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'Fevered Emptiness' - Address-In-Reply to the Government's "vision"

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Scott Ludlam 31 Aug 2016

Well, what a difference a year makes. This time last year, Mr Turnbull's challenge to Prime Minister Tony Abbott's cringe-worthy prime ministership was actually still on the horizon and the coalition were still locked into the pretence that everything was going to work out fine for them. A year on, with 2016 election now receding fast into the political rear-view mirror, it is a good time to think about what has happened in the intervening year and what role this chamber is going to play as we enter more complex times.


 

I have on occasion seen the honourable General Cosgrove's ability to hold a room. He can be an excellent public speaker so none of what I am about to say is intended with any disrespect to him because obviously he has to deal with the material that he is given. What was presented to the parliament yesterday when we were all in here, I suppose, was meant to stand in for some kind of manifesto of the point of the Turnbull government for the next couple of years. The government were meant to really be establishing for the benefit of this chamber and for anybody watching outside of this room what their purpose is, why we would bother with them for the years to come. It felt to me as though he had been handed a bunch of crumpled notes, this weird laundry list of thoroughly mediocre incoherent talking points that were almost entirely indifferent to the actual challenges that face the country. With no disrespect to the Governor-General, whose role it was quite rightly to deliver this address to the parliament while we were all in here, but of those who wrote that material, you can only imagine a handful of people sealed into a room with their eyes glazed over.

What kind of agenda was presented to us yesterday? Where was the housing affordability crisis or the fact that $40 million that was ripped from homeless services' capital budgets in the 2014 budget not returned? Where was housing stress? Where was rental affordability? Where was the self-inflicted humanitarian catastrophe unfolding inside our immigration detention centres established, many of them—the offshore islands in particular—by the Labor Party when they were in government and retained and entrenched by those who hold office now? Where was the climate? Where was the single most important economic, humanitarian, environmental and security threat facing this country in that speech yesterday? Where was it?

A large fraction of the world is decarbonising, phasing out fossil fuel combustion. The agreement signed in Paris, imperfect as it was, sets a rough pathway forward for phasing out the fossil underpinnings of the crisis that is beginning to overwhelm the world. The coal industry is hitting the wall one bankruptcy after another, including here in Australia. The international oil price is approaching historic postwar lows. The fracking industry has been fought to a standstill across large parts of the country. Where was all of that in yesterday's speech? 

I have discovered in these addresses that only happen reasonably infrequently that it is important to listen for what is not in the speech. What is the government seeking not to highlight? What is it less proud of? What is it choosing to ignore? What is being deprioritised or subordinated in these infrequent and rare addresses to the nation? There was certainly talk of innovation. If I can recall anything from the turnover between former Prime Minister Abbott and Minister Turnbull, which ignited a small spark of hope—it did not last long but was there—for myself and probably for many others in the country, was this talk of innovation. It was the talk of somebody who was digitally literate, who did not have his head stuck in a vanishing coal industry but who knew something about the telecommunications sector, by way of one single example, and recognised that we needed to transition to a more diversified economy. Where has all that talk of innovation gone? The words are still used. 

In the meantime a bill is shortly to be presented to this parliament which would cut $1 billion from ARENA, which does the essential R&D and early commercialisation work for innovative clean energy technologies that will buy us a bit of time in the clean energy transition. The extraordinarily reckless attacks on CSIRO and the rest of the research community, and the unfolding debacle of the National Broadband Network will be revisited again within this parliament. These are the entities and the enabling infrastructure that can actually carry us into that more diversified and resilient economy. So the government can read all the buzzwords it likes into the parliamentary record or deliver impressive sounding headland speeches about agility and innovation, but we do not even really have to look under the bonnet to see what is going on here.

It is a government that is desperately in hock to the fading fortunes of the extractive industries that have bordered with government on more than one occasion and have played backstop during debates like on the mining tax, for example, which completely skittled a Prime Minister and put the country fiscally on the backfoot for years. It is a government that is wedded to these industries. Instead of talking transition on behalf of the workforce in towns like Collie in the south-west of Western Australia, which has a very narrow economic base because it has provided the underpinnings of the power system—no pun intended—in Western Australia, or at least in the south-west, for a century, and instead of talking measured, realistic transitions for those workers, the government is simply burying its head in the sand and undercutting the very industries that could provide a pathway forward.

I want to quote briefly from Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, a former US Pacific Commander of the US Navy. He has retired now. This is what he said in November 2015:

Today we find ourselves in a period of unprecedented global change – change that is … introducing significant emerging challenges to the global security environment. Foremost among these emerging challenges are the long-term security implications of climate change … 

These changes are prompting U.S. policymakers, decision-makers, and military planners … reevaluate and adjust our long-term ‘whole of government’ strategic priorities and approaches in the region.

We can critique all we like the way that the climate debate has played out in the United States—and, if anything, it has been uglier than what has unfolded here. But that is a very clear and precise statement from a very senior US military commander who is seeing the climate imperative roll through every dimension of his work. I—and no doubt Senator Whish-Wilson and my other Greens colleagues—will have more to say in this parliament about what security means in the 21st century, in a world where this energy transition is well underway, where the old priorities of protecting oil pipelines and shipping lanes out of the Persian Gulf may change quite rapidly in an energy transition where we are finally reaping the benefits of the near infinite supplies of solar energy, wind energy, wave energy and other renewable sources. Where was any of that in yesterday's speech? If this Prime Minister, who professes to understand the urgency of climate change and the importance of diversifying our economy away from low-value extractive industries toward value-adding, toward true green economics, uses the buzzwords—and what we saw yesterday was something completely different—where in the speech was the optimism?

In my home town at the moment there is a proposal afoot from Mr Turnbull's Liberal-National colleagues for the Perth Freight Link, a 19th-century piece of infrastructure—or we could be generous and say at least a mid-20th century piece of infrastructure. It has four to six lanes of tarmac through precious wetlands, through areas of great significance to the Whadjuk and Noongar people who have traversed and camped in that area for 40,000 years. The Barnett government is proposing to smash a freeway through that area to take trucks not all the way to Fremantle port but, actually, to several kilometres short of the port of Fremantle, where there will be a huge traffic pile-up.

Where were the 21st-century priorities for our settlements, for our cities? Where was the talk of rapid telecommunications, of rapid transit, of clean energy, of innovative fast-build housing to solve our housing supply crisis, of rebuilding biodiversity and, perhaps, most importantly, of becoming reunited with the concept of country by entering into treaty and measured negotiations that recognise sovereignty with the people who occupied this country for tens of thousands of years before the colonists arrived from over the horizon? These are the issues that the Australian Greens believe should be brought into the frame in the kind of speech that we heard yesterday. If the government had any vision to present for this country beyond the almost macabre political self-destruction that appears to be occurring behind the scenes on the first and second days in parliament, surely yesterday was the day to put it to us. There is nothing there but a kind of fevered emptiness.

I think there is a reason why media oligarchs beam 24/7 race hate and paranoia into outer metropolitan suburbs—and I gather we will be discussing media reform in this parliament before too long, because the government has a proposition to put to us to consolidate and entrench media ownership even more tightly than it already is. I think there is a reason why that race hate and that fear and that division is such a preoccupation of certain corners of the press—the beaming of those messages of division into outer metro suburbs and regional towns hit very hard by the slow-motion collapse of the commodities boom. There is a reason why people facing intergenerational unemployment and privatisation of basic health and education services are being offered Syrian refugees as convenient targets of their discontent. I would suggest that it is an old bait-and-switch trick that is probably as old as politics itself. If you are focusing your grievances on people even less fortunate than yourselves—Aboriginal mob, people fleeing Aleppo, people in cages on prison islands—then it is a lot less likely that you will end up on the barricades going up against the one per cent?

So our commitment and our priorities in this parliament and in those to come, as we link arms with those in our region and further afield who are doing it a lot tougher than ourselves, as we combine our numbers to support those here at home fighting for sovereignty, treaty and to get kids out of prison, and as we work every single day for the kind of economy that serves people and planet rather than treating both as disposable assets to be stripped and discarded, I cannot help but recall the words of Arundhati Roy, who said:

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

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