NICOLE CHVASTEK: Well, are you recovering from one of Victoria’s semi-regular natural disasters? Perhaps you’ve lived through a flood and there are plenty of Victorians still trying to reclaim their lives and livelihoods after nature’s forces swept them away. Well, yesterday we heard from Castlemaine Senior Constable Grant Healey, who threw on his uniform when the 2011 Carisbrook flood hit and went out and saved nine lives and then he went home to find his own house had just been wiped out, so how would you feel about getting a bill for your natural disaster? It was with a little consternation that I read in the paper this morning evidence which has been given to a Senate committee that residents of natural disasters, such as cyclones and storms, could face carbon tax bills with the greenhouse gas emission arising from the rubbish created by the disaster.
Senator Simon Birmingham is the Opposition’s Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment and he joins me now. Good morning, Simon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Nicole; good morning to your listeners.
NICOLE CHVASTEK: Explain how this is planned to work.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Nicole, what we uncovered yesterday in Senate Estimates is that there are a lot more local government areas that could be at risk of paying the carbon tax than were first thought – in fact, 104 extra local government areas than expected – and that, of course, the potential here is that when natural disaster strikes, and there is a particular example of Queensland that has been highlighted from Cyclone Yasi, there is of course a massive clean-up bill and enormous volumes of waste and this waste, of course, ultimately finds its way into landfill and the risk here is that the huge volume of waste will increase the carbon emissions from those landfills such that local councils will end up paying significantly more in carbon tax and we all know that, when the council has to pay more in a tax like that, it’s just going to flow through into higher costs, higher council rates, higher fees and charges for everyone in the local community and…
NICOLE CHVASTEK: What councils in Victoria would be affected?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, this list of 104 identifies quite a list of Victorian councils but many that are relevant to your listeners – the Ballarat City Council, the City of Greater Bendigo, the Hepburn Shire Council, the Mount Alexander Shire Council, the Mildura Rural City, the Greater Shepparton City Council – so it is quite a list of council areas and they will all have to come back to the Department of Climate Change [and Energy Efficiency], to the Clean Energy Regulator, as the ‘carbon cop’ is known, and actually identify whether or not they potentially cross the threshold and will have to start paying the carbon tax and, if they do, it’s an administrative nightmare for these councils and a potentially significant cost burden for their ratepayers.
NICOLE CHVASTEK: So the deal is a… does this also relate to fires – the rubbish clean-up which is generated by bushfires?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Nicole, any rubbish that makes its way to landfill will add to this problem. The thing about natural disasters is they, of course, create an enormous volume of waste in one hit so, whether it’s a bushfire or whether it’s a flooding event or whether it’s, up in North Queensland, a cyclone event, there is a lot of waste generated when, of course, the building materials are going to landfill as well as organic waste that has to be cleaned up and so on, all of…
NICOLE CHVASTEK: So the councils in the middle of a reconstruction and recovery effort have to determine how much methane their landfill is generating as a result of the extra rubbish which has gone into landfill and, what, present themselves and confess to government and then be given a bill?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s right – councils have to estimate the emissions from their landfill and, of course, methane is a very potent greenhouse gas and so it adds up very quickly to get them over the potential threshold for coverage under the carbon tax. They have to account for all…
NICOLE CHVASTEK: Well, why couldn’t they simply underestimate the greenhouse gas emissions?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Ah, well, the big government regulator that is funded with a budget running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, the ‘carbon cop’, will of course be out there auditing people so they won’t just be chasing down, as you may have heard, ‘the big polluters’ as the Government’s phrase is; they will be chasing down local governments around the country, as well, because of this landfill problem. In fact, it now appears likely that up to 20 per cent of those entities directly paying the carbon tax will actually be local governments, will be local councils and that’s something that will come as a big shock, I’m sure, to many Australians and many of your listeners.
NICOLE CHVASTEK: Senator Simon Birmingham, the Government detailed quite a comprehensive compensation package when it handed down the federal budget a couple of weeks ago and took into account the extra costs that councils will have to pay in relation to this carbon tax impost so it’s not as if the community won’t be compensated for the extra costs of this particular bill.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, households will receive some level of compensation in some circumstances. This, of course, though is a one-off adjustment to income tax rates. We all know that, over a period of time, the natural erosion of those sorts of tax changes occurs, so the carbon tax will still be there. It will keep going up but the compensation really is just a one-off adjustment to these things so people will see that over time they will definitely be worse off and, in fact, even under the Government’s own Treasury modelling around 3 to 4 million Australian households will be worse off, even with the compensation that the Government’s offering, so the…
NICOLE CHVASTEK: Yeah, I understand that but there are also other ways that councils can mitigate this tax which isn’t mentioned, surprisingly, in your media release… that the councils can actually burn off harmful methane emissions and earn carbon credits which they can then sell to bigger emitters. Why isn’t this highlighted?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, councils can, indeed, do that. They can already do that, and many do already do that, without the carbon tax and that’s the thing – there are opportunities there and there are positive ways to get people to tackle their emissions or there are negative ways to penalise them for it. Now, the Coalition thoroughly supports things like the Renewable Energy Target which actually does encourage councils to flare methane off of their landfills and to generate electricity that is done in terms of… a clean way, in terms of taking those emissions and actually turning it into electricity. We support things like the Carbon Farming Initiative that provides additional ways to look at innovative land management. We think there are positive things you can do to actually reduce emissions. The problem is that this carbon tax is swinging the ledger very much onto the negative and to the penalties based approach and for a lot of these local governments, frankly, it is not just a cost, in terms of what they have to pay, but an administrative nightmare as well. These aren’t big corporations with huge levels of staff able to manage complex things like measuring their emissions and paying carbon tax; these are local governments that, really, should be focused on providing services for their local community.
NICOLE CHVASTEK: Senator Birmingham, we’ll have a chat with the Government and see what they say in relation to this particular policy but thank you for your insights this morning.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, Nicole.
NICOLE CHVASTEK: That is Senator Simon Birmingham, who is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment.