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Australia Institute Climate Integrity Summit Speech

One of the things I've loved about being a Senator for the ACT is getting out and meeting people, visiting organisations and businesses - seeing some of the amazing work being done in Canberra to solve challenges we face - big and small - and serve people. 

This sounds like a cliche that a politician would say, but it turns out it's true. And I am a politician now so I guess I can say that.

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Andrew, a co-founder of Quantum Brilliance - an incredible local startup developing room temperature quantum computers by using diamonds.

And so sitting down with Andrew and he’s trying to explain quantum computing to me, it’s complicated. 

And then not long later, I sat down and tried to get my head around the proposed changes to the safeguard mechanism! 

All of a sudden the use of nitrogen-vacancy centres in diamonds that allow you to use qubits seemed to make a bit more sense.

And clearly some problems require complex solutions. 

But in many cases, I think almost certainly in the case of climate policy, complexity can give rise to loopholes and unintended consequences.

And I’m guessing, as was discussed earlier, many of us would agree there are better solutions than the safeguard mechanism to this particular challenge that we face.

But we are where we are.

The climate wars have left us with policies underpinned by interconnected markets and complicated mechanisms.

And we desperately need to make them work.

What I want to talk about today isn't the nuts and bolts of policy, there are far more experienced to do that, but what I thought I would talk a bit about is the approach I try to bring to my role and what I’ve been doing trying to grapple with something like safeguard mechanism. 

That starts with consulting widely with stakeholders, experts and of course the community. And by applying an integrity lens to each piece of legislation.

And looking at climate policy through this frame reminds us that the problem does have a moral dimension to it. And also reminds us that we have real work to do.

Many of us would agree that 43% by 2030 is mediocre at best. We’re a developed economy we’ve got such high per-capita emissions - and we are one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters and we’re not doing our fair share. We should be doing more.

And So, alongside many of you, I will be pushing for a more ambitious 2035 target that elevates us to leadership on climate action.

In the meantime, we need to make sure that 43% does have integrity because if 43% with integrity is mediocre, without integrity, with all sorts of loopholes as is claimed, it’s immoral for us to be doing that. 

And integrity means actual reductions in emissions - not paper reductions achieved through creative accounting.

It’s clear that offsets will play a necessary and important role in the transition, but it’s critical that they are used with a high degree of caution.

They do offer huge opportunities for farmers, for Indigenous land managers to be rewarded for managing land in a regenerative that actually sequesters carbon. 

But we have to ensure that offsets are carefully targeted for use in hard-to-abate industries.

They are inherently risky. In an economic model they look nice. But in a world with a changing climate and a shifting political environment, offsets are an imperfect tool for a difficult problem.

So offsets must be used judiciously and never as a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

Almost every other jurisdiction sets limits on the use of carbon credits to offset emissions. There are variations, some are lower than others, and there are differences in what is covered.

But the only other country that has no limits on offsetts is Kazakhstan. So as it stands Australia will join Kazakhstan with open access to credits for polluters to offset.

By contrast, under the now repealed Clean Energy Act, the then Labor government placed a 5% limit on offsets.

So lots and lots has changed since then.

And clearly the climate wars have left us with the safeguard mechanism and they’ve also left us with many policies that don’t actually serve the Australian people, they’ve left us with little political appetite for a windfall profits tax or changes to the PRRT - things that other countries have addressed and are now benefiting from.  

Other countries are ensuring the resources actually benefit the people, not a select few individuals and companies.

So that’s what’s happened but how do we ensure integrity is embedded in our policies?

Firstly the starting point is listening to experts. 

Over the past decade we have seen our climate policy institutions gutted and scientific expertise leached from climate policy making.

This has to be reversed. Scientific expertise has to be respected and promoted. We have some of the finest scientific and policy minds in the world here in Australia. We have to position them to develop policies to avoid the damaging tipping cascades that people like the late Professor Will Steffen and others have been warning us about for many years now.

We have to listen to the science. We have to listen to the experts.

But science alone will not allow us to navigate the social challenges of the transition that benefits rural and regional Australia.

Communities in the regions that have relied on fossil fuel industries need to be put front and centre.

I would like to see a strong and well-resourced Transition Authority to lead the way in making sure these communities are not left behind. 

The promise of future jobs is no longer good enough - we need to create those jobs right now. I know there is some great work being done in the Hunter and in Gladstone at the moment. We clearly need a more coordinated as a country looking forward and dealing with transition and ensuring that people are assured that there are thriving industries for them to move into.

And there are many innovative Australian companies showing us the potential in transition - we need to back them and ensure they’re given the opportunities to succeed and thrive and stay here in Australia.

People are looking to politicians for leadership. People are looking to politicians for more ambition. We must make the case for bolder action - bolder action for Australians today and bolder action for future generations.

Bolder action for First Nations communities who, from the Torres Strait to Bundjalung country. Communities who are already facing the impact of climate change on their people, culture and connection to country.

Bolder action for our Pacific Island neighbours. We can no longer talk about the Pacific Family without bolder, more courageous climate leadership.

It's time to step up and lead and we need to act for the millions of people and communities that many of us in this room will never even hear from. People who have contributed hardly anything to the crisis that we face, but it is the morally right thing for our developed country to step up and lead on.

As an independent I'm very aware that I work for the community. They will judge me on my efforts and Australia has voted for a crossbench in the Senate that can hold the major parties in check and, being on that cross bench, I intend to use my position to work constructively to really push them on ambition. We're facing an unprecedented challenge. 

Humans have not faced the challenge of this size. We look at history and we know that global action is possible. The Montreal Protocol dealing with CFCs countries came together and started to deal with it. But we know that there are entrenched vested interests and in some cases, just straight out state capture. But things are changing. And we know that progress is being made. And speeding that up depends on our collective efforts. Today, Australia must step up here in Australia so that we can begin to push on the global stage for more ambition. 

Bolder action for communities most of us will never know but who we share this planet with. Many who have contributed next to none of the emissions that have led us to this point, but are grappling with the impacts of climate change. 

But things are changing and progress is being made. Speeding that up depends on our collective efforts today - showing leadership here in Australia and then pushing the global community to step up also. 

I just wanted to finish with a quote from someone who I admire greatly and who knew a thing or two about societal change who once said,

“Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?'
Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?'
Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?'
But, conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?'

And it seems pertinent as we debate everything from the safeguard mechanism to the Voice to parliament to think of this.

We need to ask ourselves, are we doing what is safe, 

Or what is politically acceptable, 

Or simply what is popular, 

or are we doing what is right? 


It’s on all of us to steer us in the right direction.

This is a massive challenge in the face, but it's an incredible opportunity and we all know that future generations will judge us and whether or not we rise to this challenge. So thank you all so much for the work that you're doing. Keep pushing politicians to step up and ensure that Australia begins to go in the right direction. 

Thank you very much.