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The ecological debt of the nation

Senator MILNE (Tasmania) (10.59 am)-I rise to address the issue of debt. I particularly want to talk about the fact that the Leader of the Opposition, the honourable Malcolm Turnbull, has been saying that he does not want to look into the eyes of future generations and tell them that they plunged the country into debt. Let me say that no government plunged this nation into further debt-it was massive debt!-than the Howard government.

Senator Brandis-We paid off the entire debt.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN-Order! Senator Brandis!

Senator MILNE-It is interesting that all they can think about is the debt that they understand. They plunged this country and all future generations into the most massive ecological debt-

Senator Brandis interjecting-

Senator MILNE-It is ecological debt-understand it. Let me tell you about the extreme weather events around the country, the death of the Great Barrier Reef, the loss of productivity in the Murray-Darling system and the extreme drought. We have parts of Australia now suffering in an extraordinary way-in the Riverland, in Queensland and right across the country; no more so than in Victoria. The ecological debt of this country was racked up in an enormous way by the Howard government and instead of addressing the ecological debt and the hideous dependence on foreign oil-those vulnerabilities-all the Howard government did was rely on tax cuts: rivers of gold, manna from heaven. Australia had never been better off; there were dollars thrown up in the air.

The reality is that we ran into massive ecological debt, and every time they approved new coal mines and new coal ports they were ratcheting up ecological debt for future generations. The difference between a debt on an economic sheet and an ecological debt is that you can pay off financial debt but you cannot recover if you go so far into ecological debt that you kill the system. It cannot be recovered. That is what is going on with climate change right now. We are experiencing dangerous climate change and we are in a headlong rush into catastrophic climate change.

Scientists around the world are telling us that we are approaching tipping points, if we have not already passed them. We have heard the stories about the melt of the Arctic ice. We know that the west Antarctic ice sheet is vulnerable. We have seen the collapse of glaciers around the world. That kind of ecological debt that we have plunged future generations into may not be recoverable. So the honourable Malcolm Turnbull and all of these members of the coalition cannot claim that they can look future generations in the eye and say that they have avoided debt.

Not only have they plunged future generations into ecological debt but now they are actually preventing putting people to work to address that debt. The Greens have negotiated successfully for money, as part of this stimulus package, to go to communities to address natural heritage and built heritage issues. Money will go to local communities and local governments to put people to work. We want to put people to work repairing ecosystems. That is a way of stimulating the economy: providing people with paid work restoring Australia's biodiversity and doing everything they can. We have so much work to do in natural resource management to recover some of these areas-hence we got the $10 million for bioremediation in the lower Murray and the lakes. We are doing that: putting people to work to address the ecological debt that you ran up. And now you do not even want people to go to work doing that. Having run up the debt you are not even prepared to put up the money to address that debt and recover some it.

Let me talk for a minute, as well, about social debt. I would invite the opposition to go into schools around the country and see how many of them have leaking toilets. There are extraordinary facilities in some very well off schools in the country but if you go travelling around rural and regional Australia you will find communities suffering in terms of social debt. There is not enough affordable housing in this country and we have a problem with homelessness. The Howard government was prepared to give tax cuts to the highest income earners in the country while schools had leaking toilets, while people were homeless and while there was no money for affordable housing. There was no massive investment when it was required in public education across the country, and we ran down our skills base, hollowed out the manufacturing sector and left ourselves as Asia's quarry-to the point where, as a result of Howard government policies, not only are we the quarry for China, but at the rate that we are going in terms of this deal with Rio Tinto, China will own the quarry. All of that is because you are worshippers of a free market.

The CHAIRMAN-Order! Senator Milne, address the chair, please.

Senator MILNE-Certainly. I stand corrected. Through you, Mr Chair, I say that when members of the former Howard government talk about debt they need to reflect on the social debt and the ecological debt of 10 years of indulgence, and a failure to spend on community infrastructure and on the ecology. Mr Chair, I put to you the ecological debt of the loss of the Great Barrier Reef and its whole ecosystem. The coral reef scientists are saying that it is already too late for the world's coral reefs. There is so much warming locked in that we are now going to see increased frequency of bleaching events, and with that increased frequency we will see a lack of ability for the reef system to recover. We are managing coral reefs around the world for decline.

