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.

9:58 am

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Brown is correct when he says that this is a serious matter, although I have to reject the assertions that he makes about the motives of the opposition. He is quite free in his attribution of motive. It is a regular thing that he does in this place and it is the way that he plays his politics. But I have to say, on behalf of the opposition, I utterly reject the assertions that he ascribes to the opposition in this matter. Obviously he is quite free to make them. That is part of the process that occurs here. But this is a serious matter and the opposition’s view on this is that we ought to put the science before the politics.

The allegations that were raised in the Australian Story programs over the last two weeks are quite serious, but the science on that is quite new. It is not something that has been put in the public arena before and it has not been peer reviewed. Like the industry in Tasmania, I welcome the process that has been put in place through the Environment Protection Authority in Tasmania to conduct a proper review of the circumstances that are occurring in the George River, including doing some testing in other rivers around Tasmania so that they can have something to compare it to and so that some comparative testing can be done. I think that is more than appropriate. But, unlike Senator Bob Brown, I would like the Environment Protection Authority in Tasmania to be able to conduct its review, and the Director of Public Health in Tasmania has indicated his willingness to have an independent panel with people from outside Tasmania, outside Australia if necessary, to bring in the necessary skills and qualifications to properly assess this matter.

Let us get that done. Let us investigate the science. Let us investigate the allegations that are being made. I note that Senator Brown and Senator Milne are making accusations of genetic modification of the trees. We know that is not true. Those allegations are out there broadly in the media that the trees are being genetically modified. We know though, and the reality is, that it is a matter of selection of strong-growth trees from progeny that are brought through the breeding programs. This is a breeding program that has led to high-growth trees to bring high productivity to an industry that is an important one to Tasmania and an important one to the country.

There is already an enormous amount of hyperbole. Suppositions have been drawn from the results of the research which were put to air on Australian Story last week. Links have not been proven but allegations have been made, and I for one think that it is quite reasonable for the Senate to see what the science says. I think Senator Brown’s comments are quite correct. If gaps in the science are identified following that process, I think it is quite appropriate that the Senate, having done that, moves to investigate the issue.

But this is a very new allegation. It has not yet been peer reviewed. It has not been considered on a broader scale. You can go to almost any river in Tasmania and see colour and foam. They are a feature of the rivers in Tasmania. In fact the west coast of Tasmania is well known for the tea-coloured water in its rivers, the tannins that come from the natural countryside. There are scientists in Tasmania talking today about the fact that there will be natural chemicals in the waterways in Tasmania based on the run-off and leaching from the natural environment.

As Senator Brown correctly says, plantations are a change in the environment. But it is quite interesting to note that going back into the 1990s Senator Brown and the Greens were telling us that we should get out of native forests and move to plantations for our forestry. They have been saying that for a long time, that we should get out of native forests and into plantations for our forestry. Senator Milne said yesterday in this place that up to 80 per cent, she believed, of the George River catchment was planted in plantations. My understanding is that it is five per cent. So here we have another example of the hyperbole being brought into argument already by the Greens.

So I think that it is more than reasonable to get some verification of the science, and that independent assessment has been welcomed by the industry in Tasmania. They understand that if there is a problem there it needs to be managed and it needs to be dealt with. The Director of Public Health in Tasmania understands that if there is a problem there it needs to be considered and dealt with. We likewise understand, and we welcome that the Tasmanian government has, quite rightly, put in place this process that will bring in the best experts to consider the issues that are being raised.

Senator Brown says that this is an urgent issue and it needs to be dealt with straightaway. Why haven’t the Greens brought a motion into this place to deal with toxic run-off or alleged toxic issues in Rosebery in Tasmania? They are quite selective in the issues that they bring forward. There is equal community concern in that community about toxicity in the groundwater from the mining industry, yet nothing has been heard from the Greens about that. They have been telling us for 10 years that we should get out of native forests and into plantations for our forestry. In fact in November at estimates Senator Milne alleged that we could move all of our forestry needs to plantation timbers. She asked questions of the department about moving all of our forestry operations out of native forests and into plantations. That was the point she was making. Yet here they are saying that we should not have plantations and making allegations against plantations and their damage to human health.

There is a real inconsistency to the arguments that the Greens bring forward. Senator Brown asked questions about the Forest Stewardship Council at estimates back in February. Quite fairly, I think, he asked about funding for the Forest Stewardship Council certification system. The council will not certify anything but plantation forestry in Australia, basically because of the political process that is involved with that.

