Back to All News

The federal government is abandoning Australia’s places and species that are simply too precious to lose

I rise to put on the record as a matter of public interest the grave concerns the Australian Greens have for the future of our precious places and unique wildlife, following the federal Government’s decision to hand over their responsibility to protect these icons to the States. Australia's natural environment is unique and priceless: from the Great Barrier Reef to the Kimberley, to Lake Eyre and the life-giving Murray Darling basin, to Tasmania’s ancient forests and our vast array of plants and animals that call Australia home. Australia's environment is under greater threat today than ever before. Climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and disease, as well as a rapidly expanding resources sector are all putting at risk our valuable natural environment. Yet our primary national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is failing us – and rather than stepping up to save our environment, the Australian Government is intending to weaken these laws even further driven on by Tony Abbott, Liberal state premiers and mining executives. In April of this year, without any forewarning or consultation with the Australian community, the PM and first ministers at COAG bowed to the demands of big business, and agreed to ram through a handover of federal environmental protections for most of our matters of national environmental significance to the states by March of next year. So in the name of supporting big business on the basis of unfounded claims about productivity – which Treasury and independent economists have blown out of the water - by March 2013 our precious heritage places, internationally significant wetlands, threatened and migratory species will lose the protection of federal oversight and decision making on what major destructive projects can go ahead. Australia’s environment needs strong national protection. Throughout history the great environmental wins have been when the federal government stepped in - without strong national leadership Australia would have seen: · Oil rigs throughout the Great Barrier Reef · The Franklin River dammed · The Daintree tropical rainforest destroyed · Cattle grazing in the fragile ecosystems of the Snowy Mountains Our national treasures – both our wild places and species – are fighting for survival. Nothing but strong national protection is good enough. Now is not the time for the federal Environment Minister to be handing responsibility for our most threatened species and precious places to the States, as the Government and the Opposition propose. We have recently seen the dangers of the federal government giving up their role to the states with the Queensland Liberal National Government rush to approve massive coal mines using inadequate environmental assessments, the NSW Liberal Government’s decision to allow hunting in National Parks, and the Victorian Liberal Government’s decision to allow grazing in alpine parks and attempt to build a brown coal export industry. For anyone involved in the great environmental campaigns that launched Australia’s conservation movement – saving the Franklin, or the Wet Tropics of Northern Queensland - the removal of the federal Government’s oversight is a terrifying prospect. So it warrants examination of the States’ track record on the environment, and whether they can be trusted to take over responsibility for protecting the places and the wildlife that is nationally significant. Unfortunately, just the handful of examples that I have time today to go through, shows that they cannot even uphold their own environmental laws – and so the federal government must not abandon responsibility for our precious places and species, because they are simply too precious to lose. QUEENSLAND I’ll start with my home state of Queensland. In a few short months under the new LNP Government led by Premier Campbell Newman, there is a litany of environmentally destructive decisions which show the scary trajectory for Queensland’s wild species and places. Firstly is the repeal of the Wild River laws, which safeguard our mighty free-flowing rivers from mines and dams. In Cape York, Premier Newman is going to ditch those protections and open the Cape up to unbridled development, despite many traditional owners backing the Wild River laws and wanting their rivers protected. Federal Minister Burke needs to step in and protect those rivers using his heritage powers – but he will have to move quickly, because protection of nationally significant heritage places will go to the States come March next year. Sadly under Queensland state governments, protection for our iconic Great Barrier Reef is under threat as well. Bureaucrat-level approval of Australia’s largest coal mine, Gina Rinehart’s 30 megatonne Alpha coal mine, happened two months ago. The mine is the start of the coal rush from Queensland’s Galilee Basin that will see Australia’s coal exports double by 2020, with devastating effects for the global climate and for our precious Great Barrier Reef by adding to the massive dredging, dumping and shipping which is turning the Reef into a coal superhighway. Yet Queensland officials gave the environmental assessment of the mine the tick despite the fact that