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Second Reading Speech: Clean Energy Legislation Repeal Bill 2013

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 6 Mar 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:32): What an appalling piece of legislation we have before us. To repeal the carbon tax is an enormous setback for Australia and, indeed, the world. I remember when these laws were passed in 2011. My friends living overseas were excited and inspired. They told me they were so proud to be Australian and they were in many conversations about the possibility of preventing real action on climate change. And now we have this real setback here, one that is very destructive. We are withdrawing a crucial pathway towards building a low-carbon future for Australia. It is, indeed, pandering to the will of the big polluting industries. The fossil fuel companies have done well with the election of the Abbott government. They are lining up to reap the benefits of the so-called direct action policy. This bill is an embarrassment to the people of Australia. It was an embarrassment when the leaders of many countries came together last year to work for a low-carbon future and Australia's government leaders, including the environment minister, were here in Canberra working on repealing the Clean Energy Act.

It is an embarrassment that the government pushes ahead with such a destructive plan in the face of such extreme weather events that we have seen this summer. There have been so many reminders in recent months-the bushfires, the devastating typhoons in the Philippines. These extreme weather events are a real indicator, and so many scientists now have linked them to the whole climate change that this world is experiencing. So it is timely to ask why the government would be taking this approach. And the answer lies very much with the enormous power that the fossil fuel industry has in this country. When the previous Howard government participated in the international climate change negotiations they were unequivocal about this. The policy that they worked under, which was stated many times from the then Prime Minister Howard down, was that the coal industry means Australia need special treatment. That was the basis of the whole negotiating tactics.

And now we see a similar approach from the Abbott government and from state coalition governments. I am from New South Wales. We are seeing the government there getting themselves in a real twist because, when they were in opposition, they were speaking up about how we need to protect the local environment and water resources and even saying that some coalmines should not go ahead-coalmines where New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell has been caught out in terms of the deals he has been doing on the Central Coast with coalmining companies while he told communities something very different. But it has not just been coalition governments; unfortunately, successive Labor governments have also given coal companies what coal companies want.

What we should be working towards now is keeping in place the important laws that were passed in 2011 and then building on that-because so much more needs to be done. With this we know we can have a win-win. We can have a win for the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions; a win for the local environment by protecting all those beautiful natural environments and farming lands; a win in producing more jobs that will last well into the future; and a win for the national economy.

It can also be a win globally. There is so much important work being undertaken in this area. One aspect which is very relevant when we are discussing the possible repeal of this legislation, which we know should be kept in place and should be the foundation for a lot more work to do, is the work of the International Trade Union Confederation. A report they brought down identified in a very clear way the transition that needs to be worked on. That is what a responsible government should now be doing-not working to get rid of action on climate change but working with all sections, including the business community, the unions and the community sector on how we can advance real action on climate change. The report from the ITUC also identified how environmental deterioration and rising social inequality are the twin perils of the 21st century. We are seeing them go hand in hand. The people who are most disadvantaged are so often in our own region and are the people who will be hardest hit by climate change.

In this century we will see more climate refugees if we do not take some real action. What the study also identified was very interesting. Economic research undertaken by the Millennium Institute forecast that investment of two per cent of GDP in the green economy over the next five years in 12 countries could create up to 48 million new jobs. They identified that in great detail-a plan that should be acted on. Interestingly, in the same report, they spoke very highly of the work done in Australia around the carbon price and how this work of regulation and investment can drive further investment in the economy and create more jobs, which has certainly been the theme of the Greens' work for many years in this area.

The turn back on climate change that is currently occurring in Australia is very serious. When we are having these debates we need to consider what Australia's full contribution to climate change is. Last year researchers from the CSIRO revealed that we export 2.5 times the amount of carbon than the amount we burn nationally. Across the nation there are plans to increase this amount, with proposals for a fourth coal loader in Newcastle. Newcastle, one of the main ports in New South Wales, is actually the largest coal port in the world. There are plans to ship a further 70 million tonnes of coal overseas-to be burnt overseas, to add all that carbon dioxide, all those greenhouse gas emissions, to the atmosphere.

Australia, as we know, is the world's largest exporter of coal. Successive governments have used this as an excuse to avoid their responsibilities to both the international and national community. There is little doubt about the tenacity of the fossil fuel industry. Time and time again, we see them exercising their power, bullying both state governments and local communities, to ensure they get their coalmines approved and they get their coal infrastructure, railway lines and railway bridges to get the coal down to the coal ports so they can get it out of the country as quickly as possible to boost their profits.

It was recently reported in the Newcastle Herald that the proponents of the fourth coal terminal, Port Waratah Coal Services, are actually being prosecuted for allowing some diesel fuel, a very serious pollutant, to flow into the Hunter River. That was at the Carrington Coal Terminal. This is only months after being fined $25,000 for the same thing. They go and do it again. Why do they do it again? Because $25,000 is not even the equivalent of petty cash for these companies.