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

No, the logic and science.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Brown, I am pleased that you mentioned the science, because the science shows that if you want to look after biodiversity, if you want to look after carbon sequestration—which I know that you are quite passionate about—you will have long-term rotation in native forests. That is what the science says. The science is correct and the science is quite clear: if you want to look after biodiversity, if you want to look after sequestration of carbon, you will have long-term rotation in native forests. The science is very clear. Yet we have this confused and conflicting position from the Greens continuously on this issue. The only conclusion that you can come to is that they are anti-forestry.

I did not want to get this into an utterly political process here this morning, but I have because of the assertions and allegations that were made by Senator Brown about the motives of the coalition. We support fully a thorough investigation of this by the Environment Protection Authority in Tasmania, utilising the best scientists, and understanding the science which, as we all agree, is quite new. These are new developments. So I support that process and it should be allowed to run its course. If then there are proved to be issues that need to be dealt with by this place, come back and have a talk to us, because I am more than happy to talk to you about it. I think that is appropriate. But let us get the science dealt with before we deal with the politics.

10:07 am

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to support the motion standing in the names of Senator Brown and me. Very clearly there needs to be an independent inquiry into what is causing the toxicity in the George River in the north-east of Tasmania. That is very clear. What is also clear is that you cannot trust the Tasmanian government to oversee an inquiry into the toxicity of that river. Why is that? It is because the allegations of toxicity in the river are not new. These have been going on for a very long time, and the Tasmanian government is condemned by its own ministers who appeared on national television saying that it is not a problem and who accused Dr Bleaney and Dr Scammell of quackery. Minister Kons at that time said ‘quackery’. Minister Llewellyn, who has overseen some of the worst environmental disasters in Tasmania in his long career, continues to say it is fresh water—fresh water killed the oysters in George Bay, says Minister Llewellyn, who has blocked at every single opportunity, as has Premier Bartlett, as has the Liberal Party in Tasmania, the move to end the use of triazines in Tasmania. Back in the early nineties when Forestry Tasmania poisoned Olivers Creek at Lorinna in northern Tasmania, atrazine in the water was coming out of the taps in that community. Full responsibility was taken, in the end, after a considerable argument, and recompense was made, tanks were put in and various other things occurred in communities around Tasmania.

For Senator Colbeck to suggest that the Greens have not been working on issues of water quality in relation to forestry activity is ludicrous. Go back to the Hansard. It is years and years and years, and it is still my view that triazines should be banned. We did finally achieve a moratorium in Tasmania for a short while when Evan Rolley, who was head of Forestry Tasmania, was forced into it. Then, eventually, they said, ‘Oh no, we have to go back to the use of triazines.’ Now we still have atrazine used in private forestry in Tasmania. Europe has banned these chemicals for a long time.

What is the relevance of this to the toxicity of the George River in north-east Tasmania? The relevance is that had the Environment Protection Authority in Tasmania ever had the will to investigate, had Dr Taylor ever had the will to investigate, they would have found that there are pulses of pesticides coming down that river. We do not know what the chemical cocktail of that river is, nor do we know what the combination of the herbicides and pesticides used in the catchments and the toxicity coming from the non-native to Tasmania, Eucalyptus nitens, is actually doing. We do not know what the combination is doing. Have we had the opportunity find out? Oh, yes we have. But the problem here is that the director of the EPA ,Warren Jones, was also the general manager of the environment division and under Warren Jones’s authority there was a study into the water quality in the George River in 2005. That investigation discovered toxins. But what did it do? Absolutely nothing. It decided not to investigate further. So why would I trust an inquiry from the Environment Protection Authority in Tasmania under the jurisdiction of the Tasmanian government that in 2005 decided, when it knew there were toxins in the water, that it would not investigate further? That is what it decided to do—the environment division simply concluded in 2005, on the basis of no evidence at all, that the toxins ‘are produced by native forests’ and therefore okay. We find that the toxins being referred to at the moment are not caused by native forests; they are caused by a eucalypt that is not native to Tasmania, Eucalyptus nitens.

Now to the issue of genetic improvement. There is some confusion in the community about the difference between genetic improvement and genetic modification.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

Which you are happy to exploit.