the mining baron hadn’t even examined the impact of run-off from this project on marine life at the Great Barrier Reef, including dolphins and dugongs. Under the existing agreement between the Commonwealth and Queensland, Queensland has to ensure standards are adhered to which meet the Commonwealth’s requirements. Those standards weren’t met, and Minister Burke had to step in and take over the assessment process, and then amend that agreement to make Queensland’s obligations crystal clear. If the Queensland government can’t comply with existing standards to justify accreditation by the federal government, how on earth can they be trusted with more responsibility and a second lot of standards to comply with? Sadly, the list of examples of State mismanagement of Queensland’s precious environment continues. Gladstone Harbour has been the scene of an environmental tragedy – dugongs, dolphins, fish death and disease - for over twelve months. This has coincided with the start of the biggest ever dredging program, 46 million cubic metres or 65 Melbourne Cricket Grounds worth, to deepen the port for mass export of liquefied coal seam gas. The fishing community and the scientific community say dredging is the main contributor to the Harbour’s environmental tragedy. The Ports Corporation blames natural events such as spring tides and the 2011 floods and the Queensland Environment Department have backed them, despite the only independent science – by James Cook University scientist and vet Matt Landos – strongly implicating turbidity from dredging in the ongoing environmental crisis in the harbour. So far the Government has ignored or dismissed this science. To add insult to injury, the Gladstone Ports Corporation can’t even comply with the limits on turbidity in their state permits. There have been countless breaches of conditions since dredging began. What has the Queensland Government done about enforcing its own standards on water quality? Well, the new Queensland Environment Minister changed the limits. The upped the amount that Gladstone Ports Corporation could pollute Gladstone Harbour with new turbidity limits more than three times the Australian/NZ guidelines for water quality. So if you break the law, never mind, the State Government will change it for you and make it easier for you to keep polluting and killing local wildlife and our Reef. Same deal in June, when it was found that the bund wall where some of the dredge spoil was being dumped was leaking back into the Harbour. Instead of having to stop dredging while the leak was fixed, to keep water quality under control, the State Government let the dredging continue even while the leak was being fixed. This from the same Government who’s Deputy Premier said “I think the whole Great Barrier Reef thing is overdone” and who said he would consider removing Gladstone Harbour from the World Heritage Area, rather than fixing the environmental disaster that continues in the Harbour. And this is the very same State Government that under the federal Government’s strategic assessment, will end up in charge of approving major development in the Great Barrier Reef. Another major mine shows the fatal flaws in the federal Government’s plans to hand over environmental responsibility to the States. Clive Palmer, infamous mining magnate and LNP member and major donor, wants to put a 30 megatonne coal mine right on top of the last remaining bushland in the Gallilee Basin, in Bimblebox nature refuge – a privately owned 8000 protected area which is home to many threatened species. Premier Newman has already declared he is “in the coal business” and it’s hard to imagine him refusing the wishes of his biggest donor to mine this precious area. The only hope lies in the federal Government stepping in to protect Bimblebox. But under the federal government’s plans to hand protection for threatened species to the States, Minister Burke would not even be able to protect Bimblebox. Campbell Newman would have sole control over a mine proposed by a member of his party and its biggest donor. This is just madness. NEW SOUTH WALES Turning to NSW, let’s look at their track record on the environment in recent times – should they be trusted with national environmental responsibility? More native bushland was wiped out in NSW in 2009-2010 than in any other year since records started in 1988, despite the introduction of land-clearing legislation in 2003. In NSW, koalas have disappeared from between 50 to 75% of their former range and now occur mainly on the north coasts. In other parts of the State they are uncommon, rare or extinct. The recent federal listing of the koala as a nationally threatened species allows the feds, for a very short while, to properly assess any projects threatening koala populations. But come March of next year, Burke will be handing that responsibility over to the NSW govt, when deciding whether major projects impacting our nationally threatened species – and in this case our national icon! - will no longer be the federal Minister’s responsibility. Likewise, the New South Wales Government recently agreed to allow shooting in National Parks, in return for the Shooters Party's vote to sell-off of the state's power assets. Shooting will now be allowed in an enormous 79 of the state’s national parks, nature reserves and