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Tuesday, 11 August 2009
Page: 4424

Senator FEENEY (12:59 PM) —It is a great pleasure to rise to speak today on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 and related bills. This is one of the most important pieces of legislation to ever come before this parliament. I want to give an overview of why I believe the Senate finds itself in the position it is now in, apparently poised to reject a bill which the overwhelming majority of Australian people want to see passed.

Let us begin by remembering that those opposite were in office for 11 years. In those 11 years they did nothing whatsoever about climate change, despite years of warnings from scientists and economists both in Australia and overseas. Inaction was their only action. Despite statements of good intentions from successive ministers, including the current Leader of the Opposition, Mr Turnbull, this subject was ultimately just too hard for the Howard government. It was just too hard for a cabinet who apparently believed that the Arctic icecap was melting for no apparent reason, or that it was being caused by sunspots. It was a cabinet enthralled perhaps by Andrew Bolt’s blog. It was a cabinet who failed to take action on climate change and, in part, it was a cabinet no doubt motivated by the fact that there was too much resistance from the National Party. The National Party appear to believe that climate change will disappear as long as they resolutely keep imagining that it is not happening.

Those opposite were well aware of the mounting tide of evidence that dangerous global climate change was caused by human activity and that it was posing an increasingly dire threat to Australia’s economy, to Australia’s environment, to the Australian way of life and, in particular, to the future of Australians who live in rural and regional areas—regions which are of course most dependent on rainfall, river flows and healthy landscapes. Those opposite know all these things. Year after year, they have talked about climate change. They set up committees to study it. They promised that they would do something about it soon, but they did nothing for 11 years. And so it has been left to the Rudd government to take action in this area, as in so many other areas.

It took the Rudd government to sign the Kyoto protocol, committing us finally to take action on climate change. It took the Rudd government to get to grips with the science and the economics. It took the Rudd government to design a carbon pollution reduction scheme that will cut our carbon emissions without damaging our economy or increasing unemployment. It took the Rudd government to negotiate with all the industries that would be potentially affected by this dramatic change and by this very important scheme. It took the Rudd government to produce a green paper, a white paper, an exposure draft and, finally, the bill we have before us today. It took the Rudd government to listen to the concerns of the community and to engage in the process of creating and finetuning a scheme that can meet those concerns.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Minister for Climate Change, Senator Wong. As well as developing an unmatched expertise in every area of this subject—something she demonstrated again and again when those opposite were brave enough to challenge her in debate—she has shown extraordinary patience and persistence in getting this bill before the parliament, in the face of very formidable obstacles—the least of which, I might say, are those opposite at the moment.

During April and May I, along with my colleagues Senators Cameron, Furner and Pratt, together with Liberal, National, Green and Independent senators, had the privilege of serving as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Climate Policy. As part of the workings of that committee, we travelled all over Australia and heard evidence from hundreds of witnesses. We received thousands of submissions. I want to restate my thanks to all those who participated in that committee’s inquiry—most particularly, the committee secretariat whose work made our inquiry, our report and, indeed, our findings possible.

During those hearings and the deliberations around them, the divisions that exist amongst members of the coalition parties became extremely obvious. It was, if you will, a small vignette of the greater disturbance in the force that seems to affect those opposite. It is these divisions that are preventing Mr Turnbull from taking a firm stand one way or the other on what to do about climate change. That is why, yesterday, in order to divert attention from his many other self-inflicted wounds about which we heard earlier and to cover up the fact that the coalition parties cannot actually agree on what to do about climate change, Mr Turnbull announced his own personal climate change policy. It is well described as the ‘magic pudding policy’. Apparently, Mr Turnbull has single-handedly discovered how to cut emissions while protecting all industries and saving everyone’s job—and all for free. Of course, this is nothing more than frantic improvisation from an opposition that is today in the market for finding an excuse, not a policy.

