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.

1:25 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last night in this place during the adjournment debate, I had the pleasure of listening to one of my colleagues, Senator Thistlethwaite, speaking on volunteering. I was really interested in what he had to say. He talked about how the volunteering spirit reflects the character of our nation. He also spoke about the benefits and challenges of volunteering, especially in regard to the way society is changing and the rapidly changing landscape of technology and social spaces. In many ways I agree with Senator Thistlethwaite—and Senator Thistlethwaite obviously realises the importance of volunteering—but today I speak about a few groups of young people who realise the importance of volunteering.

It has long been considered a rite of passage for young people to broaden their experiences by travelling overseas and exploring the world. We all know what the gap year is—a lot of young people after Year 12, or before they go to university, or even while they are going through university, might take a year off and travel the world to see the sights. Some choose to work, but a number of people tend to travel the world.

There appears to be an increasing trend towards young people not just exploring the world but seeking to change it too. In this, I am talking about the concept known as volunteer holidays. The idea of a volunteer holiday is pretty much what the phrase implies. Like any overseas holiday, you go to enjoy the sights, the sounds and the smells of another location, but in this aspect you combine your sightseeing with volunteer work to help out the communities you visit. Unlike a typical holiday, it may not be as relaxing but it is so much more rewarding.

I understand this firstly because of my own personal experience. About a year and a half ago, my husband Robert and I joined the Passionist Pilgrimage to orphanages in Ho Chi Minh City. I will not speak about that today, as I have delivered a speech in this place previously about our amazing experiences in doing that volunteer work. But what I will say is that this journey did not just benefit the children that we helped and supported; it was also of great personal benefit to both me and my husband, and to everybody else in the group. I know it is a cliche, but the pilgrimage to Ho Chi Minh City was truly a life-changing experience. Not only was it a great source of pride and personal achievement but also it helped me to gain a greater appreciation for my own good fortune.

Just last week, my husband returned from two weeks in Kenya volunteering by building chicken coops. Anyone who knows my husband might have a little giggle about that because he is not necessarily the best handyman around but, even so, he did go and he helped build these chicken coops. He is a statistician, so he was very good with the tape measure and measuring and cutting the wood, he tells me. On that trip were two young people from Hobart, Sam and Richard Thompson. Sam is 17 and Richard is 14, and they went on this trip without their parents. Sam had heard about the trip to go and work as volunteers in these orphanages, and he raised $8,000 to pay his own way and to buy 100 pairs of shoes and some other things for the children in these orphanages. He is a home-schooled child, so he did not have the benefit of raising money through his school environment, so he did this by busking. I would just like to say to Richard: 'You are going to be one of the great people in our future. Not only your contribution in going but the effort that you made to get there was, I know, truly appreciated.'

Volunteering overseas is not just something that enriches the lives of the people we are helping; it enriches our own lives as well. That is why I am pleased to work with schools in my home state of Tasmania that are giving students these experiences. In March this year, I farewelled a group of 23 students from Huonville High School who travelled to Vietnam and Cambodia to provide help to impoverished communities. Huonville High School has been undertaking this trip annually since 2010, and the students, under the leadership of their very inspiring teacher Nicola Smith, established a group called Students Working Against Poverty, or SWAP.

SWAP conduct various activities to raise awareness about extreme poverty, and they also conduct fundraising activities to help with their annual trips to Vietnam and Cambodia. One of their major fundraisers is Coffee 4 a Cause, a coffee stall run by students at local events which not only raises money for SWAP but helps students to gain valuable barista skills. They actually have their own barista cart, and they take it around to all of the local activities—the Huon show and things like that—and sell coffee and make money. They are also trained in how to do that properly and, might I say, it is very good coffee. Of course, it is fair trade coffee, so it is very good coffee.

The SWAP students have undertaken a number of projects on their trips. In 2010, they helped build a fish pond for a primary school near Siem Reap which has given the children at the school a source of protein for their diet. In 2011 they raised funds to help build a library at Enkosa River School, at which volunteers provide free English tuition for over 300 street kids. During their 2012 trip, the students tidied and landscaped the yard of a Cambodian health outreach centre run by an organisation called Green Gecko. Founded by Australian Tania Palmer, Green Gecko provides education, food and health care for street kids, many of whom have been victims of domestic abuse, homelessness and drug use. SWAP has grown dramatically and now has 100 members across all grades at the school. The program has become so popular that trips are also being organised for adults, including parents and former students, to undertake volunteer programs such as teaching.

There are other schools in my local area that have been arranging volunteer holidays recently as well. In January this year, students from Geilston Bay High School studying Global Connections travelled to Vanuatu to construct a water tank for a village. A water tank of the kind constructed by the Geilston Bay students can supply clean drinking water to around 200 people. This tank was constructed from bricks and mortar, which provided construction skills not only for the children but for the local villagers who assisted them. Because of the hot climate in Vanuatu, plastic water tanks tend to not last very long; they tend to melt and buckle in the heat. The importance of access to clean, safe drinking water is something we take for granted in the developed world, but for those who do not have access it can be a matter of life and death. Dirty and unhygienic water can be a major source of water-borne diseases which can lead to a high incidence of child mortality.