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Colbeck just accused me of having said that these trees were genetically modified. I have never said that. What I said was that they have been selectively bred—genetically improved—in order to address issues that the forest industry thought it needed to address, including palatability, no doubt, to browsing species and insect attack. That is why one of the issues in the inquiry that I would like to look at is the current breeding programs for eucalyptus species and any ecological and human health implications of current research into reducing foliage palatability. We know that research is going on in the hope, from forestry’s point of view, that they can increase the level of unpalatable leaves to browsing animals. That is part of research is currently ongoing and I would like to know about that because I want to know about the impacts—not just on human health but also on wildlife. What public interest tests and what wildlife tests are there?

But the issue here is that we need to know what is going on in the George River and in catchments around Tasmania. We have been pushing for groundwater assessments in every Tasmanian catchment for I cannot tell you how long, and that has been blocked by the minister in Tasmania and the Tasmanian cabinet with the support of the Liberal Party for the last 20 years. That is why the Commonwealth is not signing off on a lot of the water initiatives in Tasmania—there is no monitoring of water quality in a lot of the groundwater in Tasmania.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

That’s not true; we funded it.

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

We do not know what is in that groundwater around Tasmania. I challenge Senator Colbeck to produce any results that show water quality assessment of groundwater—consistently taken and monitored—in Tasmania over the last 20 years. That has only started in the last couple of years under pressure. You cannot get water quality groundwater testing consistently conducted across Tasmania.

I want to get to the Director of Public Health, Roscoe Taylor, who has said consistently since the Australian Story broadcast: ‘I need to see your results. Send them to me.’ Well, they were sent. A paper published at a scientific conference held in Spain on the impact on human cell lines was sent to Dr Taylor in 2008 by Dr Bleaney and Dr Scammell. Dr Taylor had that in 2008 but he did not open the file. When he said this week, ‘Oh, well, I will look at it, I need to see the research,’ he did not have to look any further than his own files to find that research. It has been there since 2008. So why would I trust an inquiry set up by the Tasmanian government, overseen by an Environment Protection Authority which looked at this in 2005 and said, ‘There is no problem, it comes from native forests, it is natural, therefore even though there are toxins we are not going to investigate further’? Why would I think that that was going to come to any other conclusion than that presided over by the current minister, who says the problem is caused by fresh water—‘There is too much fresh water; that is what kills oysters, all that fresh water going down the George River’?

There is a real problem in Tasmania. There is no transparency. There is a far too close relationship between the Tasmanian government, Forestry Tasmania and the private forest industry and there is no independence. Why should a community have had to fight so hard to have an investigation of toxicity in their water supply? You would think that was basic human health delivery and service from a government. But, no, not in Tasmania. If it comes to a choice between seriously looking at the forest industry and banning the chemicals on which it relies or actually exposing the human health consequences, then it will not happen in Tasmania. It did not happen under the previous premiers of Tasmania—Premier Bacon, Premier Lennon—or now Premier Bartlett. It is not happening, it will not happen and you could not trust it to happen because of their relationships with the forest industry.

We have heard Premier Bartlett saying now he is concerned. Where was the concern in 2005 when the EPA discovered there was toxicity but there was no need for further investigation? Where is the concern now when we discover that the file exists in the public health offices, that nothing has been done about it and that it was not opened until the media ran this story and shocked people? Quite apart from all this, the reason an investigation by the Senate is absolutely necessary is that now the whole country knows that the George River in north-eastern Tasmania has high levels of toxicity. The country will know, when the research comes out, that there are pulses in that river of a chemical cocktail going down. It will also know, contrary to what is being said, that the toxicity will be found right through the water column, not just on the surface, as has been suggested.

When the whole of Australia finds all that out, the reputation of Tasmania will be on the line. It should be in the interests of this parliament to clarify this as soon as possible and address it in a transparent and open way. I can tell you, whatever the EPA in Tasmania finds out, nobody is going to believe it because of their history of failure to address this issue in the past. That is why it needs to be an independent inquiry. What the community wants is an independent inquiry, not one under the auspices of people who have failed the community in the past and who have demonstrated a complete lack of concern about the impacts of forestry, chemical use in the forest industry, the breeding programs by forestry and so on.

