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Senator Waters calls on the Senate to block the EPBC amendment bill

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Senator WATERS (Queensland) (11:50): I rise to speak with the most vehemence possible in opposition to this ridiculous Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014. Surprise, surprise! Tony Abbott wants to trash the environment and make it even easier for the big miners and big developers to trash the place. Well, he has gone too far-far too far.

We have had 30 years now of the gradual stepping up of the Commonwealth government to take on more responsibility for the environment. It has been through international developments with things like the World Heritage Convention, the biodiversity convention and the Ramsar Convention. Of course, there was that famous High Court case of 30 years ago, where the federal government stepped in and said, 'No, you can't dam the Franklin; this is of world heritage significance.' That was when we established the principle that the federal government had a role to play in protecting the environment. Up until then it had basically been up to the states.

Thank goodness that that decision was taken, because prior to that, and in the intervening 30 years, we have seen continued poor decision making by state governments right across the country, continually putting the interests of short-term, private profits and promises of jobs-that rarely eventuate, I might add-ahead of protecting the environment-ahead of clean water and clean air and a sustainable future for all of us. We have had that for 30 years now, with the Commonwealth stepping in only for the worst of the worst projects-only when there is likely to be a significant impact; a very high threshold-on a matter of national environmental significance. Already, it is just a sliver of the thousands of proposals that go ahead every year. The Commonwealth only ever looks at the worst of the worst, and it has been able to stop some of those most damaging projects.

We saw a couple of years ago, to my great disappointment, a proposal by the then Gillard government to give away those approval powers that the Commonwealth had fought so hard to win over 30 years to state governments, who have a terrible track record of, as I say, letting anything go and letting those private interests trump the public interest of a healthy environment. With concerted community and environment sector campaigning, and with some internal advice that revealed what an absolute dog's breakfast that plan would turn out to be, thankfully the Gillard government resiled from that proposal to hand off those powers.

We are absolutely thrilled that the Labor Party have now changed their view and have today and at other times in recent months confirmed that they agree the federal government should keep what limited environment powers it has to try to protect things such as World Heritage, species that are nationally threatened and internationally significant wetlands. We really welcome that and thank them for that.

I am particularly concerned about the Abbott government's plan not just to give away approval powers as the previous government planned but to, with this bill today, make that go even further. Nothing is sacred with this bill. The water trigger is on the chopping block. People might recall that, in the last parliament, the Greens, the Independents and the then Labor government finally came to an agreement whereby the federal government would start protecting water federally from things such as large coalmines and coal seam gas. We know the huge damage that can be done to aquifers when you punch a hole through them to try to get to coal seam gas. We know the contamination risk is very real-both from the fracking fluids and from the mobilising of naturally occurring carcinogens in the geology. We know the potential for the groundwater table to drop once you start messing with that pressure. So we know the need for the water trigger. I was so pleased when Tony Windsor agreed with the Greens that we needed to keep that power in federal hands. That is why this Abbott government needs this bill. It is because they want to give that away, as well as everything else. Well, 'Over our dead bodies' is what we are saying today.

But it does not stop there. This bill, completely unbelievable in its appallingness, says it is not just the state governments that should take over national environment decision-making powers. It says it is okay for local councils to do that as well. I am a huge fan of local councils and, in the main, I think they do an excellent job within their jurisdictions. But I do not think we should be giving them control over the management of World Heritage areas and internationally significant wetlands. They do not have the expertise for that, and they do not have the personnel to properly perform the role. That particular part of this bill is an absolute outrage.

The third and sneakiest part of this bill is to do with the federal standards, which this government has crowed about and said, 'It does not really matter who is in charge; it will be the same standards being applied by the faceless men making these decisions.' One of the amendments in this bill says that those very standards actually do not have to be reflected in state laws and therefore can be ignored. It makes an absolute farce of the claim that federal standards would ever be adhered to. If they are not in the state laws then of course they are not going to be adhered to. Where is the obligation to adhere to them? The absence of logic in this government's rhetoric boggles the mind. They are the three key awful changes that this bill would facilitate.

