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Thursday, 10 July 2014
Page: 4648

Senator LUNDY (Australian Capital Territory) (12:50): Since coming to government, the coalition have tried to unpick every policy Labor put in place to ensure that Australia took meaningful action to combat climate change. While the events of this morning are still fresh in our minds and show that they are not always successful in these endeavours, we are still faced with a bill before us now that seeks to abolish the Climate Change Authority.

The policies that Labor put into place to address climate change were developed in consultation with Australia's leading climate scientists and economists. They were policies that evolved out of decades of discussion and debate among those economists, scientists and, indeed, politicians. The policies which emerged with a consensus across a range of spheres of our civil society included a broad acceptance of a market based solution to transition Australia's economy to a low-pollution economy. This emerged solidly during the period of the former Howard government. We certainly adopted a very strong stance when Labor came to government in 2007. That consensus only dissolved when Mr Abbott took over the leadership of the coalition. Since that time, we have seen a number of coalition representatives crawl out from under their rock, presumably with some neoconservative briefing, fuelling the politics of fear and giving them a run in Australia. We saw the fearmongering and the conspiracy theorists starting to unpick what was a very sound and, as I said, very rational—in fact, quite dry—approach to helping Australia's economy transition to a low-pollution economy.

What the coalition promoted in place of that is a policy that has been discredited. They called it Direct Action, and it is at worst a fig leaf, cynically designed to distract the Australian public from the fact that the government has no real interest in addressing climate change and so no real interest in reducing our carbon emissions. In contrast to Labor's policy, which made Australia's 370 largest polluters pay for their pollution, the Abbott government's policies are trying to make Australian taxpayers finance a fund to pay polluters so they will cut their emissions. It is ludicrous. This slush fund does not even require polluters to provide guarantees that emissions reductions are actually occurring. It is a policy that all experts agree will cost Australian households more, while achieving nothing in the effort to reduce Australia's carbon emissions. It is a policy that will inevitably cause Australia to default on its 2020 reduction targets and thereby undermine Australia's previously strong stance on the international stage in the collective fight to mitigate the damaging effects of climate change.

The Prime Minister has already indicated that he intends to abandon Australia's emissions reductions target when Direct Action fails, and the sad truth is that Australia has a government which is happy to sit back and stubbornly continue to ignore the advice of its scientists, public servants and economists and instead watch Australia default on its international commitments to reduce its carbon emissions and, by definition, pollution. I think that is exactly how Direct Action will be viewed by the international community—as a stubborn, ignorant and, I would even argue, arrogant attempt by the Australian government to avoid doing its part in the challenge of mitigating climate change.

The damage does not stop there. The government plans to do more to damage this effort. It is not enough for the government to hand all the power back to the big polluters so that a few companies can sacrifice the long-term interests of Australia. This government also wants to prevent scrutiny of its own climate change policies. Upon taking office, the first order of business for the Minister for the Environment, Mr Hunt, was to dismantle the Climate Commission. This was an institution created by the former Labor government to provide the Australian public with independent, easy-to-read, accessible, digestible information about climate change. It was an organisation dedicated to dispelling the myths and pseudoscience that had plagued the climate change debate in Australia and ensuring that the Australian people were kept reliably and independently informed on the impacts of climate change and what their government was doing to mitigate these impacts. Unfortunately, keeping the public informed was not a priority of this government, and today the government is again trying to shut down scrutiny of its climate change policies by this attempt to abolish the Climate Change Authority.

The Climate Change Authority was established to provide the government, the parliament, and the Australian people with the highest quality advice about the effectiveness of Australia's climate change policies. In formulating its advice, the authority takes into account expert scientific and economic evidence as well as developments across the international arena. It does so in order to circumvent the toxic politics that have tended to surround the climate change debate here in Australia and frame them in a context of actual science, evidence and all the discussion and debate that takes place in the scientific world, in order to move away from a situation where fear and denial and pseudoscience have become the characteristics of a lot of the public conversations around climate change.

The authority is independent of the government and is tasked with undertaking regular reviews of the government's climate change policies. I cannot think of a better check and balance to assure those sceptics out there that the policies they are being asked to support are valid. They are being tested independently. This is what the authority is charged to do. These policies include initiatives like the Carbon Farming Initiative and indeed the renewable energy target itself. The environment minister's direction over these reviews is deliberately limited to general matters only, and the minister cannot direct the conduct of a review, nor influence the content of a report. To ensure transparency and accountability, the authority is required to hold public consultation as part of its reviews.

In short, the Climate Change Authority provides the facts and the advice for everyone to see, and the government and the parliament decide how to act on it—it is simple, it is independent, it is transparent and it works. But we are faced with a bill that abolishes the Climate Change Authority and transfers its responsibilities to the office of the Minister for the Environment, to Mr Hunt. This includes the responsibility for undertaking reviews of the government's climate change policies and, in doing so, demolishes the transparency and independence of these reviews.

