Feb 15, 2007

Matters of Public Importance – Water


15 February 2007

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (3.35 p.m.)—This is a government that is out of ideas, out of touch and out of time. This is a government with no plan for the future. Labor is advancing a positive agenda. Our positive agenda is to secure Australia’s long-term future. Our positive agenda is for long-term prosperity without throwing out the fair go. Our positive agenda is to restore the balance in workplace relations. Our positive agenda is to secure Australia’s future by having an education revolution—investing in the skills of our people. Our positive agenda is to tackle climate change and the water crisis, and our agenda is to fix the infrastructure deficit that is holding back productivity. Labor’s positive agenda has an exit strategy for Iraq—our agenda for bringing our troops home.

What we have seen today is a national disgrace, an agenda from the government that has been prepared to divide the nation and is now prepared to divide the parliament. It is a completely negative strategy of personal attacks because the government does not have a vision, because it is out of time. The first fortnight of Parliament has seen two issues dominate: the linked issue of climate change and water and, of course, the war in Iraq. On both, the government has found itself exposed. It is exposed because it has no plan for the future. There have been two stuff-ups by the Prime Minister. On one, climate change, the Prime Minister responded that he did not hear. On the other, accusing the US Democratic Party of being al-Qaeda’s party of choice, the Prime Minister said he did not say it.

The response to every issue from this government is all about political management. They move into political spin mode. They do not look forward. They do not address the issues. This is a government that will do anything to protect their short-term political interests because they are not concerned with the long-term national interests. This is a government that simply is not up to the challenges of the new century. We know that the Prime Minister is a clever politician. We also know that he has changed. He is prepared to manipulate in order to achieve his ends. He is prepared to say anything and do anything.

It has been quite interesting today. The day the Prime Minister is not in the parliament—to distance himself from the muckraking that we saw—there was question after question from those on the opposite side of the House, putting aside the standards in terms of the rulings of the House. It was a grubby strategy of personal attacks. We can expect more in the year to come. But it is clear that the Australian people are better than that. The Australian people are looking at and interested in the issues. They know they have a Prime Minister who this morning committed the government to a war without end. There is no exit strategy, just digging further into the quagmire. Another 100 Iraqi civilians will die today to add to the 61,000—on very conservative estimates—who have died so far in Iraq. And, yet, we have a Prime Minister in denial, a Prime Minister who time after time refused to state what his exit strategy is, a Prime Minister who refused to take up the challenge of the Leader of the Opposition to have a televised debate on these issues and a Prime Minister who has simply lost his judgement. The attack on Senator Barack Obama was one thing; to extend it that little step further, just as the Leader of the House did today—always one step too far—to embrace the whole of the US Democratic Party, was an extraordinary intervention from a Prime Minister who is out of time.

For all the twists, they try not to answer the question of the day. The fact is the Australian Labor Party opposed the Iraq war from day one. We argued that it was wrong. Yet here we have the Prime Minister, in the face of public opinion and the opinions of global leaders, the Baker-Hamilton report, Democrats and Republicans, as the only public figure in the world who is talking up Iraq. The President of the United States is not doing that at the moment. In the debate that is going on in the US House of Representatives and Senate as we speak, that is not occurring. But this is a Prime Minister in denial, and not just about Iraq. He is in denial about Australia’s performance on greenhouse gases.

On day one of the parliament last week, the Prime Minister let his guard down and conceded, once again, that he was a climate change sceptic, that he was sceptical about the link between climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Under the government’s existing and planned programs, the government’s own figures show that Australia’s emissions are expected to increase by 27 per cent by 2020. But, then again, if you do not regard emissions leading to climate change as a problem, you do not have to do anything about it. What you do have to do, though, is spin. You have to engage in short-term political strategy—because they are sceptics.

The Treasurer has not mentioned climate change in his 11 budget speeches. He confirmed today no Treasury modelling whatsoever. The Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, we know, said the remarkable Al Gore documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, was ‘just entertainment, that’s all it is’. We know that the tourism minister’s solution to climate change is to put shadecloth over the Great Barrier Reef rather than do something to reduce emissions. It would be funny if it were not so serious. The government is trying to say, when it is convenient, that it is acknowledging climate change. We know that that is not the case.

They are trying to run two arguments at the same time. Under the radar, they are also saying, ‘We acknowledge climate change is real’—some of them—’but if you do anything, you’ll trash the economy.’ The Minister for the Environment and Water Resources referred to the 60 per cent reduction figure by 2050 and asked, ‘Who else believes in that?’ I will tell you who else believes in that: the scientists who wrote the IPCC report believe it. The Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change believes it. It is in the Stern report. There is an international consensus that that is what is required. And Labor is up to the challenge.