There are two stages to this process. The actual hand-off of powers happens by agreement between the Commonwealth and the states, because John Howard put that provision into these laws when they first passed 14 years ago. So there are deals already being done with the states to give away federal environment powers. The Greens intend to block those as well when they come to this chamber. I hope that we will have the support of other parties to do that as well. We need to stop both this bill and those bilateral agreements to make sure that the Commonwealth can still look after World Heritage and things such as the Great Barrier Reef and water that stands to be affected by coal and coal seam gas.

The government have gone to great pains to claim that there will be all sorts of safeguards, that nothing bad is going to happen and that it does not matter who is making the decisions. They have said that that is irrelevant. There are so many reasons why that is wrong. I will touch on some of those today. I have already mentioned the fact that those standards will not now need to be reflected in state law if this bill passes. That makes a mockery of the claim that the standards would be upheld. We know that the states simply are not going to act in the national interest. That is not their job. Why would they? They are state governments. They are meant to act in their state's interests. They are not going to and nor are they obliged to act in the national interest.

My concern is also that when many of the proponents for the most damaging developments-large infrastructure projects such as ports and the like-are state governments you will have the fox in charge of the henhouse if this government's proposal goes through. What an absolute conflict of interest. How they cannot see that flagrant conflict of interest and how they can live with not putting in any parameters on managing it is beyond me. We know that the standards will fall when the decision maker changes. We know there will be these huge conflicts of interest that will not be able to be managed. We know that those standards will not be reflected in law, and we know that the state laws are already atrocious when it comes to looking after the environment. There have been countless legal analyses of them. No state or territory in the whole country currently meets the standard that the federal environmental laws do. They are just not strong enough. So the notion that you can somehow give the states more powers and that miraculously they will start caring about the environment is truly ridiculous. We know they are not up to the job.

We know that there have been many staff sackings not just federally but also at the state level. In my home state of Queensland, Campbell Newman has been on an absolute rampage to sack almost 14,000 public servants and a large proportion of those from our environment department. We know that there have been 220 staff sacked from the environment department. Where are the personnel to take on this additional federal responsibility? They are not there; they have been sacked or pressured to take a voluntary redundancy. There are not the people to do this work. There is not the legislative safeguard to ensure that the same sort of decision would be made. There is no guarding against this massive conflict of interest of states ticking off on their own projects.

The government might say, 'That is fine. We've got this great call-in power in our draft agreements with the states,' but I have had a very close look at that and it will not work. There is a highly prescribed test for when the Commonwealth minister can miraculously have a state of mind where he or she knows that something fishy is going on at the state level and can call that back in-but it has to be before the state has already issued the approval. How are they going to know that something fishy is going on when they are moving staff on from their own assessment department, and when it is in the state government's interest not to tell people that they are dodgy? I mean-hello, how could that test ever work? The state governments are not going to dob themselves in, so the federal minister will never know, in a timely enough manner, when to step in in the time frame that this so-called safeguard provides. It is a complete farce. The Commonwealth already has only a tiny shred of environmental responsibility and this safeguard, which, frankly, reads like it has been written to fail, would not provide any protection at all.

In the short time that we have had Campbell Newman as our Premier in Queensland, he has set about attacking the environment like there is no tomorrow-perhaps he is intending on there being no tomorrow. I have a list of more than 30 changes: be they repeals, be they watering downs or be they abolitions.

Senator Ian Macdonald: Hear, hear!

Senator WATERS: I know there is support from Senator Macdonald for such an anti-environment agenda. We did not need any confirmation of that, but thank you anyway, Senator Macdonald. I will just catalogue some of those. In those two years there were more than 30 changes made to our environmental laws in Queensland. The Great Barrier Reef, which is very close to my heart, is on the radar of the World Heritage Committee for possible inclusion on the World Heritage list of sites in danger if we continue to trash it with mass dredging and dumping and new and expanded ports for fossil fuel export, which will, of course, damage the reef by way of climate change impacts. When asked about all of those concerns and the international shame that the Newman and Abbott governments are bringing to Australia based on how we treat our reef, Campbell Newman says:

We're in the coal business.
That was his response to concerns about the future of the Great Barrier Reef, the 69,000 people who rely on it staying healthy and being on the World Heritage List for their job and the $6 billion that reef tourism brings in every year. Our Premier says, 'We're in the coal business.'