Tasmania prides itself on a reputation of clean, green and clever. It prides itself on a reputation of clean air, clean water and uncontaminated soil—no thanks to either the coalition parties or to the Labor Party. That positioning has come from the Greens. That positioning has come from the campaign essentially to save the Franklin River. It was out of that that the global reputation began to be established and it was throughout the Wesley Vale campaign that I coined the phrase ‘clean and green for Tasmania’. We brought out our business and industry strategy saying Tasmania’s future reputation should be based on high-quality products, clean air, clean water, uncontaminated soil, an island where human potential knows no bounds, where creativity comes from the natural environment, where protection of the natural environment builds for the future. That was the Greens positioning, Greens business modelling and positioning, and now every export market out of Tasmania depends on that modelling, thanks to the Greens. It has been Liberal and Labor in Tasmania who have been jeopardising the branding for years because they continually undermine the authenticity of the brand by overlooking the pollution that goes on, whether it is from the mining industry or from the forest industry or from the widespread use of chemicals, and because of the refusal to have an open and transparent regime.

The reason we need this inquiry, and we need it to be fast, comprehensive and independent, is that this has to be clarified as a matter of urgency. Our export markets are going to be saying now, ‘Tasmanian product is dependent on a clean brand internationally and now we have evidence to show that the George River in north-east Tasmania has a high level of toxicity.’ We also want to know from the point of view of the people in St Helens. This is a small fishing town in Tasmania. It has no heavy industry. There is no reason you would expect why there is a cancer cluster of the nature that there is in this town. You cannot explain it. How can you explain all these cancers occurring in a fishing village where there has been no history of those cancers, where there is no heavy industry and no obvious forms of contamination? Why are cancers that you would never never or rarely see as a doctor all turning up in one community?

This has to be investigated for public health reasons. It has to be investigated for the sake of people who live in that community now and want to know what the future is for their water supply. But it also has to be investigated because of the reputation of Tasmanian product—everything from oysters through to beer. One of the ads for one of the breweries is ‘There’s something different about the water in Tasmania’. That is going to turn on that company very fast unless we get an inquiry to find out what is going on.

There is confusion about the genetic processes and what has been going on in the research. On 9 November 2000, Senator Brown asked about this issue. On that particular day, Senator Herron, the then Minister for Health and Aged Care, confirmed the Forestry Tasmania website statement by telling the world that research by the University of Tasmania was genetically transforming Eucalyptus nitens and Eucalyptus globulus. Since then they have talked about their genetic improvement programs. So it is hardly surprising that people have become confused about what genetic improvement is as opposed to genetic modification. The industry has said it is involved not in genetic modification but in improved selective breeding—genetic enhancements, if you like—which is normal in all agricultural production processes. The issue here is: what are they being improved to do? Is that increasing toxicity? Is that toxicity impacting on human health and wildlife and ecosystem health? As they are spraying triazines in Tasmania, in combination with other chemicals, what impact is that chemical cocktail having? That is why we need this inquiry.

Senator Colbeck says, ‘Let’s put the science before the politics.’ One could almost choke hearing him say that, given the behaviour of the coalition when it comes to climate change. The world’s leading scientists everywhere are telling us about the impacts of climate change and Senator Abetz declared yesterday that he is an agnostic on the science. There are plenty on that side denying the science—denying, denying, denying. They are most certainly not putting the science before politics when it comes to their position on global warming. That is pretty evident. They have not done so on just about every other issue and they are not doing it now. If they were genuinely interested in getting to the facts of the matter as quickly as possible, they would be calling on the Tasmanian government to institute an independent inquiry—independent of government.

The reason the government in Tasmania is so on the nose is the lack of transparency. For years and years people have wanted to know what is going on in the little cabal between the Tasmanian government and the bureaucracy. We saw it with the grants in the forest industry. The Department of Economic Development, Tourism and the Arts got together with the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania and recommended who should get the grants. In fact, the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania managed to get some of the grants for themselves through that process. There is no line in the sand, as the Premier of Tasmania put it, between him, his office and Evan Rolley in his department. Then there is a link from Mark Addis, from the Forest Industries Association, straight across to the bureaucracy that is heading up resources. They are all there, all mates together. They are all one phone call away.

There is no degree of separation in Tasmania when it comes to the forest industry, the Tasmanian government, the bureaucracy and the Premier’s office. That is why you cannot trust the EPA in Tasmania to conduct an investigation of the kind that needs to be made. The Senate should start that process. Tasmania’s producers deserve it. Tasmania’s community deserves it. Public health deserves that we have an inquiry as quickly as possible but also that we insist that there be an independent inquiry. As I indicated earlier, why would you trust the EPA to look into this now when the EPA said in 2005 that although there was toxicity it was from native forests—which it clearly is not—and therefore they would not investigate further? I think it really demonstrates who is calling the shots here.

