20 Mar 2008

A Road to Nowhere

By Christine Milne
Two of the Rudd Government's key election promises - establishing Infrastructure Australia and tackling climate change - have been set on a collision course, writes Greens Senator Christine Milne
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.

Log in or register to post comments

Discuss this article

To control your subscriptions to discussions you participate in go to your Account Settings preferences and click the Subscriptions tab.

Enter your comments here

This user is a New Matilda supporter. dazza
Posted Thursday, March 20, 2008 - 20:25

K. Rudd is an Economic Ir-rationalist, lowest class! Most of his crew are also Economic Ir-rationalists. Those that are not have absolutely no credibility with Rudd, including his so-called Environment Minister, Peter "Cop-out" Garrett.
So how could they, with all their connections to Big Business, do anything other than suck up to them.
Political Games, No! Just BUSINESS as USUAL.
Dazza.

denisaf
Posted Friday, March 21, 2008 - 00:07

The advocacy to reduce the rate of emission of greenhouse gases in Australia is doubtless a sound political policy. It is in accord with global movements to mitigate the effect of climate change to a small extent. It, however, should be balanced against other moves to provide sound infrastructure for this country. This will not be done by continuing to suggest that reducing greenhouse gases, per se, is a sound way to go.

gordonpayne
Posted Friday, March 21, 2008 - 23:24

A good article by Senator Milne, BUT, like most Greens, she avoids the deeper conflict. Namely, economic growth (increased consumption) and population growth are in conflict with preserving our environment (climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, species extinction, resource depletion etc). I live in hope that one day a courageous politician will state this obvious and fundamental conflict and start a debate on getting a new and sustainable economic paradigm in place.

ecoeng
Posted Saturday, March 22, 2008 - 10:16

The Rudd Governments plans to meet its commitments under the recently ratified Kyoto protocol have been dealt a potentially lethal financial blow. The Federal and ultimately the High Court of Australia is now to rule on whether the Commonwealth can use the 80 million tonnes of Carbon Credits accumulated from land clearing bans.

It had been the previous Howard governments intention and by default the Rudd governments plan to meet it’s commitments to limit the nation’s Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2008-2012 to the Kyoto Target of an 8% increase above the levels achieved in 1990, by using these accumulated credits without paying farmers for them! The value of those credits has been estimated by leading authorities at $10.8 billion dollars. The credits would single-handedly enable the Commonwealth to meet its Kyoto commitments.

The Federal Court in Sydney in December last year agreed that farmers have an arguable case against the Commonwealth over ownership of the 80 million tonnes of carbon created from land clearing bans. Peter King, Barrister for the New South Wales farmer Peter Spencer who is challenging the Commonwealth on ownership of the carbon in the trees said in a statement "This is the first occasion in Australian legal History that it has been found there was an ‘arguable case’ against the Commonwealth by farming interests that the Kyoto Protocol may give rise to property rights"

Now the court has given Mr Spencer the ‘Green’ light to file a "notice of motion" which is an injunction to stop the Commonwealth from entering into any carbon trading scheme, until the case is decided.

In the first quarter of last year the NZ Govt. ruled that it owned the carbon credits in any tree plantations planted prior to the Kyoto datum i.e. prior to 1990. Only for trees planted from 1990 on would the carbon credits reside with the owner of the plantation. The responsible minister Jim Anderton is the leader of the (formerly Socialist) Alliance party, the most ‘green’ of the NZ parties and leading representative of this party in NZ’s ruling Labour/Alliance coalition.

Given that pinus radiata plantations are harvested every 25 - 30 years, in one fell swoop the NZ Govt. picked up all the carbon credits from private forest plantings made between about 1960 and 1965, both that which had been fixed into building timber after harvest and that which still resided in unharvested trees at 1990.

In effect, the NZ Govt. bureaucracy argued that the Govt. was entitled to all post Kyoto carbon credits from trees planted before, and still growing at 1990 and only trees planted after Kyoto were planted with ‘an intention’ on the part of the owner to also profit from carbon credits (as well as the timber value).

