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Larissa Waters speaks on the importance of strong national protection

Speeches in Parliament
Larissa Waters 14 Mar 2013

Senator WATERS (Queensland): I rise to speak in support of my bill, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Retaining Federal Approval Powers) Bill 2012. This is a crucial bill because it seeks to prevent this government or the next handing off responsibility for our nationally significant environmental icons to state governments.

This would fly in the face of 30 years of gradually increased Commonwealth protection for the environment, and I am sure folk on both sides would remember that great intervention by then Prime Minister Bob Hawke where he stepped in after the Tasmanian government was prepared to dam the Franklin. It went all the way to the High Court and confirmed that the Commonwealth had a role in protecting nationally and internationally significant parts of our environment. That was a seminal moment, and yet it is that moment and the 30 years of environmental law that followed that are now at risk if this bill does not pass.

It warrants an examination of how we even got to this point. We have had John Howard's law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which came in in 2000, and it always had this little section that said the federal government can give away its approval powers to state governments. No-one had ever used it before, and common understanding was this would be a crazy idea, a risky idea, something that simply would not happen—which is why it came as such a shock to the environment movement and to anyone in the community who cared about protecting our environment when in April of last year the Prime Minister, a day after a meeting with the Business Council of Australia, announced that she would be using these very provisions that John Howard put into our laws. Despite Bob Hawke's legacy, she would be using these powers to absolve the federal government of any environmental responsibility for approving projects that could significantly damage our natural icons.

There appeared to be no evidence base to support this decision, and yet all we had was the Business Council of Australia making claims that somehow there was duplication in the system. I want to come to those claims because, sadly, upon examination, they bear absolutely no weight. I say 'sadly' because it is a disappointment that a government has taken such a drastic policy decision with absolutely no evidence base to back it up. The business community has claimed there is duplication here, but the fact of the matter remains that we have already excised those parts of the law that allow assessment processes at the state level to be accredited. Developers do not need to do two sets of documents; they just do one set of documents under state laws, and then those documents get sent to the federal government, who apply a different test, look for different things and then give an approval or refusal—I wish there were more of those, but there have not been many—or place conditions on the development. So any duplication that might have existed in the system was fixed about five years ago with agreements between the Commonwealth and most of the states and territories—all of them, in fact, although one has now lapsed and will soon be renegotiated.

So any of that duplication has already been fixed; and, if there are improvements to be made to that process, fine. We will consider those. We have no problem with that. What I do object to is the Business Council claiming that there is duplication at that approval stage when they know full well that actually it is at the earlier assessment stage. I object to the government not requiring some proper evidence to back up those claims before it says: 'Yes, Business Council, we'll simply do your bidding. I, the Prime Minister, who railed against these very provisions when John Howard brought in these laws, will now use those very sections to opt the federal government completely out of protecting the environment and leave it up to the states.'

I want to explain why it is that we are so concerned about the states being in charge of our national environment. Perhaps Queenslanders will not need me to spell out just how disastrous Campbell Newman has been for our national environment since he took office, but I want to list the things that Campbell Newman has done. I will then talk about the record of some of the other state governments to show that these are the last people you want in charge of nationally and internationally significant environmental assets.

Campbell Newman, in his short time as Premier of Queensland, has managed to say that he will repeal our protection for pristine, free-flowing rivers—that is, repeal our wild rivers laws—despite the wishes of traditional owners, the vast majority of whom say they want those protections for their rivers retained. He is going to do away with protection for rivers and let the big miners and dams go in on our last remaining free-flowing rivers. He repealed our coastal protection laws shortly after taking office. This is the same guy who, when asked about protecting the Great Barrier Reef, said, 'Queensland is in the coal business,' so naturally he is going to be repealing any laws that put the brakes on that. His Deputy Premier famously said he thought concern for the reef was 'really a bit overdone'. The perspective on the Great Barrier Reef by Premier Newman and Deputy Premier Seeney is clear.

So those are wild rivers laws and coastal laws. Unfortunately, the story does not stop there. We have had the ban on uranium mining in Queensland lifted by Campbell Newman. It was a 20-year ban put in place for very good reason. And when we have just seen the second anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, who would want our uranium to be contributing to any such disaster in future? Yet that is what is on the books under Campbell Newman lifting that uranium mining ban. It is not the only ban he has lifted: shale oil mining is now back on the agenda in Queensland, effectively coastal strip-mining along that very reef coast that the LNP government thinks is overblown, and they are repeating that Queensland is simply in the coal business. Indeed it is in the fossil fuel business.

