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Christine Milne: What's the rush?

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Christine Milne 7 Jul 2014

The Leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Christine Milne, asks the new senators: 'what's the rush?'. It's only the first week of the new Senate and the new Senators should take their time to consider legislation for our current ETS.


Senator MILNE (Tasmania-Leader of the Australian Greens) (12:42): I rise to draw the attention of the Senate to the fact that the new Senate, sworn in a matter of a few hours ago, is being asked, if the government has its way on this, to deal with a complex set of bills which go to the heart of addressing global warming and bringing down greenhouse gas emissions. Having listened to Senator Abetz, it makes it even more important that we do not deal with these in the rush that the government wants. This is a matter where, in 50 years time, people are going to look back on what this Senate did and say, 'How is it possible that, given what they knew at the time with regard to climate science, given that they knew at the time that we were reaching tipping points beyond which there is no return, given they knew at the time that ocean acidification is simplifying marine ecosystems, given that they knew that the West Antarctic ice sheet was collapsing, given that they knew glaciers were retreating, and given that they knew that extreme weather events were killing people all around the world and here in Australia, they swore in people in the Senate and within hours wanted to bring on a complex set of legislation and vote down the only effective policy that this parliament has had to bring down emissions?' Every minute that we stand here under the current legislation, greenhouse gas emissions are coming down. That is the fact of the matter. Look at the electricity sector; look at the sectors that are covered.

Senator Williams: Shut down manufacturing.

Senator MILNE: As for shutting down manufacturing, as Senator Williams talks about, let me tell you: hollowing out the manufacturing sector is the legacy of the Howard and Costello years. Hollowing out the manufacturing sector and undermining investment in further education are the legacies of those years. In 2006, there was the opportunity at the height of the boom to actually invest in education and in transitioning the economy. And what did they do? They gave it out in tax cuts, left, right and centre-manna from heaven. Remember the debate? Rivers of gold; manna from heaven-they gave it out in tax cuts to people, instead of investing in public transport, in education and in the kind of infrastructure that the future demanded.

But now we are in a situation where Senator Abetz tells Australians that there is a carbon tax. There is not. We have legislation in this parliament which is an emissions trading scheme. That is what is the law in Australia as I stand here and speak. It is operating as a fixed price for three years and then transitioning to flexible pricing as of 1 July next year. So it is a lie to say to the Australian people that we do not have an emissions trading scheme. We do. The architecture is passed. Everything is in place. The Climate Change Authority was set up to recommend to the parliament the level that we should set for ambition, and, when that recommendation was made, the parliament was supposed to put that into the legislation to enable flexible pricing. The linking with the European Union has already been done. The expectation is that we will be at flexible pricing, linked to the European Union, next year. We could actually go to it now if we chose to do so. But the fact of the matter is: we already have an emissions trading scheme.

As to this notion that it is a blot on jobs: well, contrary to what Senator Abetz says, in the news today we hear that Californian company SolarReserve's CEO, Kevin Smith, has said that it will not be investing in Australia because of the wind-back of climate framework policy. Around Australia today, we have a huge rollout of renewable energy and jobs because people can see that this is where the innovation is, this is where rural development is, this is where rural jobs are, around Australia. Communities are embracing renewable energy, putting solar panels on their roofs and doing what they can with energy efficiency.

It may come as a shock to the coalition to learn it, but most people are actually anxious about the future because of global warming. If you had picked up the paper over the weekend you would have seen that Kiribati, a country in the Pacific, has just bought land in Fiji so that it can transfer its entire population. What does that say to this parliament? These are our Pacific island neighbours who are already impacted on by sea level rise and by saltwater incursion. They have young people sitting there in their country knowing that it is rapidly reaching a point where they can no longer live in that country. As to Tuvalu, as early as 2006, on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, up got their leader and said to the global community: 'Who will take my people?' Is Australia going to start recognising that we are driving environmental refugees around the world because of extreme weather events, because of sea level rise, because of storm surge and because of saltwater incursion? These are the issues that we should be talking about, particularly here in this Senate.

