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Wednesday, 28 October 2009
Page: 11425

Mr BILLSON (4:43 PM) —I follow the member for Lowe in this debate on the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts called Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate: the time to act is now. I do not need to read out all the recommendations of the report; he has done that for me. So for people who are listening or who are interested in reading about the recommendations, the member for Lowe has done us all a service, and I thank him for that.

I hope to shed some light on some of the recommendations. But, first of all, I commend the committee for its work. I had the good fortune of chairing this committee in an earlier incarnation and I recognise the bipartisan approach that was embraced by the members on the committee, particularly those who have now been elevated. The member for Throsby and I shared many a committee hearing and inquiry where we looked at things including sustainable cities; how we embed sustainability in our way of life, in business, in commerce; and how we provide reliable information for consumers and the business community to make wise purchases. Many good hours of work went into some very meaningful recommendations.

What does not always happen, though, is the action that should flow from these committee reports. This report highlights earlier inquiries along the same lines essentially coming to a very similar conclusion—that is, the need for coordination, cooperation and collaboration between levels of government and government agencies, and taking a more strategic approach to the management and care of this very important part of our continent and landscape, the zones where we live where there is a lot commerce and lot of agriculture. That is a consistent theme running through the House of Representatives standing committee reports Management of the Australian coastal zone in 1980 and The injured coastline: protection of the coastal environment in 1991, and the 1993 report from the Resource Assessment Commission, Coastal zone inquiry: final report.

It was not until the Howard government was elected in 1996 that we had a coordinated approach to coastal management. I know it well; I helped prepare the provision of the Coasts and Clean Seas initiative that sought to highlight the pressures on our coastline. That was born in large part out of my own experience on the Mornington Peninsula, where we are often concerned that the coastline is loved to within an inch of its life and could be loved to death. A lot of work has gone on through very many committed community organisations and the local council to revegetate, restore and rehabilitate the coastal area. The biggest threat to the coast is often its own popularity. In the community that I represent we are host to the largest remnant coastal vegetation in greater Melbourne—that strip line from Eel Race Road, running all the way down to Long Island, an area which is largely the Seaford foreshore. It is very precious and very important, and it is well recognised as a priority within our community.

Embracing the best that all of us have to offer is the essence of this report. This report adds another pressure to act, and that is the impact of climate change. It comes as no surprise that some of the remarks are perhaps a little less gracious than they could be in the climate change debate currently going on in the parliament and what action we can take—and that has relevance to this report. The report recognises that inundation, the risk of rising sea levels, the viciousness of storm events and sea surges—not to mention where they may combine into a horrific cacophony of devastation—have an awful impact on coastal areas. Some of the locations that have been identified as being at risk include yours, Mr Deputy Speaker Slipper, and my own, the Mornington Peninsula.

We need to make sure, though, that this is not just a bolt-on body of work—which, sadly, we see too often with the Rudd government. We are having a debate at the moment about cities policy. Those who have been here for any length of time would know that I have been all over that like a fat kid on a Smartie, if I can put it that way, for some time. I instigated and led the sustainable cities work, where again the emphasis was on inculcating this thinking into all the systems and decision making of government, not just bolting it on as an afterthought or as a feature piece. This is the concern that I have with many of the population pressure policy approaches, let us call them, of the current government, and the worry I have here. You could set up an agency and have a very visible post-it note response to this challenge but see very little change in the way decisions are made. That is the risk. This report, like the ones before it, says that kind of approach would be tokenistic and largely ineffective, and what is needed is a more coordinated, collaborative and integrated approach, a strategic approach that involves agencies and institutions, all levels of government and individual citizens in a way that sees a process of change and action rather than the odd event here and there that might be good press but does not actually address the challenges that this report outlines.

That is the risk—that this good body of work will just be picked up and dealt with like safety was 20 or 30 years ago, where you would go into some companies and they would say, ‘Safety’s important to us; we’ve got a safety officer.’ That was dragged out there as a very visible demonstration of their interest. We have all learnt that that is not how it works, that safety is everybody’s business, and we have seen the changes that resulted from that awakening.

This is the same thing here. We can have a very visible agency or effort that orbits everything else that goes on within government and not actually see any change to the day-to-day management and operation of the government, of the allocation of resources, of how investments funded by the taxpayer are chosen and implemented and of the support that is needed for private citizens when they making their contribution.

