Labor endangers environment by appeasing states
Tasmanian anti-dam protesters in 1982 ... once a supporter, Labor is now selling out the environmental movement.
THIRTY years ago, the federal Labor government thought Australia's environment was of national importance. They believed that it was the responsibility of the Australian government to stand up to conservative premiers, and challenge their poor environmental decisions, made in the interests only of mining and industry magnates.
In 1983, a newly elected Hawke Labor government took the Tasmanian conservative government all the way to the High Court in a successful bid to save the Franklin River.
This was Labor's greatest environmental legacy, and extended far beyond the Franklin River – not only did the federal government win the right to uphold Australia's international obligations to protect World Heritage sites, but they took the opportunity to put the environment squarely into the national arena. Following this unprecedented national leadership on environmental issues, the Australian community rated the environment as second only to the economy in national importance during the 1990 election.
It is this legacy that is now being destroyed by the Prime Minister and her government, backed to the hilt by Tony Abbott's Coalition, now leaving no difference between the ALP and the Coalition on national environment protection.
By agreement through COAG, the federal government will hand back its powers to approve mining projects and developments that affect matters of national environmental significance to state and territory governments by March next year. These matters include threatened species and World Heritage.
This move will be disastrous for the environment, and the ALP government must realise this. The Environment Minister, Tony Burke, is vacating most of his role and giving premiers such as Campbell Newman and Barry O'Farrell sole power over approving developments that will damage our environment. If a coalmine stands to destroy part of a Word Heritage site, or send an endangered species closer to extinction, a state premier can approve it and the Australian government won't intervene.
The ALP government's plans have created so much alarm that last week Sir David Attenborough and Dr Bob Brown joined 31 other prominent naturalists in urging the Prime Minister not to fatally undermine environment protection in Australia and abandon our environment to the states.
The decision to hand over environment powers to the states was a snap judgment made after one meeting between the ALP government and the Business Council of Australia, which has and will continue to make the claim that our environment is too regulated, and development is being held up. However, on all indicators our environment is clearly in decline. The threatened species list has nearly tripled in the past 20 years, as we lose more and more crucial habitat and biodiversity. In the current Quarterly Essay, Tim Flannery writes of the gathering second extinction wave, set to empty “vast swathes of the continent”. The evidence shows that our environment is suffering from far too little protection, instead of too much.
And putting the states in charge can only hasten this decline. Just look at their record – historically, states put short-term profits ahead of the environment. And because state governments are far more likely to be fixated on the short-term royalties and returns from mining and development, there will always be a conflict of interest. This is why the big environment wins in the past have been when the federal government overturns a bad decision by a state government, such as oil rigs in the Great Barrier Reef or cattle in the Victorian Alps.
Thirteen years ago, the possibility of leaving the states solely in charge of environment approvals was condemned by Julia Gillard, MP, speaking against the introduction of the current environment laws in Parliament, 29 June 1999:
"... In this legislation they have enabled the states and the Commonwealth to now go through a process where, through a bilateral agreement, in future the Commonwealth could say to Victoria — and states with track records of environmental vandalism like Victoria — 'Here, you have the responsibility for the Ramsar wetlands. Here, you have the responsibility for the environ-mental impacts of a toxic dump,' and just let it hap-pen."
This week, I will introduce a bill to the Senate to make this handover to the states unlawful, by removing the parts of the environment laws that Julia Gillard once found so reprehensible.
Somewhere in the intervening years, the Prime Minister has abandoned her original position, and abandoned Australia's precious places and wildlife to the environmental vandals. Most of all, her government is completely destroying the environmental legacy of one of the ALP's reformist prime ministers, who first elevated environment protection to national importance.
The Gillard government's environmental legacy is now disastrously regressive. Where the Hawke government stood up to conservative and royalty-hungry state premiers, the Gillard government is now handing most environmental approval powers to them. Where the Hawke Government protected some of the most important parts of our environment from the demands of the mining industry, the Gillard government is allowing its environmental agenda to be dictated by the mining magnates themselves.
Our environment is not only the heritage of all Australians, but also part of the common heritage of humanity. It is the responsibility of the Australian government to govern and protect our environment in interest of all Australians, a responsibility that they cannot push off to the states and industry. The Gillard government must stop selling off their job piece by piece, and take a stand once again for Australia's precious places and wildlife.
Senator Larissa Waters is the Australian Greens environment spokeswoman.