There is a need for everybody in the Senate-and, I would say, especially the new senators-to understand the architecture of the legislation and how it works. Did the new senators, for example, know that there has been a schedule added to one of the bills-schedule 5 added to the main bill-which removes the funding substantially from ARENA, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency? This parliament set up the Australian Renewable Energy Agency so that there would be a continuum between early-stage research and pilot-stage rollout of projects through to commercialisation under the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. They were a package. And the idea was that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation profits would flow back into the Renewable Energy Agency and fund early-stage research. So it became a circular thing, where the community was not having to pay for the early-stage research-in fact the rollout and profit from those projects was.

Does anyone here actually understand that, by repealing these bills, the government has chosen to forgo $18 billion in revenue over the forward estimates? The Prime Minister is saying to the people of Australia that he will not take it out of the pockets of the big polluters; he will in fact take it out of the pockets of the community in co-payments for going to the doctor; he will take it out of the pockets of the community and pensioners; he will take it out of the pockets of the community when it comes to health and education. Whilst people have talked about the co-payments, not a lot has yet been said about the millions being taken out of health and education to the states.

Speaking of the states, how many people here realise that Tasmania has had a major windfall gain because of our emissions trading scheme? Hydro Tasmania has made substantial amounts of money-$70 million is going into the Hydro because of carbon pricing, and that goes into the state budget by way of a dividend paid into the state budget. Stopping that means that Tasmania-which is already under the pump economically, which people realise-will have fewer nurses, police and teachers.

Senator Bushby: Where does that money come from?

Senator MILNE: It is coming out of the pockets of big polluters; that is where the money is coming from. That is my point. It is coming out of the pockets of big polluters because the big polluters are being asked to internalise the real cost of their pollution, and that is why we are saying: why should the community have to pay with their lives?

Why should the community have to pay for the extreme weather events? Who pays for the massive destruction of infrastructure? Who paid for the aftermath of the Queensland floods? I will tell you: the community did, through their taxes. Billions went in that so-called one-off flood repair levy. But we said at the time that a permanent fund should be set up and the big polluters should pay into that permanent fund, because every year Australians have to pay for extreme fires, for floods and for drought relief, and that is going to go on and on. We are going to see more extreme weather events, and the community is going to pay with lives and with infrastructure, and they are already paying. If you look at the so-called savings that you are supposedly going to be making, and then you take from that the cost of cleaning up after these extreme weather events, and ask people: 'How much are your insurance premiums these days if you live in an area vulnerable to flooding, to storm surge or to fire?' you will find that, if you live in Roma, the savings that you supposedly are going to make from the repeal of a carbon price are nothing compared with the fact that you cannot even afford insurance anymore because of your vulnerability to flooding. That is the reality around Australia, and that is why I think we need to stand here and go through these bills and have people actually understand the connections between all of the elements of these pieces of legislation. The future depends upon it.

We went out and spoke with some young people this morning, and I can tell you that they are representative of young people right around the country. They get the climate science. They know the world is changing. They also know that it is their future, that they and their children are going to inherit an earth that has been seriously depleted by species extinction, for a start, and extreme weather events. They know they are going to inherit a world with more conflict. The Pentagon has already acknowledged that global warming is going to be a major driver of conflict and is now part of military planning in the United States. That is why we are saying: do not rush this. Australia is not a dictatorship; it is a democracy, and the Senate is a house of review. We should be reviewing this legislation and pointing out the lies that have been told about carbon pricing. It has always been a lie to say that we have a carbon tax in Australia. We have an emissions trading scheme that is legislated; it is in place now and it is linked to the European Union. And we should be keeping that carbon price.

Senator Lambie interjecting-

Senator MILNE: I am pleased that Senator Lambie has raised the issue of pensioners. Part of the design of carbon pricing was that people on low incomes and pensions were overcompensated for the flow-on cost of carbon pricing. We structured the compensation to overcompensate people on low incomes. What is more, we did something that was innovative, and that was raise the tax-free threshold. The tax-free threshold in Australia used to be $6,000. We have raised the tax-free threshold to $18,000 and it will go to $19,400. That means people around Australia on low incomes benefit hugely. Everybody, and particularly those on low incomes-part-time workers, students and the like-benefits from the fact that they have now got a higher tax-free threshold. That was part of the design.

