Gillard's changed stance on oversight
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Gillard's changed stance on oversight

On a cold winter's day in 1998, 15,000 people gathered in outer suburban Melbourne to oppose a toxic waste dump, which was to be built right next to an internationally recognised wetland. An ambitious first-term federal MP backed their campaign energetically and effectively.

It wasn't easy. A high-handed state government had pushed through all necessary approvals and given the go-ahead, despite deep community opposition. Ultimately the dump was stopped, but it was a near miss.

With no recourse open to the community at federal or state levels, residents were driven to picket the site, launch court cases and boycott the products of the private company that intended to operate the facility.

It was a signature moment for the young MP. Through the fight, she became convinced of the importance of stronger Commonwealth involvement in decisions on major projects with potentially irreversible community and environmental impacts.

In Federal Parliament, she launched an impassioned critique of politicians who wanted to surrender decision-making authority to the states, even over things like the toxic waste dump.

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She criticised the Democrats in particular for doing ''a dirty deal with the Coalition to ensure that the Commonwealth government washes its hands of protecting Ramsar wetlands and hands the whole thing … back to the states''.

Fast-forward 13 years.

This same MP, Julia Gillard, is now on the cusp of overseeing the near-complete exit of the Commonwealth from decisions on environmentally risky or high-impact projects.

This week the Council of Australian Governments may well decide to continue down a path that would see the Commonwealth government fulfil the prophecy MP Gillard warned us of, and opposed, in 1998 and 1999.

A proposal, pushed by the Business Council of Australia and other industry lobby groups, would give state governments the final say on almost all development proposals. Business groups have had a privileged insider's role advising COAG on environmental law reform, but not a single environment representative has been invited to participate in the process.

No doubt the Prime Minister is under pressure from elements in her own party to distance herself from the Greens and give the business lobby what it wants.

State governments have a track record of putting short-term economic and political gains ahead of national interest when assessing development.

If state governments had had their way, the Franklin would be dammed, the Alpine National Park would be a cow paddock, the Great Barrier Reef would be dotted with oil rigs and there would be a toxic waste dump in Werribee.

The Prime Minister's own government has had to intervene repeatedly to uphold the national interest in the face of short-sighted state government ambition.

In 1999 Gillard urged the Commonwealth not to forgo its international environmental responsibilities.

In 1999 she was intensely critical of the Howard government's failure to consult with environment groups.

In 1999 she voted in favour of amendments to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act that would have removed any potential for surrendering Commonwealth authority to the states.

But now, if she removes national oversight on environmental issues, she will be effectively telling the Australian public: if you are concerned about a coal mine or coal-seam gas fracking or a new housing development or a dam or a wind farm in your area, if you are worried about any new development at all in your community, don't expect any help from your national government.

That's a very different message from the one she gave her own constituents back in 1999.

Charles Berger is director of strategic ideas at the Australian Conservation Foundation.

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