The Stern report warns that, unless the world begins to act now, global economic output could be cut by up to 20 per cent. The business roundtable said that deep cuts, a 60 per cent reduction by 2050, can be delivered while GDP grows strongly. In fact they suggested that GDP would grow by 0.2 per cent less every year if we did not take action to do that. They also found that 250,000 more jobs would be created if we acted sooner rather than later. This is not from the Labor Party. For those opposite who might dismiss it, this is from Westpac, Origin, Insurance Australia Group, BP, Visy and Swiss Re. This government is so out of touch.

Paul Anthony, the chief executive of AGL, nailed why the delays over 11 long years are so bad for the economy. He pointed out on Lateline Business the other night that the real problem was that you needed to be in the first-move advantage position—that, as the world moves to a carbon constrained economy, as there is a developing emissions trading system in Europe, the United States and other countries, you will give the advantage to everyone else if they go first and you hold back while they are taking action. In the solar energy industry, for example, 10 per cent of the world’s solar power was created in Australia in 1996, and now it is two per cent. It is an outrage.

But we know that their political strategy to provide cover for their lack of action on climate change is water. The Prime Minister gave it up in the Sun-Herald on Sunday when he said you can take action—compartmentalise water—without doing anything on climate change. If you do not have a solution on climate change you do not have a solution on water. You need practical action on water while dealing with the long-term action that is needed on climate change. That is why Labor has consistently called for a single water minister—that has finally happened—and a single water agency at the Commonwealth level. We have called for water efficiency measures and for overallocation to be dealt with. We have called for the use of market based instruments and to have a target of returning 1,500 gigalitres to the Murray and a target of recycling 30 per cent of waste water by 2015.

But we have seen inaction from the government. We heard the Prime Minister’s speech on 25 January. It is a pity that as much effort did not go into planning the finance, funding, time lines and governance arrangements as went into the writing of that political speech. We know now that the proposal did not go to cabinet. It is extraordinary that a $10 billion plan did not go to cabinet. Senator Minchin dismissed it with, ‘That’s $1 billion a year, which is less than half a per cent of Commonwealth government expenditure, so let’s keep it in perspective.’ That was the finance minister’s response. At the same time, a gift to the Queen of a $300,000 royal carriage did require cabinet approval. That says a lot about how serious the government is. More planning went into the gift of a jewel-encrusted gold carriage for the Queen than went into addressing the fundamental water problems in the Murray-Darling Basin.

We know that the Prime Minister’s water plan was only created on 8 January. We know that Treasury was not involved until mid January, only a week or so before the announcement. Last night at Senate estimates David Tune, the executive director of the Fiscal Group at Treasury, stated: ‘On Monday the 15th, I had a conversation with the people over in PM&C. We were invited to join them in a meeting the following day to cast our eye over the work.’ The Secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration said a couple of days ago at Senate estimates that he got to look at it three days before the speech and was asked to ‘run an eye lightly over the one-page of costings’. Treasury and Finance have both conceded there was no modelling.

Let us think about the scene. It is the night before the big announcement on 25 January. There are no costings and the cabinet has not been consulted. The acting Prime Minister, Mark Vaile, did not know about it throughout most of January. He is briefed on the morning of 25 January. The states and territories have not been consulted. The National Farmers Federation has not been consulted. The people in rural and regional Australia have not been consulted and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission has been left out of the loop—and it produced a week later a nine-page critique that went through all the outstanding issues of the document.

Let us be clear about what the government had been saying publicly before then. On 5 November the premiers were given two days notice to turn up to a summit on Melbourne Cup day. At the time, the Prime Minister said he would work in collaboration—work together—with the states. Soon after that, on 5 December, the minister for the environment—the minister opposite—and the minister for agriculture signed off the government’s official policy response to a Senate report on a rural water usage inquiry that was chaired by Senator Heffernan. The report states that the way forward on rural water was to use the existing state based planning structures and the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement. That was on 5 December. On 7 December, the last sitting day of 2006, the government introduced the Murray Darling-Basin Amendment Bill 2006, which contained important amendments to streamline the existing operations of the existing commission.

It is no wonder that, three weeks after the Prime Minister’s speech, the opposition has still been refused a proper briefing by the Prime Minister’s office. The government is still confused over whether it is a plan for the Murray-Darling Basin or a national water plan. Talking on Stateline in South Australia, the Prime Minister said, ‘There is a $10 billion investment of new money by the Commonwealth to fix the basic problems of the Murray-Darling Basin.’

Then, in parliament, the Prime Minister says: ‘No, that’s not the case. It was always envisaged to be a national plan.’ Then yesterday, in response to a question from the member for New England, he went back to saying it was about the Murray-Darling Basin. We know that there is also confusion over water allocation. On 28 January the minister opposite said, ‘There might be an area where you buy out a farm or close down a channel because it’s inefficient.’ But he is now meekly saying that purchasing water entitlements would only be a last resort. The agriculture minister does not agree with purchasing overallocations at all. We asked him in the parliament last week. It is quite clear that this is a hastily cobbled together plan.