Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:32): On another matter, among the growing number of reasons why the New South Wales Liberal-National government should be thrown out of office environmental destruction is a standout. There are many precious and unique environments in New South Wales, and tragically so many of them are being destroyed at an increasing rate. The destruction has serious consequences for all of us. This destruction is occurring because when the Liberal and National parties form government they use their power to deliver for corporate interests, and the top interest of business is to increase profits. That means that businesses push for environmental and labour laws to be weakened, and conservative governments comply. The business world knows this is the way they can save money and boost profits, and the losers are ordinary people and the environment.
Some try to argue that a concession to a miner or a developer means only a small environmental loss for the greater good. This is a distorted and dishonest argument that attempts to mislead the public. We must consider the cumulative damage as more and more environments are damaged and destroyed. While companies do make short-term profits, the economic loss in the long term will be huge. We all depend on our natural heritage—clean air, clean water and biodiversity. We ignore the loss of precious environmental spaces to our peril.
Here are some recent acts of destruction that have been perpetrated in the interests of private wealth by the Liberals and Nationals in New South Wales. The New South Wales government's controversial biodiversity laws have passed their final hurdle in parliament. Landowners in that state are set to get greater power to clear their land. The legislation will replace the Native Vegetation Act, which was designed to prevent mass land clearing. The amount of land in New South Wales being cleared for crops and pasture is accelerating, with almost two-thirds of the tally in 2012-13 officially referred to as 'unexplained', indicating that land-clearing regulations were not enforced. With the new legislation land clearing will certainly escalate further, leading to an increased loss of biodiversity and serious negative impacts on the climate. According to the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales, thousands of possums, quolls, koalas and gliders will be killed in New South Wales each year.
We know that the whole of Australia prior to the New South Wales changes to the land-clearing rules has the shameful record of having the highest rate of species extinctions in the world. We also know that so many of these extinctions were driven by practices in New South Wales. Yes, most of these losses occurred before the election of the current Liberal-National government, but the policy of this current government is further driving this destruction. The changes will deliver short-term gains for big agribusinesses and developers and boost their profits, but the long-term loss for all of us is unacceptable. As well as adding to extinction pressures on thousands of New South Wales's threatened species, land clearing threatens our clean, reliable water supplies, turns fertile land into wastelands through erosion and salinity, puts bushland at risk and adds further to Australia's carbon pollution.
Another environmental threat in New South Wales is to the clean water resources in that state. West of Sydney, the Centennial Coal company's Springvale mine has been granted approval by the New South Wales Planning Assessment Commission to extend underground mining beneath the Newnes State Forest to extract 4.5 million tonnes of coal per year for a further 13 years. The discharge of large amounts of polluted water will flow into the river systems that feed into Sydney's major drinking water reservoir.
In the north of the state, Santos coal seam gas wells in the Pilliga state forest are within the crucial southern recharge zone of the Great Artesian Basin. This is the only permanent inland groundwater source in Australia. The fracking process of the wells creates puncture holes through the protective clay layers thus permitting highly toxic produced water to seep into the artesian aquifers. Any damage is irreversible. Santos plan to drill 850 coal seam gas wells through the Pilliga forest, the largest inland forest left in eastern Australia. Santos's risky quest for coal seam gas in the Pilliga so far has met with disastrous results, with over 20 pollution scares, including groundwater contamination, waste spills and continuing leaks from evaporation ponds. Santos's plans have been met by fierce community opposition, and I do congratulate the groups involved. Ninety-six per cent of people now living across more than three million hectares of land in northwest New South Wales want to be gas field free. No-one gains except Santos, with increased profits, if their plans go ahead.
Greedy coalmines in the Hunter Valley are also having a disastrous impact on ground and surface water, increasing salinity and threatening agricultural land. The report by Hydrology and Risk Consulting was commissioned by the Lock the Gate Alliance. It found mines now cover 18 times the area they did in 1981 and in 2013 used 88.5 billion litres of Hunter water. This will grow to 133 billion litres a year if new and proposed mines are realised, coalmines' own entitlements to 143 billion litres of water along with more than half of the high-security licences which give holders preferential access during droughts. The mines are changing the flow of the Hunter river, having impacts on salinity and putting other water users in the valley at risk—all this to produce even higher record amounts of coal for export, boosting profits to huge multinational corporations, whilst seriously adding to the planet's carbon emissions.
