House debates

Wednesday, 30 March 2022


Cass, Hon. Dr Moses Henry (Moss)

12:22 pm

Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution in the condolence motion for Moss Cass, the Hon. Moses Henry Cass, who was Australia's first environment and conservation minister in, of course, the Whitlam government. We've heard some really terrific condolence speeches for Moss Cass in the main chamber in support of this condolence motion, and, as the shadow environment minister, I wanted to make a contribution as well, to recognise the really nation-changing work that he did as our first environment and conservation minister.

He was also, more broadly, someone of very progressive bent. You heard him described yesterday, or the day before, as 'the minister for lost causes' in the Whitlam government. But they weren't lost causes; he was just well ahead of his time. He was a proponent for legalising cannabis. He was a proponent for legalising abortion. He was a proponent for legalising homosexuality. He was a pioneer of universal health care. He was responsible for creating the SBS. He was responsible for issuing experimental radio licences, forming the basis for community radio broadcasting here in Australia. He was someone whose activism has left an indelible mark on Australia. And Australian society—in some cases, decades later—has caught up to him.

I remember reading, in a biography, actually, of Harriet Harman, the UK Labour deputy leader and former acting leader, that she talked about the phenomenon where what was considered to be radical could then turn into orthodoxy. And that's certainly a hallmark of Labor: sometimes what we put forward can be described by some as radical, but it later becomes orthodoxy and seems, in retrospect, to have been inevitable. And you could certainly say that about Dr Cass and the work that he did and the ideas that he had. Deputy Speaker, I know that you would have an affinity with Dr Cass—both of you medical practitioners and people who stand strongly for environmental protection and conservation. Isn't it terrific that we have a tradition of medical doctors who come to this place? They bring their medical expertise. They also bring a progressive approach and a commitment to many causes much broader than their own discipline and professional capacity. With respect to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and with respect to the late Dr Cass, doctors understand that everything is interconnected—that, to be a healthy society, we have to look at all of the determinants of health, and that, to be a good and just society, we must have laws and frameworks and policy decisions that promote better arrangements for our society and better arrangements for our natural environment as well. And that includes conservation.

Dr Cass instituted the most significant environmental legislation in the postwar period. He instituted the predecessor to today's environmental laws, a really important framework for assessing the impact that developments have on the environment. Again, it just seems like orthodoxy today: it is inevitable that we would assess the impacts of projects and development on the environment. But Dr Cass brought in this framework in the mid-1970s, and it really was the predecessor. Former Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe AO has said that Dr Cass was responsible for the most important environmental legislation in Australia's postwar period. He's been quoted as saying that. And that's right.

And Dr Cass was responsible not just for our domestic environmental law, for ensuring that we have in this country the right domestic settings for environmental protection, he was also a pioneer on the international stage in relation to developing international movements and international frameworks for environmental protection and conservation. I want to mention a few examples of that work. In June 1973, Dr Cass announced that the cabinet had decided that Australia would sign the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. He said: 'Cabinet's decision meant that the Customs Act and regulations would be amended so that international trade in the species will be prohibited. A decision was taken to protect a number of mammals, birds and reptile that have been designated at the conference to conclude the international convention.' So he was a leader in making sure that Australia supported this really significant international convention; and he talked about what else we could do, as a country, to demonstrate leadership in relation to species protection.

Dr Cass also announced in 1974 a bilateral treaty with the Japanese government to protect migratory birds and birds in danger of extinction and their environment. That was a bilateral treaty of great significance. In fact, last week I was at a former golf course that is being turned into an environmental precinct in Victoria and the environmentalists and local government representatives there were talking to me about the Japanese snipe. So it's quite interesting to reflect that, before I was born, the first environment and conservation minister was issuing releases about what more Australia could do in a bilateral approach with Japan to protect that particular migratory bird. He was very committed to the conservation and protection of biodiversity, including those migratory birds. The significance of this is vast. I suspect he was incredibly proud that Australia became the first full party to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. He made that announcement in May 1974, a little while after the Japanese bilateral agreement. He said, 'By signing the wetlands convention, Australia has become the first full party to it.' He noted that other nations, like Finland, Iran, the UK and several others, were close to signing it or were going to sign. This, I think, demonstrates that Dr Cass was willing to take this international leadership to really push for treaties to be a basis for environmental protection.

It was in the context of Australia becoming the first full party to that convention that there was then triggered an obligation on us as a nation to designate at least one wetland for the list to be made under that treaty, and that is how Australia came to list the Cobourg Peninsula on the Northern Territory coastline, north-west of Darwin, on that list of wetlands of international significance. As was said at the time, this was a further example of Labor's high level of activities in nature conservation, which has included enthusiastic acceptance of our international obligations. Again, this is an example of what Australia can be when it comes to environmental protection. We can be a country with domestic laws that facilitate environmental protection and conserve biodiversity. We can also, despite us not being a large country by population, be a beacon for the international community of what environmental protection can be. We can do those things. I think it would be wonderful to see the election of an Albanese Labor government that had a disposition towards Australia demonstrating leadership in the world in relation to environmental protection.

I also want to mention Dr Cass's announcement in 1973 of a national water policy. Water policy in this country has been fraught since before Federation. There have always been struggles—I guess that would be the right word—in respect of the allocation of water, the use of water and ensuring that water is available for all of its uses, whether they be leisure, human need, environmental, cultural or agricultural. So it is incredibly significant that in 1973 Dr Cass announced a comprehensive policy statement for the future management of Australia's water resources. He said in the announcement that this was the first time there'd been an overall policy framework advanced for the future management of Australia's scarce water resources. Don't we know today how important it is to actually have a national approach? Hasn't that been demonstrated to us by the consequences of the current government's decision almost a decade ago to abolish the National Water Commission and to really vacate the field when it comes to ensuring that we have an appropriate national water policy? In 1973, when he announced this comprehensive policy statement, Dr Cass said, 'This policy statement commits the Australian government to ensuring the development of water resources will be fully integrated into the economic, social and environmental planning of the nation.' Quite a different approach, one would argue, is being adopted by the current government.

I want to mention two other examples of environmental protection from Dr Cass that are of great significance to me as the shadow environment minister but also to my home state of Queensland. Firstly, I want to mention the prevention of sand mining on Fraser Island. I've got many friends who are involved in the Fraser Island Defenders Organisation—FIDO, as they're called. This was a matter of great significance to Queenslanders and to the entire nation, and it was Dr Cass who laid the groundwork and established the framework for the end of sand mining on Fraser Island. It was not done until 1976, but it was done as a result of a recommendation of the Fraser Island environmental inquiry. That inquiry had been established pursuant to section 11 of that environment protection legislation that I spoke about earlier. Decades later, Fraser Island was actually inscribed on the World Heritage List. That was a nomination from the Hawke government, and it was building on the work that Dr Cass did in the Whitlam government that allowed that to occur.

The other thing I want to acknowledge, and this has been acknowledged by everyone who has spoken in this debate, is that it was Dr Cass who, in the Whitlam government, established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. That established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to really protect and care for the entire Great Barrier Reef region. Dr Cass laid the groundwork for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef. These are Whitlam government achievements and these are Dr Cass's achievements. I know that all of us in Labor are so grateful to him for the work that he did for environmental protection and for the broader work that he did for our country. We feel very deeply the loss of Dr Cass, the first environment and conservation minister not just for Labor but for the nation. We express our sincere condolences to his family, to all who loved him, to the environment protection movement. All Australians have really lost a giant.


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