House debates

Monday, 8 February 2016

Private Members' Business

Legal System and the Environment

10:35 am

Photo of George ChristensenGeorge Christensen (Dawson, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes:

(a) the importance of a robust and clear legal system that allows for timely judicial review and certainty for investors and the community alike;

(b) the latest legal challenge brought by the Melbourne based Australian Conservation Foundation to the development of the Galilee Basin is another cynical attempt to abuse due process;

(c) ongoing ‘green’ lawfare is holding Queensland families to ransom and jeopardising Australia’s reputation as a place to do business; and

(d) that rather than protecting the environment, the replacement of the Galilee Basin’s lower emission coal by higher emission coal from other countries could instead cause an increase in global emissions; and

(2) calls on the Australian Labor Party to support legislative amendments to close legal loopholes being exploited by ‘green’ groups.

This motion is of the utmost importance to the people of North and Central Queensland. It recognises that thousands of North Queensland families remain jobless because a small group of people do not like the industry the state's biggest job creating project operates in. A small but very vocal group of extreme greens have formed an army of ecoterrorists using any means they can to impose their own ideological agenda on Australia. One of those means is abusing the legal system, which is supposed to ensure the rule of law is observed to protect citizens' rights and freedoms—a legal system that now unfortunately is a weapon used to wage a war against capitalism, against jobs, against progress and against development. That strategy has inspired the term 'lawfare', and that term means using the law to wage warfare on jobs.

In Queensland, Adani's Carmichael mine project would employ thousands of people to build the country's largest coal mine, to expand the port at Abbott Point in my electorate and to build a railway line connecting the two. Those thousands of jobs would have been filled by now were it not for the actions of the extreme greens. Their campaign of lies, misinformation and frivolous legal action has successfully delayed those jobs for the past three years—a time that has seen 20,000 jobs or more lost from Queensland's resources sector. If these were the actions of a competitor company or a competing country, that competitor would probably be in very hot water indeed. Because these extremists pretend to be environmental activists they get off scot free. Because they make this false connection to the Great Barrier Reef their gross tactics are accepted by many. But holding the reef to ransom is like putting a gun to society's head and saying 'Give me what I want or the reef gets it.' That is an act of ecoterrorism. Their lies, misinformation, slander and the frivolous legal action attacking a company for the sake of furthering an ideological cause can only be described as terrorism if you look at the criminal code.

The actions of the extreme greens have nothing to do with environmentalism but they have everything to do with the ideology of socialism. They do not want to fix climate change—they want to use climate change alarmism as an excuse for wealth redistribution, as an excuse for deindustrialisation, as an excuse to close down the mining industry. They do not want someone who has worked two jobs for 20 years to have more money than someone who cannot be bothered getting up off the couch to collect their dole cheque. They want those hard-earned savings handed over, and the easiest way to do that is to impose a big fat carbon tax on the wealthy. It does not matter that they are trashing jobs, it does not matter that they are trashing the lifestyles of many families; it does not matter to the extreme greens if their actions are trashing Australia's reputation amongst investors, amongst suppliers, amongst customers, and they do not see it as trashing our children's future either—because, they say, there is going to be equality. Our kids can be equally poor and jobless, I suppose. Their claimed justification for the lies, misinformation and lawbreaking that they undertake in the name of their ideology is wearing thin. They are clutching at straws.

The latest legal challenge to the Galilee Basin brought about by the Melbourne-based Australian Conservation Foundation claims that this development will destroy the reef. They have built an image, which has been grasped in the minds of many of the latte sippers in the south, of draglines digging up the reef to mine coal. But the coalmine is hundreds of kilometres from the nearest salt water and even further than that from the Great Barrier Reef. The extreme Greens claim expanding Abbot Point, the port that will export this coal, will kill the reef, but the truth is that dredging operations at Abbot Point are going to be 40 to 50 kilometres away from the Great Barrier Reef. The spoil that is going to be dredged up is going to be disposed of on the port's own land. That is what the extreme Greens insisted happen and that is what is being done. Yet they still oppose it; they still claim it is going to harm the reef. This last-ditch scam—that is the only word I can use: 'scam'—from the extremists is to claim that burning the coal is going to increase global emissions and therefore the reef is going to be destroyed. When you actually have a long, hard look at it, the reality is quite the opposite.