Senator Heffernan was running around after the program aired the other night, saying, ‘We have to have an inquiry!’ Clearly, he was quashed by Senator Abetz and Senator Colbeck from Tasmania. He is not in here now, but he was absolutely motivated about it. He rang the other night and said, ‘We have to have an inquiry.’ I hope Senator Heffernan comes in here in a moment to tell us about how the Liberal Party and Senator Abetz prevented him from coming in here to speak or to support an inquiry. Where is he? He is quoted in some of the media on this, which says that people must support Senator Heffernan’s inquiry. Where is his inquiry? It is nowhere, because Senator Abetz is taking his directions from the forest industry in Tasmania. No doubt Senator Colbeck is too. No doubt Senator O’Brien will be taking his directions from the Tasmanian Premier. They will be hoping that all this suddenly goes quiet until 20 March, when the election will be held in Tasmania. They will not want to see an independent inquiry getting started in that time. This Senate has an obligation to public health, to the health of our wildlife and to the health of the ecosystem to do something about it. (Time expired)

10:27 am

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The government do not rule out the concept of an inquiry into issues relating to the George River in Tasmania or other related matters. But we do think that it is appropriate that there are proper scientific examinations before this thing becomes the political football that, clearly, if you listened to Senator Milne’s speech, it would be intended to be, were the Senate to initiate the inquiry. There are a few points that I want to touch on. Suffice to say we will not be supporting this motion at this time.

I noted from Senator Milne’s speech that we are enjoined not to trust the Tasmanian government. I thought there was a democratic process going on there at the moment, an election campaign in which the Greens were campaigning to become the government. So do I take it from the speech that Senator Milne has given up on the chances of the Greens becoming part of the, if not the, government? Is that what I should take from the speech? Or is this part of the campaign leading up to the Tasmanian election on 20 March? I am not sure what to make of it. I do not want to jump into the bed of conspiracy theorists, but you would have to say that Senator Milne and Senator Bob Brown agree with all of the suggestions that were made in Senator Milne’s 20-minute contribution.

She talked about cancer clusters, which I understand have been the subject of an examination by Dr Roscoe Taylor. Despite the attempts to blacken Dr Taylor’s name, he is a fairly respected practitioner and the Chief Medical Officer in Tasmania. I understand he has looked at medical records held by Dr Bleaney. He or members of his department are on the public record as saying that there is no evidence that can be ascertained from Dr Bleaney’s records that shows a disproportion of particular types of cancers there compared to anywhere else. But I am no expert on that and, if we are going to start examining that, how do we examine it without access to all the medical records in that area? It is a very difficult problem and something that I suggest the Senate committee would not be able to do.

On the question of the coalition’s position on climate change, I share Senator Milne’s concerns that, on the one hand, talking about carbon sequestration in trees, as Senator Colbeck did, and, on the other hand, voting against the motion is a bit hypocritical. But didn’t the Greens also vote against the bill? If the five Greens sitting in that corner had crossed the chamber and voted with the government, we would have passed the legislation, but they chose not to. So I think it is a bit rich for the Greens to talk about hypocrisy on climate change when that was the Greens position on that vote.

On the question that was raised about triazines, the fact is that some sections of both forestry and agriculture use triazines on genetically modified canola, and there is a fair bit of that in Tasmania. There is also a fair bit of that in other parts of the country. On the other hand, there is a significant part of the green movement that says, ‘We should not have GM canola; we should only have non-GM canola.’ But the regime for that uses triazines. So there are a lot of points of difference that I could raise with the contribution that has just been made.

I go back to what Senator Colbeck said earlier. This matter has been put in the public domain by the Australian Story program. My understanding of the reports is that there was an allegation on the program that there is a toxic cocktail which is attributable to plantation Eucalyptus nitens in the foam on the Georges River and that that is having deleterious effects on both the oysters in Georges Bay and human beings. This is a very serious allegation. Quite properly, the Chief Medical Officer, on behalf of the Tasmanian government, has said, ‘I’d like to look at this, and we’re prepared to investigate it.’ I am told that, according to reports, the response was, ‘We’ll go and see our lawyers.’