This debate about the role of coal in our communities is very necessary because of the destruction we are seeing to the global environment, as well as the destruction to people's health locally and, indeed, very much to the local economy and jobs. We are seeing more and more that this industry is a jobs killer. It does not produce the jobs that it once did where we could have real sustainable jobs growth. As was suggested in the report that I just mentioned, from the International Trade Union Confederation, it is by getting behind clean energy and clean manufacturing that jobs can be delivered.

Coalmining has also proved very divisive in communities. We are seeing this very much in the Hunter region in New South Wales. It has been prominent in many debates. The industries that are vital to the region's economic diversity, growth and tourism-such as horse breeding, winemaking and general tourism-are really struggling in so many areas in parts of New South Wales because of the encroachment of the coal industry and also coal seam gas mining. It amazes me how we have to do battle in government-I saw it when I was in state parliament and we have also seen it here-when you try to address the issue of health impacts of coalmining. There are these constant demands: where is the science, where are the studies on this? We have so often seen people involved in coalmining damaged because of coal dust. This should be a no-brainer and is one part of the industry that should be readily cleaned up.

Many communities in the Hunter area are taking on giant companies and, interestingly, are having some success. One I want to share with you is Bulga, a small, tight-knit community in the Upper Hunter Valley. Their story is very impressive. They fought a long and hard battle against the mining industry. They are actually surrounded by three mines. It is a beautiful, little area but there are three large, open-cut mines where towers of the overburden surround them. One of the world's biggest mining companies, Rio Tinto, is active in this area. They announced plans that they wanted to expand the Mount Thorley-Warkworth mine. The community was very upset. The company changed a lot of the promises they had given to the community when the mine first opened. The Warkworth Sands Woodland-a very interesting ecosystem-was formed 18,000 years ago. It is totally unique. No other such landform is on the planet and it is home to squirrel gliders and glossy black cockatoos. It is a stunning area. Only 13 per cent of this region is left. It has been lost to either mining or farming. Obviously, it should be retained. However, the company vowed to protect the ridge that separated the mine from the town.

But then what happened? The Bulga residents worked very hard because they found out that Rio Tinto had plans to expand its original proposal. The proposal was actually rejected by the New South Wales Land and Environment Court, but they discovered at the last minute that Rio Tinto put in plans for a further expansion and got support from the O'Farrell government to advance that and go against the court decision.

Lock the Gate, now a very famous organisation, have noted that this appears to be an attempt at manoeuvring around the New South Wales Land and Environment Court by breaking up the original proposal, and I am sure it is no coincidence that this application was lodged just days after the New South Wales coalition government changed mining regulations in favour of the industry. That is why I said earlier that what we have seen from successive state and federal governments, Labor and coalition, is: what the mining industry wants, the mining industry gets. There are so many examples of this in the New South Wales parliament. Occasionally, communities have a win and then the government comes in and actually changes the law. The community have found what the company sees as a loophole but the community recognise as a law that that they are able to get a win under. And what does the government do? It changes it.

We see this very serious problem where the power of coal companies and coal seam gas companies is just so extensive. This is making it very hard to get real action on climate change. The power of the fossil fuel industry has certainly been one of the big factors in backing up the coalition government coming forward with this plan that we are debating tonight in parliament: the repeal of this important legislation, this package of laws that provides a foundation for real action on climate change.

I mentioned the issue of jobs and gave the example from overseas. There has also been considerable work done in Australia on identifying how, if we work on a transition away from a dependency on coal to renewable energy, that is where we can have jobs growth that will last. This is an area the government should be working on, because it is now widely recognised that renewables are commercially and industrially viable. We need political will from the government of the day to work responsibly with communities that have been coal dependent on how we can ensure that there is jobs growth and jobs growth well into the future. Governments are not doing that work, but there are certainly many people in the community who are. I will give some examples.

The University of Newcastle Centre of Full Employment and Equity estimates that up to 73,800 jobs could be created across New South Wales if we were to implement 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020 as well as developing a renewables export industry. Under a similar plan, Beyond Zero Emissions have estimated that 160,938 direct jobs would be created in Australia in the renewable energy sector over a 10-year period. The Clean Energy Council estimates that the development of 28 wind farms in New South Wales could create 3,940 jobs. The evidence is clearly in. For the New South Wales economy, let alone the national economy, this is the way to go. This is not just about reducing greenhouse gas emissions; this is the future that we need to be building.

I have found that this really is something that moves people greatly. When we come to debate this legislation in the chamber, I get a lot more emails, as I know my colleagues do. People are very distressed to hear that the clock is about to be turned back. I want to share some of those stories that people have sent in to me. Jillian Reid, an investment consultant, said:

Tax payers, through the 'Direct Action' model, should not be footing a bill while corporations make profits when the markets will drive beneficial, profitable change, if only government policy would guide the market to ensure self-interest is considered 'on the whole' over a longer time frame than the next five minutes. Surely that is the role of government on matters of human survival?

Then there was Royce Levi. He wrote a very interesting piece. He is a teacher. He said:

As a teacher for exactly 50 years, I have a duty, on behalf of the thousands of children and adults whose lives I have influenced in classrooms, to speak up on behalf of the children of tomorrow. I cannot understand why so many members of parliament, so many with children, would so blatantly assault the future with pseudoscience and naive economic jargon.


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