If the Carmichael coalmine project goes ahead this is what will happen. Thousands of Australian families will have jobs. Those workers will have the protection of Australia's strong labour laws and safety regulations. The high quality coal that will come out of that mine will be mined under the rigorous environmental regulations that we have in Australia, especially for this project. Most importantly, Indian coal-fired power generators will burn Australian coal instead of foreign coal, say, coming from Indonesia, where the ash content is higher. Australian coal is much higher quality than foreign coal and will produce fewer emissions than coal that has a high ash content. So the net impact is actually a lowering of emissions.

If the climate alarmists honestly believe the emissions are going to kill the reef then they should be out there picketing support for the Carmichael mine project. That is the reality. India are going to burn the coal. They have built new generators and they are going to be building more. They are going to use those generators to bring hundreds of millions of people out of energy poverty, which is something else that the socialists should be barracking for. That is the reality. No matter how hard the extreme Greens wish it, they cannot change that reality with social media campaigns, a tax on the coal industry or demonising hardworking coalminers in North Queensland and Central Queensland. They cannot change the reality.

I know the extreme Greens and their fellow travellers and movements like Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative have this idea in their heads of some utopia where everything is rainbows and lollipops. I know that the Greens, particularly the Australian Greens, have this pipedream about spending trillions of dollars on health and education systems and having the most generous welfare system on this planet, but with all due respect I say to the Greens: the world you want cannot be conjured up with pixie dust and unicorn bottom burps. It will be built with jobs, not unemployment. It will require economic growth, not economic vandalism. It will be built with technological advances. That must be funded. Wasting trillions of dollars on killing economies around the world will not help. It will not help technology, it will not help the climate and it certainly will not help the thousands of families in North Queensland and Central Queensland who desperately need jobs right now.

There used to be members in this place who would compromise their socialist dreams for the sake of getting people into jobs. Unfortunately, I have to say that from what I have seen so far—and I do not want to be too critical—the Labor Party have not done anything with regard to this project and the jobs it will create, because even though the unions give them money and the unions will benefit out of this, it is going to be the Greens who dictate policy because of preferences.

The Labor Party need to understand that, while the Greens might dictate policy to them through the preference system that we have in this country, those policies are actually destroying jobs, reducing the number of workers that could become union members and drying up funds that need to be in Central Queensland and North Queensland to stimulate good, strong, sustainable local economies. In the end, if we keep with that, there will be no Labor Party. There will just be the Greens. They will overtake the Labor Party because their ideology will reach out to the hard left. What they will do is dry up all the jobs and all the hardworking union members in industries like coal.

With this motion today I am calling on the Labor Party to do the right by workers, to do the right thing by jobs in Central Queensland and North Queensland, and to support legislation, to support the government, in restoring fairness and common sense to this whole situation. I call on members opposite—and I know we have got the very good member for Moreton here, sitting at the front desk—and I call on the member for Moreton to support legislation that is going to curb lawfare and to support efforts against these acts of ecoterrorism that this movement keeps on pushing at us. I call on him and other members opposite to support jobs, get Australia back to work and to create the wealth that will fund the high standards of living that we want to have in this country. We need these jobs desperately and I hope the Labor Party gets on board with the government to get these jobs.

Photo of Ian GoodenoughIan Goodenough (Moore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Andrew SouthcottAndrew Southcott (Boothby, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

10:45 am

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the motion put forward by the member for Dawson, a motion that I feel very strongly about speaking against. The member for Dawson says that:

… ongoing 'green' lawfare is holding Queensland families to ransom and jeopardising Australia's reputation as a place to do business.

When the member for Dawson says 'green lawfare', what he is referring to is an Australian environmental group using the Australian judicial system, as they are quite entitled to do, to challenge a decision that the group believes will endanger Australia's environmental assets. Not just anyone or any group can bring these challenges; the relevant legislation restricts which groups can make an application. They must show that at any time within the previous two years they have engaged in a series of environmental conservation or research activities in Australia or an Australian external territory. Conservation groups do not get any monetary benefit from a successful challenge, and challenges do cost money. They are acting purely to preserve our environment; but it is stressful, it is costly and it is expensive.

