Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Matters of Public Interest


1:11 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to put on 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 icons to the states. Australia's natural environment is unique and priceless—from the Great Barrier Reef, the Kimberley, 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. Yet 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 environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, is failing us. 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 community, the Prime Minister 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, our internationally-significant wetlands, our 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 winds have been when the federal government has 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 and cattle grazing in the fragile ecosystems of the Snowy Mountains. Our national treasures, both our wild places and our species, are fighting for survival and 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 both the government and the opposition are proposing. We have recently seen the dangers of the federal government giving up their role to the states with the Queensland LNP rushing to approve massive coalmines using inadequate environmental assessments, and the New South Wales government's decision to allow hunting in national parks, and the Victorian government's decision to allow grazing in alpine national parks.

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 this responsibility to protect the places and the wildlife that are so precious and so significant nationally. Unfortunately, just the handful of examples that I have the time today to go through shows that they cannot even uphold their own environmental laws. So the federal government must not abandon its responsibility for our precious places and species, because they are simply too precious to lose.

I will start with my home state of Queensland. In just a few short months under the new LNP government led by Premier Campbell Newman, there is a litany of environmentally destructive decisions. Firstly, there is the repeal of the wild rivers laws, which safeguard our might free-flowing rivers from mines and dams. In Cape York, Premier Newman is going to ditch those protections and open up the cape to unbridled development, despite many traditional owners backing those laws and wanting their rivers protected. Federal Minister Burke needs to step in urgently and protect those rivers using his heritage powers. But he will have to move quickly, because the protection of heritage places will go to the states come March next year.

Sadly, under Queensland's state government, protection of our Great Barrier Reef, our national treasure, 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 would see Australia's coal exports double by 2020, with devastating effects for the global climate and of course 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 this mine the tick despite the fact that it did not even look at the impact of run-off from the project on marine life and the reef, including dolphins and dugongs.

Under the existing agreement between the Commonwealth and Queensland, Queensland has to ensure that standards are adhered to which meet the Commonwealth's requirements. Those standards were not met and Minister Burke had to step in and take over the assessment process and then had to amend the agreement to make Queensland's obligations crystal clear to them. If the Queensland government cannot even comply with existing standards then how on earth can they be trusted with more responsibility and a second lot of standards to comply with? They cannot.

Sadly, the list of examples of state mismanagement of Queensland's precious environment goes on. Gladstone Harbour has been the scene of an environmental tragedy for over 12 months, with dugongs, dolphins and fish dying and exhibiting disease. Of course, this has coincided with the start of the biggest ever dredging program—46 million cubic metres, which is 65 Melbourne Cricket Grounds worth—to deepen the port for mass export of liquefied coal seam gas. The fishing community and the scientists say that dredging is the main contributor to this tragedy that is unfolding in the harbour, yet the Ports Corporation blames natural events like tides and the 2011 floods. The Queensland environment department has backed the Ports Corporation despite the only independent science strongly implicating turbidity from the dredging as the cause or at least the main contributor to this environmental disaster. The state government has ignored and dismissed that science.

To add insult to injury the Ports Corporation are not even complying with the existing limits on turbidity in their state permissions. There have been countless breaches of those conditions since dredging began. And what has the Queensland government done about those breaches? They have changed the limits. They upped the amount the Ports Corporation could pollute the harbour with and set new turbidity limits that were three times the level recommended by the Australia and New Zealand guidelines on water quality. So if you break the law, don't worry about it; the state government will just change the limits for you and you can keep on polluting and killing local wildlife and the reef.

It was the same deal in June when the bund wall where some of the dredged spoil is being dumped was found to be leaking back into the harbour. Instead of having to stop dredging and fix the leak, they were able to keep dredging even while the leak was being fixed. All of this is from the very same government whose deputy premier has said, 'Oh, I think the whole Great Barrier Reef thing is overdone,' and who said that he would consider removing Gladstone Harbour from the World Heritage area instead of fixing the problems in the harbour. 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.

Sadly, another major mine shows yet again the fatal flaws in the federal government's plan to hand over more environmental responsibility to the states. Clive Palmer, infamous mining magnate and LNP member and donor, wants to put a 30 megatonne coal mine right on top of the last remaining bushland in the Galilee Basin, Bimblebox Nature Refuge—a privately owned 8,000 hectare protected area which is home to many threatened species. Premier Newman has already said he is in the coal business, so it is 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. But, of course, under their plans to hand protection for threatened species to the states, Minister Burke will not be able to protect Bimblebox after March next year. Campbell Newman will have sole control of approving a mine proposed by a member of his party and their party's biggest donor. This is simply madness.

