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Senator Rhiannon speaks in Parliament about strong environmental protection

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Lee Rhiannon 14 Mar 2013

Senator Rhiannon spoke to the Parliament in support of Senator Larissa Waters' bill to strengthen federal environmental protection laws.

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (11:31): I do congratulate Senator Larissa Waters for her strong campaigning for the environment and for bringing to this Parliament this important private member's bill, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Retaining Federal Approval Powers) Bill 2012, about retaining the federal approval powers. It is certainly what is needed and the speeches that we have heard from coalition and Labor senators remind us of how important this legislation is.

It is very interesting to hear how similar those speeches are. When it comes to considering how we strengthen environmental protection we see the coalition and Labor really involved in quite an ugly collaboration. Despite the statements that we have heard from Senators Cameron, Birmingham and Macdonald, we obviously know that there are people from other parties who enjoy the environment. We are not denying that, that is ridiculous, that is a red herring. What is being addressed here is about protecting the environment. Those speakers, Senator Cameron, Senator Birmingham and Senator Macdonald, had a very similar theme to their speeches. They are just avoiding dealing with the all-important issue of how we tighten up the protection. What we have seen under successive federal and state governments is these laws being weakened. That is why Senator Larissa Waters's bill is so important.

The Greens strongly oppose the coalition and the Labor government ganging up to hand over federal responsibility for protecting our national environment to state governments. These state governments are so often pro-mining, pro-logging, pro-shooting in national parks; they do not have the commitment to ensure that the all-important green corridors are there; they do not stand up to the big end of town that so often put their profits before the all-important environmental protection. These state governments are not actually committed to working to get the balance right. When you have governments like that, that just open the door to those companies, it is clearly time to look at the laws closely—and thank heavens we have this bill before us.

We know the current environmental laws are failing us. We have already lost valuable places and endangered wildlife species due to rapid and damaging developments surrounding these precious places. I have seen that up close in New South Wales. Again it was where we saw a very ugly cooperation between Labor and the coalition parties weakening planning laws in New South Wales to allow rampant development, often in areas of important environmental significance.

It is worth putting on the record that one aspect of that planning law that became so notorious in New South Wales was called part 3A. As we would all know in this place, we might be working on legislation but once you are out mixing with the public people rarely know parts of the act. But part 3Abecame very well known amongst the public. People knew what that meant to their local area. It meant community consultation was ended and it gave enormous power to the planning minister of the day, where he or she did not even need to take advice from their own director-general. That was a change to the planning laws brought in under the cooperation of Labor and the coalition. That is a theme of environmental protection in this country in recent times, and in this debate we are seeing the cooperation between these two parties very clearly and very blatantly.

We need to strengthen national environmental protection but, instead, Minister Burke is preparing to hand over his responsibilities to state governments. The minister, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, has the power to protect places and animals that we know are so important to Australians. People value our wildlife, they love our precious places, our natural environment. We also know that the law that provides protection is already minimal, already provides very little protection. We cannot go backwards. That is what this important bill that we are debating today addresses. Australia faces a biodiversity crisis.

History shows that state governments cannot be trusted to step in, deal with and stem in this crisis. Neither can they be trusted to act in the best interest of protecting our precious places. What we see is that they continue to place commercial interests before the interests of the environment. I obviously acknowledge we have to get the balance right here, but there is not a balance at the moment. Protecting the environment needs to become a priority for government, because we can develop greater jobs growth and greater productivity if we have that environmental protection in place. Otherwise, the damage to our communities becomes so severe that it is all out of balance. Again I would like to look at examples from my own state. Here, national parks are under real threat of losing their conservation status.

The coalition government in New South Wales has decided to open up 79 national parks, nature reserves and conservation areas for recreational shooting and hunting. This has been on the record—but we always need to repeat it because it is, again, an ugly part of how politics is being played in this country—that the Liberals and Nationals in New South Wales have done a very dodgy deal with shooters. They have got some of their legislation through and, in turn, they are giving the shooters what they want. At the moment, what they want is shooting in national parks but they also want to make it easier for young people to shoot. That is something they want to push through.

For the moment, let us look at the environmental issues. We need to remember that Labor also has its fingerprints all over this issue of shooting in pristine environmental areas in New South Wales. It was Labor that started the deals with the Shooters Party. Labor opened up state forests in the first instance to allow hunting in those areas.

We just heard some ridiculous comments from Senator Ian Macdonald that the Greens are not working on feral animal controls. We are very committed to controlling feral animals. We have always said that it needs to be done with an evidence based approach using professionals. Senator Macdonald's party is actually setting back the work to control feral animals because it is being undertaken in a way that is now shown to often result in feral animals proliferating because these recreational hunters are not interested in taking out all the animals. They do not have the expertise to know how to do that, and there have been examples of them leaving some of the stock so that they can come back to continue their hunting expeditions on another weekend.