The members of the Howard government were prepared to see massive investment in coal mines and coal ports guaranteeing a debt, a debt which cannot be overcome-the death of a magnificent, World Heritage listed reef system. It is the same in Tasmania with our forests. There we are still seeing the ratcheting up of ecological debt as some of the world's greatest carbon sinks are absolutely destroyed and all that carbon goes into atmosphere. That is all ecological debt, contributing to climate change and loss of biodiversity.

Future generations will look back at these last 10 years and say to themselves: ‘How could that have happened? What were those people doing? Didn't they understand that without environment there is no economy?' People in the Murray-Darling system, now that they have experienced it themselves, would know that without environment there is no economy, there is no viability. That is why there is a discussion here today about exit packages for people on the Murray-Darling system-because without environment there is no economy.

That is something that the Howard government never understood. Clearly they still do not, judging by the interjections of people like Senator Brandis earlier, suggesting that the only debt he could consider would be on a balance sheet. He is not prepared to look at social debt, at the community's debt, at the ecological debt. In looking at addressing the global financial crisis we would have the opportunity to address the ecological crisis, the climate crisis and our dependence on foreign oil if the coalition were seriously interested in the vulnerability of the Australian economy. In the report Re-energising Australia I pointed out that our economy is vulnerable because we have hollowed out the manufacturing sector and failed to invest in skills and education to build a more sophisticated, diverse and resilient economy in the face of inevitable downturn in the resources sector. That illusion of prosperity was all about profits from the mining industry-that was the only thing that gave Australia the capacity to have those massive tax cuts in the last 10 years. Once the rest of the world withdraws the social legitimacy for exporting coal, we are in serious trouble in this country. So let's not hear anyone even for a moment consider that the coalition is worried about plunging Australia into debt.

We are in serious ecological and social debt now, and the only way to get out of it is to address the financial crisis, the ecological crisis and our dependence on peak oil together. That is what the Greens have done in relation to this package. We have asked how we can begin the transformation to a low-carbon economy through a stimulus package, a green new deal. We did not get the visionary and bold plans that the Greens have had for a green new deal. We would have liked to have seen the retrofit of all of Australia's housing with our easy scheme which we put to the government and they did not accept, but at least two million homes are to be retrofitted. We have now for the first time got the Commonwealth focused on the fact that Australia is behind even the United States, by two star points, on energy efficiency, without the most basic efficiency in our housing. That is largely thanks to the influence of the HIA. The Housing Industry Association have been a huge burden on this economy in terms of getting decent energy efficiency and more comfort in houses. The social housing, which will be more energy efficient because of the Greens' input, will have a great social dividend in that it will mean permanent cost savings for the low-income earners who will be accessing those houses.

We also want a redesign of Australian cities, we want to get off our dependence on foreign oil and we want a massive investment in public transport. That is not in this package but it is something that we were arguing for. We want a massive investment in an intelligent grid so that this country is capable of bringing on the renewable energy revolution that the Greens feed-in tariff would deliver if both the government and the opposition would get behind it. It is no use having the technology if you do not have an intelligent grid that is capable of bringing it on. So there are a lot of things that are not in this package, but it is a beginning and we will be working very hard to make sure we get that delivery out into the community.

In terms of cycleways, it is certainly a beginning as well. It is the first time we have had a real injection of funds into giving people the capacity to improve their health, getting better air quality and amenity, getting cars off the road, lessening congestion and building community. Again, it was not just the lack of investment in infrastructure that has destroyed communities; it was the dog-eat-dog, individuals first, forget the community, put yourself before everybody else mentality of the last 10 years. In difficult economic times, one of the very few silver linings is communities coming together to help themselves and rebuild a sense of community. This package, through the Greens' intervention, puts more money into rebuilding communities. There is a lot to be said for supporting this now.

If we do not address the financial crisis and the ecological debt then we will plunge this nation even further into debt-adding more financial crisis on to the ecological crisis that you have worsened.

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