In the short time I have left I want to have a look at some of the other states' records—firstly, New South Wales. Unfortunately, more native bushland was wiped out in that state between 2009 and 2010 than in any other year since records began, despite the introduction of land clearing legislation in 2003. We have seen koalas disappear from between 50 and 75 per cent of their former range and they are now only mostly on the North Coast. In other parts of the state they are uncommon, rare or simply extinct. The recent federal listing of the koala allows the feds for a very short while to properly assess the threats to koala populations. But, come March next year, Minister Burke will be handing that responsibility back over to the state government—who have clearly got such a fantastic record on koala conservation!

Likewise, the New South Wales government recently agreed to allow shooting in national parks. Shooting is now going to be allowed in 79 of the state's national parks, including the iconic Kosciuszko National Park. Recreational shooting in national parks clearly risks the safety of park rangers, visitors and native wild life and the environment and is entirely 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?

Turning to Victoria, the plight of the Leadbeater's possum in Victoria's Central Highlands—which is one of the state's emblems—is, sadly, a tragic indicator of what lies ahead for threatened species come March next year. The Leadbeater's possum lives in forests that are subject to regional forest agreements that allow logging over their habitat. So, even though they are nationally threatened and would normally be protected by federal laws, those laws do not apply to logging done under regional forest agreements. So the feds handed their environmental protection responsibilities to the Victorian government years ago. This is a perfect example of what happens when the states have exclusive control. It is estimated that there are fewer than 1,000 Leadbeater's possums left, and they are being pushed close to extinction by logging and 40 years of clear-felling. A court case in 2010 found that the Victorian government's VicForests had not surveyed the forest properly for the endangered species, but rather than fix that problem the state government is planning to weaken the laws and allow a senior bureaucrat to exempt from protection any forest coops that they choose.

Sadly, the examples continue. Barely a month into office, the Victorian government allowed the return of cattle grazing into the Alpine National Park—an act of vandalism that was met with outrage from the scientific community and the public at large. This required the federal government to enact special laws to ensure that the delicate alpine environment would not be destroyed by reckless, short-term grazing. The fact that the feds have been able to step in and stop this madness just highlights the critical need for our national government to not step away from protecting our nationally important assets.

Then, of course, there is Tasmania, a place of so many epic environmental battles. Imagine: without a federal government prepared to stand up for the beautiful national places Australians hold so dear, the Franklin would have been dammed and, rather than being the wild, raging river that it is, huge tracts of the beautiful south-west of Tasmania—Cradle Mountain, Frenchman's Cap and the Western Arthurs—would not have received World Heritage protection.

The story of Gunns Limited and the pulp mill highlights the lengths that state governments can go to to evade rather than uphold their own state based environmental laws. The pulp mill was originally meant to go through a proper assessment, but that assessment found that Gunns had provided critically non-compliant information—Gunns had decided they did not like that process and were withdrawing from it. Shortly thereafter, the then Premier of Tasmania, Paul Lennon, passed laws to exempt Gunns and to strip the community of rights to protest about the pulp mill. He then approved the mill using that special legislation. How on earth does the federal government expect that our national environmental laws will be upheld by states, when states do not even uphold their own laws but rather amend them to suit their mates' interests? In Western Australia, under the COAG plans to hand over federal responsibilities for key environmental matters to the states, James Price Point in the precious Kimberley would be left solely to the WA state government, which has already has already fast-tracked the assessment process for the gas hub.

In conclusion, the federal government has historically played a critical role in protecting our nation's highly valuable assets, our natural resources, our wild places and our wild creatures. The Franklin would have been dammed and the Great Barrier Reef would have been pocked with oil rigs if it were not for the federal 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 made by state governments where they have been willing to simply sacrifice the environment and the federal government has had to step in and take over.

This move by the federal government to shirk its hard-fought 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 you think our iconic areas and wildlife are too precious to lose, please tell the Prime Minister, Minister Burke and your local MP. 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—they are simply too precious to lose.


Posted on 16 Aug 2012 4:34 pm (Report this comment)

Strong government saw the Snowy dammed. Tasmania has the cheapest electricity in Australia. If I have a choice between oil wells on the Barrier Reef and petrol in my tank I know which I will choose.

Australia can not afford Green SEnmators holding governments to ransom. We need development. Dam the Burdekin and send the waters inland.