Senator Bob Brown has delivered the Australian Greens response to the Federal Budget.
“This budget is more about greed than green,” Senator Brown told the Senate.
Brown outlined a set of priorities based around tackling climate change, conserving water resources, tackling dental waiting lists, funding measures to increase indigenous life expectancy, and increasing education funding.
This is the text of Senator Bob Brown’s Budget Reply Speech to the Senate.
This budget is more about greed than green. The Treasurer and the government have a huge ethical responsibility in spending the nation’s money, in ensuring its future. That ethical responsibility has not been met in this budget.
The massive tax cuts are for spending now, but the government has failed in its high responsibility to tackle the greatest threat to this nation’s future and to the lifestyle of our children and their children which is climate change. The Treasurer began his speech by saying that this country of Australia has changed a lot in the last ten years. It certainly has – it’s got hotter, it’s got drier and it’s become more threatened by the arrogant failure of this government to address the environmental crisis, and to make this country safer, more secure, and happier for this generation and for the generations yet to come.
The Greens have markedly different values and priorities from the government. The priorities for a Greens’ budget would include:
- Halting climate change
- Conserving water resources and protecting the environment
- Ensuring the 650,000 Australians on dental waiting lists received the care they need
- Urgently fund measures to reduce the 17 year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians
- Increasing education funding to meet the OECD average education spending levels
Security analysts from the Pentagon, along with ecologists and the world’s preponderant scientific opinion, know that climate change stalks our global community’s future more fearsomely and less discriminately than terrorism.
With Tuesday night’s budget came the dumping not just of Australians’ hopes, but of their expectations that our government would at last tackle the climate change nemesis. The environment budget barely budged – just $281 million more, or 2 percent of the unprecedented budget surplus of $15 billion.
Yet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told this same Treasurer and his government just last week that the world has less than ten years to turn around the accelerating pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases or we face catastrophic consequent changes for the planet – and that, of course, means Australia.
Climate change is not a future event – it is here, now, with a monumental impact. That is why the Budget outlines a $10 billion federal-state rescue plan for the Murray-Darling Basin including the buy-back of over-allocated irrigation licences which have left the rivers run down, incapable and stressed. Seventy percent of the great red gums lining the rivers’ banks are suffering, dying or dead. But the Treasurer fails to act. Inexplicably, his buy-back plan of those excessive licences does not begin until the budget of 2009 – 2010. He has put it off for two more ruinous years. The Greens would immediately fund measures to address over-allocation in the Murray-Darling Basin. We know, the farmers know, the public know, this cannot wait another two years.
TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH
The Treasurer has however decided on an immediate $31 billion in tax cuts over the next four years. This comes after the $25 billion largesse, including tax cuts to the rich, in last year’s budget. This year’s $31 billion, we are told, is across-the-board cuts for salaried workers. Well yes, it is, but the board is skewed. Once again the rich get much richer at everyone else’s expense. In fact, 10.5 percent of people get 44 percent of the money. Those so poor they don’t pay tax, including Australia’s 1.2 million pensioners, get a one-off $500 payment – and then, after the election, nothing.
Carers, who save this government billions of dollars, get a meagre $1000 and, after the election, nothing. The budget is top heavy. Far from fostering a fair Australia, the big end of town is once again left clutching the big fistful of dollars.
The Greens will support the across-the-board tax cuts even though they are regressive. However, unlike Labor, we will vote against the provisions for huge special cuts – some $10 billion over 3 years – for highest income earners, beginning next year.
With that $10 billion we would move to making Australia the Energy Efficiency Nation. I doubt the Treasurer or the Prime Minister knows what energy-efficient means – they are so stuck on the much less effective, more expensive, more dangerous and, for now, unavailable option of nuclear reactors. Yet energy efficiency can slash Australia’s coal consumption by a massive 30 percent – and that means a rapid cut in greenhouse gas emissions in a way that dangerous nuclear energy simply cannot emulate.
Already Australia’s 250 biggest corporations, which effectively consume 40 percent of our electricity, are doing energy audits. We would regulate to require the audits’ recommendations to be implemented. We would extend the auditing to the rest of business and Australian homes over the coming years – offering government funding as needed to ensure that audit findings are implemented. Environment Minister Turnbull’s $8 million allocation to change light bulbs will eventually reduce greenhouse emissions by four million tonnes per year, equivalent to taking 8% of cars off roads. But handing out light bulbs is like handing out sand buckets during a bushfire – it’s better than nothing but it is no substitute for investing in the fire brigade.
However implementing the energy audits of those 250 big companies would save roughly eighty-four million tonnes, which is more effective than taking every single car, truck and bus off the road.
In addition, if all of Australia’s 5.5 million homes were fitted with a solar hot water system, which is one of the cheapest ways most of us can substantially reduce emissions, another twenty three million tonnes of emissions would be saved. Solar hot water systems cost about $3,000 more than the old electric water heaters, but they but pay for themselves through lower power bills within 5-8 years.
These are just a few of the many untapped energy efficiency opportunities.
