Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 June 2017


Sri Lanka, Infrastructure

9:37 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

May 18 was the eighth anniversary of the end of the Sri Lankan armed conflict. To date, the Sri Lankan government has failed to undertake any steps towards accountability and justice for the war crimes and crimes against humanity that multiple UN agencies and NGOs have documented occurred during the war, particularly during the last phase in the Mullaitivu region. As I read, families of the disappeared—that is, families whose loved ones were victims of enforced disappearances during the conflict—sit in shocking conditions on the roadside in a protest that has now stretched for 80 days. These mothers and fathers of the disappeared are demanding answers to the whereabouts of their loved ones, some of whom surrendered to the army at the war's end, but there has been no response from senior government officials.

While the government passed an act in August 2016 designed to establish an office of missing persons to investigate disappearances, the act still remains just a piece of paper and is viewed very sceptically by the families and civil society alike. Families of the disappeared have clearly stated that, in order to rebuild their trust, the government must take immediate confidence-building measures including releasing the list of surrendees at the end of the war, publicly addressing the protests and emphasising the importance of meaningfully investigating the disappearances of their loved ones. Numerous commissions over the last 30 years have failed to provide answers to these families and they are now at the end of their tether.

I pay tribute to the mothers, fathers, wives, husbands and children who are showing an amazing display of resistance and courage in the face of such disregard and brutality. I also commend the courage of the Tamil journalists in the north and the east for providing the local and wider community with committed reporting on the courageous resistance. They do this with great risk to their safety in a country known for systematically silencing its press. Similar to the handling of the issue of disappearances, the Sri Lankan government has failed to move fast enough on returning land to the displaced persons. Large swathes of land in the north-east continue to remain occupied by the military. In addition, the military continues to engage in extensive civilian activities ranging from running preschools to setting up agriculture stores in local markets. In the Mannar district of the Northern Province, local communities struggle to compete against military-run shops which sell their products at below-market prices.

Recently, the UN special rapporteur on minority rights noted in her report on Sri Lanka that reports have emerged from the war-affected Vanni region of sexual violence perpetrated by Sinhalese soldiers in positions of authority over former LTTE cadres employed in the military-run business and farms in the region. Given the military's deep penetration of civilian administration in the Vanni region, they remain one of the largest employers in the region.

The continued militarisation of the north-east poses a serious to both ending human rights violation and the development of Tamil communities in these heavily-war-affected areas. The militarisation is tied to the government's failure to swiftly return illegally occupied land. The war ended eight years ago, so clearly the land should have been returned by now. There is an urgent need for security-sector reform and a credible accountability process with significant international involvement as set out in the UN Human Rights Council resolutions 13/1 and 34/1. The UN Human Rights Council has given Sri Lanka two more years to implement the commitments it undertook in resolution 30/1 of 2015. Given the very public rejection of that resolution by senior government officials, particularly in relation to accountability, it is critical that international pressure on the Sri Lankan authorities is stepped up, not decreased.

Civil society in Sri Lanka has displayed enormous courage in its sustained resistance to the government's inaction, with numerous sit-ins and protests to ask for its land back. Its actions and commitment are truly inspiring. As we remember the tens of thousands of Tamil victims of Sri Lanka's genocide, let it be a reminder to the international community of our failure to prevent such an atrocity from occurring and our moral responsibility to ensure that accountability, justice and sustainable peace remain priorities in bilateral and multilateral relations with Sri Lanka. Australia could and should play a more constructive and active role in resolving these serious issues.

On another matter, suburbs of Western Sydney are under attack from developers in the New South Wales Liberal-National government who are abusing planning, transport and housing laws to favour the interests of their constituency: corporate Australia. The suburbs along the Bankstown line from Sydenham to Bankstown, including historical suburbs of Marrickville, Dulwich Hill, Hurlstone Park, Canterbury, Campsie, Belmore, Lakemba and Punchbowl, are facing increasing levels of demolition to make way for high-density apartments. Many of these suburbs consist of postwar federation and California-style bungalows and have been excellently restored. Much of the streetscape of these suburbs retains architectural integrity and is recognised by the National Trust.

These suburbs are now being sacrificed by the zealots of the New South Wales Department of Planning and Environment, who have decided to implement this so-called 'urban renewal strategy', although the word 'strategy' flatters and distorts what is happening. This so-called 'strategy' is little more than almost childlike circles that mark out 400- and 800-metre radiuses around each of the railway stations of Marrickville, Dulwich Hill, Hurlstone Park, Canterbury, Campsie, Belmore, Lakemba, Wiley Park, Punchbowl and Bankstown. These arbitrary circles outline large circles for up-zoning of up to 25-storey apartment buildings in quiet, residential suburban streets lined mostly with single and low-density housing.

This high density is not on brownfield or greenfield sites. It involves the demolition of hundreds and hundreds of streets, consisting mainly of single-dwelling homes. The Sydney Morning Herald on 14 October 2015 set out the government's plans under the heading, 'Rail revamp opens door to 36,000 units'. In a nutshell, the plan is to rip up the perfectly functioning heavy rail line, the Sydney-to-Bankstown T3 line—publicly funded—and hand it over to MTR, a Hong Kong-based metro operator. This plan is linked to the urban renewal rezoning of thousands of sites along the railway corridor to provide patronage to the metro operator. And now the state of New South Wales is asking the federal government to pitch in and become part of this farce. Developer and property lobby groups, such as the Committee for Sydney, are driving these plans. The Prime Minister's wife Lucy Turnbull was the chairperson of the Committee for Sydney and is now the honorary chairperson.

What leads me to bring this issue to the attention of the parliament is what appears to be a very serious conflict of interest by the Prime Minister's wife and various Committee for Sydney members. There appears to be a lack of governance and transparency in how Mrs Turnbull undertakes her work—

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

Are you serious? You attack the Prime Minister's wife! You're a grub!

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Most serious and happy to take your interjections. The Committee for Sydney's—

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

submission on the Sydney Metro City and South-West, dated July 2015, reflects this failing. When the strategy was announced in October 2015, the Department of Planning and the Environment released no technical reports to back the strategy up. This was quite extraordinary, to say the least.

The urban renewal strategy is a developer's dream: whole suburbs, low-rise and historic in nature, some over 100 years old, face an extensive rezoning for high-rise skyscrapers, all designed to provide patronage for MTR's metro train. The former Canterbury Council, which bears the brunt of the onslaught of the strategy rezonings, agreed to a mayoral minute, dated 12 November 2015. This stated:

1. Council request an urgent meeting with the New South Wales Minister for Planning to discuss council's concerns in relation to the draft Sydenham to Bankstown Urban Renewal Strategy Corridor.

2. The minister and the department be advised that

Council opposes the Draft Strategy in its present form

Council request the immediate release of all supporting studies and reports in the department's possession relating to the Strategy

Council again requests that the exhibition period for the Strategy be extended…

The technical reports that the mayoral minute was alluding to were the following: the Arup traffic analysis; AECOM's economic land study; Hill PDA's reassessment of the property market; JBA's planning report. These reports had an embargo placed upon them and were not released online until 4 December 2015. All reports were released except for the JBA planning report, which I understand has still not been released.

It is worth noting that the above companies are all members of the Committee for Sydney. These developments raise many relevant questions. Is it a coincidence that at the time the media were doing various articles on the Prime Minister's wife's alleged conflict of interest these reports were suppressed by the department of planning? Is it a coincidence that 24 hours after the announcement that Mrs Turnbull would become Chief Commissioner for the Greater Sydney Commission that the reports by Arup, AECOM and Hill PDA were released online by the Department of Planning?

Elton Consulting is a member of the Committee for Sydney. This company was engaged by the department of planning to undertake workshops in the various Inner West suburbs affected by the strategy. Elton Consulting has a long history of working for governments to facilitate and drive through controversial projects. This company lodged a submission on behalf of property owners in Sydenham, dated 28 January 2016, as part of the public consultation process, but the submission was submitted under the name of DesignInc. The submission can be seen on the department of planning online submissions register. How extraordinary! Elton Consulting, responsible for community engagement, is representing property interest stakeholders. Community engagement has reached a farcical stage with this urban renewal. How can the public have any confidence in the department of planning and the Greater Sydney Commission to deal with the strategy in a transparent and fair manner considering this web of obscurity?

JBA Planning undertook various aspects of the planning process for the strategy, yet there is no report published online by the department. JBA Planning also represented Australian Turf Club owners of Canterbury Racecourse. JBA made submissions for rezoning on behalf of the Australian Turf Club. The role of Elton Consulting and JBA Planning raises further questions. Is the Prime Minister's wife representing the members of the Committee for Sydney, who are pushing a developer agenda on the Greater Sydney Commission, which is supposed to be at arm's length? What was Mrs Turnbull's knowledge of the alleged suppression of the technical reports for the Sydenham—

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

Really? You attack someone's wife!

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I am happy to take your interjections. You are very revealing.

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

Can you get any lower?

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

What was Mrs Turnbull's knowledge of the alleged suppression of the technical reports for the Sydenham to Bankstown urban renewal strategy after the announcement of her appointment as Chief Commissioner of Greater Sydney Commission? Why did the chief executive officer of the Committee for Sydney, Tim Williams, not disclose to the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2015 that the firm in which he is listed as a part-time principal, Arup Australia, prepared the transport traffic study?

It is also relevant that Arup provides office accommodation to the Committee for Sydney. Surely this information should have been disclosed to the department of planning. TheSydney Morning Herald of 14 October 2015 reported Tim Williams, the chief executive of the Committee for Sydney, said the plan at last represented a serious attempt to integrate land use and transport planning. Has Elton Consulting and JBA Planning received information from their involvement with the department of planning and the Greater Sydney Commission that has informed their work with property owners and benefited these clients? Did Elton Consulting and JBA Planning have access to all secret rezoning maps? Can Mrs Turnbull assure the people of New South Wales that the Committee of Sydney is not driving policies that benefit the developers and corporations that are its members?

On another matter, today I join members and supporters of the Chittagong Hill Tribes Indigenous Jumna Association Australia. They gathered together at our parliament to protest against the brutal treatment of their compatriots and for the implementation of the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tribes accord. The Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh have been affected by what has been described as genocide or ethnic cleansing for many years. In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands were forced off their land to make way for reservoirs and hydroelectric schemes, displacement made worse by massacres against the Jumna people—that is the collective name for all indigenous peoples in the region.

Violence, particularly sexual violence, is routinely carried out by Bangladeshi settlers and the military alike. A 2014 report from Amnesty International found: 117 Indigenous women had faced physical and sexual assault; 57 per cent were children; 21 of these women were raped or gang raped; and seven were killed. The Amnesty report also stated that during the first few weeks of 2015, at least three confirmed rapes were reported within sight of military checkpoints supposed to bring security to the area. These are only the reported incidents; the true figure is likely to be much higher. It is commonplace for the police not to report rape, and medical staff are pressured against doing so.

Crimes against the Chittagong Hill Tracts people continue. Today I met with a number of their representatives. I share their concern about the attacks on 2 June 2017, the mass arson of Indigenous Jumna villages at Langadu by Bengali settlers was carried out with support of military and police. About 250 houses and shops of indigenous peoples of several villages were torched. One 70-year-old woman was burnt alive as she could not flee. Hundreds are homeless, including children and elderly. Schoolchildren are unable to go to school, as fire took everything. Protest demonstrations in the Chittagong Hill Tracts against the arson are being brutally attacked by members of the Bangladeshi border guard and police. I do support the call of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Indigenous Jumma Association for the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts accord, including demilitarisation of the CHT to be fully implemented. Honouring the CHT accord is the key to stopping the decades of violence that these people have suffered for far too long and in such extreme forms.