It is important that we have a full and informed debate on how the package worked. Why did we need $10 billion going into renewable energy, which the Greens negotiated? It was because the carbon price was not going to drive the transformation to 100 per cent renewables as quickly as possible. That is why we added the Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to the architecture to support a transition to a low-carbon economy. The Climate Change Authority was an important part of the architecture. It was based on what they do in the UK, where they recognised that they needed an expert body to recommend to the parliament the level of ambition that would be required to meet their obligations as part of a global community trying to constrain global warming to less than two degrees.

The Greens will stand here and argue absolutely for the retention of our emissions trading scheme and the retention of action on global warming. Frankly, it is a global disgrace that we are behaving as an isolationist, inward-looking, selfish country in the global community. Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General, is calling a global summit asking countries to put a higher level of ambition on the table and acknowledging the disaster that is climate change. And this weekend we had scientists reporting that we are very close to having a massive burst of methane going into the atmosphere because of the thawing in the Arctic. That will set us back a very long time in terms of urgency and what needs to be done.

By keeping the scheme we have got, we have a trajectory which we can increase and we will be able to do it in a way that does not have massive dislocation in the economy. But the longer you leave action on global warming, the longer you do not do what is necessary, by the time you get around to doing it the trajectory will be so steep that the dislocation will be huge. We have already seen the risk associated with investment in what will be stranded assets. I have absolutely no doubt that the coal ports up and down the Queensland coast and the coalmines currently being proposed in the Galilee and Bowen basins are going to end up as stranded assets because the world is going to have to move and very fast.

It beggars belief that the Parliament of Australia, a nation which prides itself on its global responsibility, would abuse the processes of the parliament and race in here on the first day of a new Senate and try and drive through legislation that will impact on every person who comes after us. This seems to be part of a game the coalition wants to play. The Prime Minister ran around Australia saying Whyalla would be wiped off the map, and Barnaby Joyce said a roast dinner would cost $100 and the like. All of it was untrue-unsubstantiated nonsense has been out there. That is why we need to make a considered and thoughtful judgement. It really will be a situation where, in 50 years time, people will look back at who was in here now and ask themselves: 'Why did those people vote the way that they did in full knowledge? Were they so selfish that they didn't care about future generations? Were they so ignorant that they didn't read the science and understand what it meant? Or were they just involved in playing cheap political games?' People in here have to recognise that on this package of bills, on this issue, they will be judged. We will all be judged for the positions that we take.

Former Prime Minister Rudd decided in 2010 to abandon what he then called 'the greatest moral challenge of all time'. And it is. It is an intergenerational equity issue and it is a justice issue. He was right. In abandoning that in 2010, he turned the 2010 election into a climate election. I can tell you, Mr President, the 2016 federal election will be a climate election in Australia. That is because the rest of the world is not going to tolerate what Australia is doing. We will see not only the Chinese but also the British and the Americans entering into all kinds of bilaterals, which will give them enormous economic advantage, recognising that the main source of growth at the moment is innovation in the clean energy economy. Australia will be left behind as a rust-bucket economy because we are looking back to an old, resource based dirty past as the rest of the world is investing its best brains in a clever, innovative and educated future. That is why this choice today is about the past versus the future and that is why the Greens are firmly placed here on the side of the future.

We accept the Climate Change Authority's recommendation that we need a 40 to 60 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The community is rapidly coming to understand the costs of not acting on climate change. The cost of acting is far less and people are now seeing that this is an equity issue. Why should $18 billion be kept in the hands of the polluters and taken out of the pockets of the community? That is what people are asking and that is the question that has to be answered. But it is because of the fact that so many lies have been told, because there is an attempt to abuse the processes of this parliament, that we are saying here that we will absolutely not support these bills being taken together. We ask that the questions of proceeding without formality and the bills being taken together be put as separate questions.


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