The other risk we have is that we may convince the Australian public that doing one thing will fix this problem. I fear that with some of the debate on the ETS—or the CPRS, as it is termed by this government—it is thought that somehow the government getting what it wants will resolve this problem. That extraordinarily simplistic and misguided message is not one we should be putting out into the community, because it basically relieves everybody of the contribution they need to make because of the belief that somehow this economic instrument that provides for the trading of emissions permits in a cap-and-trade system will solve this problem.

I was concerned that my friend and neighbour the member for Isaacs, Mr Dreyfus, with whom I often share a podium at citizenship ceremonies, offered a doorstop contribution yesterday where he was asked the question:

How much would a five per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 reduce sea levels?

He was on good ground to start with. He said:

We have to start now. We have to get on with the job of reducing emissions.

I do not disagree with anything so far. But then he was pressed further:

How much would a five per cent reduction reduce sea levels?

It was not ‘relieve the increase in sea levels’; it was, ‘How much would a five per cent reduction reduce sea levels?’ My friend and colleague the member for Isaacs said:

It will reduce sea levels.

So a five per cent reduction in Australia under the CPRS will reduce sea levels around the globe! Why wouldn’t you want a piece of that? But what utter nonsense! A five per cent reduction in Australians’ emissions will have a microscopic impact on the increase of sea level. How on earth it will reduce sea levels is beyond me. I respect the member for Isaacs. He has been a part of this inquiry, but he must have had a brain-fade at that point to claim that a five per cent reduction under the CPRS will actually reduce sea levels. The questioner thought that was amusing, because the questioner went on and said:

Do you know by how much?

Rather than quit while he was behind, the member for Isaacs went further and said:

There’s a range within which it will reduce sea levels and doing it down to the millimetre in fact is not possible.

The questioner said:

Will it be a couple of millimetres?

On it went about what the reduction will be. It is unfortunate that some are taking that message out to the community.

Honourable members interjecting—

Mr BILLSON —He is a very intelligent man who I have some time and respect for, but to say that a five per cent reduction from a CPRS in Australia is going to reduce global sea levels, in an act of biblical proportions, is something that he may well regret. I hope he clarifies that remark when he gets to speak on this report later. My point is, though, that there is no single action that will bring about the improved resilience and sustainability of our coastal environments, that there are challenges we face and that there is no silver bullet that will address that—certainly not a five per cent CPRS reduction.

The other thing that needs to be recognised is that there are some challenges that need to be worked on further, and there are a number of recommendations that call for further reviews and further work. Some comments have pointed to local government not knowing quite what is going on, and I am pleased that, at least in the communities that I represent, there is a high level of alertness around this topic among the municipal councils that I am involved with. In fact, in other areas throughout Victoria, particularly in Gippsland and the like, they are quite activated by it. Individuals are seeing development opportunities denied them because of concerns about rising sea levels.

My friend Greg Sugars, the Chief Executive of Opteon Property Group, which is Australia’s largest independent property valuer, has released a statement in response to this report being released, and he quite rightly points to the fact that in the commercial area, particularly if the recommendation about insurance schemes led by the Commonwealth and other areas of what I would call foggy law are addressed, there is a real need to engage the professions. Even if you had a nationally inspired insurance scheme, how you would value and price the risk to have policies available and then price the harm or damage that might activate a claim against those policies is very uncharted territory.

Mr Sugars points out that his company and his alliance of property valuers around Australia do nearly a quarter of a million valuations per year for mortgage lenders. That valuation and the certainty that it provides gives comfort to lenders in offering finance, as mortgages, to homebuyers. Those clients will be watching very closely to see what happens to the value of properties and what impact that will have on the ability to attract finance in coastal areas. He emphasises:

One of the key issues will be to provide accurate advice on values of the potentially affected properties, especially if the government looks at a compulsory land insurance scheme.

Valuers will also need to familiarise themselves with any changing planning implications and carefully assess any future insurance considerations when undertaking replacement cost exercises.

In some cases a recommendation is that replacement not proceed where there is a high degree of vulnerability as assessed by some of the tools that are recommended in this report.

In closing, I welcome this report and found it a really interesting read, capturing a number of issues that emphasise the need for sustained, coordinated, collaborative action. There is no single solution to remedy these concerns. I have great admiration for the committee and the members that generated the report. I had the good fortune of working with them over a number of years and I recognise the diligence with which they go about their work. My last point is, though, that this is something that needs hard work and rigour, not headlines and statements of political rhetoric. It actually needs someone to put their shoulder to the wheel. I am confident that the coalition is very interested in this. As part of our broader strategy to improve the sustainability of our economy and of the built environment, this is very valuable input. I congratulate the committee for its work and look forward to the government’s response, whenever that might be forthcoming.