I have said in this place that I find that to be a remarkable response from a group who have been prepared to go public with an allegation which damages the reputation of Tasmania while saying: ‘We won’t give you our research; go and see our lawyers. You’ll also have to satisfy the third party involved before we’ll give you the research.’ Until and unless there is a preparedness to share their research and allow it to be investigated, as Senator Colbeck said, not just by scientists and medical practitioners in Tasmania but also by those in other parts of the country or even internationally, I would be very reluctant to support the idea of jumping into what is clearly going to be a very political exercise on behalf of the Greens, pursuing their opposition to forest industries generally and besmirching the reputation of Tasmania, before we have had a chance to have access to some peer reviewing of the allegations that have been made and some proper scientific assessment of this catchment and others. Eucalyptus nitens are not only in the Georges River catchment. The suggestion in the allegation is that this will be a very widespread problem if it is a problem in that catchment.

I would much rather we have the benefit of properly conducted research if the Senate committee is going to have a look at this. What is the next step in the proposition that we have an inquiry—that somehow the Senate funds the research? At the end of the day, maybe that would be necessary, but I would much prefer that the public health bodies around this country were involved in that before it became a political football.

The government will not be supporting the reference to a committee of this matter at this time. We do not reject the concept in the future after those steps have been taken. If Senators Milne and Brown are worried about what the Tasmanian government might do, I guess they are giving up on Mr McKim’s chances of being part of the Tasmanian government in any capacity following the election on 20 March.

10:35 am

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

It seems that there is always a convenient ABC story when there is an election in the air, and this edition of Australian Story is one of those. In the run-up to the last federal election, the ABC had a story on the 7.30 Report, if I recall correctly, about forestry and the impact of that and the Gunns mill on Bass Strait. The ABC was later reluctantly forced to put some corrections on the website. Before that, I recall that the ABC had a segment called Lord of the Forest, for which they were dragged kicking and screaming until they finally had to air an apology and a correction. The ABC has a very sad and sorry history in this space, so I would caution the Senate against relying on ABC stories for a Senate inquiry. Having said that, I do not prejudge that edition of Australian Story. There may well be some basis to it and it may be completely correct. All I am saying is that the track record of the ABC in this space ain’t great and I therefore question it.

The Greens are always keen on accountability and administration for others, but they have been strangely silent about the expensive brawl going on within the Wilderness Society as we speak. There have been court challenges, and, of course, we know that the Wilderness Society is the industrial arm of the Australian Greens and that there is a cross-pollination between those two organisations like you would not believe. Indeed, Senator Brown was a former director of it, if I recall correctly. What you have is the old guard fighting the new guard, with people claiming the democratic processes are not being followed—but do you know what? There has been not a peep out of the Australian Greens as to the terrible administration within the Wilderness Society, with court brawls, internal brawls, the leaking of minutes and all sorts of things. They have been strangely silent because they are partners with the Wilderness Society.

In relation to the quite outrageous allegation by Senator Milne about Senator Heffernan, I simply say: Senator Heffernan and I have not even discussed the matter. Yet she comes in here and seeks to impugn the integrity of both me and Senator Heffernan. I should not take exception to it, because that is the modus operandi of the Greens. They will say anything and do anything regardless of the facts and the circumstances. They do not need facts for their public statements and press releases. If it sounds good, just say it and, of course, never apologise afterwards. But I can say on the record here and now: Senator Heffernan and I have not discussed the Australian Story program, and why Senator Heffernan is not in the chamber I do not know.

What I do know is that, if we want to talk about the science, there are very credible scientists such Professor Gordon Duff, Dr Chris Harwood, Dr Julianne O’Reilly-Wapstra, Professor Brad Potts and Professor Jim Reid, all of whom have contributed a scientifically rigorous statement to my local paper today. They say:

No eucalypt plantations in the catchment, or anywhere else in Australia, use trees altered through genetic engineering.

I either believe the Greens’ assertion on this or these highly eminently qualified professors and doctors. At this stage of the proceedings, chances I prefer the professors and the doctors over the Greens, who are ramping up their exposure in the lead-up to the state election in Tasmania. And let’s make no bones about this: that is what this is all part and parcel of—the campaign in Tasmania. These good professors and doctors also tell us that the trees that are grown come from seeds that are grown in seed orchards and:

… have been selected in field trials for their superior growth and wood quality. They have not been selected for increased toxicity.

Whom should I believe? The professors and the doctors or the Australian Greens in here with a political agenda? I would simply commend the article. It is on page 19 of the Hobart Mercury.

