The Green Dividend - Senator Bob Brown's National Press Club Address

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Transcript is after the break

Ladies and Gentlemen

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the Canberra region and all the Indigenous people of Australia.

This Friday, 1 July, is the 28th anniversary of the High Court judgement which stopped the Franklin Dam. But in the preceding week of 1983, Tasmania recorded the lowest temperatures in history. It snowed heavily to sea level. The bulldozers in the Franklin and Gordon Valley were stopped. So, Mother Nature got into the act ahead of the High Court!

These events were a reminder to us all that, in the end, nature rules, not us. Earth does not need us but we are nothing without it.

Yet, back down at the Gordon River dam site after the High Court decision, came an act of senseless vandalism which has echoes in Australian politics today. Aroused by engineers of the Hydro Electric Commission and the government of Premier Robin Gray, dam workers took chainsaws, drills and a container of diesel oil to destroy the three thousand year old Huon Pine tree called the Lea Tree. Smoke rose from the funeral pyre lit by the gang, as Premier Gray helicoptered in and out of the adjacent works area.

That great tree became collateral damage of Premier Gray’s power plans.

As with Tasmania’s Lea Tree, so with Afghanistan’s Buddhist statues of Bamayan or, this year, Britain’s Glastonbury Thorn. Human beings can be so oblivious, uncaring or downright destructive. Such is life on Earth.

Three thousand years ago when the Lea Tree was a sapling, Egyptians were building pyramids. There were 50 million people on Earth. 99 percent of the planet was a natural ecosystem.

Two thousand years ago, when the Lea tree was in robust, fecund maturity, Rome became the first city of one million people and most of the Earth was still wild.
One thousand years ago, as the Lea Tree became late middle aged, there were 310 million people on Earth, Westminster Abbey was on the drawing boards, London had around 18,000 people and China got gunpowder.

Nowadays, seven billion humans are using up Earth's renewable organic resources at an unprecedented rate. Inequality abounds: the richest 10 percent of us owns 85 per cent of the world’s assets while, last year, world food stores ran down and the number of our fellow Tellurians who are hungry rose from 800 million to above one billion. For each person on the planet when the Lea Tree first sprouted, there are now 140.

A century back, the world had amassed one billion people, but Australia had the highest standard of living in the world. Melbourne was laying out its tramlines. Soon it rivalled Chicago with multistorey buildings. Melbourne was helping discover antibiotics, leading the world in the campaign for the eight hour day and making the world's first feature length movie. A little later Sydney was building the colossal Harbour Bridge, and inventing the rotating clothes line and lawn mower. We had the world's leading soprano, the world's fastest swimmers and, down the coast, Lawrence Hargraves had helped pioneer global aviation. Positive pizzazz was a national phenomenon.

In 2011, we’re still doing very well by world standards. But where is the vision, optimism and drive to lead the world in this nation’s political or corporate leadership?

How is it that 80 percent of Australians want laws for euthanasia (the individual’s right to accept death with dignity) and for equal marriage, yet the Labor Party and Coalition are blocking both? Why is it left to the third political party to advocate Australia’s legal and moral responsibility to quickly process asylum seekers coming to these wealthy shores? What happened to the motto of ‘a fair go!’?

Ladies and gentlemen, every year’s delay on tackling climate change threatens to cost us the Earth. The United Nations estimates that each year’s delay will cost one trillion dollars. Climate change threatens the Great Barrier Reef with death within four decades; extinction of our fellow species is at a rate not seen since an asteroid smashed into this planet 65 million years ago; 70 percent of Earth’s fisheries are in collapse. On a visit to Papua New Guinea last month I discovered that a Sino-Australian consortium is ready to have robot bulldozers dig up the ocean floor, thousands of metres down, for minerals off New Ireland. The tailings will be dumped straight back into the marine ecosystem.

Meanwhile, Australia’s uranium is turning up as deadly radioactive materials in Japanese fish and lettuce. Approximately 80,000 people have been evacuated from the Fukushima-Australia uranium contamination zone. Back here, Martin Ferguson, who is being challenged all the way by Scott Ludlam, is pushing the same dangerous stuff to much less sophisticated markets than Japan. And in the midst of the mining boom, Treasurer Swan has cut the budgets of great national cultural institutions like the National Gallery, the National Library and the National Museum. There’s no money for a dedicated footpath from Civic, the living centre of Canberra, to Parliament House.

