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Wednesday, 28 October 2009
Page: 11447

Mr ZAPPIA (6:29 PM) —I was pleased to be in the chamber to listen to the comments made by the member for Isaacs on the Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts report entitled Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate: the time to act is now. We served on this committee together and I certainly appreciated his input into the work of that committee. I note too that he congratulated the chair, the deputy chair and the secretariat of the committee and so I will not repeat in detail the comments that he made. However, I certainly concur with him in every respect on the considerable work that they all did and the leadership shown by both the chair and the deputy chair. I particularly acknowledge the member for Isaacs because, in the course of our inquiry, his interest and expertise in this area was very useful in sourcing information from some of the people who made representations to the committee and also in providing the committee with information. I am very grateful that he was one of the members.

The ‘time to act now’ report is one of many reports on our coastline and the environment generally that this parliament has presented. The other reports that I refer to in particular are the Management of the Australian coastal zone report of 1980; The injured coastline: protection of the coastal environment report of 1991; and the final report in 1993 of the coastal zone inquiry. All of these reports, which I have skimmed through in the time that I have been a member of the committee, drew very similar conclusions to those drawn in this report. But I suspect the difference between previous reports and our report is, as the title of our report quite rightly says, ‘the time to act is now’. Hopefully, the title will ensure that notice is taken of this report in much more depth than was perhaps the case with previous reports. I would be very disappointed if it is not, not only because of the amount of work that went into the report but because, after having listened to the people who made submissions either verbally or in writing to the committee, the words in the title of the report, ‘the time to act is now’, are absolutely appropriate.

The report was the culmination of some 18 months of investigations and inquiry by the committee. In my view what was very useful in terms of the investigations and submissions made to the inquiry were the up-to-date observations, scientific research and predictions provided on the changing nature of our coastline and its association with climate change. I believe this report highlights that climate change is real and that it presents the Australian people with very, very serious consequences which we cannot ignore and which we have an obligation to take urgent action on—an obligation both to Australians today and to future generations of Australians.

The report contains some 47 recommendations. In the time allotted to me, I cannot possibly do justice to each of those recommendations. I say that because each of the recommendations are very serious matters that the committee would like the government to at least take note of. I will summarise what I consider the key aspects of the report. The report talks about increasing research and monitoring of climatic changes to Australian coastal areas; increasing the sharing of information between agencies and governments; investing in professional development, particularly for the local government sector; and putting into place disaster response strategies and coastal natural disaster mitigation programs.

The report also recommends paying special attention to the Torres Strait region. The committee considers this region to be more vulnerable than other parts of Australia and that it deserves special attention because of the risks it faces with the changing climate. The report particularly notes that iconic environmental sites such as the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu National Park and all the Ramsar listed wetlands need to be monitored for the impacts of climate change. The committee was able to see the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu and hear firsthand from the people on the ground. They are very familiar with what is happening to these iconic sites and they said that in recent years they have been noting changes to them.

The report also recommends that the Productivity Commission inquire into the insurance related issues and the value of properties exposed to risk. This is an important aspect of the report and certainly one that drew a lot of media attention—and quite rightly, because it is an important issue. The committee is also recommending that the Australian Law Reform Commission provide further advice on the liability issues associated with climate change. The committee also recommends that the Australian Bureau of Statistics monitor demographic and tourism trends. I will speak a little bit more about this later on, because, again, it is a critical aspect of what we should do and how we should plan for the future.

The last comment I will make about the committee’s recommendations is that the committee recommends that an intergovernmental agreement be reached, where each tier of government has clear and defined roles and responsibilities. Again, that is one of the critical issues that arose from the committee’s inquiry. Time and time again, people who made submissions—whether they were individuals, organisations, the local government sector or the state government sector—said that they wanted to see leadership from the federal government, because the lines of responsibility between the three levels of government are not absolutely clear. Certainly, whilst it might be clear in terms of the planning aspects as to who is responsible—and most of those responsibilities fall between state and local government—in terms of getting the information that those authorities need in order to make the right planning judgments and planning policies, they rely heavily on the federal government. So, again, a COAG agreement that clearly defines who is responsible for what and how each of the parties can support each other, I believe, is a very important first step.