We are left in opposition, as I am sure many members of the public are, to ask the question: why? Why is the government so determined to ensure there is no formal independent organisation left to scrutinise Australia's climate change mitigation strategies? We have been told that the Climate Change Authority is redundant, because it only exists to monitor the carbon price; and the carbon price, so the government says, is on its way out. This is not true.

The Climate Change Authority exists to monitor Australia's climate change mitigation strategies, of which the price on carbon is but one part. If the government seek to use that as an argument to abolish the Climate Change Authority, they are not telling the whole story; they are only telling a very small part of the story.

More importantly, the Climate Change Authority's brief, because it is so broad, should include the coalition's direct action policy. It makes perfect sense for the authority to continue and also oversee in a transparent and independent way the operation of the coalition's direct action policy, if it is ever legislated.

I have heard no reasonable argument as to why direct action should not receive the same scrutiny that the previous government's climate change policies were happily and willingly subjected to by the Climate Change Authority. We, in the opposition, believe that that scrutiny of direct action and other policies and strategies the coalition may put in place should come from an independent and transparent body like we already have, like the Climate Change Authority.

The authority demonstrated its continuing relevance in February this year when it incorporated the government's direct action policy into its Targets and Progress Review, stating:

The Authority has taken the Government’s different policy approach into account in the analysis for this Draft Report. In the Authority’s view, this Report remains highly relevant despite the changing policy landscape. Its primary focus is Australia’s goals for reducing emissions. The setting of these goals raises the same critical questions, whatever the particular policies adopted to meet them.

Other nations have similar bodies in place to scrutinise their own climate change mitigation policies. The United Kingdom has the Committee on Climate Change. It was established in 2008 with the express purpose of advising the UK government on emissions targets and reporting to parliament on the nation's progress towards reaching those targets. Its responsibilities are identical to those of the Climate Change Authority here in Australia.

I note with great interest that when the Conservatives—the coalition equivalent political party—came to power in the UK they did not scrap the committee on climate change. The British Conservatives saw the sense in retaining an organisation that provided unbiased advice on climate change mitigation strategies. This is the ideological parent of the Australian Liberals, and even the Conservatives can see the sense in retaining an independent advisory body for climate change policies.

So why does the Liberal Party see things so differently to their ideological counterparts in the UK? We can speculate on this. I suspect it has very little to do with what the relevant stakeholders think. Numerous environmental organisations and climate change action groups provided submissions to the government asking that the Climate Change Authority be retained, even if the government were successful in abolishing the carbon price. The World Wildlife Fund's submission said:

… it is critical that the Climate Change Authority or similar body is retained to ensure Australia’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are informed by independent scientific, economic, energy, and policy experts with a level of distance from stakeholder influence.

The business community also outlined their support for the Climate Change Authority during the submission process. For example, the Investor Group on Climate Change argued that the analysis provided by the authority is valuable for Australian businesses stating:

Regardless of the policy tools that Australian governments choose to implement, the CCA’s analysis assists investors to interpret the likely future emissions reductions trajectory for Australia and the scale of policy response that will be required.

So if both environmental organisations and the business community support the Climate Change Authority, why then is this government moving to scrap it?

If other conservative governments around the world see the sense in retaining an independent body to scrutinise their climate change policies, why does Australia's conservative government feel differently? Personally, I can only think of one explanation and it speaks to the arrogance of the Abbott government. The government do not want to preserve the Climate Change Authority because they do not want their climate change mitigation policies scrutinised. The government want the Australian parliament and the Australian people kept in the dark over the effectiveness of their so-called direct action policies, because they know what we all already know—and that is that their so-called direct action policy is ineffectual, it will waste taxpayers' money and do nothing to combat climate change.

Just as they did when they refused to release the Commission of Audit's final report until after the South Australian and Western Australian state elections, the government are developing a very firm habit of deliberately trying to shut down public scrutiny of their policies and indeed their activities. We know that this government have contempt not only for the expert advice provided by Australia's climate scientists but also the well-cited global expertise available through the scientific community. They shut down the Climate Commission when they came to power and they are planning to savagely cut our premier scientific organisation, the CSIRO. There was a $115 million cut to the CSIRO, which we know will cost that organisation 420 staff in the next 12 months and an estimated loss of some $49 million in external revenue. We have had feedback from the CSIRO Staff Association that they believe that carbon capture is one of the areas of research that will be adversely impacted by these cuts. And here we are today debating this bill, showing the coalition going after another group of climate change experts by destroying the Climate Change Authority.

We know that many members of the government are suspicious, are sceptical, about climate change and others flatly deny it. But, if that is the case, why would you remove the one independent body able to provide accurate, independent, clear and transparent advice to this place and to them—as sceptics, as climate deniers—so that we can, at the very minimum, as elected representatives in this place, keep ourselves informed of the facts as they are presented? We will obviously make our policy decisions, as political parties do, but the facts are the facts and they should prevail.