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The Last Resident of Acland

By Fiona Reynolds
Created 19/08/2010 - 16:18

The Last Resident of Acland
Senator Bob Brown at the National Press Club, 18 August 2010 [1]

Ladies and gentlemen, Saturday is crunch time for Australia. In the Senate it will either be a vote for the Greens in bigger numbers, providing accountability, or a return to Coalition domination. I will come back to these options, but first I want to talk about the campaign.

Three messages have been repeated to me from people in the streets of Australian cities and towns these last weeks as I travelled from Darwin to Melbourne, from Mackay to Cygnet, from Orange to Gunghalin, from Adelaide to Perth.

First, elections are bad for business. People stop spending. Whether it's at the newsagent or the petrol pump, receipts are down. Sunday can't come too soon for small businesses across Australia.

Second, a pox on both their houses. There is enormous disappointment and frustration with both the bigger parties; at their in-fighting and failure to lay out a vision for Australia.

Third, there has been a very warm-hearted response I've had from people in the streets - ‘I'm voting for the Greens this time', ‘Good on you Bob', ‘I hope the Greens go well', ‘at least you stand for something!'

This country wants leadership and it is the Greens who are delivering leadership.

Last week, I went back to Toowoomba on Queensland's Darling Downs and, for my first time, to the nearby village of Acland. However, when I got there, Acland was missing.

This was a town of 250 people in the rich Darling Downs agricultural area, which won the title of 'Queensland's Tidiest Town' in 1989. But Acland has been demolished. Only one house remains.

Acland is where all that is wrong with Labor and Coalition politics comes together with an astonishing result which pulls the rug from under the notion that this wide brown land's beautiful plains are sacrosanct, the idea that farmlands are needed to feed future generations. No, the Acland farmlands are going. They are being converted into an open-cut coalmine. That pit will be seven kilometres across.

A few weeks ago, in the Oxygen Café in Toowoomba I met the last resident of Acland - Mr Glenn Beautel. Like a good many other bush folk I've met in my time, he's pretty quiet. But he also has that quintessential Australian stubbornness against letting the wrong thing happen. Despite the coal company's entreaties, Glenn has refused to move. His is the last house in Acland.

He is also committed to saving the Anzac Memorial Park, just down the road. His late mother and father worked for years to establish the park. He doesn't want the coalmines to destroy their Memorial Park too.

Glenn gave me a recent photo of a koala getting through the back fence. He has more photos of koalas in the deserted town's main street. The coal company is not just displacing humans and farmland; it will destroy the habitat of these koalas, our national icon. Well, where are you, Greg Hunt and Peter Garrett? When I moved in the Senate, recently, for an inquiry into the koala's fraught future, the big parties derided the move. It was voted down.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, every day we wake up to a world with more mouths to feed and less land to feed them. As I speak, climate change-fuelled drought and fires are decimating the crops of Germany and Russia. And a massive flood is moving down the fertile Indus Valley, Pakistan's food bowl.

In Australia, as in pretty well all others, top grade land for growing wheat, potatoes and fruit is being permanently taken out of production by rapidly spreading suburbs, highways, monoculture plantations and, worst of all, climate change.

The Garnaut Report to the Rudd government predicted that 90 percent of the productivity of Australia's own greatest food bowl, the Murray-Darling Basin, could be lost due to climate change-induced drought, heat and pests, later this century. Neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott has ever acknowledged or mentioned this fact.

Acland on the Darling Downs, at the top end of the Murray-Darling Basin, would be, you'd think, premium safe land in the hands of our political strategists, in this age of mounting global food insecurity.

But not so! Instead of saving Acland, a coal company, which in a masterstroke of greenwash is called ‘New Hope', is getting the nod from the Labor politicians in Brisbane and Canberra, as well as the Coalition.

The coal will be burnt, loading the atmosphere with more carbon, hastening global warming and, perversely, accelerating the destruction of the productivity of what's left of the Murray-Darling Basin.

This coal madness - the NASA Institute's James Hansen, who alerted Congress to the threat of climate change back in 1988, calls it ‘criminal' - will rip 6-20 percent off the gross domestic product off our grandchildren according to Sir Nicholas Stern.