Let's look at the legislation that enables these environmental groups to bring such legal challenges. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999—or the EPBC Act—was brought in by that bastion of left-wing policy, the Howard government. The objects of the Howard legislation include:

… to provide for the protection of the environment, especially those aspects of the environment that are matters of national environmental significance; and to promote ecologically sustainable development through the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of natural resources.

To achieve these objects, the act does various things, including promoting a partnership approach to environmental protection and biodiversity conservation through the involvement of the community in management planning. These are commendable objectives and it is hard to see how anyone, 15 years later, would criticise them; but that is what we have seen the member for Dawson do. Obviously, anyone who is sensible and values our precious environment would support the Howard legislation.

It was abundantly clear that the Abbott government did not value the Australian environment. The former Prime Minister Abbott, before he was taken out in the middle of the night, waged a savage attack on the environment from the moment he took office. Foreign Policy, a respected international magazine, referred to the then Prime Minister Abbott as 'the Australian environment's worst nightmare'. We have seen echoes of that today in the speech by the member for Dawson, where he talked about 'climate change alarmism', yet again doing that dog whistling suggestion that climate change is not real.

The Abbott government's record is horrendous. I remember particularly that moment on 25 June; I remember the photograph by Alex Ellinghausen of the members for Flinders, Fisher, Higgins, Sturt and Dickson celebrating at the end of the price on carbon like the weird sisters from Macbeth. I think that photo might be on their walls now as a form of celebration, but I am sure that within a decade that photograph will become a wanted poster as we track down those who did so much to sabotage a responsible response to the environment.

We also saw the Abbott government rush through environmental approvals as soon as they took office. They disallowed the endangered community listing of the River Murray from the Darling River to the sea; they reproclaimed the world's largest marine reserve system so that the managements plans that were in place would have no effect; they ripped funding from the Environmental Defender's Office, the office that allows concerned Australians to challenge environmental approval decisions; and they went backwards on climate change, making Australia a laughing stock by winning five 'fossil' awards at the climate change talks in Warsaw.

We have seen net emissions go up under the environment minister and him somehow arguing that black is white and white is black because it was a good thing that emissions went up. They asked UNESCO to delist 74,000 hectares of World Heritage forest in Tasmania, making Australia only the third country after Oman and Tanzania to try to abandon one of its own World Heritage sites. This is in our time, in the time of the 44th Parliament—unbelievable.

And now, under new leadership but with the same policies—with the same goods to retail—we see the member for Wentworth talking a lot about his commitment to action on climate change, but the reality is that it is all talk. It is hot air only. The Abbott anti-climate-science agenda is still in full swing. It holds him completely in his thrall. What is that saying? The rabbit is always sure it is mesmerising the anaconda—at least until it is eaten. Just last week the member for Wentworth signed off on hundreds of CSIRO job losses, all but ending climate research at the CSIRO. Malcolm Turnbull's government has slashed the CSIRO's budget by $115 million. One in five employees at the CSIRO will lose their job—one in five. This is the biggest loss of jobs in the CSIRO's proud history.

This is particularly interesting given the terms of the motion put forward by the member for Dawson, a motion that notes that if the conservation group were successful in their challenge to the approval for the Adani Carmichael mine it may result in:

… rather than protecting the environment, the replacement of the Galilee Basin’s lower emission coal by higher emission coal from other countries could instead cause an increase in global emissions …

But with the CSIRO's workforce depleted we may never know, because there will be no-one to track the emissions. The director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science says that these job cuts at the CSIRO will result in a catastrophic reduction in our capacity to assess present and future climate change. And when you are the driest continent—when you are the continent that has fantastic farmers who rely on this information—you are really shooting yourself in the foot. Under the Turn-bot or Abb-bull or Abbott-Turnbull government, almost 1,400 CSIRO employees have been sacked.

Photo of Ewen JonesEwen Jones (Herbert, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Ha, ha, ha!

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is not a laughing matter at all, the member for Herbert. The member for Dawson's motion talks about green lawfare holding Queensland family's to ransom. What about the families of the 1,400 CSIRO employees who no longer have employment?

But, putting our trusted scientists aside, why is this government so afraid of conservation groups? The scaremongering campaign by the government, in particular the member for Dawson, is a disgusting attack on Australians who care about our environment. We all should care about our environment. Sadly, we too often only appreciate something when it is gone. The government is afraid of conservation groups because they are looking over the shoulder of the minister responsible for environmental approvals and calling him out when he has not done his job properly.

Last year the Liberal government was extremely embarrassed that a small conservation group in Mackay challenged the decision of the minister in court. The minister made a mistake. It is that simple. But at no time prior to going to court did Minister Hunt admit that he had made a mistake. He could easily have done that at any time—said, 'Oops, sorry, let's start again.' But he did not. The member for Flinders forced the Mackay conservation group to spend lots of money taking this matter all the way to the doors of the court and then, faced with the prospect of an embarrassing loss in court, Minister Hunt finally admitted that he had actually made the mistake. A consent order was made in this matter. The member for Dawson gets on his high horse, but this was a consent order, where all the parties, including the minister, agreed that an error had been made by the minister in the approval process. If the Mackay group had not brought the challenge in court, would the minister have admitted this mistake? Would Minister Hunt have done so? I do not think so.

The government wants to prevent these groups from challenging any of their decisions. You would think from the scaremongering of the government that every decision is being challenged, but nothing could be further from the truth. Since July 2000 there have been 5,500 projects that have gone through the EPBC approval process. Of those 5,500 only 30 challenges have been made on EPBC assessed projects. Of those 30, only six have actually been successful—six out of 5,500 projects. The EPBC has hardly opened the legal floodgates to so-called vigilante groups.

One of the objects of John Howard's EPBC Act is to provide for the protection of the environment, especially those aspects of the environment that are matters of national environmental significance. The current provisions allowed the Mackay Conservation Group to bring this challenge. This challenge was directly related to protecting the environment—in particular, protecting two threatened species. There is currently on foot another challenge to the Adani Carmichael coalmine—the same project that the Mackay group successfully challenged. This time the Australian Conservation Foundation is challenging Minister Hunt's decision, alleging that he failed to consider whether the impact of climate pollution resulting from burning the mine's coal would be inconsistent with Australia's international obligations to protect the World Heritage listed Barrier Reef. The ACF's CEO, Kelly O'Shanassy, says, 'If it goes ahead, the Carmichael coalmine would create billions of tonnes of pollution, making climate change worse and irreversibly damaging the Great Barrier Reef.'

Clearly this is a matter of national environmental significance. The government has shown no respect for the environment or climate change science. In fact, the actions of the Turnbull government last week showed that they do not value climate change science at all. We are extremely lucky we have dedicated environmentalists in Australia tirelessly and fearlessly advocating to protect our precious environmental— (Time expired)

10:55 am

Photo of Ewen JonesEwen Jones (Herbert, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to rise to speak on this motion brought forward by the member for Dawson. The issue here is not so much about the EPBC Act, as far as I am concerned. For those of us who live and operate and work in northern Australia, it is about the system that allows certain projects to be targeted. This is where we come from.

Recently I had a minister in Townsville and we were talking about why we were developing northern Australia. The thing is that we sit there and say that we want to develop northern Australia. He said, 'We should be developing southern Australia.' I said: 'But you guys already have whatever you need. You guys, when you came here in 1788, cleared your land and built your cities under different sets of circumstances. What we want is to be to operate under the same circumstances.' He asked for an example. I said, 'Where are the bauxite deposits in Victoria?' He said, 'There are none.' I said, 'Then why have you got an aluminium refinery there?' The answer is that Victoria has the dirtiest of dirty brown coal fired power. They burn brown coal and they provide cheap electricity to the system, and that way they are able to provide that sort of industry—even to the dairy industry, which is thriving in exporting to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with massive amounts of fresh dairy going through there. The electricity provided in the Victorian system through burning brown coal is central to that.

What we need in northern Australia, especially in my part of the world, in Townsville, is two things: energy and water. We need it to be available, we need it to be affordable and we needed to be plentiful. Without those things, we cannot develop the north of Australia. We will never be a destination for industry—we will never be thought of as a destination for industry—without those things. That is why it is important to get that little bit of common sense around the use of the legal system to halt development. The thing that bugs the living daylights out of me and the thing that people in northern Australia do not like is when you have people in Victoria, on the north coast of Sydney and even in Mackay raising these objections. They do not know what is going on out there. They have a philosophical bent against something and are able to use the legal system to stop it. They are not held responsible for the costs of doing so.

The member for Moreton spoke about the Carmichael mine. This is where I want to take the Carmichael mine. With the Carmichael mine being our base tenant, if they are able to develop a baseload power station, we can then get industry up and running in Townsville. Using that as our base, we will open ourselves up to all the renewable energy projects in Australia—wind farms, solar farms—with the ability to connect into the system. We can talk about raising the Burdekin dam wall and hydroelectricity going from there. We can talk about irrigation for building Hell's Gate dam and the irrigation going into the system to provide extra areas for developing crops which will go into ethanol production. All that stuff is about renewable. Everything we do in this country affects our environment. It is how we manage those things. The member for Moreton went on and on about what we are doing with the CSIRO. In my first term, I went to a number of stop work meetings called by friends of mine who work at CSIRO about what the then Labor government was doing to the pay packets and the jobs at CSIRO.

Opposition is easy. I found that out in my last term. It is easy to sit there and poke your finger and say what work we should be doing. But when you are in government you have to make decisions and you have got to be able to live with them. I think what CSIRO are doing now is about how we handle the consequences of climate change, how we work within the system. No matter what we do within our environment it affects our environment. It is about what we do to manage those things. The very thought that something 400 kilometres west of the Great Dividing Range could destroy the Great Barrier Reef just beggars belief. These people have no idea of how far away these things are. They have no idea of what a decentralised state is. They have no idea of what the state of Queensland is. They sit in Victoria in front of their wood fires and with their brown coal fired power and tell us what we should be doing—please!

11:01 am

Photo of Gary GrayGary Gray (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

I of course rise to speak against this motion. In the course of the last 2½ years we have seen investment in our resources sector plummet. We have seen job losses. We have seen mines close. We have seen the most extreme pressure being placed on our resources sector. I might add that this is not as a consequence of decisions this government has made but as a consequence of the global marketplace in which we operate as a nation. I would make this point to all members: it behoves us all to stand behind our resources sector and not seek political advantage out of it. When I sit in this place and hear the member for Dawson speaking of eco-terrorists, extreme greens and ideological terrorism it really worries me because it is that kind of extreme language from those who oppose the resources sector that causes great concern; and now, increasingly, I hear it from those who would have us believe that they are doing it on behalf of the resources sector when they are actually doing it on behalf of their own petty politics.

Getting projects up these days is very difficult indeed. In order to do it, not only must we pass the most rigorous environmental tests but we must also do it with a broad base of community support. And we need to accept that our community has views about resource development. I am strongly pro resource development. I have made it very clear that I support the Adani project. I have made it very clear that I believe the Carmichael mine has a very strong role to play. More important than that, India needs coal, India needs energy, and if India wishes to buy Australian coal we have a lot of coal to sell. The Adani coalmine would generate around 60 million tonnes of coal per year. That 60 million tonnes of coal would sit comfortably within the roughly 400 million tonnes of coal that Australia produces each year.

Australia contributes to global greenhouse emissions through our coal production. Globally, coal production sits at about eight billion tonnes. Most coal is produced within national boundaries and consumed within national boundaries. China produces roughly half of the globe's coal production and consumes roughly half of the globe's coal production. America produces about 10 per cent. Australia produces about five per cent of global coal production and exports substantially less than five per cent. What that means is that our numbers, although relatively small, are significant. We need to accept their significance in the context of climate change and global CO2 production. We need a viable and sustainable policy framework that includes the environmental laws that protect our environment; they do not protect miners; they protect our environment, and that is what they are designed to do.

The member for Dawson said Labor had done nothing to argue in favour of coalmining. Since Adani was proposed, every time I have had the opportunity I have spoken in favour of coalmining. And I speak strongly in favour of Adani—with proper approvals, with proper consideration, having been through the proper local, state and Commonwealth agencies, and for those approvals to be made in a proper, sound and sustainable way. That is being pro resources. That is not about taking the low road of political argument and targeting environmentalists as extremists or targeting people who oppose coalmining. I may not agree with their views but they have every right to oppose coalmining and I have every right to speak in favour of coalmining.