No matter what positive ideas are put forward for Australia, Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce are out there saying ‘No!’, and the polls are saying ‘yes’ to ‘no’.

The Howard government backed George W Bush's invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the cause of democracy. So why shouldn’t we now join vigorous moves in Europe and at the United Nations for a global people’s assembly based on one person, one vote, one value? Such a global parliament - it could be right here in Australia - would tackle international questions like nuclear proliferation, currency speculation, marine ecosystem destruction and those billion people who could be fed and literate if only a tenth of global military spending was sent to their assistance.

Why should Australia not catch up with Norway, less than half our size, and have a sovereign wealth fund, mandated female representation on corporate boards, determined global outreach for peace in such horror conflicts as the Sri Lankan civil war, and funding for the protection of large swathes of the world’s besieged tropical rainforests?

As the Dalai Lama pointed out in Canberra a fortnight ago, being rich in the pocket gives no certainty to being rich in the spirit. Feeling good about who we are and what we are achieving - having a vision for a safer, happier future - is the real key to national pride and fulfilment.

Let me quote Tasmania’s great twentieth century environmentalist and photographer, Olegas Truchanas. Speaking at the time of the destruction of Lake Pedder National Park, Olegas said – and I have changed ‘Tasmania’ to ‘Australia’:

"Is there any reason why [Australia] should not be more beautiful on the day we leave it, than on the day we came? We don't know what the requirements of those who come after us will be. If we revise our attitudes towards the land under our feet, if we can accept the role of steward and depart from the role of conqueror, if we can accept the view that man and nature are inseparable parts of the unified whole; then [Australia] can be a shining beacon in a dull, uniform and largely artificial world."

What country is better placed to shine a light for the rest of the world?

We Greens say let Australia be that light. Let us take the John F Kennedy spirit which put a man on the Moon in 1969, and use Australia’s wealth and vigour to upgrade global prospects for the twenty first century.

Next Sunday, fifteen Greens MPs, past, present and future, are getting together to celebrate the Greens parliamentary history stretching over 17 years.

And from Monday, ten of us will be in the parliament, including four new Senators, representing every state in Australia. We will hold the balance of power in the Senate and share the balance of power in the House of Representatives where Adam Bandt represents Melbourne. Around Australia, there are 24 more Greens in state and territory parliaments including two ministers and a speaker, and more than 100 Greens in local government, including several mayors and deputies.

We have more than 10,000 party members, 35,000 Australian Greens fans on Facebook, thousands who follow us on Twitter, and tens of thousands ‘signed up’ to receive our news and give us feedback. Last year, more than 1.6 million Australians voted Green.

The four new Greens on Capital Hill are Penny Wright from South Australia, Richard Di Natale from Victoria, Lee Rhiannon from New South Wales and Larissa Waters from Queensland.

Now I know a few media folk are not so much interested in vision as they are in division. For them, I am going to be a disappointment. We Greens do have healthy disagreements. After all, we don’t believe in cloning. But, united by the Greens Charter, we are united and on the move to give Australians a big Green dividend from Canberra.

And we have runs on the board. Last year we made an agreement for government with Prime Minister Gillard. Since we signed that agreement – and I commend Julia Gillard and her colleagues for following it up – Green dividends have been achieved:

  • There is good progress towards a 2013 referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution;
  • Last week Minister Simon Crean announced that Justice Spigelman will lead an expert panel for a second referendum to recognize local government in the Constitution;
  • $24.9 million has been allocated to establish a Parliamentary Budget Office, for costing parties' policies and promises. This was a Greens' initiative which I announced here at the National Press Club during the last election campaign;
  • The Government has committed to substantial dental health reforms in next year’s budget and Rachel Siewert's National Dental Advisory Council is being set up to advise on dental care;
  • The promised high speed rail study will be released next month. This visionary prospect for Australia, which Adam Bandt highlighted in his election campaign, has had both Italian and French companies visiting Australia in recent weeks;
  • There is a national inquiry into electoral funding (thank you John Faulkner), and we will continue to pursue laws requiring truth in political advertising;
  • There will be a commission to set the ground rules for future Leaders Debates on television;

And I happily report “all commitments met” on meeting Prime Minister Gillard regularly, on new rules for question time, and on weekly private members time having been allocated in both houses.

