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Monday, 17 March 2014
Page: 1160

Senator McEWEN (South AustraliaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (12:01): I, too, wish to contribute to the debate on the Abbott government's Clean Energy Legislation (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013 and the other bills in this package. These bills are intended to deny Australians the very best chance we have ever had of doing something about damaging climate change that is caused by human activity. These bills could have been the opportunity to move Australia to an emissions trading scheme. But all that these bills do is prevent any chance of that. Instead, if successful, these bills would bring to a complete halt Australia's good work so far in addressing climate change.

The bills are a deliberate attempt by the government to stop Australia reaching our internationally agreed carbon emission targets. They are a deliberate attempt by the government to cruel future investment in renewable energy technologies and a signal from this government to all the big polluters in Australia that it is okay to continue belching harmful pollution into the atmosphere with no fear of rebuke or intervention from the government. It is also an embarrassing signal to the rest of the world that Australia has gone from being a world leader and an innovator in the fight against climate change to being a weak, reluctant country, hostage to big polluters and, even more embarrassingly, in denial about the science that tells us that climate change is real and we are causing it.

We have already seen the Senate defeat two previous bills that the government had put forward in its war against the science that tells us that humans are causing damaging climate change that is both dangerous and escalating. Both the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which works with other financiers and project proponents to secure finance for renewable energy initiatives and low-emission technologies, and the Climate Change Authority, which provides independent factual evidence based scientific advice to government, have been targeted for demolition by this government in previous bills—which, thankfully, were defeated. We can all only hope that this package of bills will also be defeated, although we know that the government will continue to pursue its dismantling of Labor's excellent climate change initiatives regardless. That is a very disturbing thing to have to confront.

But this government enjoys undoing great reform initiatives—the kinds of initiatives that only Labor governments ever have the courage to introduce and to prosecute. We have seen the Abbott government backtracking on education reform. We have observed their lust for dismantling our precious universal healthcare system, Medicare, and their absolutely perverse delight in trying to use this term of office to bring back an industrial relations free-for-all—despite the Prime Minister promising before the election that WorkChoices was dead, buried and cremated. We did not believe him then when he said that, and we will never trust the coalition when it comes to protections for working Australians. We will never trust them to do what is right for the majority of Australians, and we certainly cannot trust them when it comes to action to protect our environment.

But there was a time when the coalition shared Labor's view that international targets for reducing carbon emissions were a good thing and that Australia should do its bit by implementing a domestic emissions trading scheme, which was universally agreed—even by most people in their own party—as the most effective, economically sustainable method of reducing pollution. Even former Prime Minister John Howard said that was the way to go and went to the 2007 election saying so. Australia, with one of the world's highest per capita carbon emissions outputs, was, under Labor, seen internationally as a leader: an ethical, progressive country prepared to do its bit to reduce its own emissions and, importantly, to help developing nations reduce theirs. We know that, of the $650 million to be slashed from Australia's overseas development aid projects, $250 million of it will be taken from countries in our own region. Many of the projects Australia has been funding in those countries—our near neighbours—were helping those nations to tackle the problem of climate change. We used to be a leader in that field too, but we are not anymore.

Sadly, Australia is gaining international notoriety for all the wrong reasons. For example, the legislation before us today was highlighted by the GLOBE Climate Legislation Study last month and subsequently made international headlines. That study examined legislative action in 66 countries, with the European Union considered as one entity, and included major nations such as the US, China, India and Brazil—countries that account for almost 90 per cent of global greenhouse emissions.

The study found that Australia is the only country currently pursuing negative legislative action in the area of climate-change policy. While demonstrating that the rest of the world knows meaningful progressive action on climate change is required immediately, the GLOBE study categorically shows that Australia is the one nation that has engaged the reverse gear and is heading backwards. Of the 587 climate laws across those nations the study examined, Australia is the only one that is back-pedalling on its legislation. This led the GLOBE chairman and former Conservative Thatcher government minister Lord Deben to criticise Australia's actions. He said:

'Australia is very disappointing …'

He described the actions of the Abbott government as a reversal, adding that, for Australia to begin to repeal climate measures following its hottest year on record was:

'… so unintellectual as to be unacceptable; I mean it is just amazing.'