I say, with respect to all honourable senators here: why should this Senate be engaged in this inquiry? There are issues of toxicity in my home state of Tasmania at Rosebery in relation to the mining industry. There are these issues all around Australia. So the question has to be asked: why this one in Tasmania now? The answer: state election, 20 March, and the Greens are simply trying to ramp it up to secure their position in Tasmania.

Let the science take its course. Let the investigations continue. For Senator Milne to basically besmirch everybody in the EPA in Tasmania does her no credit and, of course, is a very unfortunate reflection on people who are professionals. You might disagree with their science; you might disagree with the way they go about their business; but the personal reflections on them—that you would not trust them et cetera—as is always the wont with the Greens, go not a step but a leap too far. We in the coalition will be opposing the motion.

10:42 am

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

I thank those who have contributed to this debate. To comment on that contribution from Senator Abetz, the view that the ABC in some way or another concocted this to be a pre-election program of course is absurd. Anybody else but Senator Abetz would know that. You might ask, Senator Abetz: who was it, then, that got involved in rigging the Black River bombing two days before the 1993 election? It had a big impact on that election and came from the forest industry. The culprits were never found, of course, but it was a massive, direct and planned attack on the Greens, who were doing extremely well at that time—it was nothing to do with the Greens. But Senator Abetz has never called for an inquiry into that.

When we get real evidence of a planned effort to intervene in politics and to set people up and it comes from the philosophical side that Senator Abetz is on, you never hear the call for an inquiry. But, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation comes up with a program like this, which has obviously been a long time in the making, he immediately fits it out as being political intervention. That is politics, but it does nothing for the argument, and nor was there any cogent argument from Senator Abetz—or Senator Colbeck or Senator O’Brien—that this inquiry that Senator Milne and I are requesting the Senate refer to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee should not go ahead. The argument, of course, that it is pre-election is very much in their minds, both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. They do not want an inquiry in the run to the election because they do not want a proper public expose of the processes and the cover-ups that have occurred as citizens like Dr Bleaney and scientists like Marcus Scammell have tried to get assistance, the assistance they should have got, from departments, governments and industry to try to work out what is affecting the ecosystems downstream of the plantations in the George River basin.

This is a classic case of an area where the Senate inquiry would do best. It is not that a Senate inquiry might uncover the causal agent—the actual toxin—but it is that a Senate inquiry can see where there are gaps and where there are questions to be answered and it can put those recommendations to government so that the information can be found out. The other thing about a Senate inquiry is that it can open doors. When you hear that the health department in Tasmania was given a report from Dr Bleaney in 2008 and it had not been opened until very recent times, you wonder how on earth you can have advocates now saying that all the documents from the scientists that she has been working with should be given for peer review but we keep a closed door on the information held by government, not least by industry, because there is a lockdown on information in Tasmania.

Senator O’Brien referred to the smearing of the reputation of Tasmania. The logging industry in Tasmania, with its destruction of ecosystems, including the habitat of rare and endangered species, with its pollution of waterways and with its massive contribution—in fact, more than the rest of the Tasmanian economy put together—to greenhouse gas pollution of the atmosphere, which is all unpaid for and at great cost to taxpayers, including more than $1 billion in handouts from state and federal governments in the last two decades, has of itself been the biggest cause of the smearing of the reputation of Tasmania that one can discover. This industry needs cleaning up; this industry needs opening up; this industry needs to pay its way for the damage it does. But you get cover-up and you get the sort of situation we see now where citizens are trying to find out what it is that ails them or their water or their industries and they simply get condemned, by implication, that they do not have peer review. It is said that all their information should be handed to the loaded, biased industry boffins in government, like Minister Llewellyn—one of the most hopeless and destructive. Talk about smirching the reputation of Tasmania! Can there ever have been a minister who has so shepherded the destruction of what is good for Tasmania? There was the clean, green image and the right of new clean, green and organic agriculture, which finds itself in the vicinity of highly polluting industries like forestry, which sprays atrazine and other toxins into the air and the water catchments. The use of 1080 by this industry brought dreadful publicity worldwide and it continues in Tasmania. It results in the long and painful death of marsupial species, including those that are rare and endangered.

The smearing of the reputation of Tasmania by that industry and the damage done by it—so high-handedly and arrogantly, with weak and spineless politicians in Tasmania from the big parties shepherding it all away—speaks for itself. It is time we got past that. No wonder the Greens are indeed at 29 per cent, when you distribute preferences in the polls in Tasmania. No wonder people are looking for an alternative. No wonder they are looking for more security about the future economy of Tasmania through the Greens. We have seen such serial failure by Labor and Liberal governments.