Although that decision has it’s own unique (bureaucratic ;-) logic and did partly defuse the debate, it nevertheless still led to a marked decline in new plantings as the NZ farming industry in particular is highly suspicious that future governments might well snatch the post-1990 carbon credits as well. Conversely, there has been a massive expansion in the trade in tree-based carbon credits in NZ, no doubt partly in the expectation that it will enshrine the principle of private ownership of carbon credits under NZ law.

It will be interesting to see how the Rudd Govt. (and our parliament, Greens included) responds to the Federal Court ruling on the Spencer case. Will it be prepared to accept that all land which, at 1990 was privately owned and capable of clearing has continued to accrue private carbon credits only or will it expropriate all carbon credits credited by bans it has imposed itself? The latter would spell the death knell to the private trading of tree-based carbon credits within Australia and in my opinion would be a backward step.

It is astonishing that the Spencer case has received so little media coverage in Australia or ironically, been raised and debated by the Greens (e.g. Christine Milne - who comes from the country herself) and it clearly shows that the economic debate regarding Greenhouse-driven carbon trading is so primitive here we even lag behind New Zealand in this regard. Would the next Kiwi tourist to Australia please turn on the (green) light!

Even 'clean, green' New Zealand can't hold a candle to little Kyoto-signatory Costa Rica which, from a minimum national 26% forest cover in 1983, reversed this to 45% in 2000 and 52% in 2005, using a mix of measures such as creating national parks, banning deforestation and plantation farming using government cash incentives. Costa Rica is projected to be carbon neutral by 2021 - far, far ahead of every other nation.

If Christine really wanted to buy into, and generate debate over the obvious dichotomy between the funding of the (Howard era) run-down infrastructure in this country and the demands of 'accelerating climate change' then she would be better off establishing her 'clever Green' political credentials by taking a forthright and farsighted stand on the critical (right now) post-Kyoto issue of rural deforestation (land clearing) and reforestation (e.g. Spencer case) and the related critical issue of carbon trading and the relationship of that to major infrastructure funding within Australia.

Apologies for the length of this post.

christinemilne
Posted Saturday, March 22, 2008 - 11:26

Denisaf, can you explain why you think policies to reduce greenhouse emissions are in some way contradictory with policies to develop sound infrastructure? There is plenty of evidence from around the world that that is not the case - in fact, for example, focussing on decentralised renewable energy generation and systemic energy efficiency achieves both simultaneously. Also building fast, efficient mass transit achieves both.

Open source democracy at http://greensblog.org

denisaf
Posted Saturday, March 22, 2008 - 17:14

Senator Milne
I did not say, nor did I imply, that a policy for reducing greenhouse gases was contradictory to putting in place sound infrastructure. I just advocated a balanced view of what measures contribute to both objectives. I was saying that a measure to reduce emissions may, in some circumstances, be counter productive with respect to infrastructure development whilst in no way mitigating climate change. There is nothing we can do in Australia that will stop climate change. That is a fact. Yet we should be seen to be doing our part in tackling this global problem as best we are able. This means selecting measures that aid the development of sound infrastructure without having a high level of emissions.

<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.>

This quote gives an indication of how misleading the views are. I will not speculate on how this view was arrived at. I will just comment on the physical realities. The infrastructure decisions cannot have any impact on the climate. They can, of course, have a significant impact on how we adapt to climate. But that is a different matter. The next sentence refers to greenhouse implications as though they have climate implications. As I have already noted, our greenhouse gas emissions can have no significant impact on the climate.