Our first female Prime Minister’s first year in office has been highlighted by rapid progress on the national broadband network and a massive boost in spending on mental health and rapid assistance to people in several states suffering the impact of floods and storms.

Add to that:

  • Julia Gillard’s agreement to guarantee $100 million for the solar flagship program. This will ensure two more baseload solar plants will proceed in rural Australia, besides those already flagged for Chinchilla in Queensland and Moree in New South Wales.
  • The Government also agreed to the Greens - Christine Milne’s - reform of the fringe benefits taxes on corporate cars. This freed up 970 million dollars for the wider national interest over the next four years, while cutting greenhouse gases. That’s more than enough to fully re-fund the National Gallery, the National Library and the National Museum, Treasurer Swan.

In the past 12 months, the Greens have also been an ideas bank in parliament:

  • My Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Amendment Bill will, if passed, give both the ACT and the Northern Territory the right to make their own laws without being overruled by a federal minister;
  • Adam Bandt’s banking bills would ban the regressive $2 fee at ATMs – these fees are prohibited in the UK;
  • Rachel Siewert’s Live Animal Export (Slaughter) Prohibition Bill would stop the export of live animals for slaughter now – not in three years as in the Xenophon-Wilkie bill. Export of live animals too often ends up in cruelty and it also ships Australian jobs and profits off-shore;
  • Sarah Hanson-Young has presented the parliament with her Marriage Equality Bill;
  • Scott Ludlam is challenging parliament to set up a national container deposit scheme; and
  • Next week I will introduce a new bill to protect children from junk food advertising, not just on free-to-air television, but through all forms of telecommunications – including pay TV, internet and mobile phones.

Overarching all of this, led by Christine Milne, the Greens have put a carbon price and clean energy on the nation's political agenda. I remain confident that we, Labor and the independents can achieve an agreement to tackle global warming in the next couple of weeks. But against such sensible action run a number of mining barons. They not only oppose a polluter-pays scheme, but they also oppose Australians getting a fair benefit from the mining boom. And they have form.

The mining industry derailed Ken Henry’s proposal for a Resource Super Profits Tax. It spent 22 million dollars on an advertising campaign, smashed the tax, and blocked tens of billions of dollars from flowing to the Australian public, which owns the minerals in the first place. Only the Australian Greens opposed this putsch on Canberra. We will continue to campaign for the Treasury-formulated super profits tax as well as for a sovereign wealth fund so all Australians can benefit from the boom.

As Canberra buckled under the mining billionaires' bulldozer, it left a thinner purse for public infrastructure like bikeways; housing; solar power; cheap light rail in our cities; fast regional rail; and, between the biggest cities, high speed rail.

Labor's compromise on the mining tax may cost the public purse 100 billion dollars over the coming decade. But Tony Abbott, who sides with Gina Rinehart and Xstrata in opposing any tax at all, would rob a further forty-five billion dollars from that thinner public purse. This mining industry is largely foreign owned. While Australia gets jobs, export income, royalties and company tax from our minerals, the foreign owners get profits, dividends, capital appreciation and influence. Most of Treasury's planned super profits tax is now due to end up in the deep, deep pockets of millionaires in Switzerland, London, Calcutta and Beijing, rather than in Australian schools, hospitals or railways.

Some $50 billion reaped from Australia’s mineral resources will be sent overseas as dividends to foreign owners according to a Greens-commissioned paper I am releasing today - Foreign ownership of Australian mining by economist Naomi Edwards.

Key findings of her report on foreign ownership and Australian mining profits are:

  • In the next five years foreign owners will earn about $265 billion from their investments in Australia’s mineral resources;
  • Increasing foreign ownership is creating a significant drag on Australia’s current account balance;
  • Recently, Australia’s net income balance broke below its long-term floor of -3%. It is forecast to deteriorate to -6% by 2013, worsening Australia’s current account deficit as it goes;
  • BHP Billiton’s profit margin has almost doubled in the past eight years, from 25% in 2002 to 45% in 2010. BHP’s profit margin on iron ore is 62%;
  • For every dollar of sales, mining companies make an after-tax profit of 26% versus the average across all industries of 8%;
  • Employment costs (including all contractor expenses) are lower in mining at 12% than the average across industries at 17%;
  • Net profit margins for copper and gold are 23% and 27% respectively, and yet they are being excluded from the government’s mining tax. They should be included;
  • And Australia’s foreign-owned mining industry will ship $50 billion in dividends offshore over the next five years.