Senator Cash argued that even the majority report of the climate policy committee did not give enough credence to climate change deniers. Senator Boswell said that he could not decide whether climate change was real or not, because scientists themselves disagreed. This assessment flies in the face of the powerful scientific consensus—a virtually unanimous consensus that climate change is real, that it is dangerous, that it is accelerating and that it is caused by human activity. It was very striking that, when the climate change deniers in this Senate were give an opportunity at our committee hearings to come up with some qualified climate scientists to challenge the views put by the Royal Society, the Stern report and many other scientific bodies, they were unable to do so in any serious manner. They put before us a retired geologist and an engineer. Neither of these witnesses had any formal qualifications in atmospheric physics or other disciplines relevant to climate science and nor had either of them ever worked as a climate scientist. The arguments they put forward were the same old stuff that had been refuted by eminent climatologists many, many times before. Their views were refuted yet again by those scientists who did appear before us.

Then we had Senator Macdonald, who says that he is not a climate change denier and that he believes climate change is real but who of course does not want to do anything about it. He spent his whole time at the hearings trying to come up with reasons why we should not proceed with the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, claiming that it would be the ruin of every interest group, every industry and every region—anything he could think of. But the thing that Senator Macdonald should be encouraged to think very seriously about is that his state of Queensland relies enormously on a tourism industry that in turn hangs upon a natural environment—the Great Barrier Reef, the forests and the coast lands. These assets of Queensland are under very grave threat. They are being devastated by climate change.

We all understand the numbers in this Senate. If a bill is opposed by the coalition senators and Senator Fielding, it will not pass. We know that Senator Fielding thinks that climate change is being caused by sunspots—and, frankly, that is pretty much all I can say on that particular subject. So it all comes down to the coalition senators. This is the time when they need to face up to the facts; put aside their anger, their disappointment, at not being in government; and put the interests of Australia, the interests of future generations of Australians, ahead of their various petty squabbles and disagreements both with us and with one another. It is not necessary that they agree with every part of the bill. We the government drafted the bill and we will be responsible if the bill turns out to be ineffective. That will be our responsibility. We are not a government that has shied from the responsibilities of government. But those opposite will be responsible if the bill is rejected and, as a result, Australia takes no action on climate change.

In December we will be attending the international climate change conference in Copenhagen. If coalition senators oppose this bill and they maintain that stand for the remainder of this year, they will put Australia in the position of going to Copenhagen with no bill passed by this parliament, with no plan in place to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. What kind of influence do they imagine Australia will exert at Copenhagen if we get up and say, ‘Australia wants to see the world take tough action on climate change but, by the way, our parliament just voted to do nothing about it’? Australia would be a laughing stock and we would exert the same amount of influence going forward as we have over the last 11 years—that is, not enough.

The Australian Greens do not support our legislation because they think we should be going further, that higher target settings for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are in order. They would apparently prefer that we do nothing at all than embark upon Labor’s plan. ‘It’s our way or the highway’ is the Greens policy.

Senator Xenophon, by contrast, thinks that the CPRS goes too far too fast and that we should be following an entirely different strategy, not a carbon pollution reduction scheme. He has apparently now formed a united front with Mr Turnbull for some variant of his scheme—although Mr Turnbull, as I understand it, has not yet convinced all of you that this is worthy of being the Liberal Party’s policy. Whether, at the end of this united front, Turnbull becomes an Independent or Nick Xenophon becomes a Liberal remains unknown.

I respect the positions held by the Greens and by Senator Xenophon but I do not accept them. I think, on the basis of the evidence the Senate Select Committee on Climate Policy heard during our weeks of evidence, that the targets embodied in this bill are the most realistic and attainable targets for Australia at this time. Our message to the Greens and others is that we are a commodity based, trade-exposed economy. Our message to the opposition is that we must take action on climate change. The CPRS is the scheme that embodies both of these important targets.

If this bill is passed, Australia will go to Copenhagen in December with a commitment to reduce our emissions by 25 per cent by 2020 if we get a commitment from other—

Senator Williams —India, China, all those places?

Senator FEENEY —good on you, Wacka!—if we get a commitment from other countries to do the same. It may be that in the period after Copenhagen a consensus will emerge that higher targets are needed if climate change is to be arrested. When and if that happens this government will of course deal with that in a responsible way, but at present the government’s view is that the targets in this bill are the most realistic and the most attainable, and I think the evidence clearly supports that view. I also think that the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in this bill is the best model of the various models on offer for attaining these important targets.

