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Speech: Repeal of carbon laws

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Lee Rhiannon 15 Jul 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (20:22): The repeal of this package of clean energy bills will come to define this government, not just now but it sets Australia's place in history-but I believe not for long. The selfishness will be overturned. History will have hope. It is shameful. It is embarrassing. It is so deeply wrong. I also want to say that it is an honour to follow Greens Senators Christine Milne and Larissa Waters. Their speeches tonight have been outstanding, and they set out the hope that I know is so real.

The coalition government's rejection of action on climate change, its moves to bankrupt the renewable energy industry and its belittling of the important work of Australian and all scientists are appalling actions. The Abbott government is out of step with other developed and developing nations. Australia is on its own with these backward policies. Last week on Lateline we were reminded how out of step the Abbott government is on climate change. I very much recommend that senators, even when the debate is over, watch this program. It is so informative. Here we had a Tory, head of the British independent Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben, John Gummer, spell out with clarity and directness the problem with the Abbott government. Lord Deben demolished so many of the out-of-touch arguments we have heard from the conservatives in this chamber. Here it is, straight from the lord, on climate change:

Only Australia and to some extent Canada, but particularly Australia, is actually going backwards.
Then, referring to Direct Action, Lord Deben said: "... I can't find anybody in the world that thinks that this package will produce a serious reduction in Australia's emissions."

The Abbott government are propping up an old, worn-out economic model which is failing communities across the country. The government's actions show that they take no responsibility for the wellbeing of our communities and of future generations. This is a turn back to the old economy, the one built on coal and dirty power resources, on multinational companies that will fire their workers without a moment's hesitation, which run vigorous campaigns to depose leaders and to topple any policy they do not like. They cry poor, while making huge profits off the backs of ordinary Australians and the resources of this nation.

This is the old economy. Every day, there are reports about its decline. The demand from China is slowing. That country is starting a slow but sure move to a new economy, one that does not cause its inhabitants to live with the particle pollution created by old coal fired power stations. The United States is doing the same, despite the hostility from some sectors wanting to retain the old economy. The movement is something that we have been a part of. We have been a slower part of it, and certainly we in the Greens would like to see it speed up, but at least the previous government had begun putting in place some of the basic policy infrastructure to help us transition to the new. I congratulate Senator Christine Milne and the Greens team she worked with to negotiate the carbon package that has been so important to advancing climate action in this country. The repeal of the carbon tax is a major step backward in this regard. It will create further uncertainty, and we will again allow the coal industry to take precedence above all else.

These international changes have recently brought our coal industry to the attention of academics at the Stranded Assets Programme that operates out of the University of Oxford. They have found that Australia's intense investment in and dependence on coal risks us developing a raft of stranded assets that will never be used. It is foolish to think that Australia can keep developing coal at the rate we are and still have it generate the profits that we have been used to. This is what we are seeing with the constant closure of mines and the controversy over take-or-pay contracts. It is also undoubtedly one of the reasons that the people of Newcastle, in the Hunter region of New South Wales, have had a reprieve from the increased traffic of a fourth coal terminal. The price of coal is too low to justify the building of all this infrastructure.

The world is moving away from coal, and we should do it too. We should be increasing public investment in renewable energy and solar thermal power. The benefits for traditional coal regions could be massive-the jobs growth, the boost to local economies and the all-important clean air and clean water. I can tell you, having worked with coal communities in Lithgow, in the Hunter, in Wollongong, that this is what people want. They know it is possible and they are ready to work with governments and community groups for that transition. As other Greens speakers have said, it is happening, and we need the political will from our government to work with these communities, because there is an urgency with which we need this to happen.

We are often talking about Newcastle and the Hunter region as a coal region, yet the ability to fundamentally transform our energy systems and move away from coal may very well come from this region. Only recently, the CSIRO in Newcastle has made a major breakthrough in renewable technology, using solar energy to generate hot and pressurised supercritical steam at the highest temperatures ever achieved outside of fossil sources. This is what proper government investment and initiative in science, research and expertise has the power to achieve, yet of course, along with the clean energy legislation, the government is looking to cut jobs at the CSIRO, and we have heard just in this past week that that is already occurring. Just as we are on the verge of major breakthroughs in technology, the government wants to ignore its responsibility on climate change, cut funds to research, push us away from the new economy and stick with the old.

