-rich-quick potential. The government says, ‘We will leave looking after that to the state governments.’ Really? Who is going to assure me or anybody in this Senate that that is going to work? We would pass the regulations and leave it to the ‘good offices’ of, for example, the Tasmanian government, which wants to build Gunns pulp mill? This is a government which is prepared to put great subsidies into that pulp mill and which knocked out the environmental assessment process to facilitate it—stuck it on the sideboard because it did not fulfil the wishes of one corporation. What are state Labor governments—let alone a federal government that has handed across ipso facto through this process this control to state governments—going to do when they are approached by multiple corporations who have a get-rich-quick scheme and do not want environmental rules getting in the way of it?

The practice shows that this will fail. It will not bring the goods. But the reality here is that, if the Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Wong, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett, and, more particularly, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, want to achieve an outcome on climate change through what we do with our land, the first thing the Rudd government must do is stop the destruction of the biggest carbon banks living on Australia: our forests and woodlands. Overnight, the contribution towards saving the planet would be greater than this scheme would ever, even if it maximised its potential, give to this country. The government that is failing to protect the biggest carbon banks in the country is asking us to pass this legislation which will give very much the same people who are behind that forest destruction industry the ability to buy up otherwise productive land in rural areas or land which is already a big carbon store and sell it on to people as a win financially and, deceptively, as a win for protecting the environment when it will do nothing of the sort.

It is incredible that an intelligent government like the Rudd government could support legislation like this. It is incredible, because this is ignorance writ large. It will be used through studied ignorance—through people saying: ‘Well, that’s the law. It must be good. Senator Wong supports it and Prime Minister Rudd supports it’—as others go about getting people into tax-deduction schemes which are going to do this country harm rather than good. I commend my colleague Senator Milne on the good work she has done on this. I commend the common sense of the National Party in opposing—

Senator Nash interjecting—

Senator BOB BROWN —Absolutely. Not least, Senator Nash, because common sense sometimes takes courage. We are seeing that courage today. There is a conscience factor here, and I would charge every member of the Liberal Party and the Labor Party who is really considering the urgency of the climate debate in this country to vote against their party and to cross the floor on this issue. It is as important as that.