Sir Nick spoke at this very podium 3 years ago, but as far as the Coalition and Labor are concerned, he may as well have been talking on Macquarie Island. He is coming to Australia again soon and I hope the next Prime Minister will listen to him.

The tragedy of Acland underscores the planning irresponsibility of Labor and the Coalition - and their economic irresponsibility in committing to never having a carbon price. I was astonished, on Monday, when Julia Gillard followed Tony Abbott's commitment to never allow a carbon tax. Her reversion on the mining tax to the big miners a month ago, was little less alarming.

The Prime Minister's backdown to the big coal and iron-ore mining corporations will cost future budgets, after 2013 -14, some 9 billion dollars per annum. Worse, Tony Abbott, Leader of the Coalition - spell that C-O-A-L-ition - says he won't collect a dollar out of the mining super profits. His total surrender to the miners will rip some $20 billion off Australia's future budgets. That's $20 billion ordinary Australians will pay in tax, starting with small business. Or else it's $20 billion not available for nation-building: for high-speed rail between our cities; or for modern, fast, clean, efficient, cheap light rail within our cities.

Just twenty percent of that $20 billion could fund a national dental system to help the 500,000 Australians now on waiting lists to get dental care. This reasonable tax income will also enable the Greens, unlike Labor or the Coalition, to put $2 billion extra into Australia's education system. Let me quote to you from Professor Richard Teese from the University of Melbourne's opinion piece in the Age on Monday:

"It is a failed vision of public schooling that subjects the Labor Party to the indignity of scavenging on the scrapheap of failed educational reform. The Greens, by contrast, start from the premise that public schooling is intrinsically valuable and the best vehicle to engage all children. They want a public system that is "recognised as among the best in the world". Can either of the big parties say this or mean it? Is either prepared to draw out the consequences - setting high standards for all public schools, adopting the funding priorities that this requires, and making durable improvements in the quality of the teaching force?"

Australia ranks 18 out of 30 in a comparison of OECD for funding to public education (excluding tertiary) as a percentage of GDP. Based on the most recent available figures, for Australia to be a leader in OECD, spending around 4% GDP, would require an additional $5.2 billion.

As you know, the Greens support the Mining Super Profits tax as originally proposed by Wayne Swan and Treasury which would raise that 20 billion. However as a first step in the new parliament, the Greens will negotiate an adjustment to the mining tax so that it raises an additional $2 billion that will boost the public school system to fund a range of important areas.

We would check all Indigenous children to ensure they don't lose their hearing to otitis media (middle ear infection) at a cost of just $3.5 million. Hundreds of children in northern Australia are suffering from hearing loss in this wealthy nation of ours, in some places more than 10% of children have suffered hearing loss and the Greens would put an end to it.

We will also invest $320m over four years in a Commonwealth Teaching Scholarship Program. This will provide 3000 teaching scholarships worth $5000 a year each for up to 5 years. Scholarship recipients will be required to work in a public school of high need for 3 years. The program will cost an estimated $17m for the first year and up to $80m a year on-going, and it will help address teacher shortages which are predicated to grow with increased retirements.

Our Teacher mentoring and support initiative would cost $600m over four years. It will support early career teachers who are at high risk of leaving the profession within 3-5 years, and fund trial schools up to $70 000 to employ an additional teacher, to reduce workloads of first year and mentor teachers, as well as $5 million for establishing and running the mentor training. The total cost per year will be around $150m.

The Greens will also bring back the Restoring Asian language literacy in schools program, costing $94 million over 4 years. Under-funding for the Asian language program over the past decade has resulted in a significant decline in the study and completion rate of this hugely important program.

Additional funding will be invested in the development of Australia's teaching workforce, as well as addressing the shortage of maths and science teachers. We will also use this nation's mineral wealth to better fund Australia's universities and TAFE community.

Ladies and gentlemen, the high speed rail saga showed the real value of the Greens in Australian politics. When I moved for a national study into high speed rail in the Senate, a few months back, Labor and the Coalition voted ‘no!' The Coalition branded the study a waste of people's money.