Our country will continue to export coal for the better part of the next century. The globe will continue to see coal produce the lion's share of electricity production for the foreseeable future, probably the next 50 years. But we need to accept the importance of climate change and we need to be moving our globe to a more sustainable, cleaner form of energy production—and carbon capture and storage if necessary—and we are on that path.

11:06 am

Photo of Michelle LandryMichelle Landry (Capricornia, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank my colleague the member for Dawson for his motion. My electorate of Capricornia and the electorate of Dawson join each other in Mackay and run inland towards the western coal belt. In fact, it was only just before Christmas that the member for Dawson and I were in the Central Queensland coalfields discussing important issues that impact on local jobs.

As you have heard today, the motion being discussed focuses on the latest legal challenge brought by the Melbourne based Australian Conservation Foundation to stop development of coal and minerals in the Galilee Basin in Queensland. Ongoing so-called green lawfare is tying up progress on major developments, in some cases for years. Such action by radical green lobbyists, who don't even live in Queensland, is holding Central Queensland families to ransom. It also jeopardises Australia's reputation as a place to invest and do business. Today's motion further calls on the Labor Party to support legislative amendments to close legal loopholes being exploited by green groups.

In my own electorate of Capricornia, one example where green lawfare is costing jobs and holding back the economy is the case of the Adani coalmining project at the Carmichael mine, about 160 kilometres west of Clermont. This project has the potential to provide up to 10,000 jobs over its lifetime—jobs that are much needed for families in Central Queensland because in recent years up to 12,000 jobs have been lost on the coal belt.

Green lawfare amounts to somebody living outside the state being able to take court action to deliberately halt the project when it has no bearing on their own regional home base. By preventing jobs growth these people are essentially taking bread off the table of hardworking Central Queensland workers, who need an income to feed, clothe, house and educate their families.

Our government decided to protect Australian jobs by removing a provision from the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, otherwise known as the EPBC Act. This is the provision that allowed radical green activists to engage in vigilante litigation to stop important economic projects like Adani. As the Attorney-General has previously highlighted, the EPBC Act provides a red carpet for radical activists to use aggressive litigation tactics to disrupt and sabotage important projects. The Attorney-General expressed concern about the emerging trend by green groups and other organisations using the court system to sabotage important economic projects, sacrificing the jobs of tens of thousands of Australians in the process.

The activists themselves have declared that their objective is to use the courts to bring developments to a standstill. In their own report titled Stopping the Australian coal export boom these activists declare that it is their strategy to delay and disrupt and to reduce the financial viability of key infrastructure projects, including ports, rail and mines, through court litigation. When raising concerns about this, Queensland Resources Council Chief Executive Michael Roche said that legal loopholes had paved the way for anti-coal activists to delay billions of dollars in investment and thousands of jobs.

Labor too must stand up for the workers they claim to represent and not side with the innercity greens and the Australian Greens at the expense of the jobs of tens of thousands of Australians. In my electorate of Capricornia the Labor candidate is so weak she has not yet ruled out doing a preference deal with such Greens—a deal that would be a slap in the face for local coal workers and local towns.

It is also a fact that Australian black coal from Queensland is the most energy efficient in the world in terms of energy and kinetic output per unit of coal burned. Therefore, the most efficient outcome for the world's environment is to use more Queensland coal and less coal from other places such as Africa, Indonesia and the USA.

11:10 am

Photo of Kelvin ThomsonKelvin Thomson (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I do not support this motion by the member for Dawson. The environmental law is there to protect the environment and to protect endangered species. The member for Dawson's own party brought it in. All environmental groups ask is that mining companies, agribusiness and so on do not break the law, just as environment groups and ordinary citizens are expected to abide by the law. If companies abide by the law, there is no issue. All the provisions that the member for Dawson complaints about do is give people a right to take action if the environment law is not being complied with. The implication in the member for Dawson's motion is that mining and other companies should not have to comply with the environmental law—that they should be able to break it with impunity.

The member for Dawson may not care about the black throated finch, but I do. It is a beautiful little bird. We should not push it to the edge of extinction in our quest for ever-increasing material wealth. Mining booms come and go but black throated finches do not. If the black throated finch becomes extinct, there is no way to bring it back. We have the EPBC Act precisely because we have learnt from the mistakes of the past and we should support it and strengthen it, not undermine and white-ant it.