Unintellectual and unacceptable pretty much sums up the Abbott government's attitude towards climate policy. I am not altogether sure it is amazing; I think it is more predictable—just as it is predictable and stupid that this government continues to blame the carbon tax for every one of its own failures to protect the future of Australians. It has become a farce. It is the stuff of comedy now on our televisions and it is embarrassing. I am waiting for the carbon tax, Mr Acting Deputy President Gallacher, to be blamed for Carlton's loss to Port Adelaide last night!

When it comes to blaming the carbon tax, and the mantra that the carbon tax is to blame for everything, it is not funny when it comes to jobs. Every time there is a job loss—and tragically there have been plenty under this government—the carbon tax gets the blame. Even when companies themselves deny the fact, even when it is patently untrue that the carbon tax is the sole or major contributing factor, there is no attempt by the government to apply intellectual rigour to understand the underlying economic considerations that are causing companies in Australia to fail or to shed jobs. There is no coherent government plan to work out how to save jobs or, more importantly, to create new jobs. Indeed, as we can see from the various repeal bills being considered by the Senate, instead of supporting companies and projects that could create modern, new jobs in the clean-technology sector the government is undoing the mechanisms that could do that.

As I have said before in this place, while hell-bent on undoing Labor's progressive, efficient and internationally regarded transition to an emissions trading scheme, the Abbott government maintains a policy fig leaf to cover its embarrassing and indefensible exposure on climate policy. That fig leaf is the government's so-called Direct Action Plan, which has at its core a $1.55 billion emissions reduction fund. It is currently subject to a green paper but it is also subject to some entertaining and disturbing examination by the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee, which is currently undertaking an inquiry into the Direct Action Plan.

The fact that the government still has not settled the details of the Direct Action Plan indicates that this is a policy in trouble. It was announced before the election, and here we are a good six months after the election and we still do not know what the cuts are of the Direct Action Plan. That is because it was in trouble the day it was cobbled together by a desperate then shadow environment minister, Mr Greg Hunt, and it is still in trouble—and the now environment minister is still in trouble.

The mad haste with which this repeal legislation we are debating was introduced into the parliament, before their Direct Action Plan was finalised, has created great uncertainty and the potential for a policy void. Indeed, last year, as part of the inquiry into these bills, the Waste Management Association of Australia made the point:

Seeking to repeal the existing carbon legislation prior to Direct Action being implemented, or known with greater certainty, risks a period of great uncertainty between repeal and Direct Action.

That uncertainty continues, as evidenced in the Senate inquiry currently afoot. That evidence also points to the huge problems and flaws in a scheme like Direct Action that operates on the basis of paying companies for abatement—abatement that is both hard to measure and hard to prove as being caused by the initiative for which the company is being rewarded and for which the taxpayer is paying.

For example, the Energy Supply Association of Australia—hardly a fan of the ETS—indicated, in its submission to the Senate inquiry, that it is worried about the measurement of abatement and the detail of what happens after 2020 when, apparently, funding to the Emissions Reduction Fund ceases. The association said in its submission to the Senate inquiry:

It is crucial that the design of the ERF ensures that payments are only made for genuine incremental abatement that has been measured, reported and verified.

The association also said:

The development of the ERF requires clarity of the management of longer term proposals where benefits and payments would be required beyond 2020 to be viable.

Other disturbing evidence from the Senate inquiry comes from the investment community, which pointed out that the government's rejection of the ETS and proposal of a half-baked, poorly formed Direct Action Plan is causing clean-energy investors to look elsewhere than Australia. Everyone knows that businesses need certainty about government legislation and regulation if they are going to invest. That is why, while they may not have liked it, at least industry accepted that an ETS was a long-term economically responsible way to change polluting behaviour.

