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Senator Bob Brown's address to the National Press Club - July 2010

At this National Press Club I acknowledge the traditional owners of the Canberra region and all the Indigenous people of our nation.

This year will be another milestone in politics for the Australian Greens. The sole balance of power in the Senate and a breakthrough into the House of Representatives are both within reach. Australia's voters are looking for more progressive politics and the stable, experienced leadership which we alone have produced over the past three turbulent years in Canberra.

At Federation in 1901, the Labor Party held its first Caucus, made up of men who had opposed federation, as well as men who had backed it. In 1904, their first Prime Minister, Chris Watson, lasted just a few months in office. Labor's glory days, including our first female prime minister, were in the decades yet to come.

The Liberal Party, a heady collection of free-traders and protectionists in 1909, became the Nationalists in 1917, and re-badged themselves again as the Liberals in 1944. So began that party's illustrious history – including the two longest serving prime ministers, Menzies and Howard.

Now the Australian Greens, formed in 1992, are building too. By the way, at that 1992 launch in Sydney no TV crews arrived because the Harbour Tunnel was being opened at the same time! Yet I would be the last person to accuse anyone in the media of having tunnel vision when it comes to the Greens!

There has been a profound political depression arising out of the squabbling and oppositional nature of two-party politics in Australia. It is a depression also generated by the feeling of lost opportunity. Here we are, the most resource-rich nation in the world, with serial governments failing to take the political lead which this country and the whole world wants.

We Greens are not yet in government, though in Tasmania earlier this year Nick McKim and Cassie O’Connor became Australia’s first Greens members of a cabinet. However voters are backing us in growing numbers.

Maybe that is because, as well as disillusion with Labor in government, the Coalition is seen as blockers whose primary job is to destroy government. The exception in their strategy highlights the rule. Last year, Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition negotiated an agreement on the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. His Coalition gained a substantial increase in compensation to polluters, bringing the total to around $22 billion worth of permits over the next decade. However, this move stirred rebellion in the ranks. There was a change of leadership and Tony Abbott threw out the agreement.

The Greens opposed the Rudd–Turnbull package because it gave polluters that $22 billion reward. It also locked in failure. It aimed at a maximum five percent reduction in Australia’s carbon emissions by 2020. Five percent, the science shows, would guarantee dangerous climate change in coming decades if other countries also aimed so low. Fortunately they haven’t:  for example, the UK has legislated a 34 percent reduction by 2020, and the Norwegian target range is 30–40 percent.

With my Deputy Leader Christine Milne, who is parliament’s most knowledgeable expert on climate change, I opposed this ineffectual Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. We put forward the option, as devised by Professor Ross Garnaut, for an interim carbon tax at $23 per tonne, rising each year by the Consumer Price Index, plus four percent. This would give Australia a rapid start in reducing emissions while providing the carbon price signal so important to business for certainty.

The Rudd government never consulted with us on that target, or made any meaningful response to the Greens’ alternative carbon tax proposal. Now we have the carbon tax option on the table with the new Gillard government. Our carbon tax proposal leaves open the option of converting to a carbon trading scheme should the Obama administration, or the rest of the world, agree to adopt carbon trading in the years ahead.

My approach to all political leaders – and this includes Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott – is to seek good outcomes, while honestly recognising disagreement and to look for common ground and a way forward.

To that end the Greens, if in the balance of power in the Senate in coming years, will propose occasional informal meetings between ourselves and the Cabinet. A cup of tea – and John Howard knew this – often opens the way to better understanding and outcomes.

The Greens in the Senate have worked with ministers on a wide range of contentious issues where the Coalition has said ‘No!'.

These include:

  • Passing the alcopops levy, estimated to raise $3 billion over four years, while ensuring $50 million per annum for alcohol harm reduction programs and services for young Australians.
  • Supporting the Rudd government’s removal of discrimination against same-sex couples from federal law. The notable exception, insisted on by both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, is in marriage.  The Greens will continue working to remove that discrimination too.
  • Protecting thousands of wind and solar jobs by insisting that the government fix the renewable energy target legislation.
  • Backing Labor’s Fair Work Australia bill while winning flexible working hours for carers of children with disabilities. This was an outcome of very worthwhile negotiations between then minister Julia Gillard and our Greens Senator Rachel Siewert.
  • Rachel also ensured people needing cataract surgery were able to retain their government rebate.

The biggest test came with Treasurer Swan’s $42 billion economic stimulus package in February 2009. Australia faced recession and double-digit unemployment. But the Coalition blockers said ‘No!’.

