Senate debates

Thursday, 25 February 2010


Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee; Reference

9:48 am

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I, and also on behalf of Senator Milne, move:

That the following matter be referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee for inquiry and report by 17 June 2010:

The toxicity of the George River in north-east Tasmania, with particular reference to:

possible causes, including the potential impact of leachate from Eucalyptus nitens plantations;
the impact of the toxicity on human heath, wildlife and regional oyster farms;
previous investigations into the toxicity of the George River and any consequent actions, including whether the actions of local, state and federal governments and the private sector have been adequate;
whether past selective breeding or genetic modification of plantation trees has deliberately or inadvertently increased the trees’ toxicity and whether any risk assessments or monitoring of impacts have been conducted;
the current breeding programs for eucalyptus species and any ecological and human health implications of current research into reducing foliage palatability;
possible short- and long-term mitigation measures; and
any related matters.

This is now a matter of intense national interest following the Australian Story episodes in the last two weeks on the work of Dr Bleaney, a GP in St Helens in Tasmania, and Dr Marcus Scammell, a scientist from Sydney, pointing to the potential impact of toxins from Eucalyptus nitens plantations being a factor in the death of fisheries, particularly shell fisheries in the George River, and the intake of water from that river to the citizens of St Helens potentially causing a rise in cancer and other health issues in St Helens, which is Dr Bleaney’s concern. Added to that is speculation that the facial tumour disease which is now ravaging and decimating Tasmania’s Tasmanian devil population began in the north-east of Tasmania and has spread rapidly to much of the rest of the state, excepting now the south-western and western corners.

We do not know—it has not been established—what the cause of these problems is. But we do know that, for example, in 2004, following a flood tide down the George River, 90 per cent of the shellfish died. There has been speculation about atrazine and other spray-on chemicals, both for agricultural and forestry purposes, being the culprit. But now the very logical case is that it may be toxins coming from Eucalyptus nitens, an imported eucalypt species from Victoria, the grandchildren of which are in these plantations in the St Helens catchment.

We cannot prejudge this issue, but it is a time-honoured role for the Senate to investigate such matters when they are of such national interest. An inquiry has been established under the Environment Protection Authority in Tasmania but, once again, people in St Helens, including Dr Bleaney, have expressed some reservation about that inquiry being too close to government. Similar inquiries have never stopped the Senate investigating such critical matters as this in the past. It is a logical and simple concept that the Senate and its committee system are very well placed, and in fact have an obligation and a responsibility if the issue is raised in here, to undertake such an inquiry. Senator Milne and I are asking the Senate to refer this matter to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee.

I have no doubt that we will hear from Labor, if not Liberal, that this is a stunt—the usual terminology used to dismiss it. But studied ignorance is never excusable. If there is not support from the bigger parties, there can be no other argument than studied ignorance here. It is the right of the citizens who are concerned about the impacts of toxins on their water, whatever the cause may be, to have the Senate committee system come to their assistance to help sort that out. I would think the Senate committee system has the reach not only to get to the science of this—local, national and international—but to ensure through its own processes or recommendations that, where there are gaps in the science, they too are looked at.

I note that the industry in Tasmania has welcomed a proper inquiry into this matter. I therefore can see no argument against it. My ear to the ground tells me that the government and the opposition may well be wanting to obstruct this matter. I am sure that if that happens there will be a bit more in the public arena about it, because it is just not sensible to do so. It is not responsible to do so. In my opinion—I am being very serious about this—it would be a crude and rude political obstruction of the public’s right to know through the Senate committee system. This is a search for knowledge. It is not prejudging what the case is. On the information we have, it would be welcomed by the industry, by the citizens who live in the north-east region, by Tasmanians generally and, I have no doubt, Australians generally. It is a also a very serious matter if there are toxins coming from plantations, whether they be from what is applied to them or from the trees themselves that have been planted—and I do not call that natural, because plantations are not natural. We should be looking at that.

This is a copybook case of a matter of public interest that the Senate committee system should be looking into. It would be quite irresponsible for senators to simply dismiss this as a political matter that should not be looked into. This is a real matter affecting the health of real people, affecting the livelihoods of real people, affecting the jobs of real people and concerning many, many people in the community. Of course, if there is no answer to be forthcoming from it, let us find that out. If there is a genuine culprit for the disturbing effects on the shellfish alone, let us find that out. None of us can say that has not happened and is not continuing to happen and that it is not continuing to worry the shellfish producers in this region. If we cannot find the culprit let it be so. If we can help to find it through the Senate committee system, we should responsibly be moving to do that.

I congratulate Australian Story. I congratulate Dr Bleaney and Dr Scammell and the oyster farmers and mussel growers, the people who have put so much effort into trying to find out what it is that is so clearly and definitely troubling them. It has been a long, long road. They deserve now to have not just an airing of the claims they are making but a testing of the science which goes with those claims and a look at the alternatives. That is what our Senate system does, that is what our Senate system is set up to do and that is the responsible course of action for us to be taking in this Senate.


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