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Christine Milne: Why we cannot weaken our environmental protection laws

The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, addresses the senate on Abbott's plan to our weaken environmental protection laws by allowing the states to be given the power to undertake the environmental assessment of their own projects.

Senator MILNE (Tasmania-Leader of the Australian Greens): I oppose the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill, which has been put forward by the Abbott government. It is the biggest systemic assault on the environment since the time that the Commonwealth took any responsibility for environmental decisions at the time of the Franklin dam. Why do I say that? Because up until now we have fought any number of environmental battles around Australia in the states, and it has been the Commonwealth that has given us the opportunity to expose what can only be described as corruption at the state level which has enabled any number of developers to get what they want at the cost of the environment. In the mid-1990s the Howard government came up with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. There were many of us at the time who opposed that legislation because it was so weak, and what is so fundamentally wrong with the EPBC Act is that it gives the minister way too much discretion. It has allowed, over the years, many ministers to turn their back on serious information which would have jeopardised projects. Most recently, under the former Labor government we had the minister, Tony Burke, not taking account of the expert advice he was given on threatened species when it came to the Tarkine. That matter was able to go to court.

Now we have a situation where the Abbott government has said that it is not interested in second-guessing the states or local government in assessing any claims by developers when state governments or local governments give them the blind eye and instead the Commonwealth will just pick them off. It is utterly and absolutely disgraceful and it dismantles our national system of environmental regulation and planning approval. What we will have in its place is a framework for the systemic destruction of our environment, readying the ground for degradation of our land, water and precious native species by vested interests, and the undermining of our World Heritage areas into the bargain.

If this bill passed the Senate it would see Australia's environmental standards drop as those state governments which nurture developments get the right to tick them off in an uncritical way. As I have said, our current system has been in place for quite some time and it is imperfect, but at least it has ensured that many of our very special national places and icons survive to this day. It is because of Commonwealth laws that we have the Great Barrier Reef protected and not scarred by oil rigs; state governments have been stopped from compromising water security with coal-seam gas development; and we have prevented the extinction of some of our precious wildlife-although, I add, Australia has an appalling reputation when it comes to extinctions and we are currently facing more extinctions not only because of climate change but also because of habitat loss and disease and invasive species. What an indictment it is on this country that our koala is threatened by a failure to look after its habitat, by disease and of course by climate consequences.

When I got into politics in 1989 it was because the Tasmanian government of Robin Gray was so determined to promote North Broken Hill's pulp mill project-a native forest based project using elemental chlorine in the bleaching. They were going to dump all that polluting water with organochlorines into Bass Strait but the Tasmanian government loved it-it was so in the pocket of North Broken Hill at the time that North Broken Hill recalled the Tasmanian parliament on its own letterhead for doubt removal legislation, to remove any doubt as to who was running the state and who would determine the environmental laws. It was so bad the graffiti around Tasmania was 'Vote 1 North Broken Hill and cut out the middleman.' Around Australia at the moment there would be plenty of people saying, 'Vote 1 Whitehaven and cut out the middleman,' or 'Vote 1 Santos and cut out the middleman,' or 'Vote 1 Adani and cut out the middleman.' You could go right round the country and do it: 'Vote 1 Woodside and cut out the middleman', when it comes to James Price Point. It is happening already, but at least we have some recourse to the Commonwealth legislation. Under this legislation there will be no recourse. We will just be handing over environmental powers to the states and giving the tick to corruption.

I reiterate: it is a tick for corruption. Look at ICAC in New South Wales. Week in, week out, it is exposing ministers taking donations to tick off projects-to tick off coalmines and coal-seam gas, to tick off property development, to tick off whatever they like. Week in, week out, there were brown paper bags. Why do we think that would not happen, if we have a situation where the people ticking off on the environmental considerations are the very same people who are receiving the brown paper bags with no Commonwealth oversight? It is a disaster for this country.