Apparently we are also in the uranium business, because Campbell Newman has lifted the ban on uranium mining in Queensland. He is allowing the release of legacy mine water. It is no longer just a pilot program. He has now locked that in and extended that out, so we are now treating the reef like a toilet bowl with dirty mine water that is polluted with all sorts of heavy metals and other toxins.

The shale oil mining ban has been lifted as well, thanks to Campbell Newman. The right as a member of the public to object to mines that you are concerned about, for whatever reason-be it your own private interest or be it environmental concerns-has been removed as well. Campbell Newman is shutting down community input into that process.

The Stradbroke Island mining issue has been very controversial. He got a rather large in-kind contribution from a Belgian mining company in the course of his election campaign. That is on the public record. Sibelco helped him out to the tune of about $90,000. What do you know-once he assumes the premiership he then retrospectively reinstates their expired mining lease. If that is not corruption, I do not know what is.

The list of changes goes on. Of course he has defunded the environmental defenders office, because they actually care what the law says and they want people to be able to enforce it-so they must be silenced. He has disbanded the office of climate change, cut the solar feed-in tariff and junked the support for the Solar Dawn project. I have already mentioned the job cuts. He has cancelled our state planning policies, particularly the coastal state planning policy which might have actually helped the Great Barrier Reef. It is now more expensive for community groups to challenge poor and unlawful decisions in the courts. He has released a port strategy that is a glossy version of 'business as usual'. It is fine for cows to go into national parks now. It is fine for hotels to be built in national parks now. Vegetation management-protections for vegetation have been watered down. The waste management levy has been scrapped. Fancy that! Other states are now dumping their waste in our state because it is cheaper for them to do so, as though we are somehow the rubbish tip of Australia. Protection for our pristine and free-flowing wild rivers is gone-abolished. That was about two weeks ago. The list does go on.

Campbell Newman is an absolute disaster for Queensland and, in particular, a disaster for Queensland's environment. We have heard how he has taken money in, I believe, a corrupt manner prior to the election and then granted a particular favour for that Belgian mining company. We know his views on the Great Barrier Reef and just last week he backflipped on a clear commitment to the World Heritage Committee. I should have referred to 'Premier Campbell Newman', if that is the point of order.

Senator O'Sullivan: On a point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President: there are provisions in our standing orders that speak to members of one parliament making assertions against the members of another parliament. I would ask that the clerk give advice in relation to what is a very, very serious allegation against the Premier of the state of Queensland.

Senator WATERS: It sure is.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Smith ): I did not hear the allegations that Senator Waters might have made, but if Senator Waters did make inappropriate allegations then I encourage her to withdraw them.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: On the point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President: I heard Senator Waters distinctly make reference to 'guilty of corruption'. I think on that basis I would also invite Senator Waters to withdraw her comments.

Senator WATERS: In relation to the direct assertion that Premier Campbell Newman is corrupt, I withdraw that direct assertion, but I do note that the inference remains. When you take money and then retrospectively validate an expired mining lease, it is open to conclude that that is, in fact, what has happened. I will leave it at that.

Senator Ian Macdonald: It is even a greater crime on behalf of the senator to say that Campbell Newman, I assume personally, took money. That is an outrageous slur. Not only is it an outrageous slur but it is entirely incorrect and it does not improve the reputation of the Senate for senators to be making those sorts of unwarranted and unsubstantiated allegations.

Senator WATERS: I do not know whether Premier Campbell Newman would be similarly offended by that statement. I believe that he did receive about $90,000 of in-kind support from Sibelco, a Belgian mining company. Perhaps Senator Macdonald might like to take that up in his party room. I might continue if I may-

Senator O'Sullivan: In her efforts to qualify her statements, they are becoming more damaging. This is outrageous.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: The point of order is?

Senator O'Sullivan: I make the point that these allegations need to be withdrawn in the spirit of the standing orders, which indicate that we ought not make these allegations against members of another parliament.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you. I note that Senator Waters has withdrawn the allegation.

Senator Ian Macdonald: Mr Acting Deputy President, on either Senator O'Sullivan's point of order or on a new one: in withdrawing them, Senator Waters actually alleges that Mr Newman-I assume personally-received $90,000 from a Belgian mining company. That is grossly offensive, grossly against standing orders and, by the way, completely untrue and unfactual.

Senator WATERS: I have already responded to exactly the same point of order that Senator Macdonald raised last time by clarifying that I did not assert that he had received the money personally but that he had received in-kind support to the extent of $90,000. I think that is perfectly clear.