With fellow cross-benchers Xenophon and Fielding, we Greens saw the danger and worked out a better package with Treasurer Wayne Swan. We negotiated an estimated 10,000 extra jobs, better local government access to funds and more help for workers, including small business operators, who would lose their income due to the downturn. The Greens’ decision to back the stimulus package saved this nation from recession. It saved hundreds of thousands of Australians’ jobs. Without that Rudd-Swan- Brown package this nation may have had more than ten percent of its people out of work. Because of it, the latest budget projection is for unemployment to fall below five percent in the coming year.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press Club, we are in the election season. The psephologists are almost unanimous in predicting the Greens and Coalition will share the balance of power in the Senate if the Gillard government is returned. That is, any two of Labor, the Coalition and the Greens will be able to pass, block or amend Senate initiatives. Alternatively, a strong Senate vote for the Coalition, which would see it picking up an extra seat in Western Australia, would mean a Gillard House and an Abbott Senate – a recipe for political deadlock. We Greens are the antidote to such a deadlock.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, there has been a wall of studied disinterest at meeting my drive to get three hours set aside each week to debate private senators’ bills. Other parliaments have specific time to debate private members’ legislation, for example in London and Wellington. But in Canberra, the Senate’s Procedure Committee has done nothing. No progress at all. That’s because the big parties don’t want private members’ initiatives. However, I assure you, we will change that sooner or later precisely because such initiatives will make the Parliament work better for Australians.

Often private senators’ bills are years ahead of governments and bureaucracies with innovative ideas. Here are some of the other Greens bills queued in the Senate because of the inaction, if not downright hostility, of Labor and/or the Coalition.

There’s Christine Milne’s bill for national feed-in-tariff laws to reward businesses and homeowners who produce solar power or other renewable electricity. Germany got feed-in-tariff laws ten years ago. But in Australia, it has been ‘no-go’ to these business-friendly environmental laws. Her suite of eleven bills for real action on climate change remains on paper, instead of in action, because the bigger parties don’t want them.

Senator Scott Ludlam’s national beverage container and deposit legislation introduces a 10 cent reward for the return of cans and bottles. It would create thousands of jobs, instead of kerbside rubbish. But it has not been debated. Don Dunstan’s South Australia passed such legislation 35 years ago. Two weeks ago the Gillard government joined with the Abbott opposition to again block Senator Ludlam’s motion for a national scheme.

Scott's other bill, inherited from Democrats Leader Andrew Bartlett (who is now, I am delighted to say, the Greens candidate for Brisbane) would ensure Parliament debates government decisions to send Australian troops to war. It too is opposed by Labor and the Coalition.

Rachel Siewert’s bill to prohibit the Japanese whaling industry from using Australian facilities to help pursue and kill whales in the Southern Ocean was blocked. Her bill to ban the use of dangerous 'transfats' in processed and fast foods (these are recognised internationally as a significant health risk and are banned in a number of US states) has not got the go-ahead. Rachel's bid to restore the Racial Discrimination Act, which the Howard government set aside for its intervention in the Northern Territory, was voted down.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young's bill for 26-weeks paid parental leave pre-empted the government's 18-weeks scheme by two years. Her bill is consistent with international experience that shows that the best outcome is for parents to be free to be full-time with their babies for six months. Sarah’s bill for a National Commissioner for Children and Young People is strongly supported by organisations such as Save the Children and the Australian Human Rights Commission but has no support from the old parties; and her bill for a National Education Ombudsman to help international students and to improve standards of education options available to them awaits debate.

My own bill for a National Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission also waits. My bill to end back-room party preference deals was spurned. So was a bill to restore the rights of the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory to legislate, without a federal minister being able to override. The big parties spurned bills for a new referendum on Australia becoming a republic and for voluntary euthanasia - the right to die with dignity, as well as legislation to protect children from junk food advertising.

Yet I am confident that many of these ideas will get parliamentary approval between now and 2013, provided we Greens are returned in stronger numbers.

As Guy Pearse writes in the current issue of The Monthly magazine, "The Greens now look more liberal than the Liberals, more labour than Labor and – unsurprisingly – far greener than both."