I want to talk about Tasmania. As I mentioned a little while ago, there was a situation with the government of Robin Gray. It has remained the same since with the Gunns pulp mill; the Gunns pulp mill was first dreamt up by John Gay and Paul Lennon in a restaurant, on the back of an envelope. They chose to get together and promote that pulp mill. When it was clear that the planning and consideration process in Tasmania might find that the project was wanting the premier of the day, Paul Lennon, withdrew the project from the proper planning process because John Gay and Gunns wanted it taken out of the assessment. The only recourse we had was to come to the Commonwealth and say, 'Look, what on earth is going on in Tasmania?' We were not particularly impressed by the response from either Peter Garrett or Malcolm Turnbull, who were the relevant ministers at the time under successive governments, but at least we had the opportunity of taking it to the Commonwealth. There is no doubt whatsoever that, if this bill goes through, the Tarkine will be opened up to mining and logging willy-nilly. We have a situation where the Tarkine is Australia's largest remaining tract of cool temperate rainforest and is now becoming a mining precinct. It will put our Tasmanian devil, for example-already critically endangered-under greater pressure.

We have a situation where the National Heritage Council said the Tarkine needed to be protected; but the federal minister of the day came out at that time, with Paul Howes from the union movement, and stood there and said: 'We have chosen to ignore the Commonwealth environmental law. We have chosen to go against what we are expected to do because we want those mines to open in the Tarkine.' That was appalling, but at least there was some transparency about it. The Tasmanian government will offer no transparency. They will just tick off on any mine in the Tarkine at any time.

So much for the arguments about jobs and economic benefit. We had former Minister Tony Burke and Paul Howes again standing there in Braddon ahead of the last election, telling Tasmanians that this would be a bonanza. This would be jobs for, and returns to, Tasmania. What have we had since? Shree Minerals dug a great big hole in the ground that is not viable. What are we left with? We are left with nothing but a great big hole in the ground and no money to rehabilitate the place. The Premier of Tasmania at the time, Lara Giddings, gave the companies a royalties holiday. They were laughing as they were sitting there and we are left a great big hole in the Tarkine.

Now we have exactly the same thing with Venture Minerals at Riley Creek-exactly the same thing. Yet the people who stand there and let this environmental vandalism occur just wander off to the next thing and pretend it has not happened. Under the Liberal government in Tasmania, you will see the Tarkine ticked off for any mining anywhere, and any logging anywhere and anyhow. It will be a complete disaster. I have zero confidence when large business-any business, in fact-can exert such influence over the Tasmanian government or any local government in Tasmania. You will see not only environmental destruction but also stupidity-giving them royalties holidays, so they do not even pay anything-and the community will be left with the mess. The only good thing I can say in relation to the long saga of Gunns and the former Tasmanian Premier, Paul Lennon, and the appalling processes that went on with that, is that John Gay was found guilty of insider trading in relation to the Gunns pulp mill. He was only fined $50,000, which was an affront to everyone around Australia who is trying to get serious on white-collar crime. I am very pleased to say that ASIC is now pursuing John Gay for the $3 million he made insider trading on the Gunns pulp mill proposal.

It is not just pulp mills-it is fish farms as well. They are being approved around Tasmania again, again with a cursory glance. There was an advisory panel which originally considered new farm licences or expansion applications, taking into account community and environmental concerns, but as soon as this panel recommended against the expansion of a fish farm, the minister of the day in Tasmania changed the act to give himself the power to approve such applications. Who is going to tell me that it will be any different under this particular act? Coming to Queensland I have had my colleague Senator Waters outlining what is going on in Queensland. It is just disgraceful-the Great Barrier Reef has been ticked off by the Newman government as a highway for coal. They ticked off Abbot Point and dredging to dump into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. They have even approved the Adani Carmichael coalmine in the Galilee Basin against the advice of the independent expert scientific committee on CSG and coal. The committee was worried about the impacts on the Great Artesian Basin-but was Campbell Newman, the Premier of Queensland, worried? Not at all. He was just ticking off on that. What is more, the Campbell Newman government was offering multinationals discount royalties for opening up the Galilee Basin. Any state government offering discount royalties is not going to be doing anything to seriously assess the environmental impacts. And, of course, it is going to get us into serious difficulty under the World Heritage convention because UNESCO is going to see straight through this.