So wild rivers, coastal protection, lifting the shale oil ban, lifting the uranium mining ban, but it does not stop there. Approximately three weeks ago we had the ban on native forest logging lifted in Queensland. This was after a long and tripartisan approach to negotiating the end of native forest logging. This is where the state government, the environment groups and industry themselves got together to say, 'This industry is on its knees, let's phase it out. It is not good for the environment. There is $250 million, industry players. Let's transition to plantation forestry and save our native forests in Queensland.' Everyone agreed to that. The agreement was about halfway through its 30-year lifespan for a 30-year phase-out and all of a sudden Mr Campbell Newman has simply ripped up that agreement. He has not said anything about whether that money needs to be paid back to the Queensland taxpayer and has not said anything about whether he will now let the mining industry go into those forest reserves, although his environment minister has implied that.

So we have a clear agenda by this state government of destruction of Queensland's environment and the removal of any of the environment protections that Queensland had. They are the last people that you want in charge of our nationally significant icons, our World Heritage areas, our internationally significant wetlands, our threatened species that are at risk of extinction. And that is just Queensland; it does not stop there. People will be familiar with the New South Wales state government's agenda of opening up our national parks to shooters, which simply beggars belief given the danger to human life, let alone the ecological impacts of massive noise and disruption on these areas, which are meant to be there to protect biodiversity and protect those natural icons.

It does not stop there. We had the Victorian government wanting to put cows in the Alpine National Park. The federal minister in that case did step in and was able to say, 'Sorry, that's not acceptable. I'm going to use my powers to stop that.' That might be the last time those powers are able to be used. Unless this bill goes through to stop this government or future governments handing off their approval powers, the federal minister simply will not be able to stop actions like that in future. This is serious business here. We have at risk 30 years of environmental protection that has been built up to save our World Heritage icons, to save our precious threatened species. The problem is that those laws are already not strong enough to do the job, so why on earth are we weakening them even further and giving them away to cowboys like Campbell Newman and like the New South Wales and Victorian premiers? It simply makes no sense and it flies in the face of 30 years of the Labor tradition of having the Commonwealth play a role in protecting the environment. That is why we were so dismayed when the Business Council were so easily able to get the Prime Minister to say sure, she will use these provisions, she will hand off those powers.

That all unfolded last year. We then had the December COAG meeting and of course the Business Council love-in that happens the day before COAG now, again an initiative of this government. There appeared to be some pause that had been put in place. It was very unclear. There were some reporters who were tipped off and who covered it that day, but the communique itself that came out of the COAG meeting left the door wide open. It said, 'Okay, we are going to have another look at this issue but states should come back at the next COAG meeting with a more uniform proposal.' My point here is that this hand-off of power is not off the table. The Gillard government have not ruled it out. They have simply said to states, 'Gee, it was going to be a bit of a dog's breakfast. Some of you wanted some powers, others wanted others. This is going to make it complicated and we just want to deliver business certainty, never mind environmental protection. So you had better go back and come with a cleaner proposal, one that is a bit more harmonious and uniform, and then we will give you everything you want because the Business Council tells us to.' So the Prime Minister has not ruled out this reform, for want of a better word, because basically it is a massive backward step and it takes us back 30 years in environmental protection.

My concern is it that Mr Tony Abbott has confirmed, repeated by the opposition again this week, that they will use these powers in the EPBC Act to hand off federal responsibility to state governments. There is no doubt about that. Clearly there is uncertainty about whether the government now will; they are not ruling it out but who knows what they will do. The opposition have said they will use these powers. They cannot wait to use these powers. It was John Howard who put these powers in place in the first place.

So we have a situation where we have a window for this parliament to make a change for the future that will protect our national environment. We have a chance here with the parliament as it currently is to take these sections out of our national laws and make sure that the federal government will always have to give that final tick on damaging developments in World Heritage areas, in developments that might send a species to extinction. We can make sure the federal government will always have that role by passing this bill. It remains to be seen what the government and the opposition will do but there are indications on that in the Senate report into this bill, which I might say is an excellent report that then leads to some bizarrely unrelated recommendations. One could almost surmise that folk on the committee agreed with this bill but felt that politically they were not able to back it, but I will leave that for the commentators to speculate on. We now know that the opposition will use these powers. We have a window where we can make sure that Tony Abbott cannot trash our national environment and cannot leave it up to his state cronies to run our World Heritage areas into the ground, to send our threatened species to extinction. It is incumbent upon this Labor government to work with the Greens, support this bill and protect our national environment into the future. There is this one chance to Abbott-proof our national environmental laws. If the government do not take this chance and if they refuse to support this bill, they will be complicit in allowing either themselves or Tony Abbott's government, should the polls be borne out on election day—

Senator Back: Mr Acting Deputy President, the opposition leader should be referred to by his correct title.

Senator WATERS: Mr Tony Abbott. The government will be complicit in allowing either themselves or Mr Tony Abbott's government, should he form government after the election, to hand off those powers to state governments and to abandon our national environment to the whim of state governments, who will not act in the national interest. That is not their job; of course they will not. They are traditionally seen, and evidence bears it out, to be much closer to developers and to the big miners, although I am afraid that contention could also be put to the two big parties here.

