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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 137

Senator ALLISON (5:14 PM) —The Democrats waited with bated breath for the Governor-General's address yesterday to get some indication that the government intends to move forward on the issue of renewable energy and climate change, but we were, alas, again disappointed. The Governor-General mentioned the potential for higher oil prices to threaten our economy and for lower rainfall to be of concern, but there was not much by way of serious measures to address those problems. That is because this government has no agenda for replacing imported fossil fuels with renewable fuels or even to promote home-grown alternative fuels, such as LPG or natural gas. I think we can expect the massive reductions in excise on diesel to be accompanied by no clear idea about how that will affect alternative fuels, which will also, of course, be subject to excise from 2011. While $12.5 billion is to be spent on land transport through AusLink, we understand that none of this money will be spent on public transport. Yet public transport is the only real hope we have of reducing the consumption of fossil fuels in transport and emissions of CO2 as well as reducing congestion, as our freight load is expected to double by 2010.

The government talks about supporting early childhood development but refuses to engage in or fund preschools. As far as we know, 50,000 children miss out entirely on preschool—that most important preparatory year for school. Instead of that, we can expect 18 charities around the country to come up with bright ideas and apply for grants to deliver services to needy children. But of course only a fraction of the children who need intervention will be lucky enough to be in an area served by such a charity and perhaps lucky enough for the program they are in to be a good one. There is no proposal or commitment to evaluate these programs and make the successful ones universally available.

There is nothing under the heading of `Supporting families, carers and women' about supporting women in the decision that they make about the number and the timing of their children. The government wants choice and peace of mind in health care, but the minister apparently does not want women's reproductive health to be in that category.

We heard about banking services in 266 licensed post offices but not about the urgent need to bring health and other skilled professionals to the regions. Country people barely rated a mention despite having poorer health and less access to GPs, specialists and allied health workers. Talking about shared responsibility arrangements being negotiated with Indigenous communities at the local level is very welcome but, again, there is no commitment to providing the resources to solve some of the serious health and education service problems for Aboriginal Australians.

Today I want to focus principally on the government's inaction in seriously tackling greenhouse emissions and climate change—its ongoing refusal to ratify Kyoto or to use its influence to persuade the United States to do so. We heard a lot from this government about Kyoto being outdated and that Australia would join the United States in developing a superior model for greenhouse reduction, but in the last couple of years nothing has emerged beyond an emphasis on geosequestration and voluntary measures. In the meantime, Russia has announced that it will ratify and the protocol will come into force, leaving us behind and excluded from the mechanisms set up under the protocol. Our businesses and our economy will likely be disadvantaged, but there was nothing in this address yesterday to indicate how this government will cope with that.

The Governor-General told us that the government was committed to developing a robust and comprehensive global response to climate change and that Australia was on track to meet our targets. He said `the low emissions technology fund and solar cities trials' were to `position Australia for the challenges ahead'. The Democrats strongly doubt that this is the case.

In 2003 carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels climbed to a record 6.8 billion tonnes worldwide, up almost four per cent from 2002. Over the past two decades atmospheric CO2 concentrations rose each year on average by 1.5 parts per million, but the last two years have seen unexplained and alarming jumps of 2.04 parts per million and 2.54 parts per million respectively. The International Panel on Climate Change estimates that global average surface temperatures will rise 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius—that is, two to 10 degrees Fahrenheit—above 1990 levels by 2100. What we need at this point is not to think about our commitment under Kyoto; what we need are good ideas and real solutions that go well beyond this government's and Kyoto's commitments.

The Democrats believe that renewable energy is critical to our future and we have a plan that could push Australia towards a sustainable future and away from greenhouse gas emissions. I would like to remind the government that Germany has lowered its emissions by nine per cent since 1991 and is discussing the possibility of another 40 per cent reduction by 2020. The United Kingdom, which has cut emissions by eight per cent since 1990, aims to reduce them 60 per cent by 2050 and is urging the rest of the European Union to do the same. Australia and the United States are starting to look like the ones that are well and truly out of date.