state conservation areas, including iconic Kosciuszko National Park. Recreational shooting in National Parks risks the safety of park rangers, visitors, native wildlife and our environment, and is wholly inappropriate. Really, Minister Burke – what are you thinking? These are your national environmental responsibilities, hard fought for over decades, why on earth are you palming them off? VICTORIA And what of Victoria? The plight of the Leadbeater’s possum in Victoria’s Central Highlands forests, which is one of the states faunal emblems, is sadly a very good indicator of what lies ahead for threatened species in Victoria come March next year. The Leadbeater’s possum lives in forests subject to Regional Forest Agreements that allow logging of their habitat, and even though they are nationally threatened and would normally be protected by federal environment laws, those laws don’t apply to logging done under Regional Forest Agreements, meaning the feds handed their environmental protection responsibilities to the Vic Government years ago. This is a perfect example of what happens when states have exclusive control over the environment. It’s estimated that there are less than 1000 Leadbeater’s possums left, and they are being pushed close to extinction by logging and 40 years of clear-felling of unburnt forest. A court case in 2010 found the Victorian Government’s VicForests had not surveyed the forests properly for the endangered species, but rather than fix that problem, the State Government is planning to weaken the laws and allow a bureaucrat to exempt any forest coupes they like from protection. This will mean the green light for the continued killing and demise of the Leadbeaters possum and other rare creatures that share its forests. The Baillieu Government showed its environmental colours early on in its term. Barely a month into office, they allowed the return of cattle grazing to the Alpine National Park – an act of environmental vandalism that was met with outrage from the scientific community and public at large, and has required the federal Government to enact special laws to ensure the delicate Alpine environment isn’t destroyed by reckless short term grazing. The fact that the feds have been able to step in a stop this madness, banning cattle grazing in the Alps, just highlights the critical need for our national government to NOT step away from protecting our nationally important assets. TASMANIA And then of course, there’s Tasmania… the place of so many of Australia’s epic environmental battles. Imagine – without a federal government prepared to stand up for the beautiful natural places Australians hold so close, the Franklin would have been dammed, rather than being the wild raging river that is today, and huge tracts of beautiful southwest Tasmania – Cradle Mountain, Frenchmans Cap, the Western Arthur ranges – would not have received world heritage protection. The story of Gunns Ltd and the pulp mill highlights the lengths state Governments can go to evade rather than uphold their own state-based environmental laws. The pulp mill was originally to go through a proper assessment, but this assessment found the information that Gunns’ provided to the assessment panel about the pulp mill’s likely impacts was “critically noncompliant” with the law. So Gunns announced that it didn’t like the process, and that it was withdrawing its pulp mill proposal from the RPDC! Shortly thereafter, then-Premier of Tasmania, Paul Lennon, passed laws to exempt Gunns from state laws and strip the community of rights to protest about the pulp mill, then approved the mill. How on earth do the feds expect that our national environmental laws will be upheld by the states when they don’t even uphold their own laws, but rather amend them to suit their mates’ interests? And of course in Western Australia under the COAG plans to hand off federal responsibility for key environmental matters to the States, James Price Point in the precious Kimberley would be left solely to the Western Australian State Government, which has already fast-tracked the assessment process for a gas hub. In conclusion, historically the federal Government has played a critical role in protecting our nation’s highly valuable assets – our natural resources, our wild places and wild creatures. The Franklin would have been dammed, and the Great Barrier Reef pocked with oil rigs if it wasn’t for the Australian Government standing up for what Australians value. Handing over federal environmental powers to the states is wholly unacceptable. History has shown the litany of decisions State Governments have made where they have been willing to sacrifice the environment, and the federal government has had to step in and take over. This move by the Federal Government to shirk their hard won responsibilities takes environmental protection in Australia back 30 years. Every place that the community has fought to protect is at risk. Please, if you are listening and you care about Australia and think our iconic areas and wildlife are too precious to lose, then write to the Prime Minister, Minister Burke and your local MPs – and tell them to reverse this kowtow to big business and big miners, and to do their job to protect the places that are so important to us all they are too precious to lose.

Back to All News