Amid a mining boom, while the federal government faces budget pressures and as the Reserve Bank of Australia prepares to raise interest rates, parts of the economy are wallowing.

The Edwards report, which shows Australian mining companies are 83% foreign owned, underscores the need for the Government to reconsider the Mineral Resource Rent Tax and the tax cut planned for big business. In the Senate, I will again move to expand the MRRT, including to cover gold and uranium, oppose the company tax cut for big business, and work to set up a sovereign wealth fund.

I repeat, the mining boom is creating massive problems for other parts of the Australian economy. If the country’s minerals wealth is not properly managed, many Australians will actually be worse off and Australia’s prosperity will be put at risk.

Treasury’s mining super profits tax would have preserved about 20% of forecast foreign profits for Australians. The government should adopt the Greens’ proposal for a sovereign wealth fund to store this wealth for the needs of future generations.

Instead, under Labor’s reduced mining tax and the Coalition’s irresponsible prescription to let the foreign mining giants off the hook altogether, Australians will be left in future cribbing on health, education and scrounging for funding for key infrastructure such as high speed rail.

Whichever way you look at it, Australia should have a better discussion about optimal mineral extraction rates, value-adding and profit ownership.

While on resources, I laud the work of all those trying to reach an historic agreement on logging in Tasmania, an agreement set to protect 572,000 hectares of the island’s grandest forests. But let no public money flow to a Gunns pulp mill, to the huge Malaysian logging company Ta Ann or to the consortium bidding to buy the Triabunna woodchip mill. Let’s leave all three entities to the free market! Should they complain? Tasmania’s logging corporations have soaked up one billion dollars in public subsidies in recent decades – and while we have no trouble assisting the workers and contractors, not another public dollar should go to the big industrial logging outfits.

Ladies and Gentlemen: From the wild forests to Canberra politics!
The Constitution states, in sections 53 to 56, that ‘the Senate shall have equal powers with the House of Representatives in respect of all proposed laws’ other than those which create a tax or appropriate money.
So, only the government can raise taxes. Agreed. But what does the Constitution mean by ‘appropriate money’? Is it a quantifiable amount with a quantifiable impact on the Government’s balance sheet? Is it spending some money, somewhere, at some point in time? It is hard to think of a bill which does not impose some cost on the taxpayer. Even a bill which seeks to reduce tax will put a cost on the Treasury’s time and resources.

The Senate and the House do not see eye to eye on this.

Last month, a Coalition bill to ensure workers aged 70 years or more have their employers pay the nine percent superannuation top-up was ruled out of order by the Speaker of the House. The Speaker relied on the House Standing Orders, which are not part of the Constitution and actually go further than the Constitution to state that no private member can put forward a bill which appropriates money because it will be disallowed. The House Standing Orders appear to rule out most private members bills. The Executive, which in former days wrote the House Standing Orders, rules.

The next test may be Sarah Hanson-Young’s bill to establish a Commissioner for Children. Her bill is clearly neither a tax bill, nor, an appropriation bill. What will the House do with this bill if it passes the Senate? How does the Speaker rule this $1 million bill in, having recently ruled the Opposition’s $300 million bill out?

This matter is non justiciable by the High Court and cannot be left to the opinion of the Clerks or to unilateral Standing Orders. All parties should commit to a mature, bicameral agreement to settle this issue before the lightning and thunder of a constitutional storm is unleashed in times ahead.

The Greens are leading on the road to solving this quite crucial Constitutional dilemma. I offer you this commitment as a further indication of how we will continue to serve Australia on our current responsible course. We will contribute sensible ideas to solve policy and political problems and we will continue to work to provide stability for the duly constituted Gillard government.

The Greens will be a secure rock of stability in the Senate, to help make sure Australia gets the good governance it deserves. To that end, we will not be supporting any Coalition move in the Senate, whether by legislation or amendments, that threaten instability. The Coalition may move such a motion, but we will not be supporting it.

Isn't politics exciting? I can tell you that it is a great privilege to be elected by Australians. It is not the office itself, but the gains made for the nation by having that office, which offer MPs real satisfaction. I think that I will never be a minister, or have the Order of the Garter. Yet I doubt there is any elected representative feeling happier about their job than me. And I can't wait for next week's induction of the four vigorous and intelligent new Greens senators. How organically sweet this Greening age of politics is!

I thank you all.