Our plan urges the government to consider a national renewable energy incentive framework, similar to our National Competition Policy, funded by a small levy on fossil fuel electricity generation to provide grants for Australian companies who export renewable technology with the aim of capturing at least five per cent of the $15 billion global renewable energy market by 2010—which would be a very doable $750 million, provided the environment is right for renewable energy in this country and that we reinvest in research and development and industry support. We say that electricity retailers should be provided with incentives to meet 15 per cent Green Power targets by 2010. At present the promotion by electricity retailers of Green Power is very patchy. I received an environment annual report from a retailer just the other day and there was no mention either of Green Power or of compliance with the mandated renewable energy scheme.

The fund established by the levy could resource a local renewable scheme for public ownership of photovoltaic and miniwind projects encouraging local government to adopt renewable energy for public buildings, for street lighting and for off grid generation. The Democrats urge the federal government to encourage state and territory governments to mandate grid connections for household and commercial building photovoltaic systems, including a nationally consistent standard for connectors, chargers and the like. We would like to see electricity retailers provide feed-in tariffs for photovoltaic generated electricity that are higher than the distributed electricity price, recognising that it is mostly generated at peak times. This would give solar panel payback periods much shorter time frames and encourage schemes whereby up-front costs could be minimised or even eliminated. Energy efficiency has been largely ignored by the government, despite the enormous opportunities in industry, commercial and domestic buildings.

The Democrats consider it vital that the federal government increase the mandatory renewable energy target to at least 10 per cent by 2010, 20 per cent by 2020 and perhaps 50 per cent by 2050. But so far the lion's share of MRET has gone to hydroelectricity because of the dodgy baseline arrangements that were set up under this legislation. This has meant that most renewable energy certificates have been generated not by wind or solar but by old hydro schemes, only some of which are justified by investment in improving infrastructure. We also wish to see an extension of the Photovoltaic Rebate Scheme for household photovoltaic units for a further four years with the aim of increasing installed capacity from last year's capacity of 46 megawatts to what I think is a doable target of 300 megawatts. The Commonwealth must reinvest in the renewable energy cooperative research centres and it should set a level playing field for renewable energy. We suggest a number of ways of doing this.

Ratification, funding and active participation in the Kyoto protocol and a domestic emissions trading system would make a difference for renewable energy. Sector-by-sector energy efficiency targets for an overall 30 per cent reduction by 2020 ought to be our aim. A $10 per tonne carbon levy on big industry that is reinvested in reduced emissions is something that the United Kingdom has set up. It is an eminently sensible way to help big industry to invest in far greater energy efficiency and things like cogeneration which have enormous capacity to be expanded in this country.

We suggest a greenhouse trigger in the federal environment laws and emission standards for power stations. Two weeks ago, a court ruling meant that Victorian power companies will now need to consider greenhouse gas emissions as well as the downstream effects on climate and water supply of new projects. This is something the Democrats have been on about for a very long time. In fact, the government made a commitment to us that it would take up this question of a greenhouse trigger in the federal environment laws some years ago, but pretty much nothing has happened. Now hopefully this court ruling will be a trigger of its own to re-engage in that debate. This is the time for the federal government to start talking with the states about doing that. It is an obvious way of determining whether coal fired power stations are really sustainable—even the ones that are more energy efficient ought to be tested against other options for electricity generation. If you took into account all of the costs including greenhouse then wind and solar power would be much more competitive.

Tougher building codes and standards that encourage renewable energy take-up are needed. The government should mandate 10 per cent petrol ethanol blends for at least 80 per cent of total regular unleaded petrol sales phased in, we suggest, between 2008 and 2015. The government must increase funding for the biofuels capital grants program. Currently that is $37 million, even though the promise is that it will be $50 million. The government should undertake a biofuel confidence-building campaign jointly managed by government and industry and reform the petrol labelling standard to reflect the benefits of ethanol blends and indeed any other fuel which has environmental and greenhouse benefits.

The government must extend the off-road diesel fuel subsidy to biodiesel, particularly for marine and underground mining operations, and remove excise and the requirement for expensive testing of small scale so-called `backyard' biodiesel production, provided of course that the fuel is for personal use. The Democrats believe these initiatives are clearly necessary if Australia is to avoid becoming a retrograde state on issues of climate change and to ensure that we have a robust and active renewable energy sector to pave the way for a sustainable energy future.