Your proposed amendment

<a "primary function" of advising on the "greenhouse gas emission and oil consumption implications of any development".>

is therefore an odd mix of the trivial and the critical implications of infrastructure development. There is no doubt that oil supply is becoming a very critical issue. It is starting to have major implications with respect to the wisest developments with respect to all forms of transportation and the associated infrastructure. On the other hand, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is a political issue only. I find it odd that so much accent is placed on greenhouse gas emissions when our level of these emissions can have no effect on climate change whilst there is no reference to the health problems caused by the pollutants emitted from coal-fired power stations. There is plenty of evidence to support the assertion that this health issue should be taken into account in considering infrastructure development. I am surprised that it is not included as a primary function.

kwoldring
Posted Monday, March 24, 2008 - 08:15

Klaas Woldring

I posted a blog a few days ago but for some reason it didn't appear. In brief my point was that if the Greens want to prevent pork barreling they need to campaign much more actively on their policy to introduce proportional representation.

Pork barreling is facilitated greatly, almost exclusively, as a result of Australia's single-member district electoral system. In proportional representation, based on multi-member electoral districts, pork barreling of any variety, in not known. The best PR systems are those of the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. PR is often confused by Australians with preferential voting but it is not at all the same. Preferential voting is still based on single-member electoral districts. This produces two-party systems and marginal seats the classic combination for pork barreling.
Of course neither of the major parties want to know about PR. That is why the Greens and all parties, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, need to argue much more emphatically that PR should become Australia's dominant electoral system. I would say that is a vote winner! But the Greens have never made much of this THUS FAR.

Klaas Woldring

This user is a New Matilda supporter. dazza
Posted Monday, March 24, 2008 - 12:38

"As I have already noted, our greenhouse gas emissions can have no significant impact on the climate." Denisaf, any chance you could explain that statement!!?? Are you really saying that you believe that greenhouse gas emission can have no significant effect on the climate?????
Are you one of those 'deniers to the grave'?

The old Australia Party, of which I was a member, a progenitor of the Democrats, had a Zero Population Policy, to which I signed up to do my bit, to the extent that I have not increased the human population of this world by one person, and happily. Unhappily, any Party trying to get this into Policy these days, including the Greens, would be thrashed and maligned as much as the Greens are in these comments. At a time when the previous Federal Treasurer can get away with calling for more and more children, and paying women and girls up to $5000 to entice them, we have very serious questions as to how the Hell Australia and any country can support the populations they have already, sustainably. Soil, water, air is being polluted to the extent that soil is almost utterly depleted and will produce less and less, no matter what is applied at great cost, financially and ecologically, to it; water (and Australia is one of the driest continents on Earth) is going to be one Hell of a big problem, it is already a problem in Europe, where ground water is undrinkable; air is increasingly becoming more poisoned, and in some countries such as China, is already killing the population in the thousands every year.
What we need is not more resource greedy infrastructure, not more roads, not more cars and trucks. We need a new look at sustainability which does not include Capitalism, increasing consumerism, increasing habitat destruction, and most certainly does not include any enticements for women (and men for that matter), to want more children. We only 'need' more workers while we pursue policies of self destruction. We have to stop thinking 'growth at all costs'.
While we have the LibNats and Labour as TweedleDum and TweedleDee, with the same entirely destructive policies of growth, growth, growth, we have no chance of surviving the next fifty years. I think that it is about time that people faced the horror of just what is coming if they do not change their mindless, wastrel ways.

Dazza.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. dazza
Posted Monday, March 24, 2008 - 12:42

Correction, that should be Zero Population GROWTH (ZPG) policy. I guess Zero Population may well be coming, unless humans very quickly change their ways, but it is not something I would otherwise totally encourage.
Dazza.