The Senate inquiry heard from Mr Tim Buckley, from the US Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, who advised the Senate that Australia's clean-energy industry was regressing because of a lack of clarity on policy and that Australia is now missing out on hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in renewable and energy-efficiency technologies as well as missing out on the hundreds of thousands of new jobs being created in this sector in China, Germany and America—jobs being created anywhere but Australia, which, as we know, urgently needs new jobs in new industries.

Again from the Senate inquiry into the Direct Action Plan, Professor Ross Garnaut, who is a real economist, made the point that many economists have made: the Direct Action Plan is potentially an economic disaster for Australia. The government has promised $1.55 billion to pay companies for abatement over three years. But, if Australia is to continue to strive to achieve the more ambitious emissions reduction targets that we should be committed to, that will cost a lot more—up to $4 billion or $5 billion per annum, according to Professor Garnaut. So where would that money come from, or is this government not serious about achieving emissions reductions and signing up to more comprehensive targets? Anyway, you have to ask, where is the initial $1.55 billion going to come from? This is not clear to us. It can only come from cuts to government spending in other areas.

Finally from the Senate inquiry, the Climate Institute noted in an answer to a question on notice:

Fundamentally, as it currently stands the ERF will not be an enduring climate policy for a number of reasons. It does not include broad-based limits on emissions, links to international markets and an explicit price on emissions, all of which are necessary to achieve emissions reductions at the required scale in the short and longer term.

With the Direct Action Plan's Emissions Reduction Fund scheduled to be established from I July 2014, businesses need to know exactly what is on the table and how much it will cost them to be part of it. The renewable energy industry needs to know what is going on so it can plan for the long term and attract investment before it all goes overseas to China and to other countries which are taking over from Australia's leading role in the renewable energy sector.

People, presumably those with land, need to know where the 20 million trees are to be planted, and communities need to know which towns and which schools under the Direct Action Plan are going to go solar? Australians want to know: will the Direct Action Plan really work or are we going to be forking out money to companies without knowing if the abatement they claim is real, ongoing and not the effect of some unrelated cause? What is going to happen in 2020 when the Emissions Reduction Fund winds up? Where is the green army going to be marching to, who is going to be dragooned into it and what are they going to be doing? Where are the answers to these questions? What is Australia's position going to be in the 2015 international negotiations to set new emissions reduction targets for 2030? Are we still really committed to achieving our existing emissions targets or not? Presumably these questions will be answered in the government's white paper, which is due any minute now, I understand, but somehow I doubt that any satisfactory answers will be provided in that paper.

Unlike the Direct Action Plan, emissions trading schemes have been trialled and implemented in a number of other countries around the world. Australia is one of 35 countries that already have national emissions trading schemes covering a total population of more than 560 million. There is no other country in the world that relies on a grants tendering scheme like the coalition's Emissions Reduction Fund as its primary policy to reduce emissions. It is not surprising that no other country is relying on a policy thought bubble like the Direct Action Plan to achieve emissions reduction targets.

Australia is a large emitter of carbon dioxide and one of the largest polluters per capita globally. We really need a scheme that will absolutely and conclusively reduce our levels of pollution. Instead, the government's alternative will rely on a fundamentally flawed methodology, because it is impossible to know whether emissions reductions are truly additional or if they would have happened anyway. No amount of rigorous policy design can fix that problem. We need an effective and efficient way of dealing with climate change, and the only way to do that is through an emissions trading scheme. The ETS does have widespread support. As has been mentioned in other contributions in this place, many other countries are already proceeding well down the path of an emissions trading scheme, and Australia should be doing the same thing.

In conclusion, I share the views of my opposition leader, Bill Shorten, who in his speech about why these bills should be defeated said:

We can look our children in the face and say, 'When we had the chance to do something, we did.'

I want to look at my grandchildren and say that too because, if we do not do something now to stop this damaging climate change, the task will be all that much harder for them, and the damage that they have to cope with will be all that much worse.