In New South Wales, the Greens have a different plan. My New South Wales parliamentary colleague John Kaye has a concrete plan for transitioning to the new economy, and it is worth looking at what he has proposed, because it would be a fantastic model to follow nationally. We do need a phase-out of all fossil fuel power stations by 2030. We know that Labor has tinkered with this idea in New South Wales for our dirtiest power stations. But what is really needed is a proper plan to move away from this old economy power source. This is not something that we can do tomorrow. We need a long-term plan. It is imperative to deal with climate change. The basis of it is there now. We can develop a plan for low-carbon combinations of solar thermal and wind power with a proper plan to ensure workers in the old industries can transition to new jobs.

Renewable energy targets or mandates would be one step to initiating this move-and we have seen the effectiveness of this on a smaller scale already. Secondly, we need to remove barriers to the development of renewable energy technologies. Current planning laws in New South Wales, in particular, are made to favour the old economy. We need to implement planning laws that are more favourable to technologies like wind, to support their growth. Thirdly, we need investment-the all-important investment-and there is a role for government here.

A responsible government, governing for the new economy, would invest in the future economy and our future energy sources. The success of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is one indication that this is a profitable enterprise. We also need to remove the subsidies that go to the coal and gas industries. There has been a great deal of work done on identifying how huge these subsidies are and really shows that corporate welfare is still, despite what we hear from the government. They are propping up an industry whose time has come. The Australia Institute has recently estimated that subsidies are up to $17.6 billion. If we got rid of these subsidies it would even up the playing field between the old and new energies and help the transition to the all-important new, low-carbon economy. Further, we need to reform the energy market. One of the major barriers to changing to new technologies is the fact that the national electricity market is set up for large-scale coal fired power. This need not be the case. We could implement a strategic demand management policy to cut the need to further invest in transmission and distribution infrastructure.

It is not only the Greens who are recognising this need to move away from coal and dirty power towards new, clean renewable energy. Finance companies and smaller investors alike are also doing this through divestment choices. These organisations have seen the need for a different future and are moving their money to support it. Many organisations, including 350.org, Greenpeace, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, the Australian Student Environment Network any many others, are organising divestment campaigns. Their work is absolutely inspiring. They have stepped up with policies that challenge the government's climate failures. Some of the bodies that are working include the Hornsby Shire Council, the ACT government and 17 universities including UTS, Monash Clayton, RMIT and the University of Queensland. They have been identified as institutions that are ready to act on climate change-and in many cases that work is well advanced.

These campaigns have also targeted the big four banks, Westpac, Commonwealth, NAB and ANZ, which have loaned almost $19 billion to new coal and gas projects in Australia-projects that we do not need; projects that are part of that old economy that we need to be moving past. The campaign has already had some success, with UniSuper announcing it will remove fossil fuel investments from its 'socially responsible' portfolio. This is the voice of the new economy. That shift was made because those community organisations and those environment groups are out there campaigning, lobbying, having the discussion and starting the dialogue. That is why those organisations have seen that it is time to change.

To build the new economy 80 per cent of Australia's coal must stay in the ground to avoid dangerous climate change. In the new economy, investment in renewables, research and new infrastructure supporting a diverse range of electricity sources is recognised as a worthwhile investment in our future. It is something we can give to our children and their children-to the future. In the new economy we would have a well-educated, healthy population from which to draw inspiration as to how our economy could flourish. We would share our resources more evenly to benefit everyone, Multinational coal companies would not have the final word on what resources they could dig up. Rather, we would have a wide range of strong industries-education, health, tourism, research, agriculture and many more.

This is what a government with any true sense of leadership would steer us towards. They would be investing in the new economy and strengthening the carbon tax, the minerals resources rent tax and our environmental standards. They would be following the footsteps of those who have already stood up and said, 'This is enough' the reign of king coal must end.' They would be supporting those in the communities fighting coal mines and those campaigning for renewable energy. They would be investing in the research and skills needed to implement these massive changes. They would be actively moving us to the new economy. That is what we should be debating in this chamber tonight. That is the type of legislation that we should be working together on.

The bills before us should not pass. The carbon tax is one small but most significant step into the new economy. I do believe the sun is shining on a bright future. We might lose with the passing of these repeal bills, but action on climate change will win. Good people will triumph over this shameful government.

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