As a state party, Australia has an obligation to uphold its responsibility under the World Heritage convention. I can tell you, all this dumping into the reef and all the ports up and down the reef are certainly not consistent with our international obligations. The former Chief Scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science said that the decision to allow dumping:

... has to be a political decision. It is not supported by science at all. I was absolutely flabbergasted when I heard of that decision.
Also, with the Newman government, the vegetation management framework is to be changed so that it will allow for clearing of 700,000 hectares of forest and woodland. We have this outrageous scenario in Queensland already such that Tony Fitzgerald, the corruption fighter, said: 'Queensland risks going back to the dark ages now that access can be purchased, patronage is dispensed with, mates and supporters are anointed and retired politicians exploit their connections to obtain success fees for deals between businesses and government.' Does anyone seriously think that in Queensland the environment would be taken into account or taken seriously?

Let me move to New South Wales and the Whitehaven Coal mine. What a disgrace it is, where we have ICAC coming out and showing clear corruption. We cannot trust state governments with transparency and the public interest. With Whitehaven, again, this offset policy that is already there is being exploited-and what has the Commonwealth done about it? Not very much. What will the state do about it? Zero. Whitehaven came out and put in a false claim that it has an offset for the white-box gum grassy woodland when there is only 0.1 per cent in its original range there. We have a scenario where it was proven that Whitehaven misled the Commonwealth. Why didn't the Commonwealth take legal action against Whitehaven? It was because, after we went to a lot of trouble at the Commonwealth level, Whitehaven has had to nominate some other blocks and that was considered to be an appropriate response, instead of going after them for white-collar crime, which we should have done. Nevertheless, at least it got exposed at the Commonwealth level.

In New South Wales, it would have been buried because, as we know, ICAC heard allegations that Nathan Tinkler, the owner of the Maules Creek mine during most of its assessment phase, attempted to buy influence with politicians using prohibited donations to subvert the planning process in relation to a number of developments. I am really appalled. I congratulate everyone who is standing up for the Leard forest and standing up for the environment against corruption in New South Wales and against the state government's shonky environmental assessment processes.

Again on World Heritage in Tasmania, there was the Tasmanian government, supported by the Abbott government in this case, removing 74,000 hectares of our high-conservation value forest from a World Heritage area. Of course, Australia was held to account by the World Heritage Committee and, at this point, those forests are now safe. But, if you hand over all environmental decision-making powers to Tasmania, I can tell you that the Hodgman government would be stupid enough to submit yet another application to take those forests out of the World Heritage area and humiliate Australia again.

You cannot trust state governments to look after areas of national environmental significance. They never have done, from the Franklin River to the Barrier Reef to any of our major World Heritage areas. You simply cannot trust the states, and you would trust local government even less when it comes to those major development proposals. This is a recipe for more corruption, more brown paper bags, certain adverse environmental impact and destruction of forests, of reefs and of the environment, any which way you look at it. That is why we are standing here so strongly opposing it.

Let us look at threatened species. The handover of environmental powers looks likely to exacerbate extinction, particularly with the Leadbeater's possum in Victoria. It has been reduced to fewer than 1,000 animals, but the Victorian government insists on continuing to cut down the trees that the animals rely on. Do you think that handing over the environmental powers to Victoria is going to protect the Leadbeater's possum? Of course it will not. In fact, an audit of threatened species and planning laws across all Australian jurisdictions by the Australian Network of Environmental Defenders Offices found that no state or territory biodiversity or planning laws currently meet the suite of federal environmental standards necessary to effectively and efficiently protect diversity. Particularly in relation to fast-tracking, the audit found that state and territory provisions for speeding up approvals effectively override threatened species laws in all jurisdictions.

The implementation of the legislation would certainly drive many more plants, animals and birds-for example, the swift parrot-to extinction. We will see an assault on places of World Heritage significance, places of outstanding universal value to humankind. We are not going to stand here and let that happen. In this country, we do not just need to maintain environmental laws with the Commonwealth; we actually need much stronger laws. In my view, we need a new act which recognises the assault that the environment is under, which strengthens existing laws and which has a trigger for climate change as well. Not only do we need to protect so many of our precious places and species around the country but also we need to recognise that we must build connectivity. We need to build corridors so that, as climate change advances, we have some hope of building resilience in populations-plant, animal and so on-that are under pressure. We need a serious engagement with the environment. After all, if you do not protect the environment, you have nothing left. It is what sustains us with life on Earth. It is under pressure as never before, with massive population explosion, massive habitat reduction and massive pollution. We are seeing our natural world under assault as never before and now is the time to protect it, not sell it out in this country by handing over to state governments the ability to destroy it and to take money in brown paper bags at the same time.

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