We Greens persisted. Now, in the middle of this campaign, Labor, seeing how popular the project is, has switched to ‘yes!' Remarkably, the Coalition alo switched to 'yes'. Australia will get high speed rail, carrying millions of people between our big cities, years earlier because we Greens are in the parliament.

But, with no Sovereign Fund from a 40 percent super profits tax on mining, who will fund High Speed Rail? Labor and the Coalition back the study. But won't they then complain there is no money for the connection between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne - or between Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane, let alone linking Adelaide and Perth?

And while public transport languishes, both major parties will pour hundreds of millions of dollars into new rail track and port facilities to export more coal, for an industry 75 percent owned overseas. Labor and the Coalition are putting coal before people, and selling out Australia's future in terms of not only public transport, but climate change and its looming potential to severely damage the nation's economy.

Whether we get High Speed Rail rather than more coal trains depends on whether people vote Green for the Senate next Saturday. I will come back to the double peril involving the Senate in a minute.

First, I want to remind you, Ladies and Gentlemen, of some of the other policies the Greens are putting before the Australian people. You may have missed them for very good reason - too much of the news pages have been too full of piffle to cover them.

Which takes me to the next Parliament. Let no one undervalue the rolled-gold contribution to the House of Representatives there will be if the people of Melbourne - or of Denison or Grayndler or Sydney or Brisbane or Adelaide or Fremantle - vote a Green MP onto the floor of the House of Representatives.

Adam Bandt, if elected for Melbourne, can take into the House the program I am outlining here today. He will not be just another backbencher. He will be there to advocate and campaign, over the next 3 years, for the Greens' platform of innovation. He will be able to introduce legislation to end marriage discrimination. He will back the rights of refugees. He will move to abolish the dubious Australian Building Construction Commission, and he will advocate better funding for schools in need. A Labor or Liberal member for Melbourne will do none of these things.

In the Senate, the Coalition is one seat short of control, especially in the 11 months until newly elected senators from the six states take up their seats in July next year. However, if the Australian Capital Territory Greens' Lin Hatfield Dodds displaces Liberal Senator Humphries - he who also voted against the schools building program - she will immediately take up her seat and so ward off that domination of the Senate. She will be a Greens front bencher replacing a Liberal backbencher.

In the ACT, voters are very aware that the Abbott team is committed to cutting 12,000 positions from the Commonwealth Public Service in 2010. One study indicates that, with flow-ons, this could cost 30,000 jobs.

So the prospect of a Coalition dominated Senate looms large. Labor can't win a Senate majority. But if a Gillard Labor government is elected this Saturday, a Coalition dominated Senate will spell parliamentary deadlock. If an Abbott government is elected, and also controls the Senate, that will leave Parliament every bit as debilitated as it was in the Howard years. Remember how between 2004-07 the hugely unpopular WorkChoices laws were rammed through both houses, and Telstra was sold out of public ownership? That's why a vote for the Greens in the Senate is so important.

The ACT will save the day if it votes for Senator Hatfield-Dodds. But the Greens bonus is within the reach of every other Australian voter too. In Queensland, the Senate option is Greens candidate Larissa Waters, in NSW it's Lee Rhiannon, in Victoria it's Richard Di Natale, in South Australia it's Penny Wright, and in the Northern Territory it's Warren H Williams. And of course, Tasmanian and Western Australians can ensure the return of two of contemporary Australia's most outstanding parliamentarians, Christine Milne and Rachel Siewert.

The Greens are on twelve to fourteen percent in the polls. Yet we have injected most of the nation-building ideas into this campaign. Where the Coalition and Labor are failing the hopes of Australian, we offer stability, experience in leadership and a real vision for voters to latch on to.

We will give Australians the accountability they deserve in the Senate. We will be the people's watchdog, whichever party wins office next Saturday. That is my commitment to all Australians.

I do have a vision for Australia. And I won't be consulting the telephone book to refine it, and I won't be asking you to suspend belief unless it is written down. The Greens are the smaller party with the big ideas for Australia, up against the bigger parties with the small ideas.

That's why, next Saturday, Australians who seek an assured, secure and exciting future, should go to the ballot box with a new purpose in mind and vote Greens!

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