As Senator Xenophon knows, I was happy to listen to a presentation of his alternative scheme—but I was not persuaded. If we were to drop the CPRS now and embark on a totally new scheme, it would entail many months, maybe years, of further delay and it would also put us out of sync with other countries that are adopting emissions trading schemes similar to the one found in this bill. What those opposite need to remember as they look at Malcolm Turnbull’s fig leaf of an input—not a policy but an input—is that it would mean that Australia would embark on a model no other nation has embarked upon and we would design a scheme incompatible with any being developed across the world. That in itself makes it a nonsense.

Ultimately, it does not matter what the Greens do; they have chosen to be spectators rather than participants in this process. It ultimately does not matter what Senator Fielding and Senator Xenophon do. The fate of this bill depends on the coalition senators. Their negative and obstructionist attitude, which their weak and indecisive leader has been unable to reverse, will seriously impede this country’s ability to play an important role at Copenhagen and to play its proper role in action on climate change. Australia did nothing about climate change while those opposite were in government, and now they are trying to ensure from opposition that Australia continues to do nothing. Every opinion poll tells us that the Australian people want this government and this parliament to take strong action against climate change. Those opposite are very keen to demand more and more modelling of every possible consequence, every possible change and every possible permutation of the CPRS.

Senator Cash —It’s called responsible government. It’s called responsible policymaking.

Senator FEENEY —It is not responsible policymaking; it is the art of delay. It is the art of delay from an opposition that are determined to find questions to hide the fact that they are opposed to there being any action on climate change. The tragic political truth is that your obstructionism has imprisoned your leader politically in an unsustainable position—and, to be honest, I do at times find that as delightful as you do, Senator Cash; I genuinely do. But the bill before this parliament has consequences which are far too important for us to play these small and irrelevant opposition games, even when they are as entertaining as this.

I have done some political modelling. I think, to be fair, the inputs into my political modelling are the same sorts of inputs that have occupied the minds of those opposite in recent days. There are some interesting findings. One of the consequences of the political modelling is that the opposition are going to crush the tiny remnant of their leader’s credibility. But those opposite do not care about that, and I suppose, in the final analysis, neither do I. But the Australian people want this bill passed, and my political modelling shows that if those opposite persist in being the Dr Noes of Australian politics then there will be a reckoning. There will be a reckoning. As Tony Abbott has implored you, you must see sense, because this is simply an argument that the Australian people will punish you for prosecuting. You stand in the face of a government mandate, you stand in the face of the will of the Australian people and you stand in the face of a global determination to take action on climate change.

The political fate of those opposite is, while fascinating and at moments delightful, not the most important consequence of their causing the Senate to reject this bill. Far more important would be the fact that as a result of the Liberal and National parties having made Australia irrelevant to international climate change policy for 11 years—11 years during which carbon accounting schemes were designed that do not operate to the best effect for Australia, and we heard extensive evidence of that in our committee deliberations, and 11 years during which we failed to exert the influence we needed over this very important piece of policy—we would tragically continue to not exert the policy influence over those systems going forward.

Despite the fact that this government ratified the Kyoto protocol, the opposition remain resolved to making us irrelevant in this important debate for another 10 years. By preventing Australia putting a carbon pollution reduction scheme in place, they are putting us behind the pack in action on climate change, in transforming our economy and in taking the steps that everyone now understands need to be taken. Future generations of Australians will contemplate the damage done to our economy, to our environment, to our tourism industry, to our agricultural industries and to our international standing by the position of those opposite and my political modelling says those opposite will suffer a grim fate as a result.

We have now had months and years of debate about climate change and the best way to tackle it. We have had Senate inquiries. We have had weeks of hearings, at which everyone with an opinion, and indeed some with an uncertain opinion, have had their opportunity to have their say. We have had several reports and those reports have given rise to important public debate. The time for delay has now ended. Australia needs action, the Australian people want action and, God forbid, the climate needs action. The future of Australia depends on the action of this parliament and the action we as senators take on this bill. If the bill is rejected, we will bring it back again and we will keep bringing it back until those opposite meet their responsibilities.

I commend this historic and important bill to the Senate and I implore those opposite to act not only in the country’s interest, not only in the interests of their own fragile and tottering leader, but indeed in their own narrow political interest because for them this may very well be a question of survival.