The Great Barrier Reef was globally recognised for its outstanding environmental values and unique biodiversity as one of the first places in Australia to be inscribed onto the World Heritage List in 1981.
The Australian Greens share the “extreme concern” expressed by UNESCO about the current management of the Great Barrier Reef, which has facilitated unprecedented increases in industrial development and shipping, which are inconsistent with protecting the Reef’s world heritage values into the future. This is a highly disturbing approach that is risking irreplaceable, irrecoverable national heritage and the annual $6 billion tourism revenue and 67,000 jobs in return for the private profit of a short term mining boom.
There is a need for a cumulative assessment of activities impacting on the Reef, and agree that the failure to identify and fully address cumulative impacts on the Reef have contributed to its continuing decline over recent years.
However the Australian Greens are deeply concerned that the EPBC Strategic Assessment as currently proposed will not deliver the protection the Reef needs and that the Australian and global community expects, and will result in the federal government simply handing over its powers to the Queensland Government without adequate safeguards.
The Australian Greens key concerns are as follows.
1. The Strategic Assessment must be a genuine cumulative impact assessment and not a mere critique of the Queensland Government’s regulatory system.
The community is expecting landscape scale assessment and real on-ground protections to result from this assessment, but the terms of reference as drafted will not deliver this.
The Strategic Assessments factsheet states that because of the size of the strategic assessment, it will not be possible to look at every single MNES at a local scale. Instead, the assessments will look at the systems and processes in place to identify and manage impacts on MNES, with a number of case studies looking at specific locations.
Assessing another jurisdiction’s regulatory framework, particularly one that itself doesn’t properly assess cumulative impacts by virtue of being project-by-project assessment, will not ensure that cumulative impacts on the Reef are addressed and future development is within defined sustainable limits.
Cumulative impact assessment should take a holistic look at what is required within the whole region to ensure cumulative impacts do not damage the Reef, and yet there is no indication that the assessment will result in clear targets or limits to development.
The lack of detailed assessment of project-by-project impacts will only result in acceptable environmental outcomes if the strategic assessment is not a mere assessment of the adequacy of the state law framework, but rather also produces thresholds and limits (no-go zones and prescribed amounts of acceptable development) and ensures that the level of discretion inherent in the EPBC Act is substantially reduced if this decision making is to be delegated to the states.
The nub of UNESCO’s concern and the apparent original purpose of the strategic assessment was to address cumulative impacts on the Reef. We are extremely concerned that the result of the strategic assessment will be a handing over of assessment and approvals powers to the Queensland Government (in line with the Commonwealth’s commitment to approvals bilaterals), which will still fail to address cumulative impacts. The proposed terms of reference facilitate an approvals bilateral without addressing the problems with handing over of discretion under the EPBC Act to the states, the diminution of community participation and review rights in the Courts and consideration of cumulative impacts.
The Australian public, and particularly the communities living on the Queensland Great Barrier Reef coast, also need to know that once the strategic assessment has concluded the federal government will no longer be involved in assessing projects impacting the Reef because this role will be delegated to the state government. This reduces future community input on projects, removes the federal government’s role in upholding Australia’s international obligations and entrusts the Queensland Government to protect the Reef when they’ve fallen short to date.
2. The Strategic Assessment will fail to protect the Great Barrier Reef unless the Assessment is able to decide the fate of applications underway before the Strategic Assessment concludes.
The Strategic Assessment has been committed to because the World Heritage Committee has expressed its “extreme concern” about the rampant development of the Reef.
Yet the Terms of Reference propose a Strategic Assessment that is unable to decide the fate of any projects currently undergoing assessment under the Act – or any projects referred prior to conclusion of the strategic assessment.
This means approval of the six proposed new or expanded coal and coal seam gas ports (with their associated dredging, dumping, shipping and climate impacts), the very developments that raised the concerns of the World Heritage Committee, and the litany of other projects under application, will be outside the scope of the strategic assessment.
These exemptions make a mockery of the ability of the strategic assessment to actually assess and affect impacts on the Reef, and chart a more sustainable future for the reef.
3. The Strategic Assessment must not be geographically constrained, but rather must assess all activities directly and indirectly having significant impacts on the reef, including agriculture and upstream mining which is driving port and shipping expansions.
The Agreement and the terms of reference set out the study area, but are insufficiently clear on which activities or impacts outside the study area will be assessed.
The fact sheet states that planning and decision making for development outside the strategic assessment area, such as agriculture, mining and dams, is not included, except in relation to a consideration of broader cumulative impacts on protected matters within the strategic assessment area.
The terms of reference are unclear and need to be amended to include consideration of all relevant upstream impacts on the Reef, including the drivers of activities affecting the reef.
Senator Larissa Waters
13 April 2012