The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Bill Shorten

Bill Shorten

Minister for Financial Services & Superannuation

14 September 2010 - 1 July 2013

Speech of 11/10/2011


Speech to the House of Representatives on the
Clean Energy Bills

Parliament House, Canberra

11 October 2011

Mr SHORTEN (Maribyrnong—Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation) (13:39): 

This debate on the Clean Energy Bill 2011 and related legislation is a debate about hanging on to the status quo or energetically reaching out to shape the change which is happening in our society and our economy. The debate between the government and the opposition is a debate between new versus old; between progressive hope versus conservative instinct; between whether we should be optimistic about what is ahead of us or whether we should have a fear of the future. Indeed, it has been far too often about scientific facts combating political fiction. Make no mistake, we in Australia cannot afford to surrender to those who preach the false promise that Australia does not need to change.

Let us for a moment consider what our nation would have looked and felt like today had the superannuation savings vision of former Prime Minister Keating and Bill Kelty not been realised 2½ decades ago; had Medibank, which has become Medicare, not been delivered in the 1970s; had the Snowy Mountains scheme not been rolled out under Sir William Hudson after the war; had, in fact, construction of the Harbour Bridge not been started in the 1920s.

Australians have not always found change easy. Francis Greenway, the famous colonial architect, suggested the harbour bridge to Governor Macquarie in 1815 and we finished it in the 1930s. I would suggest that we have in fact been debating climate change and what to do in response to it since the 1980s. Former Prime Minister Thatcher spoke about it. Former Prime Minister Hawke spoke about it. Former Prime Minister Howard has spoken about it and indeed proposed an emissions trading scheme much in detail like the one which is being submitted today. The concept of putting a price on carbon pollution is not a new concept. Let us not wait 110 years to get this done. We in this country are better than that at coping with change.

When it comes to the complex issue of climate change and our government's measured response being debated today in the parliament, I would submit that we are simply taking out insurance. As the Australian newspaper's editor-at-large Paul Kelly put it in his paper's publication last month, if I may paraphrase him, the best pro-science approach is the insurance principle. Because there is a climate change risk, everyone can see that the prudent path is to take out mitigating policy insurance. Yet the Leader of the Opposition would have Australians take out no insurance when it comes to climate change, irresponsibly ignore the risk and somehow walk on through the raindrops as though we could never get wet from the consequences of a warming planet.

We are witness to a steady climatic warming due specifically to anthropogenic factors determined and recognised and so advised by a panel of internationally recognised, appointed and accountable scientific experts. Yet the Leader of the Opposition stubbornly says that these scientists are wrong. He says the economists are wrong. He says the signs in the skies are not significant and the change in the weather does not need this action. He says that the extreme flooding and drought and the turbulent climatic conditions, which can in time disable whole economies, are not significant enough to act upon now. To borrow from Winston Churchill: there is a gathering storm. The conservative parties, like their intellectual inspiration, the Luddite movement, believe that they can simply wish change away. By closing their eyes and stopping their ears to informed discourse they have somehow convinced themselves that they can abolish the future, put away the laws of cause and consequence, and lazily consign this great uncertain globalised world to harder changes later—and that this course of action is a good thing to do.

I do not believe that all of those in the opposition believe this. I know that the member for Wentworth and the remnants of those small 'l' liberal supporters of what was once the great Liberal Party know that climate change needs this action. Indeed, if the member for Warringah had not replaced the member for Wentworth we might well have had these debates concluded some time ago. Change is coming. However it is fudged or spun, however people try to dodge around it, however we twist the numbers or slime the science, change is coming that challenges the world as we know it.

So we must adapt. Our method, and it is a good one, is a tax-to-trading model coupled with generous assistance—this legislative priority before the House. Our carbon price policy is based on this three-point proposition: one, we all want to reduce pollution for a clean energy future; two, business needs certainty and the big polluters should be charged a price for their carbon pollution; and, three, families need a fair go, through generous assistance and tax cuts. That is why this package introduced to the House targets the largest polluters while nine out of 10 Australian households are compensated, and it is how we will cut $160 million tonnes of carbon pollution from our atmosphere by 2020. In the same way we will support our coal and steel industries.

The Australian economic story since European settlement was initially that of convicts, then it was of gold, of farming our way through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, of moving into heavier industries and manufacturing from the Second World War right up to the 1980s, and then of a growing, prosperous services economy from then until today. The next step in our economic narrative is a thoughtful, moderate evolution into a lower pollution economy with good jobs, clean technologies and a sustainable future. We will still be an agricultural producer, a manufacturer and a services provider, but we will not be a rapidly expanding carbon producer in the way in which we are today. I believe that a Labor government's role should always be to deliver economic change but also to assist workforces and families with the inevitable reskilling and new training that allows a transformation to occur without leaving people behind, without leaving people on an economic scrap heap.

Yet, in the face of this confident grasp for progress, the 12 months just past has been a bruising political time. Perhaps the most bruised of all has been the Australian people's faith in politics itself. I put to the House in this debate that nothing has done more bruising than the opposition's economic belligerence. In the final quarter of this year and as we move into 2012 to properly prepare for the challenge ahead, Australia needs to have a full-bodied economic conversation that is more assertive, optimistic and open-minded about the facts than the war of words since the last federal election has proven to be. This Spring and beyond there are considerable issues to consider and weigh up, from the mining tax and job creation to the National Disability Insurance Scheme and lifting superannuation.