Ladies and Gentlemen, after a chance meeting I had with the Independent member for Lyne, Rob Oakeshott at Aussies Coffee Shop, moves are under way for occasional get-togethers of the crossbench members of both houses. We are an eclectic lot. For example, you might see dissimilarities between the Senate’s Christine Milne and the House’s Bob Katter. But we will all gain from a meeting, say once in each of the three sitting terms each year, to exchange ideas and experiences. Such get-togethers will foster the interests of the one to two million voters who do not vote for either Labor or the Coalition. Less than a caucus, but more than a chat-room, we will be working to have this bicameral crossbench get-together under way in the new parliament.

Peter Andren would approve! That Independent member for Calare from 1996 to 2007 was renowned for his fearless integrity. Peter gave politics a good name. So I am looking forward to joining his family and friends, stone-mason Jeremy Buckingham and other members of the Orange City Council to unveil a plaque and plant a eucalypt in his memory on 28 July, in Orange's Mount Lindsay Rotary Park.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Kevin Rudd’s mining super profits tax was a good idea. It was twenty years in gestation, since first touted by Ross Garnaut, then came out of Ken Henry’s Review. It and Mr Rudd fell foul of one of the most highly publicised lobbying tours-de-force in Australian history. I am awaiting answers from Treasury as to whether $4 billion per annum or more has been lost to the budget in future years. I had hoped to give you some details here today, but the Treasurer has said 'No' to my request for a Treasury briefing.

I note that the Treasurer is releasing the current accounts budget figures today – and no doubt he will announce stronger than expected return to surplus. That strong return, Ladies and Gentlemen, whatever it is, will be diminished by billions because of the cave in to the miners.

We Greens propose a Sovereign Fund for Australia. Norway has squirreled away $450 billion in a Sovereign Fund from its tax on finite oil and gas resources. We will argue strongly for a similar fund when the mining tax legislation comes to the Senate next year. That is if Labor is returned, and if, after Martin Ferguson and Don Argus have set the method of evaluating mines, there is any revenue much left for Australians.

A Sovereign Fund would make possible the otherwise impossible, for example high speed rail between all our mainland capitals. A one year inquiry into this exciting transport option for the Australian continent would, if it were to draw in the world’s best expertise, cost $10 million. I put that to the Senate. Labor and the Coalition voted it down. Apparently when it comes to high speed rail, the other parties, including the Nationals, simply don’t want to know about it. Well, in the new parliament, we Greens will pursue this nation-building option vigorously.

The Greens will also continue to work for Denticare, a universal dental care option to end the current situation where more than 500,000 Australians are in queues for a dentist. It is estimated that dental disease costs the economy $2.4billion in direct costs and lost productivity.

Denticare will provide universal comprehensive basic primary (non-cosmetic) dental care for all Australians, through the expansion of the currently established dental Medicare provisions for the chronic illness dental scheme established by the Howard government. It will be implemented over a period of five years to cover the entire population, with those on low incomes and most in need of dental care being treated first.

A redirection of funding from the Private Health Insurance Rebate Scheme would fully fund Denticare in its first year.

The Greens will also continue our push for more funding for mental health services. With one in five Australians affected by mental illness at some stage of their lives, this is an issue to important to ignore. Yet the government has overlooked both these key health issues in their $50 billion health reform package. The Greens want to see a minimum $350 million immediately invested in community based mental health services - and it is pleasing to see that Tony Abbott has also keyed in to this level of spending. We also believe that a new Minister for Mental Health is needed to oversee this critical area.

In March I also moved for a population inquiry. It was to be an independent assessment of the government’s role in determining Australia’s future population (predicted to reach 36 million or more by 2050) and also, of course, our role in helping contain the global population surpassing nine billions by 2050. While Labor voted down that option, I congratulated Prime Minister Gillard for renaming the Ministry for Population, set up by Kevin Rudd, the Ministry for Sustainable Population. And I will urge her to consider again setting up a broad, independent inquiry to involve all Australians in this issue.

There has been no full parliamentary debate on Australia’s troop commitment to Afghanistan. The Greens, in concert with a majority of Australians, want an end to the deployment of our courageous and admirable Defence Forces personnel to this terrible, decade-old conflict in which thousands of people, including civilians, die each year and in which millions more have been displaced. Our troops, like those of the Netherlands, should be safely returned home.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Greens are not protectionists. We recognise and support the benefits of global trade for the Australian export industry. But we believe that this should only occur with stringent quarantine laws and procedures to protect the integrity of our agricultural industries.  Australia's biosecurity must be a paramount consideration in all global trade agreements. 
The Greens support increasing Australia’s overseas aid budget to the level agreed for developed nations – 0.7 percent of Gross National Income by 2015. Increases in Australia’s aid program under Kevin Rudd’s watch were welcome, and will soon see AusAID managing one of the largest government agency budgets. It is expected to be within the top five government agencies by 2015, even with the government reneging on 30 percent of that 2015 target. The Hawke Government had a Minister for Trade and Overseas Development, but it was only in place for one term. We propose that the next government should establish a new Ministry for Overseas Aid and International Development.