This report also highlights that the most effective action that we can take in Australia, along with people from around the world, is in fact to begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world. We need a universal scheme of doing that. Hopefully, we might be able to get one in Copenhagen in December. That is so critical, because, whilst we can take all the adaptive measures that we might be able to predict, the truth of the matter is that the best action we can take is to try and reverse some of the damage that is occurring and is trending in a direction that will cause even far greater damage than what we have seen so far. If we can get a universal scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then we might be able to at least control some of the impacts that we are likely to face if we do not.

It was interesting that, of all the submissions that came to the committee, whether they were written submissions or verbal evidence, I do not recall one person saying they did not believe that climate change was real or that greenhouse gas emissions were contributing to it. Certainly, some of them were not sure about what was causing it, but there was consistency in that they did believe that climate change was real and that it was posing real threats to our environment, and particularly to our coastal areas.

The cover of the report shows part of our coastline. What was interesting in terms of the sites that we inspected—and we certainly inspected a lot of areas along our coastline—was to see firsthand some of the damage that has already been caused by coastal erosion. The issues relating to the Byron Bay coastline are now well known. Those issues highlight the damage, the extent of the cost, the complexity and the seriousness of what we are faced with—not just a seriousness that is based on dollars that might be lost but a seriousness that brings in all of the three levels of government in terms of who is responsible for what and a seriousness that goes to the heart of the other matter that I touched on earlier, as to whether such properties in the future will be able to get any form of insurance at all.

On the question of insurance, which is a critical issue, it was interesting to hear a response in question time yesterday that, since 1967, 19 out of the 20 major insurance claims across the country were related to climate factors. In another response, it was suggested to us that, by 2040, the climate insurance associated costs to this nation could reach a trillion dollars. If those predictions are right, my conclusion is that one of two things will happen: either insurers will stop insuring a whole range of different properties and sites or, alternatively, insurance premiums will skyrocket. Either way, it is not a good outcome, so we need to do whatever we can to ensure that we do not get to that point.

It was also interesting to hear only today the Prime Minister talk about the future population growth of Australia, which is expected to hit about 35 million in about 40 years time. Bearing in mind that some 80 per cent of the Australian population already lives in coastal areas and bearing in mind that, all bar Canberra, our capital cities are located pretty much on coastal areas I think one could quite properly draw the conclusion that most of that population increase of some 12 million or 13 million people is going to occur in coastal areas. That means that the amount of infrastructure investment that we would see take place along our coastal areas over the next decade or so is going to run into billions of dollars.

The critical thing is that, before we spend billions of dollars, we need to know exactly what we are going to be spending it on and whether it is a wise spend of taxpayer dollars. The only way we can do that is if we do the necessary investigations, do the necessary research as to what the impacts are likely to be in those areas where we are going to make those expenditures and then ensure that whatever infrastructure we build, whatever homes we build, are built to a design standard that is likely to withstand whatever climatic changes occur.

On the question of climatic changes, most of us keep talking about what is going to happen by the year 2100. Well, the world does not stop at the year 2100—everything does not suddenly come to a standstill and, at 2100, everything is going to be okay. The world will continue and so will the climatic changes and the possible sea level rises that are predicted. So when we talk about sea level rises of somewhere between 0.8 of a metre and maybe 1.5 by 2100, it does not necessarily mean that that is where things stop. And I would hope that the infrastructure that we might want to build today might even go beyond those times.

One of the critical areas that came to the forefront in the course of this inquiry was that local government, which has a prime responsibility in these areas, is simply not well enough equipped to deal with the problems they confront. They do not have the professional expertise on hand. They do not have the information they need in order to make the best possible decisions for their local communities. And, almost without exception, they were all calling for leadership by the federal government. I think it was the member for Longman who, earlier on, quite rightly made the point that constitutionally there are restrictions in respect of what kind of leadership the federal government can show. But what I would say is that this is a matter that all three levels of government do need to work very closely on together and it is a matter that we need to act on now.