A big test of whether we can have a sensible dialogue focused on the national interest is of course the proposed legislation before us right now, the clean energy future bills. So far, in 2011, the national discourse has been too often narrowed, sold short and bottomed out because of the number of political vested interests that have attempted to hijack the debate and drown out the voices of Australians who reasonably expect the government to navigate a path to the future. Australians today perhaps are cynical about politics, but that would be a natural response to the depressing conduct of relentless negativity and cynicism of the opposition. As our Chief Scientist said three weeks ago, things have now 'reached a new low'. A visiting German climate scientist reportedly said, upon being heckled during a visit to Melbourne University, 'Take a look at Australia, and you will find that the climate debate is the most toxic on the planet.' On Four Corners last month, the Leader of the Opposition failed to acknowledge the question, 'But surely it is unbecoming of an alternative leader of the country to stand on a stage next to someone who says that CSIRO scientists are engaged in a conspiracy?' I entirely agree with Prime Minister Gillard's passionate belief that what we are witnessing is a repugnant trend in our national politics.

It is profoundly incumbent upon all of those elected to this place to lead. And it is incumbent upon us in the labour movement to resist at all costs the sort of unhealthy, cynical developments that we see emerging on the extreme Right overseas. I refer to the United States, where eminent writer Thomas Friedman has observed that the Republican Party is progressively being taken over by some who are entirely obsessed with only one issue: tax. I believe that the Friedman insight prompts us to think carefully about the path some extreme conservatives are now taking us on here in Australia by concentrating almost entirely on boat people, climate change scepticism and the relentless cynical negativity about, and neglect of, virtually every other economic and social policy issue.

That was brought into stark relief last week by the cynical approach of the opposition to the tax forum. The Leader of the Opposition today is neglecting a broader economic policy debate, a gentler, sensible conversation about Australia's future, because he believes that he can shout his way into office about a carbon price that taxes polluters. We are witness in this place to irrational arguments and cynical daily bullyboy fear-mongering—politics at its most depressing. This underestimation of the wisdom of Australians needs to end, not just for the sake of the government but indeed for the sake of this country and where it needs to go.

I would submit that the biggest threat to confidence in the Australian economy is not putting a price on carbon but a federal opposition who have no confidence in the Australian people and who constantly underestimate the capacity of Australians to change. The Gillard government understands that you cannot put up a proposition that Australia can be frozen in the moment. The coalition would have Australian people believe that now is not a good time to change and that tomorrow will not be a good time to change—it will never be a good time to change! This nation cannot progress on the foolish policy prescription that Australians do not have to adjust, amend and do things differently.

This nation needs great leadership, and change is never easy. The Gillard government understands that. We understand what business well knows: the economy is in transition and we cannot stand still. Australians understand that the world outside Australia is a tough place but that inaction and complacency does this nation and our children and grandchildren no favours. We know that business appreciates the value of certainty and that the world is moving to improve energy efficiency and to lower carbon pollution. We understand that we need to lower the carbon output, reduce the growth in carbon output, in this country, and the big polluters should assist in that process. None of us ordinary citizens tip our garbage in the street and expect someone else to pay for the privilege of cleaning up our mess.

We believe that families and consumers should get a fair go and we also believe that climate change is real. We also know that, whoever is in charge, that government will sooner or later have to put a price on carbon. It is the cheapest and most effective way to cut pollution. Imagine two future worlds. In one, Australia continues to lag behind Germany in solar technology, as we do today. In another, we are world leaders in applying solar technology domestically and also in exporting it to the world. Why shouldn't we aim to be the best in the world? Why shouldn't we aim to capture the blue-sky potential of industries that will clearly be massive in the future?

China and India are urbanising now. In 20 years—and over the next 20 years—they will be converting en masse to clean energy. China is already the largest clean energy investor in the world. Why do we want to miss the curve, miss the wave, of change? Let us get ahead of the curve.

The tragedy of this debate is that underneath all the bluster of the opposition at least half the Liberal Party know—and I would submit that the opposition leader understands this—that one thing is sure: those opposite would also put a price on carbon. The only questions are when and how much it would cost you. Brendan Nelson supported a price on carbon. Malcolm Turnbull supported a price on carbon and still does. John Howard supported a price on carbon. Even Tony Abbott, periodically, as his mood has changed, has supported a price on carbon, but unfortunately he is hiding now.

Underneath all the feigned, hostile outrage the opposition understand that they will have to introduce it, but they just do not want to admit to it now. It will happen. Even if they manage to scramble into power with their timid cynicism, it will have to happen. But what is the benefit, if you know you have to change, of delaying the change? It only comes at a higher price. They instead would have you believe that when they come to power nothing will change, that you can be frozen in the moment and this nation will need to change little.

We understand that whoever is in charge of this nation has an obligation not to betray the leadership entrusted to us by people. Real leadership does not always involve telling people what they want to hear. Real leadership means dealing with issues. We in the Labor Party do not rely on scaring people to obtain power, yet those opposite rely on threat to give them purpose. We rely on hope to give purpose; those opposite rely on conservatism to give them purpose. We believe in innovation. We do not accept the proposition that industries in Australia—agriculture, mining, manufacturing and the service industry—and the nation at large lack the capacity to change. Those opposite rely on fear; we rely on optimism. Those opposite rely on hostility; we rely on hope. Those opposite think the future is something to hide and run from; we believe the future is not something to be frightened of. Instead of talking down the economy and small business, we understand that the world will not stand still. We understand forces are at work and we will meet the challenge.