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Defending Australia's price on pollution

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 9 Jul 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (10:34):  I rise to speak against the Clean Energy Legislation (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013. In 2011 I was extremely proud to stand in this parliament as a South Australian senator with the Australian Greens and vote in favour of a package of 18 clean energy bills. It was a visionary package; it was finally to establish a framework to begin to tackle the urgent challenge of climate change in a comprehensive and coordinated way. I have been aware of the risks and predictions about climate change since the late 1980s. The issue gained understanding within the community in the early 1990s and it has become increasingly urgent since then. But here we stand in 2014 on the cusp of going backwards.

The clean energy package—which the Australian Greens, the Labor Party and, indeed, the multiparty climate change committee in the previous government was responsible for initiating and introducing—was, and still is, some of the world's best-practice legislation in this area. It was a sophisticated framework to bring about the transition of our Australian economy from an economy that historically has been reliant on an abundant supply of coal and fossil fuels to an economy based on the clean energy sources that are absolutely necessary for a safe climate and a healthy environment over the decades and centuries ahead.

Last year I was again proud to stand in this parliament to defend that framework and to vote against the Abbott government's first spiteful, bloody-minded, irresponsible attempts to tear down the framework. Here we go again. Again we are confronting legislation that will take us backwards, that will remove the structure which has delivered greater than expected reductions in carbon emissions, and that has encouraged investment in renewable energy in Australia and investment in energy efficient industries. This time the Abbott government will probably succeed with the assistance of other senators in this place, notably Senator Xenophon and the Palmer United Party, some of whom, I believe, do not really understand the acts they are repealing or the true implications of what they are doing. How has it come to this sorry, sorry place? Purely and simply, this is about politics and protecting vested interests—their own and their mates'.



In opposition, Tony Abbott deliberately drummed up fear and confusion about climate change and actively encouraged the public to turn away from science, our scientists and knowledge, towards ignorance and prejudice. What sort of responsible leader does that? And why? Because he saw electoral advantage in it. He also deliberately drummed up confusion and fear about what he called 'a great big tax', making hysterical claims about its effect on electricity prices, predicting that cities like Whyalla in South Australia would be wiped off the map, all of which has come to nought. Why? Because he saw electoral advantage in it. What kind of responsible leader does that? So now we have a slash-and-burn rampage against the suite of climate change measures, not because the policies have no merit but because he staked his political ambition to get into power on opposing the policy.

We are dealing here with a government which is resolved to take our country backwards, even though the legislation that it wants to trash is effective, actually saves money and is demonstrably in the long-term national interest. This particularly offends me because it amounts to what I see as a fundamental breach of the compact that lies at the heart of our democratic system—that people elect governments to govern, in the end, overwhelmingly in the national interest, not in their own interests and not in the interests of their coalmining, big business mates. The national interest includes the future of our young people—the children, the teenagers and the young adults who will inherit a parched and dangerous future if we do not act to prevent it. I met some of them on Monday—200 young people from across Australia who converged on the parliament to remind us, their parliamentarians, that our decisions determine their future.

The national interest also includes the welfare and livelihood of farmers and people on the land. These are the people that the government, and especially the National Party, constantly claim to represent. It is farmers and rural Australians who will pay the biggest cost and pay soonest when it comes to climate change. Every year, we know, more records are being broken—droughts, more hot days for longer periods, variations in seasonal temperatures. Who does that affect the most and most immediately? Why is it then that the issues paper delivered to inform the Abbott government's white paper on agricultural competitiveness does not mention climate change?

This is totally at odds with most experts in climate and its interaction with production, especially those who are working at the interface of climate and agriculture. It is totally at odds with the approach taken by one of our most important competitors in the global food market, the US. Their Department of Agriculture's 2014 proposed budget includes $98 million earmarked for programs researching interactions between climate change and agriculture. Clearly climate change will have severe and detrimental effects on food production and those who make their living from the land in Australia, so I repeat my question: why are the coalition—and particularly the National Party, which claims to be the party for farmers and rural Australians—not prepared to pay attention to one of the most significant threats coming down the line to their people? And why are their voters and constituents letting them get away with it?

There is a growing global movement for pricing pollution, ideally through an emissions trading scheme, as the most efficient and low-cost way to reduce emissions. It sends a price signal that polluters and polluting activities should pay more. Consumers will vote with their feet. Polluters will change their ways. The IMF and the World Bank are urging mechanisms to price pollution across the globe. While our biggest trading partners and our friends across the globe are jumping on board, we have Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Minister Greg Hunt wanting us to jump ship.

If we continue on this way, when the global repugnance for polluting activities that affect everyone across the globe reaches its height, the change will come fast, without much warning, and the huge risk is that Australia will be left with a rust-bucket economy and stranded assets, a destroyed environment and towns without jobs, like we saw with the auto-manufacturing towns in the US that kept making dinosaur gas-guzzling vehicles when the rest of the world had moved on. We ignore these signals, we ignore what is coming, at our peril.

The Australian Greens are long-term advocates of a price on carbon. That is because we are guided by the scientists and we are guided by the economists. We stand for responsible and sensible policy and investment based on established science and established economics. The Australian Greens do not support this legislation, which will take us inexorably backwards at a time when other nations in the world are moving forwards. I know we are on the right side of history. I will finish on this question: when future Australians, potentially our descendants, look back at this government and this parliament and this period of Australia's history and ask, 'What were they thinking?' what will we tell them?


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