kwoldring
Posted Monday, March 24, 2008 - 13:45

I have made to make a correction as well. Obviously voters need to identify MINOR parliamentary parties and extra-parliamentary parties, as well as Independents, who support proportional representation. However, this is not to say that all of them would be supportive of the sustainable development and climate change policies of the Greens. PR will also encourage other smaller parties to gain political representation in the parliament as is the case in 25- 30 or so industrialised nations that have PR systems in place, often enshrined in their constitutions. What this would achieve is to reduce the dominance of the (two) major parties and to force them to engage in coalitions; a diverse, multi-party parliament will be the result. Those who argue that coalitions are generally unstable should look at the Europeans examples where coalitions are generally quite stable - Italy being the exception invariably, ad nauseum, quoted by the conservative media in Australia (and usually Israel as well). However, pork barreling will be eliminated, a device that not only can negate effective climate change policies but also leads to quite silly expenditures which have nothing to do with responsible economic development. Furthermore, PR is far more democratic, it reduces or eliminates the appalling, obscure factionalism away from public scrutiny. Another major advantage is also that it makes government much more flexible. If it is not performing a coalition partner can withdraw and a new government is formed WITHOUT an election, elections being generally held at fixed intervals not subject to the whims of a Government. Finally, the silly business of by-elections would be a thing of the past because when an MP resigns or dies, the next on the list of his/her party will automatically take his/her place.
So for all these reason I say to the Greens give PR much higher priority in your policy platform than previously. Small parties have come and gone in the Australian political system because, in the end, they didn't get anywhere with their often laudable, reformist platforms and gave up. The Democrats are the latest example. This has been all WRONG because the party system, and indeed the entire system of governance, has not been able to renew itself as it should have. It is suffering badly from sclerosis as is the Australian Constitution.

Klaas Woldring

denisaf
Posted Monday, March 24, 2008 - 13:48

Dazza
No, I was not implying that greenhouse gas emissions would not affect the climate. You have misinterpreted what I said. There are two factors relating to the impact of the rate of emission of GHG gases in Australia.
Firstly, the use of fossil fuels has released about 700 giga tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the past century. That has caused the concentration level of carbon dioxide to increase from 280 ppmv to 393 ppmv. That has caused global warming so climate change. Global moves to reduce the rate of emissions will only slow down the rate of increase of the concentration level, so the amount of global warming. It will, at best, mitigate climate change slightly.
Secondly, Australian industry has and are heavy emitters but because of out low population, we have emitted less than 2% of the global emissions. That I why I said that the current policy to reduce emissions in this country will have no effect on the climate. We will need to concentrate on adapting to the climate change that the industrialized countries have caused.

ecoeng
Posted Monday, March 24, 2008 - 14:28

"The current policy to reduce emissions in this country will have no effect on the climate."

This is strictly true but, to add some 'vision' I would prefer to reword this to say:

The current policy to reduce emissions in this country will have no effect on the climate UNLESS we are seen to be pursuing practical, not overly complex, not highly expensive means of significant CO2 emission reduction which are NOT ONLY effective for Australia BUT ALSO encourage poorer nations to do likewise and generates technology which can be sold-to, transferred-to or shared-with major CO2 emitting countries like India, China, etc.

I have already also pointed out above that we really need to get our act together here in Australia promoting significant internal reforestation and other forms of biomass enhancement and trading of tree- and biomass-based carbon credits asap.

The only viable candidate for a transferrable direct CO2 emissions reduction technology is algal biosequestration of coal-fired power plant flue gases such as is being trialled at the Hazelwood Power Station in the La Trobe Valley by a subidiary of Smorgons right now.

Similarly, if we were weren't so mired in the non-rational, religious elements of environmentalism we could enter into a technological alliance with India to further develop their thorium cycle nuclear power - a technology which produces waste which cannot be diverted into weapons and which decays in 500 years.

Always so many would-be horseman for this particular Apocalypse, but alas, so few horses, farriers, vets, stablehands, horseshoes, saddles, straw, water........

danielsydney
Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2008 - 12:22

I agree with some comments that Australias emissions are minimal compared to China and India. We have to do our part though. We need to steam ahead and leave these 3rd world places behind.
Australia has to take a leading role in clean energy generation and climate change. On the core issue of Zero population growth. Thats a totally different matter.
That will need to be looked at at a more deeper level. I want to know what more can consumers do however. The letter writing gets us nowhere. It does nothing and that goes for protesting too. What does Senator Milne suggest in this case?