Yes, some companies profit out of this enormously but overall the economy, as well as the environment, is damaged. This is occurring, as the Liberal-National government is actively working against the common good. Our collective wellbeing comes a very poor second to corporate profit under the way the Liberals and Nationals abuse the environment. The Murray Darling Basin Authority, with government backing, is drastically reducing the water that is available for the Macquarie marshes and the Gwydir wetlands. This habitat is vital for the wider ecology as we experience the negative consequences of climate change.
Forests have been declining in New South Wales since European settlement began. Today only nine per cent of the native forests that remain are protected as national parks or conservation areas. Much of our remaining forests are slated for logging as state forests. These state forests represent incredibly important wildlife habitats. Almost 1000 wildlife and plant species New South Wales are formally listed as being threatened with extinction. Koala populations in New South Wales have declined by at least 33 per cent in the last 20 years and, on current trends, koalas could be extinct in New South Wales by 2055. Imagine koalas extinct in our country! According to the National Parks Association of New South Wales, logging, development and planning, drought and climate change are all major threats to this iconic Australian marsupial.
Overlogging has severely reduced the age structure of forests. One consequence of this is loss of old growth trees with hollows that provide essential habitat for birds, reptiles and mammals. The only way stop the decimation of these precious environments is to end subsidised and unprofitable logging of our public state forests. Yet, the government is persisting with new rules that will allow even more intensive logging of these forests. These rules are being worked up in secret with the Forestry Corporation. Why the secrecy? To facilitate corporate profits and to make it harder for the public to learn about how governments change the rules to benefit their constituency—corporate interests.
Environmental destruction is not confined to country areas. The New South Wales government has been responsible for the destruction of thousands of mature trees in urban areas as part of its transport infrastructure program, including the Westconnex motorway and the Eastern Suburbs light rail. The destruction of hundreds of significant trees, including 100-year-old fig trees, is causing much distress. With proper planning we could have saved these trees and gained a light-rail system. Alternative options do exist but the famous Anzac Parade with its memorial guard of huge trees is being reduced to a barren moonscape.
Urban land-clearing rules under the guise of bushfire protection are also decimating Sydney trees. Fire experts agree that 10/50 urban land-clearing rule, which allows trees within 10 metres of a home to be cleared, is a bad policy. It is having a serious impact on the leafy parts of Sydney.
One of our very special environments are coastal upland hanging swamps. They support a range of unique ecosystems that are under threat from longwall coalmining. The New South Wales government has approved the expansion of this form of mining in the Sydney and Illawarra catchment, despite not knowing the cumulative impacts this will have a water supplies. The Woronora sandstone plateau above Wollongong is the site of much of this destruction. These swamps provide crucial water-filtering services that keep most streams and rivers in relatively good health. They are a vital part of the water catchment system.
The future of swamps is an issue of controversy. Mining companies in the Wollongong region are engaging in extreme environmental destruction. The Planning Assessment Commission has voiced concern that damage to the swamps is irreversible and irreparable. Environmental offset policies, brought in by the Liberal, National and Labor parties voting together, allow developers in particular mining companies to damage environmentally sensitive areas in one location if they agree to conserve areas elsewhere. This is a scam that governments have come up with to make out that they care for the environment, when the actual outcome is bulldozing and mining unique environments. When there is no land to swap companies may be offered the option to provide a cash payment to government coffers. The end result is that the mining companies are legally entitled to destroy endangered ecosystems.
The growing environmental threats in New South Wales only add to the list of severely endangered species—birds, reptiles, frogs, mammals. One by one our precious environments are falling prey to short-sighted policy decisions that favour mining and commercial developments over our natural environment and our wellbeing, even in the face of massive community objections. What is happening in New South Wales is a tragedy. Once lost these species, the environments that support them are gone forever. I congratulate the many local groups, environmental activists and nature and national park groups who are working so hard to save our environment. It is essential that we strengthen our environmental laws. Corporate power should not be allowed to wreck our environment.