Senator BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (11:39): It is an absolute pleasure to rise to speak on the Carbon Tax Plebiscite Bill 2011 [No. 2] because it is critically important. It should not be brushed off, as the Labor government is seeking to do; it should be seriously considered and it should be supported. It should be supported because there is a clear and present need for this bill to pass so as to provide a level of certainty and some opportunity for the Australian people to have a genuine, fair dinkum say on this most divisive of issues.

The Labor government, instead of fronting up to the debate around a carbon tax and engaging genuinely with the Australian people, are running scared, like a rabbit with its tail between its legs, from any proper scrutiny, proper debate and proper oppor­tunity to be questioned and provide decent answers to the Australian people. They are running scared from the parliament-the Senate and the other place, the House of Representatives. They do not want to front up and answer questions about their carbon tax in this place.

They have been working on this carbon tax for many months, and what are they going to do now? They are going to release the details of the carbon tax two days after the parliament rises for a five-week recess rather than allow a debate to happen in this place, the people’s parliament. They refuse to come into this place and answer questions on the actual detail of their scheme. For months now, they have complained about the fact that the opposition is asking questions without knowing the detail of the scheme. Time and again, we have said, ‘Show us the detail. Tell us what is in this carbon tax proposal.’

But, no; they have resisted. They have drip-fed titbits of it to the media, preferably the Sunday newspapers, hoping to appease community concerns by putting positive spin on tiny parts of it. But they will not tell us, of course, what the carbon tax is actually going to be. They will not tell us what the rate of increase on the carbon tax will be. We know it is going to increase every single year, but they will not tell us by how much it will increase. They will not tell us clearly what is in and what is out. Instead we get a story, like we did in last Monday’s newspapers, saying that petrol will be excluded. But we hear nothing when it comes to the crunch and they are asked, ‘What does that mean? Will it be excluded completely? What about trucks? Will petrol be included in the carbon tax regime for the trucking industry?’

Some senators on the Labor side are willing to speak the truth on this matter. Senator Sterle and Senator Gallacher, who I see in the chamber at present, have been willing to front up to their government and say that the carbon tax will have a devasta­ting impact on the transport sector if it is applied across the board. But Senator Wong in this place and Mr Combet and Prime Minister Gillard in the other place will not actually say which parts of the transport sector it will affect. And it is not just trucks; what about passenger buses? What about public transport services? You would have thought the Greens would have a particular interest in negotiating the carbon tax around public transport services.

There are so many unanswered questions when it comes to this carbon tax. We are told we are going to see some detail on Sunday, and I welcome that detail, but what I would welcome even more is the opportunity to be here on Monday asking questions of the government about the detail. But, no; they will not be here-they will not be in this place and they will not be in the other place. They will not front up and answer questions on the detail of their carbon tax in the people’s parliament as they rightly should. They are running scared from the parliament. In their opposition to this bill, the Carbon Tax Plebiscite Bill, we see they are also running scared from the people. It is not just the parliament they are scared of but the people’s judgment as well-because all this bill would do is give the opportunity for the Australian people to have a say on the carbon tax.

Julia Gillard went to the last election solemnly promising she would not introduce a carbon tax. She said solemnly: ‘There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.’ That is the most straightforward and clear-cut statement that any political leader can make in an election campaign. She made it clearly and yet she will not allow the Austra­lian people to have a say on whether her justifications for breaking that promise are reasonable enough. We think the Australian people should have a say, and if they cannot have their say through another election to get this country back on the straight track then they should have their say through this plebiscite bill. That is why it should be passed.

We have a government that is running scared of the parliament and running scared of the people and that is based not just on one lie but on a series of lies. I mentioned before the monty of them all, the big one from the election campaign, ‘There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead’-the clearest statement of them all. It is the clearest statement to be so convincingly broken as it has been by this government. It did not take long. The Prime Minister claimed that she had to break the promise because of changed circumstances. That is the full extent of her justification: changed political circumstances. Because she got a minority government in the House of Representatives, that is her justification for breaking this most solemn promise. Then she came along with some of the detail around the carbon tax and said petrol will be out and it will be out forever-except for the fact that we know that ‘forever’ in Ms Gillard’s language is only until such time as circum­stances change. So ‘forever’ is not worth terribly much when it comes from the Prime Minister’s mouth. ‘Forever’ is obviously quite meaningless because it applies only until the circumstances change.

But it is not just the overall ‘there will be no carbon tax’ statement that is the lie dogging this government; it is the process by which they go about trying to sell it. They go about trying to sell the carbon tax by arguing that somehow Australia will be left behind the rest of the world if we do not implement a carbon tax. But what did the Productivity Commission say when asked that question? The Productivity Commission report, released just last month, said very clearly:

… no country currently imposes an economy-wide tax on greenhouse gas emissions or has in place an economy-wide ETS.

That is a statement just about as clear-cut as, ‘There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead’-‘No country currently imposes an economy-wide tax on greenhouse gas emissions.’ Yet this government wants to do exactly that: impose an economy-wide tax on greenhouse gas emissions. It wants to do so claiming that somehow Australia will be left behind the rest of the world if we do not do so. The Productivity Commission say the opposite. Not only do they say that nobody else does it but they also clearly say that Australia rates around ‘mid-range’ in terms of resources allocated to abatement and abatement achieved without there being a carbon tax. ‘Mid-range’ is their description of Australia’s current efforts in relation to greenhouse gas reduction. As a middle power and a middle sized economy that is exactly where Australia should be.

We believe and the government itself claims to believe that Australia should be neither ahead of the world nor behind the rest of the world when it comes to reducing emissions. We should do our bit. To get too far ahead would be to place too much jeopardy on jobs in our economy and our industries. To be too far behind would be irresponsible. We should be doing our bit, and the Productivity Commission report found that we are doing our bit, that we are in the mid-range and that we are doing as we should do as a responsible global citizen. So, far from the situation of Australia not pulling its own weight, we are pulling our own weight.

The debate we have in this place and publicly is not about whether or not we should continue to pull our weight in reducing global emissions; it is about how to do so most responsibly. On this side we believe the most responsible way to do so is through an incentives driven approach. We believe that, rather than putting on an economy wide tax unlike anything anybody else in the world has, and churning billions of dollars-it is likely to be $10, $13, $14 billion-through the Treasury coffers, and redistributing a whole bunch of it back, some to households, some to the Greens’ pet projects and some to industry, instead you should run the country efficiently, run the budget efficiently, come up with the savings necessary and incentivise those areas of the economy that can most efficiently reduce their emissions or abate carbon. That is the best way to do it-target action where you can get the results rather than taxing the entire country.

We believe you can achieve the emissions reductions that are required and we believe you can do it by making the government tighten their belts and spending government dollars more wisely on emissions reduction activities rather than what Labor want to do, which is force every Australian household to tighten their belts with absolutely no guarantee of emissions reduction. Even Senator Wong has said that a carbon tax has no guarantees of emissions reduction. There is no guarantee you will get emissions reduction under a carbon tax. Even under their trading scheme it is quite possible that most of the reductions will come by purchasing permits offshore and you will get no emissions reduction in Australia. I can guarantee that under the coalition’s plan you will get emissions reduction in Australia, you will get emissions abatement in Australia and it will happen at the lowest possible cost. So let us go to the people and give them a choice. Let us pass this bill and put our trust in the Australian people to decide this debate.