The Greens want government to bring in energy efficient building codes, and retro-fitting (for example with insulation) of existing buildings for energy efficiency.
The government budget allocates just $30 million per annum for solar panels. That is, at $8,000 per roof, only 3,750 roofs per annum will be fitted with panels. So it would take up to 2,000 years for the aim of converting every roof in our Sunny Country to mini-solar power stations. That is Howard hopeless. The Greens will pursue real, national action, not Howard government tokenism.
In the absence of government action on energy efficiency, but with those tax cuts, let me give some advice on how Australia’s working families can combine the two.
If a householder spends one week’s tax cut on 2 compact fluorescent light globes, then she or he can convert the $14 into $100 in savings because one compact fluorescent globe saves around $50-$75 in its lifetime.
If a householder takes the $14 tax cuts for 2 years ($1500 over 2 years) she or he could spend $150 on a home audit, and/or replace all the light globes at home with compact fluorescents (a pack of 5 costs $20) and invest in insulation (this costs $1,000- $2,000) for an average home or solar hot water ($2,000 – $5,000). This could save around $500 a year – hundreds of dollars off household power bills every following year. So the invested tax cut is repaid to the householder in 3 years and then there’s a $500 bonus for each year after.
The Australian Conservation Foundation is calling for 5 percent of homes to be retro-fitted for energy efficiency each year which will mean within a generation all Australian homes will be energy smart. This should start with low income and disadvantaged people and, in particular, target rental properties which are usually least well insulated. It is a proposal that the Greens urge the government to take up, workout and implement.
Two other great opportunities would be grasped by the Greens.
END OLDGROWTH LOGGING
The first is to end the broad scale logging and burning of Australia’s old growth forests – destroying the nation’s wildlife and needlessly polluting the atmosphere. There are 1.5 million hectares of plantations in Australia. That is more than enough to supply all of Australia’s wood needs – including for paper, building houses and making furniture. Prime Minister Howard’s commitment, echoed by Opposition Leader Rudd, to keep needlessly cutting and burning Australia’s biggest carbon banks – its old growth forests – has to be altered and the logging and burning of forests committed, like whaling, to history.
RAIL, SEA AND PUBLIC TRANSPORT
The second is to transform Australia from road dependent to rail and sea transport for freight, with fast clean, efficient public transport systems. One small component is to abolish the GST on public transport and so cut ticket prices on rail, bus, tram and ferry passenger transport by an immediate ten percent.
Summing it up: with good regulation and part of the $10 billion tax cuts for the mega-rich diverted to a national energy efficiency program, Australia could make deep cuts in its infamous greenhouse gas emissions – as much as 30 percent.
Contrast this with the government. Just yesterday it was joined by Labor to vote down a Greens’ motion to end logging and burning of Australia’s old growth forests. Today both parties voted down Senator Milne’s motion to back global scientific opinion that to prevent catastrophic climate change consequences, we should aim to keep global temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius or less.
NATURAL DISASTER RESPONSE
An unfortunate reality is that there will be more natural disasters in our region. The tsunami in 2004 showed us all how vulnerable we are, and the scientific consensus is that climate change will result in more cyclones, more bushfires, and more epidemics. Australia needs to be ready to react more quickly, and more effectively, to natural and man made disasters in our region. Tonight I renew the Greens call for disaster relief centre which has the capacity to deploy people, equipment and aid to those in need inside and outside the country. The Japanese had a team of doctors and nurses on the ground in Indonesia within 24 hours of the tsunami. The French had aid in New Orleans within a day of Hurricane Katrina because they had pre-deployed materials in the Caribbean for exactly that purpose. The only thing preventing Australia from implementing such schemes is the political will.
And on the topic of our responsibilities to the region the Greens believe that Australia should immediately increase our aid budget to the 0.7% of GDP recommended by the UN. Australia is a rich country and we can afford to show leadership on such an important humanitarian issue. Instead, this budget affords the poverty-stricken billions of our shared world only half that target commitment.
The government continues down the path towards an American-style two-tiered health system. The Greens would abolish the health insurance rebate scheme and divert that $3 billion into the public health system. The current scheme serves the nation so badly that the taxpayer top-up for this private, exclusive system blew out by $283 million last year – more than the entire extra spending on the environment.
Our policy is to have Denticare system paralleling Medicare. No Australian child or adult should live with dental caries by 2010. Yet this government torpedoed the $100 million concession cardholders’ dental care program in 1996 and now there are an estimated 650,000 Australians on dental waiting lists. Some elderly or disabled citizens wait two to three years to have their dental problems cared for – that is unforgivably heartless by a government with a $15 billion surplus it has trouble spending.
Childhood obesity is estimated to cost Australia tens of billions of dollars in the coming decades as record rates of diabetes and heart disease debilitate our children. In the Senate right now, the Greens have an amendment to the Food Standards Act that would see all food advertisements banned during children’s viewing hours.
The government’s failure on this issue is difficult to fathom. When it comes to the $4000 new parents get, young mothers are not allowed to receive a lump sum because it is feared that they might spend it all on televisions and cigarettes. But when it comes to junk food advertising, we are told that it would be patronizing to suggest that parents are not in a position to decide what to let their children eat.
The costs of junk food and obesity, like the costs of climate change, will dominate public debate in the coming decades. If we take decisive action now we will not just save money, we will save lives and raise the wellbeing of the nation.
Only 2 years ago the Government was in the midst of another reaction to public fear in the form of bird flu. While the media may have lost interest in bird flu, the world’s epidemiologists have not. The threats to Australia, and to the rest of the world, remain as high as they were in 2005. A recent report from the Lowy Institute found that even a mild pandemic influenza outbreak would have significant consequences for global economic output. In this scenario, it predicts 1.4 million deaths and approximately US $330 billion (AUS$399 billion) would be lost in global economic output. Yet the government does not allocate any substantial funding measures to this threat in the budget.
Where is the public education campaign to sensibly prepare Australia for a bird flu pandemic which could leave not 180 but 180,000 citizens dead? Well, instead of funding such public preparedness for an epidemic, Mr Howard is infamously diverting up to $60 million to explain his so-called Work Choices back flip. This inverse priority is staggering and politically corrupting.
INDIGENOUS HEALTH AND HOUSING
Aboriginal health and housing is grossly under-funded and misdirected in this year’s budget. It will not go anywhere near far enough to address the 17 year life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal Australians. The focus of the government’s budget measures is on regional and remote communities; however the majority of Aboriginal Australians live in urban communities where their life expectancy is just as bad as those in remote communities.
Health experts agree that $500 million per year is required to lift the Aboriginal health standard to that of non Aboriginal Australians. Taking this figure, Tom Calma, the Social Justice Commissioner, has proposed a plan to address the gap in life expectancy within a generation. The Greens back him. It is appalling that rather than $500 million, this budget allocates only about $30 million per annum to this nationally urgent responsibility.
A further $2.3 billion is needed to catch up on housing levels, but the Costello budget actually takes money away from Aboriginal housing in urban areas, focusing on remote and regional areas.
Having taken funding away from urban Aboriginal housing the Government has done nothing to ease housing affordability, leaving the majority of Aboriginal Australians worse off. Despite recent international attention on Australia’s record as the worst in the developed world on indigenous health and development, the Government has yet again failed to deliver on meaningful reform.
The Greens’ goal is for public education to become a fulltime, not just pre-election, priority for the federal government.
Treasurer’s Costello’s budget was big on headlines but notably lacking in a plan to bring public education investment and outcomes up to world’s best standards. That would need $7 billion more in annual spending. The Treasurer’s $5 billion, one-off trust fund for universities will provide less than $400 million per annum – seriously short of ten percent of the required investment for Australian education as a whole.
The Greens call for the needed $7 billion dollar boost in public education from the Commonwealth. That’s a national investment plan from pre-school to university. It starts with building public preschools, paying preschool teachers a fair wage, and guaranteeing two years of free public pre-school to every Australian child. There is no single more important and far reaching education measure that the nation’s government could take.
The Greens also recognise the vital importance of TAFE not only to the skilling of our nation but to the social and community infrastructure. Not a single extra penny was spent on TAFE this budget – the Greens would return funding to 1996 levels in real terms ($750 million) and work towards returning TAFE to permanent staffing, so ending this government cheap casualization of the TAFE workforce.
In this week’s budget another step was taken towards the University sector being privatised and Americanised by this government. The Greens would abolish HECS and full fee degrees, boost core funding for universities per student, and realise the aim of accessible, high-quality, equitable public education for all Australians. This would have been easily achievable had Mr Costello thought education was more important that the $55 billion tax cuts of the last two years.
The Australian Greens will go to this year’s election offering a much more far-sighted plan for Australia than either the Coalition or Labor.
Besides our priorities for public health and education, we would keep Australia’s uranium in the ground and not in nuclear reactors either in Sydney or Beijing or Mumbai. Unlike Labor and the Coalition we would get the chainsaws and firebombers out of Australia’s great wild forests.
And unlike the Coalition and Labor, we would prioritize clean energy efficiency over the expansion of coal-fired power stations in Australia and coal exports to the rest of the world. We all share the same atmosphere wherever that coal is burnt.
We would move not just the dollars, but the philosophy. We are the values party and so would implement triple bottom line accounting – budgets measuring and allocating not just the nation’s wealth but also its social and environmental wellbeing.
Prime Minister Howard still thinks politics is a fight between the economy and the environment. It is not. World’s best practice shows that good environmental policy is fundamental to good economic policy. You cannot plan Australia’s future, let alone assure intergenerational equity, if you don’t guard its environment. The Greens regard for Australia is wider, longer and deeper than that of the old Howard view.
Ten years ago Coalition senators laughed when I warned of the dangers of climate change. They are not laughing now. Ten years from now this nation will be transforming. To do that, it needs a different hand on the helm. My job, our commitment as Greens, is to accelerate that transformation.
Long after this week’s tax cuts are forgotten, the program I have outlined tonight on behalf of the Greens will remain part of the prescription for a new, safer, more responsible Australia in the 21st century.