One great opportunity may not await the election. It deserves full federal involvement right now. I first alerted Tony Burke and Mark Arbib to this two months ago. Due to the predicted ‘wall of wood’ collapsing markets, Australia’s native forests logging industry is in trouble.  So, in the mould set by Western Australia’s Labor Premier Geoff Gallop in 2004, Labor governments in Canberra, Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney are now in the box seat to help the industry transit to a fully plantation-based future. This would allow for the protection of Australia’s remaining native forests as national parks. In Tasmania’s case, it opens the way to World Heritage status for the tallest flowering trees on Earth in the Tarkine wilderness and in the Huon, Weld, Styx and Upper Florentine valleys.

There is huge public support for this win-win prospect in the forests,  as there is ongoing opposition to the proposed Gunns Pulp Mill in Tasmania's Tamar Valley. Now Gunns, under new management, is headed out of logging native forests to a future based on established plantations, and it is hoped will now reconsider the pulp mill proposal as well.

There are two added bonuses for action.

Ending the needless destruction of Australia’s native forests and woodlands, from Tasmania to the Tiwi Islands, would also reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 15 to 20 percent. As well, protecting forests, woodlands, like grasslands, arid lands and our marine ecosystems, protects biodiversity – an urgent task for Australia which has been responsible for half the extinctions of mammals in the last two centuries and the lost of 61 flowering plant species for forever.

Ladies and Gentlemen, on asylum seekers, I agree with union leader Paul Howes. He wrote in last weekend's Sunday Telegraph: "Most people, despite international law being crystal clear on the subject, still incorrectly believe that if you arrive by boat, you are an illegal immigrant. I think it's sad that we, as a nation of immigrants, are unable to feel more compassion and be more welcoming to those who arrive here after us."

Senator Hanson-Young has just arrived here from visiting Curtin Detention Centre in far north Western Australia. The Gillard government is moving, to use Kevin Rudd's prescient words, to the right on this issue. We Greens back international law to apply. We reject the vilification of refugees through the use of such terms such as "tsumani" and "invasion" by Opposition Leader Abbott. Wouldn’t it be good if there was a meeting of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and myself to agree on a better framework for this debate? We could all look to improve the debate on how the less than two percent of people who arrive here by boat should be assessed and, where appropriate, helped become happy and productive Australian citizens.

A three-way leaders' meeting could also seek agreement, before the election, on truth in political advertising. In the absence of a watchdog on political advertising, I propose that all parties agree to forgo misleading or hateful advertising about each other so that Australians are more fairly informed on their way to the ballot box.

The Australian Greens have a first class team of candidates who will prove to be excellent Senators or, if elected to the House, exceptional Members to promote reform and innovation for this lucky country in the 21st century.

My fellow Senators Christine Milne from Tasmania and Rachel Siewert from Western Australia are standing for re-election.

In the other states, our lead Senate candidates are Richard di Natale (Victoria); Larissa Waters (Queensland); Lee Rhiannon (NSW); Penny Wright (South Australia) and Lin Hatfield-Dodds  (ACT).

Among the Greens lower house candidates are Adam Bandt (Melbourne); Andrew Bartlett (Brisbane); Tony Hickey (Sydney); Sam Byrne (Grayndler) and Dr Geoff Couser, our candidate for Denison.

I’d also like to introduce you to Warren H Williams, who will be formally launched by Senator Scott Ludlam as the Greens Senate candidate for the Northern Territory in Alice Springs tomorrow. I am delighted to welcome him to our campaign team.

I have never been happier or felt more enthusiastic about the prospect of leading the Greens to an election. We have a lively, intelligent and cohesive Party Room, a wealth of political experience and a fine record of parliamentary achievement.

More than half the voters surveyed in our national Galaxy poll, which I have released today, agree.  A two to one majority of Australians approves of the role the Australian Greens play in the Senate.  We Greens have shown the judgement and ability to negotiate better outcomes which the Australian community wants.

And there will be much more of it in the next three years. I look forward to this election and a positive working relationship with Prime Minister Gillard – or Prime Minister Abbott – after voters make their choice, and more than ever that will be for the Greens - on that great day of democratic decision-making next month.

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