Since being passed by the Howard government 16 years ago the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act has been the overriding national environmental protection law, including throughout the mining boom, and environment groups are required to operate within this law. Since the act commenced in the year 2000 there have been approximately 5,500 projects referred to the minister under the environmental impact assessment provisions. Of those projects around 1,500 have been assessed as requiring formal assessment and approval. Around 33 actions have been commenced in the Federal Court by third parties in relation to the EPBC Act's environmental impact assessment process. The proceedings taken by third parties have related to only 22 projects that had been referred under the environmental impact assessment process, so this means that third-party appeals to the Federal Court affected only 0.4 of one per cent of all projects referred under the legislation.

Environmental advocacy is in the public interest. Environmental advocacy enhances environmental decision making and accountability and drives policy reform to protect the environment. The Australia Institute conducted national polling and found that 68 per cent of Australians support environmental advocacy. While 27 per cent said environmental groups had too much influence in public debates, 34 per cent said they had not enough influence. By contrast, most people—62 per cent—said big business and 58 per cent said mining companies had too much influence.

While six in 10 Australians are concerned that big business and mining companies have too much influence, the coalition enthusiastically promotes them and even encourages them to become political activists and fight government policy. In the last five years the mining industry has spent $340 million on lobby groups and more on registered lobbyists and in-house lobbyists. The government is arguing to silence environmental activists while on the other hand it wants industry lobbyists to become activists—the irony, the double standard!

Section 487 was designed to address issues of standing, a legal term that broadly means an individual's or group's right to challenge an approval on the basis that they are either affected by it or have a special interest in the outcome. It does not provide for open standing, whereby anyone can bring an action for review, but it does authorise representative standing in which groups can act on behalf of an affected community. This is a crucial component of a national environmental act that seeks to promote rigorous and effective environmental review for approvals that, potentially, affect matters of national environmental significance, such as the development of Queensland's Galilee Basin coal deposits.

Removing section 487 will stop environmental groups from acting on behalf of affected communities and performing their important function as a watchdog. As The Australia Institute has highlighted, advocacy is essential for a well-functioning democracy, providing for those most affected by government decisions to be involved in policy formation, helping keep government accountable to the wider community and counterbalancing the influence of corporate organisations over government decision making.

Robust environmental review by focused, engaged, representative organisations, like the Mackay Conservation Group and the Australian Conservation Foundation, has never been more important. Rolling back the legal provisions that allow this to happen would be a backward step.

11:15 am

Photo of Ken O'DowdKen O'Dowd (Flynn, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to rise in support of the member for Dawson's motion on law and the environment that he brings to the House today. Our legal system, clearly, needs revision and a complete overhaul when it comes to environmental approvals, and the wishy-washy manner in which people can object needs to be addressed immediately.

We have a system that harms our attractiveness to developers by sending them into a, potentially, disruptive process. By allowing such a drawn-out process we erode the country's ability to grow its economy. Anti-environment? Certainly not. There is a place and time when people can object to any sort of project, anywhere in Australia. They have the mechanisms and processes to object before the Queensland government, the other state governments or the Australian government approves such mining adventures.

Adani have spent over $120 million trying to get approval for their mine in the Galilee Basin. This has cost Australia a lot in investment, potential jobs—some 10,000 jobs over the life of the mine—and uncertainty in the minds of landholders, job seekers, contractors, investments and so on for the whole region. Once approval has been made by the government this just opens up another case of legal action. These protracted proceedings are often seen in the appeals court during the development process. Who is being protected and who is being supported? It is certainly not those who rely on these developments: jobs for all, bread on the table and a roof over their heads.

Recently, I was talking to people from Western Queensland, in the Alpha region, regarding Adani. What they had to say to me was, 'Let's get on with the job. The bush is dying. We need these jobs.' Otherwise, you can kiss goodbye to these rural towns that have survived over the years more on the sheep's back. Now they are looking for the mine to restore those towns to their former glory. It is certainly not the landholders. The landholders have had a noose around their neck, not knowing what to do, while all this legal action is taken by green groups and others to stop mining. These people, quite often, have never been on the site. They have come from the south and are protesting. About what?