I urge all senators to think long and hard about their position on this bill. I would be so disappointed, as would, I think, the Australian public—and anyone who has visited the reef and knows how beautiful it is and how important and fragile it is and anyone who has visited the beautiful forests of Tasmania and seen the wonderful koalas which are now nationally threatened and experienced the beauty and the joy of our national environment—if it is politics that stops this bill going through. When we have this one chance to make sure that our national environment remains able to be protected by our national government—as folk in the public expect that it should and would be—is politics really going to get in the way of a good outcome?

Perhaps I am naive to think that it is even possible that anything other than that might happen. We Greens stand here saying: 'You have a chance to stand to protect our national environment. Please take this chance. Remove those powers that would allow the federal minister to simply get out of the way and give the green light to state governments to trash the environment as much as they can.' What an absolutely dismaying and depressing outcome that could be.

I want to quickly touch on some of the reassurances that the Labor government have put. They said, 'Oh, it is fine if the states are in charge. It does not really matter who makes the decision, because we will have standards in place and they will have to adhere to the standards.' Coming at this issue as an environmental lawyer who practised in this area for 10 years, I have seen the standards that exist already for that assessment phase and I have seen how they have been breached on several occasions, not least by our Queensland Premier—to the extent that the federal minister had to step back in and take that assessment off Campbell Newman for the Alpha coal mine, Gina Rinehart's big mine, which, sadly, the federal minister then approved anyway.

So we have seen that the states will not comply with standards. There is nothing in the standards that obliges compliance. I asked this question both in estimates and in the Senate inquiry: what is the guarantee that these standards will be complied with; where is the reassurance? I was simply referred to that part of the law that says, 'The federal minister can revoke the whole arrangement if one person has breached one part of it.' Well, do you think that is likely to happen? That is certainly not what has happened so far in those assessment agreements. It is an incredibly unlikely outcome. What is far more likely is that you will see the state governments undermining those standards, letting development through that will trash World Heritage areas—sending threatened species to extinction and riding roughshod over wetland areas and other important international icons—and the Commonwealth will not be about to lift a finger to stop it.

This is such an important bill and I again urge senators in this place to search their consciences and think about the legacy that is at risk here if these sections remain in the law and allow a future Abbott government—or indeed even this government if the Business Council breathes down their neck again as it is wanting to do—to use these powers to hand it off.

I want to mention and thank all of the people so far who have supported the Greens campaign to protect our national environmental laws—the laws that protect the places that we all love. I want to thank the environment groups and I want to thank everyone who went to the trouble of making a submission in support of this bill. The vast majority of the submissions to our inquiry did support this bill. People know what the risks are if we do not pass this bill. They fear Campbell Newman being in charge of the reef with no check and balance at the federal level—and rightly so. So I want to thank those folk for putting their views on the record.

I want to urge senators to really listen to the evidence. We had some very compelling evidence presented in the Senate inquiry, including, I might add, from the environment department themselves, who confirmed that the Minerals Council of Australia and the Business Council of Australia actually had not provided evidence about duplication and delay, that they had given some anecdotes but there was no solid evidence that had been provided. That was a really shocking admission because it showed that the government was prepared to adopt a policy without any evidentiary basis, without any demonstrated need for a change. Frankly, it showed just how in the pocket of big business this government is. And, of course, we know that any future government from the other side of politics would be equally, if not more, in that same pocket.

We have the evidence that was presented so cogently to the Senate inquiry from all of the environment groups, from economists and from lawyers, all saying: 'It is really risky to hand off these powers to state governments. They could do serious damage. There are not enough guarantees that any standards will be complied with. There is a possible loss of public rights. This whole idea is insane. Please do not go ahead. No-one ever thought these provisions would be used. For heaven's sake, get rid of them so that we can always have the national government with that oversight role to protect our international icons.'

Again we have seen the Business Council and the Minerals Council making unfounded claims, seeking to get exactly what they want. It remains to be seen whether the government will still pursue this policy outcome. If they fail to vote for this bill, they are leaving open the option of either themselves or a Tony Abbott government using these powers. I believe that will simply lead the Australian public to the conclusion that only the Greens are prepared to stand up to protect our national environment, to protect our World Heritage areas like the Great Barrier Reef and the wonderful Tasmanian forests, to protect our nationally threatened species like the beautiful Leadbeater's possum in Victoria, and the koala—which is, sadly, now nationally threated. The public will know that only the Greens are serious about actually protecting our environment and that we are the only ones recognising that, in order to have a health economy and a healthy community, you need a healthy environment—and that requires proper federal oversight of damaging developments that stand to threaten these natural icons that could underpin a sustainable economy and give us all great joy for generations to come.

I look forward to the debate and I certainly look forward to hearing, hopefully, a change of position from the two big parties, although, sadly, I am not expecting to hear that. I look forward to the debate on this really important bill.

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