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Infrastructure Australia on collision course with climate credibility

With the Infrastructure Australia Bill having passed the Senate in its original form this morning, this article from me discussing its implications was published in New Matilda today.

You can read the full Senate debate here.

Two of the Rudd Government's key election promises - establishing Infrastructure Australia and tackling climate change - have been set on a collision course in the Senate this week. By putting its foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time, the Government is destined for engine failure. It didn't have to be this way.

Infrastructure Australia, a body to oversee a strategic approach to infrastructure development, is an excellent idea. As well as helping to prevent future marginal-seat pork-barrelling on roads, it could provide a much needed and coherent vision for Australia's development to replace the existing piecemeal, unplanned mess.

The infrastructure path we choose will, of course, have a tremendous impact on which direction our greenhouse emissions head in: the coal and road-focussed path will see emissions continue to rise; while a path prioritising renewable energy, the roll-out of energy efficiency infrastructure and effective mass transit will see our emissions finally peak and start to drop.

It would have been appropriate for a Government that was elected on a platform of climate change action to make one of the central tasks of Infrastructure Australia ensuring that our infrastructure development drives a low emissions trajectory and reduced dependence on oil. The enabling legislation could have put an examination of greenhouse implications of infrastructure choices at the centre of the new body's responsibilities, and populated it with appropriate experts. This would have ensured that the strategic infrastructure overview it provided was not only in line with, but effectively reinforced, the emissions reduction programs the Government introduced.

Unfortunately, this is not the approach the Rudd Government has taken. Instead, Infrastructure Australia will undermine the Government's stated aim of reducing greenhouse emissions.

The Infrastructure Australia Bill 2008 that came before the Senate on Wednesday sets out an array of the "primary" and "additional functions" of the body. The primary functions are to provide advice to the Minister, all Australian governments, owners of and investors in infrastructure in relation to such issues as "Australia's current and future needs and priorities", "policies, pricing and regulatory issues", and "impediments to effective utilisation of infrastructure".

In addition, the body will conduct audits of nationally significant infrastructure, provide advice on policies and laws relating to development of, and investment in, infrastructure, identify any impediments to investment, and finally, provide advice on infrastructure policy issues arising from climate change.

The Bill splits these "additional functions" functions into those that Infrastructure Australia is to perform either "if it thinks fit; or on request by the Minister" and those it is to perform only "on request by the Minister".

Now here's the rub. While all "primary functions" and about half of the "additional functions" are put into the first category, the "additional function" relating to climate change is specifically relegated to the second. In other words, Infrastructure Australia can only "provide advice on infrastructure policy issues arising from climate change" when specifically requested to do so by the Minister.

So the Government is establishing a body to oversee a policy area with arguably the largest and longest-term impact on our greenhouse emissions trajectory, and it is explicitly removing that body's discretion to examine the climate implications of infrastructure decisions - leaving that to the whim of the Minister. The Government will now use that power to guarantee that the greenhouse implications of expanded coal port facilities, new freeways and tunnels and public/private partnerships that they support are swept under the carpet.

In an attempt to fix this problem and put climate change (and peak oil) at the heart of Infrastructure Australia's considerations, I moved an amendment that would have replaced the "additional function" related to climate change with a "primary function" of advising on the "greenhouse gas emission and oil consumption implications of any development". After an extensive and frustrating debate - in which the Government revealed how little it cared by leaving the debate in the hands of a succession of four barely adequately briefed Ministers - Labor, the Coalition and Family First closed ranks to reject my amendment, which was supported only by the Greens and Democrats.

Now, it could be argued, as Democrats Leader Lyn Allison raised, that the use of the phrase "infrastructure policy issues arising from climate change" [emphasis added] limits the application of that paragraph to infrastructure issues related to climate change impacts such as rising sea levels. This could make the situation even worse, excluding any examination of greenhouse emissions implications at all.

On the other hand, it could be argued that, by only removing the discretionary power to look at climate change impacts, the Bill implicitly allows Infrastructure Australia to examine greenhouse emissions implications through the "primary function" of advising on "Australia's current and future needs and priorities".

It could even be argued, as the Government sought to do in the debate my amendments triggered, that we should just trust the Government. Of course the Minister will refer the issue. Of course the Government takes climate change seriously. Don't worry, we'll take care of it.

All these could be argued. Perhaps Infrastructure Australia will have the discretion to look at greenhouse issues. Perhaps the Minister will take care of it.

But that is hardly the point.

Surely climate change and greenhouse emissions implications should be an explicit and core responsibility of a body with a strategic overview of infrastructure. For an issue like climate change, "perhaps" is not enough.

Reading in implicit discretionary powers, or trusting to Ministerial discretion, is not enough. In a political context where the coal and roads lobbies still wield so much power and, indeed, are more than likely to be strongly represented in the membership of Infrastructure Australia, and where Labor is sticking to its election road pork-barrel promises, the community can have little hope that their trust will be justified.

With this Bill, the Rudd Government has, deliberately or inadvertently, missed a tremendous opportunity, and has instead created a rod for its own back. If it is serious about climate change, it would be well advised to recall the Bill and amend it rather than sit back and watch as two of its supposed priorities collide.

Climate change is accelerating so rapidly, we have no time for political games.

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