I come back to the case in point. We do need to find out what is in the water of not only the St Helens catchments but also other catchments across Tasmania. It comes from a change in the natural ecosystems which provide clean, fresh water to people downstream, farmlands and aquatic industries. We should be monitoring that all the way, but you cannot have that where you have closed industries, secrecy and failure of openness to the public. There is the forest industry and Forestry Tasmania. Corporations like Gunns, of course, have a very unenviable record in high-handedness, obfuscation and cover-up when the public have a right to know.

Senator Colbeck said that the Greens have said that we should get out of native forests and move to plantations. He is a new player, relatively speaking, in this place. He sits on the second row and is unable to get the story straight. The Greens have always condemned the destruction of native forests and their replacement with plantations since the 1970s when the woodchip industry brought such carnage to Tasmania, and we continue to do so. If the Greens had had their say, there would be no Eucalyptus nitens plantations replacing old-growth forests and native forests in the George River catchment and we would have a North East Highlands National Park instead of the continued erosion and destruction at a rapid rate of the native forest ecosystems and the habitats of rare and endangered species in the hinterland of St Helens, Swansea, Bicheno and the whole of the east coast of Tasmania.

One only has to think about the rapid destruction of the habitat of the swift parrot, the fastest parrot on earth. This parrot is now down to a thousand pairs, which are just now preparing, after their breeding season in Tasmania, to come back to the mainland. Forestry Tasmania, aided by the parties of Senator Abetz and Senator O’Brien, is in the business of destroying the nesting sites which this rare species depends upon if it is going to survive. You cannot destroy the nursery if you are going to move to recover such a species from destruction.

I laud Dr Alison Bleaney, Dr Marcus Scammell and all the other scientists who have had their work displayed by Australian Story. This is not just a story of citizens who had a hunch, a worry or a phobia. This is a story backed up by the work of more than half-a-dozen laboratories in Australia and New Zealand. It is a story of scientists who are prepared to go on the record and talk about a toxin which is killing human cells in the laboratory. It does not necessarily mean that it will be injurious to health if it is drunk in water coming down a river, but given that there is a toxin which is going to kill skin and liver cells, is it not right that this Senate should hold an inquiry to find out if it is affecting the citizens of St Helens and citizens further downstream, and not only concerning Eucalyptus nitens, whether it is growing in plantations or naturally on the mainland—because it does not occur naturally in Tasmania—but other eucalypt species as well? Of course we should be. Of course it is a time for the airing of the very serious concerns that people have about their health, their natural environment and their future ability to be free of fear from the hidden toxins which so far have not been exactly identified.

And what if you are a blue mussel farmer in the George River catchment and you have a flood pulse come down the river and 90 per cent of your stock is killed? Don’t you have a right to be worried about that? And do you worry when it is just dismissed by a health authority who says, ‘Oh, it is fresh water’? Of course you do, and of course, for the sake of those small businesses, we should be having an inquiry into this. This is an abrogation of responsibility by the Labor and Liberal parties. Senator Heffernan has called for this Senate inquiry and has called, responsibly, for a scientific inquiry; but he has not prevailed with his Liberal colleagues. I will say this of Senator Heffernan: he has taken a keen interest in plantations, whether they be in Tasmania or on the mainland, not only because of their potential indirect effects, as in this case, on water systems, but also because of the direct effects, such as the plantations taking water out of catchments further down. He is concerned about this issue but, of course, in our party system the person who knows the most is very often the person who has the least say when it comes to an issue like having an inquiry.

Senator Heffernan has called for an inquiry, and I think he is right. Senator Abetz says, ‘We oppose an inquiry.’ I think he is wrong. Senator Colbeck says, ‘Let us not have an inquiry.’ I think he is wrong. Senator O’Brien says, ‘We won’t support an inquiry; we’ll put it off until some other time.’ We have heard that before, and he is wrong as well. Senator Milne and I are serious about this inquiry. It is the logical and responsible thing for political representatives, not least those of us from Tasmania, to be undertaking. For the citizens and the industries and scientists involved it is an abrogation of responsibility by the Labor and Liberal parties that they are going to block a simple inquiry into a very serious matter.

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Bob Brown’s) be agreed to.