Prior to travelling to Vanuatu, the Global Connections needed $1,500 to fund their project. The class ran a raffle and sought sponsorship for a 24-kilometre walk from Gagebrook in Hobart's very northern suburbs to Wrest Point Casino. Their major fundraiser was a cocktail party and art auction for which the students catered, sold tickets, performed music, made speeches and conducted various other organisational tasks. The Vanuatu trip was a major education in cultural awareness for the Geilston Bay High students, as they learnt local cooking, enjoyed a village feast, learned about local life and customs and learned to fish using traditional methods.

A more recent trip was undertaken by nine students from Fahan School—and they were all girls—to Vietnam for the 2012 World Challenge. During their three-week trip, they spent a week volunteering at the Quang Nam centre for the homeless and disabled in Hoi An. The students had raised money for the centre, which was used to purchase a washing machine, walking frames, wheelchairs, medicines and food. In a story about the trip on the Fahan School's website, several of the students recount how the experience has given them a greater appreciation of their own standard of living.

Volunteer holidays have also been popular with schools in the north of Tasmania. Last year, during the September school holidays, nine students from Scotch Oakburn College spent 10 days in the highlands of Timor Leste as part of their international service program. For part of the trip they stayed at Encouragement House in Maliana and taught English to students at Maliana high school. One of the most compelling experiences for the Scotch Oakburn students was hearing the horrific stories about the treatment of the Timorese during Indonesian occupation yet being surprised at their sense of hope and optimism.

In late 2010, 11 students from Smithton High School participating in the ruMAD? program, which I have spoken about in this place before, went on a trip to Vietnam where they visited three orphanages: the Home of Affection, Tam Ky Baby Orphanage and Hoi An Orphanage. The students donated their time as well as gifts they had collected from the school community, including soft toys, sports equipment, soccer tops, stickers, balloons and pencils. The students were fortunate to have been accompanied by Carrie Hesketh, a friend of Smithton High School teacher Nick Hill. Ms Hesketh had set up an orphanage in Vietnam four years ago and is fluent in Vietnamese. The students had planned to visit Thailand but the trip had to be called off because of political unrest in the country. Instead of visiting Thailand, the students conducted a variety of fundraisers for poverty alleviation in the country, including face-painting, sausage sizzles and a Thai dinner—and they raised a whopping $32,000.

I am grateful to the students and staff of all the schools in Tasmania and across Australia who have supported aid and development projects overseas. I would strongly recommend to schools that if they want to organise an overseas excursion to make it a volunteer holiday.

There are other organisations that can help find information and make contact with relevant agencies. In my home state, the Tasmanian Centre for Global Learning provides useful advice and support, and has a particular emphasis on helping schools. For individuals who want to extend their experience and travel for, say, three months, six months or a year, the Australian government can connect people with volunteer opportunities through the aid agency, AusAid. The not-for-profit group, Australian Volunteers International, also provides a variety of volunteering opportunities throughout the world. While there are many people overseas in need of our help and support, volunteer holidays can also be taken locally.

Soon after the Black Saturday bushfires, a number of Tasmanian members of Timber Communities Australia and Rotary International travelled to provide assistance. The volunteers started work on the arduous task of replacing some 4,000 kilometres of fencing in Traralgon South, travelling to Victoria in small teams in one-week rotations. It was my great pleasure then to be available to farewell the first team of volunteers from the Bruny Island branch of Timber Communities Australia, who left in May 2009.

After the Queensland floods in 2011, thousands of people turned up at volunteer registration centres ready to help with the recovery and reconstruction. Volunteers not only came from interstate but from around the world. The small town of Mitchell reported having volunteers from the UK, Switzerland, France and Germany.

Working holidays have a number of benefits for those who participate. It allows participants to broaden their cultural experiences, to gain knowledge of other countries and their languages, customs and social norms. They can gain some valuable work skills through the help that they give, as well as the skills of planning, project management and teamwork that go into their projects. They can get a broader perspective, as they come into contact with people who experience poverty and disadvantage of the kind most Australians will never truly understand.

While we hear a lot about the poverty and disadvantage that people in developing countries suffer, seeing it firsthand has far greater educational value. If young people have volunteered overseas, it is highly valued by employers. Not only do employers value the skill, knowledge and self-organisation that students on volunteer holidays gain; they really value the personal experiences. There is a maturity, a personal development and a greater sense of self that comes with travelling and experiencing the world. But none of these benefits will match what I consider to be the greatest benefit of all—the personal satisfaction that you have changed lives and actually helped to make the world a better place.

As part of a student's study or as a life experience, volunteer holidays create a lasting impression that no other part of the school curriculum could possibly deliver. It is an experience that will positively affect them forever and make a deep and indelible mark on their soul. I can tell that from the stories recounted to me by students who have had these experiences. In their presentation about the Vanuatu project, the Geilston Bay students said that prior to the trip they all mixed in different circles at school; now they are all good friends. Volunteering overseas or even within your own country gives you the kinds of memories that will last forever. I know this because I have been fortunate enough to have lived it.