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting-

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Waters, please continue with your contribution.

Senator WATERS: With great pleasure. As I was saying, the record of the Newman government-

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: Mr Acting Deputy President, I am concerned about this exchange-

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: And the point of order is?

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: I would appreciate if the matter could be reviewed. Perhaps Senator Waters could reflect on precisely what it is that she said. Could the matter be considered and potentially reviewed by you and by the President, because I am concerned that some of these matters remain on the record and have not been properly and fully withdrawn.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I will report back to the President. If he has anything further to add, he will add it. Senator Waters.

Senator WATERS: As I was saying, the terrible record of the Newman government on environmental issues and, frankly, many other civil liberties issues-the list could go on-with regard to the Newman government's agenda in the last two years leads us to the inescapable conclusion that these are the last people that you would put in charge of internationally significant environmental icons that are not only beautiful, bring many tourists to our shores and make our hearts sing but also bring in an awful lot of economic support for our economy in Queensland. Every year reef tourism brings in $6 billion. This is why for the last two years we have been opposing the plan to put the state governments in charge of what is a national responsibility. They have demonstrated time and time again that they are not up to the job of protecting the environment, and why should they be responsible for carrying out international obligations? That is the national government's role. So we will be opposing this bill in absolutely every part. We have been holding discussions for the better part of those two years-and, obviously, in particular earnest in recent weeks with the crossbenchers about the need for them to vote to retain the federal government's ability to protect these beautiful and significant environmental icons.

There has been quite a lot of talk about whether we should just keep the water trigger. Of course the water trigger is very close to our hearts, being part of the engineering that resulted in that getting onto our law books, but it is not just water that is important. World Heritage is important. The Great Barrier Reef is important. Internationally significant wetlands are important. Nationally threatened species are important. We have these federal environmental laws because these things matter and they are too precious to lose to the wanton neglect and greed of state premiers. When it comes to the vote, I hope the crossbenchers bear that in mind and that we are able to keep all of our federal environment powers and not just the water trigger.

It is no surprise that we see this sort of nonsense from the Abbott government. From their short time in government I have a list of about 18 changes-and even that is already out of date-where they have wound back national environment protections. This one-stop shop has been the grossest one in my view, but getting rid of our science and climate change ministers is maybe not such a great idea when we are facing a climate crisis. Of course, there was defunding the EDO on top of those Queensland cuts, so the poor Queensland EDOs now have no public funding at all for the first time in more than 25 years.

They abolished our carbon price, to the great shame of future generations. They abolished the Climate Commission, tried to get rid of the CEFC and ARENA and approved the world's largest coal port in the Great Barrier Reef. That is on this government's hands as well. They cut the Reef Rescue funding and set up some dodgy offsets fund instead of actually supporting the current scheme that was working. They abolished the water commission, tried to delist the Tassie forest World Heritage listing, considered that we have too much forest locked up in national parks and said, 'The foresters are really the true conservationists.' If it were not so alarming, it would be incredibly amusing.

They are trying to get rid of our world-leading marine national parks and ticking off on all of these Galilee megamines that will single-handedly contribute enormously to worsening climate change-and for what? To make a few people a bit richer. That is not a good deal in my view. They are continuing to deny landholders the right to say no to risky coal seam gas and other unconventional gas on their land. Seriously: why should these people bear the risk and why should we trash our aquifers and groundwater-the most precious resource we have in the driest inhabited continent on the planet-for the sake of a few multinationals' bottom line? Again, not a good deal for Australia.

They are continuing attempts to repeal the mining tax, abolish the biodiversity fund, put a go-slow on the Cape York World Heritage nomination against the wishes of many of the traditional owners and cut Landcare funding. This government is set on destroying the environment, and this bill today is the latest instalment. I think it is one of the worst because it winds back 30 years of protection for the national environment wherein we say the states are not there to do the job of the national government. They should not have to care about international obligations; it is the national government's job to do that. We say that, actually, icons like the Great Barrier Reef and internationally significant wetlands, species and water are too important to simply wash your hands of them because you cannot be bothered having those responsibilities anymore.

I hope today we will see a vote that sees this bill consigned to the dustbin of history permanently.

 

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