The black-throated finch does have wings, and if there is one finch living on the mining site it will soon move to another site. It is not stupid. We have heard a lot about koala reserves and habitats. I know a mine that was held up for many years because of koalas and the offsets for koalas. These koalas had never lived in this particular mining area and had never been seen there by white man. Even the Aboriginals had said, 'This is not koala territory; why do we need to have a koala offset reserve?'

These are the issues. I believe in lock the gate. I also believe in open the gate. For those who can benefit from actions of opening the gate and getting royalties, that is fine. I know that other countries, like Japan, Korea and India—and China, to a degree—need our coal reserves to provide cheap electricity to their people who are not so well off. This is the question we have to ask ourselves as Australians. We have the natural resources. Do we keep them to ourselves and not export them to countries in greater need than us?

11:21 am

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before the House, this morning, on the motion regarding law and the environment, we have propositions that are profoundly illiberal, from a Liberal government, and also deeply cynical, which raise some interesting and challenging questions for all of us as law-makers. The member for Wills's contribution touched on this in saying that the proposition really advanced by the member for Dawson is: can a particular set of companies break existing laws with impunity?

There is perhaps a wider question that underpins the debate that is taking place in the House this morning, and that is: as law-makers, should we be engaged in running commentary about matters which are the subject of judicial proceedings, or should we perhaps be more concerned with putting in place appropriate legal frameworks? This is a debate that is replete with false issues, and that has been demonstrated in the language of government members in contributing to this debate this morning. It is profoundly unhelpful to technical questions which go to the standing of third parties to intervene in proceedings under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to talk of ecoterrorists and extremists, to make allegations along the lines—as the member for Dawson did—about people who pretend to be environmental activists, to talk consistently in terms of lies and slanders and to talk about ideology as if it is a one-way street, because the propositions the member for Dawson advances are deeply ideological and evidence a very limited understanding of the role of this place and, in particular, what our civil society and, indeed, our democracy can offer. And so we see the false issues, the conflating of ideology with outcomes.

At the core of this debate are questions of the operation of our democracy and questions of evidence that need to be brought forward in it, as well as these matters of principle, and these are the two matters that I will briefly touch upon. It is clear on the evidence, subject to review by the Productivity Commission, and, indeed, the work of the coalition dominated Senate committee back in the 1990s which led to the current provision, section 487 of the EPBC Act, that these standing provisions have effectively balanced the relevant interests, not only those of landowners, those seeking to develop land and exploit resources and the wider community—the present generation—but also, critically, as the member for Wills touched upon, those future generations who deserve to inherit the same beautiful and pristine environment that we enjoy today. The present provision, of course introduced by that well-known eco-terrorist John Howard, recognises also that there is such a thing as civil society and that this is a good and, indeed, a vital thing in our democracy, which makes the language and the tenor of this debate so very troubling.

I mentioned also, as well as this matter of principle, the question of evidence. One might assume, in listening to the contributions of government members, that there is a major barrier to investment in the form of this provision. Of course, the reverse is true. We have just come through the greatest mining boom in Australia's history and, as the member for Wills touched upon, there have been over 5,000 referrals under the broad EPBC Act framework but only 33 third-party applications brought relating to 22 projects over the 15- or 16-year life of these provisions—a tiny amount.

These provisions have brought certainty. They have effectively balanced interests. They have not always given blank cheques to the interests the member for Dawson is representing, and it is somewhat disturbing to hear a member of this government talk about jobs. This is a government that has a lamentable record when it comes to supporting employment, particularly secure employment, and I look forward to the contributions of government members in the next debate on that matter here. This side of the House recognises that there is a public interest in having a provision such as the current standing provision in the EPBC Act. It is not just us who say so; it is the Productivity Commission, who have recognised in the review of major project approvals that there is a public interest in allowing third parties to bring judicial review applications, as it allows the legality of the process to be enforced, providing an important safety valve in the system. Safety valves are critical in this system.

These approval decisions are decisions that we cannot afford to give wrong. We also cannot afford to trash our democracy in the interests of self-interested parties, and we should be very slow to remove the capacity of the Australian community at large to have its say on these matters. (Time expired)

Debate interrupted.