In light of the fact that there has been some debate surrounding the potential use of nuclear power, we would like also to raise the issue of nuclear waste. I notice reports this morning that the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, ANSTO, has warned councils around Sydney's Lucas Heights nuclear facility that nuclear waste is to be transported through Sydney's suburbs before the end of the year. If this government is so concerned about the security of its citizens, I suggest it is inappropriate to store large amounts of dangerous waste within the metropolitan area in one of our largest cities. I would also suggest it is inappropriate to freight dangerous waste through city streets, and I urge the government to make the safe storage of existing nuclear waste a high priority for its new term. I would also ask that the government cease generation of further Commonwealth nuclear waste until the issue of existing waste has been addressed. To take any other approach is simply untenable. But, of course, we heard very little not just in the Governor-General's address but also before the election about where the waste dump will be. Presumably that is an issue which will re-emerge at some later stage.

On the matter of water, the government seems to have pinned its hopes on its $2 billion Australian water fund—which is yet to attract the support of the states and territories, I might add. Yesterday we saw drought assistance extended for the next 12 months over a huge area of Australia's rural lands. If, as predicted, rainfall continues to decline over wide areas as a result of climate change, we need to ask: does the government intend to address the lack of productivity of vast areas of our agricultural lands with continued handouts whose impacts are akin to setting up a vast nonproductive rural welfare state? I attended a conference in Strasbourg a couple of weeks ago at which a paper was presented that indicated that underground reserves of water, used not only for potable purposes but also for agriculture, are in decline right around the world.

A draft report commissioned by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission says that in less than two years the number of stressed, dying and dead red gums along the Murray River has increased by 50 per cent to 75 per cent. The health of the Murray and its natural heritage continues to decline, despite years of negotiations and significant spending of taxpayers' money. I know we are still failing to address the root of the problem of water use and waste in both rural and urban areas. I draw the Senate's attention to the report done by the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee in 2002 which is chock-a-block with suggestions for how we might use water better in urban areas. Australia may be experiencing economic boom times, but at what cost? At what cost to the future of our water resources? At what cost to our air quality and our future climate? At what cost to the renewable energy industry, on which our future living standards will be based? We urge the government to consider as part of its fourth-term agenda the immediate need to move Australia away from a resource intensive way of life, to implement cultural change on the use of water and energy and to take strong steps to place Australia back at the forefront of renewable energy generation and use. Without these initiatives, any economic success is gluttony of the present and leaves little hope for future Australians.

I want to turn briefly to the government's election announcement of the setting-up of 24 technical schools scattered around the country. This will benefit less than one per cent of the secondary school population, and we regard this as yet another attempt to sidestep the real problem, which is underfunding of the TAFE system. Cash-strapped schools are hamstrung by a shortage of technology teachers, by the need to have smaller classes for these subjects and by the expense of the equipment. What they need is better funding for VET in Schools programs; what they do not need is a return to the old two-stream approach that narrowed students' options from year 11. Jobs in manufacturing and elsewhere now require students with good literacy, maths and IT skills as well as training in technology, and it is ludicrous to pretend that 24 tech schools can fix Australia's looming skills shortage. One in 10 school leavers is not going on to work and there is an urgent need to engage these young people and provide them all, regardless of where they live, with successful transitions to training and to employment. The only way this skills crisis can be avoided is for the government to reverse its savage cuts and provide growth funding for TAFE.

Rather than making bodgie election promises, the coalition should be addressing the rising fees that are driving students out of training and the fact that 40,000 young people missed out on TAFE places this year. There was a high drop-out rate of new apprentices through lack of student support, lack of rewards for successful completion and a one-size-fits-all approach to student learning needs. Student participation in VET programs is being discouraged by inadequate funding, and there is little by way of combined school and apprenticeship training options and pathways to go on to diploma courses. As always, this government has taken a quick-fix approach—an approach that will not work and an approach which benefits a small sector of the community but which steps away from that more important requirement for the government to treat all citizens equally and make provision of services universal. Throughout the government's agenda we can see examples of how this works—or should I say does not work.