The New South Wales government is also pushing to develop Newcastle's fourth coal export terminal, called T4. Again, we see collaboration between Labor and the coalition. In the Hunter region, there are already dozens of coal mines with many more proposed. The proposed coal loader is clearly not needed but it is being pushed ahead to help fast-track the opening of new coal mines. The approval process for those coal mines is very much linked to the go-ahead being given to this T4 terminal.

As well as being linked to this new coal infrastructure, if it were built, and as well as being linked to driving a greater health burden on local people from excessive air pollution, we know there would also be enormous damage to the wonderful Hunter estuary to really important homelands for the bird population in those areas. I had the opportunity recently to fly over the area on a helicopter inspection trip. It is really world class. Much of it has been recognised as Ramsar wetlands, but, interestingly, not all of it. That becomes quite worrying because areas—and I have been shown these areas—that should have been included when some were listed as Ramsar wetlands, and therefore required Australia to provide protection under international treaties, were left out. You start to wonder why some of the areas were left out—areas that are now marked for a coal loader. It certainly seems very unusual. It has raised many suspicions amongst local people: was a deal done on this? It is a question that has been put to me.

The New South Wales government is now waiting for the go-ahead from the Commonwealth government, which under the EPBC Act has to assess the impact of T4 on these valuable wetlands. To spell out just how significant these areas are, hundreds of thousands of birds migrate to Australia—even from the Arctic. I find it quite amazing: the very small birds fly so far, have stopovers in Korea and Japan as they fly down, and arrive at the Hunter estuary. They find that much of their habitat has already been covered by other developments and, now, one very important piece of wetland could be destroyed if the T4 project goes ahead.

BirdLife International has designated part of this area as an IBA, which stands for 'important bird area'. The Hunter estuary is widely recognised as the most important migratory shore bird site in New South Wales, and that is despite the enormous development that has occurred in the area. You can imagine what it would have been like originally when it was in a pristine condition. It is still recognised as the most important area for wetland birds along the New South Wales Coast and across New South Wales. As I said, this area is not included in the Ramsar listing and I want to emphasise that. I will return to the area on Saturday. There is a big community protest about the T4 and I know I will be questioned about it. People are quite shocked that an area right beside a habitat that is Ramsar listed—this area is worthy of Ramsar listing although, for some reason, it is not—and people really want answers to that.

If the fourth coal loader, T4, went ahead it would also result in the loss of more feeding and nesting sites for resident shore birds in the Hunter estuary. These are the birds that are not migratory and live there all the time. Again, further very significant impacts will affect the bird life in this area. It is simply unacceptable. The Australian government has contractual obligations with China, Japan and Korea to protect these migratory shore birds and their habitat. That is a wonderful cooperation between countries that are in the flight route of these amazing birds that travel from one end of the world to the other. Yet we might be about to destroy their key areas where they breed and feed to replenish for the long flight back.

We also need to comply with the Bonn Convention for the protection of migratory wild animals, not to mention our own EPBC Act. But what we see here is that the federal government again too often drags the chain. This is where they really do need to do the right thing and reject the destruction of these wetlands. That is just one example. We are hearing from other Greens senators about the problems faced in their states. It is a real reminder of what would happen if the federal government handed over their EPBC responsibilities to state governments who are so cavalier about environmental protection. I have no doubt that we will see more environmentally damaging projects go ahead if that is where this heads.

The New South Wales government have not only failed in terms of developments in the Hunter. We have seen them fail in many other developments, and a real standout is with regard to the habitat of the koala. They have facilitated the destruction of large tracts of valuable koala habitat. We have seen that in the approval of mines, like the Maules Creek coalmine in north-west New South Wales; in massive housing developments; and also in forestry plans that have been allowed to go ahead.

People—again, particularly those from overseas—cannot believe that we do so much damage to the koala's habitat. People know, in this day and age, that species cannot survive without their habitat being intact, without having those corridors so that they can move and the populations can intermingle and you can have a healthy population that is able to expand. But we have environmental laws that do not protect the koala habitat. Now Minister Burke wants to give away his powers to protect koalas and other species to state governments, even though those very governments have already failed to protect koalas. This is a huge issue for us in New South Wales because we have a number of significant koala populations in the south-east, where I was recently. They are actually now thinking there might be a new subspecies of koala in that area that is bigger than other koalas and more furry, and I am very interested to hear more about it. But, again, these people are so shocked to hear that the little protection that is in place could be further wound back.

It is worth remembering the comments back in 1999 of our current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard—obviously before she was Prime Minister and when Labor was in opposition. At that time she opposed passing environmental protection responsibilities to the states, and it is worth remembering her words:

… states with track records of environmental vandalism like Victoria …

She identified that states like that could not be trusted.

But, sadly, Labor has come into power and nothing much has changed. That is really deeply troubling and, again, a reminder of the serious problems that we have because Labor and the coalition are so similar when it comes to dealing with the environment. Getting that protection in place is really hard when they are just so weak on this most critical issue for the 21st century. Protecting the natural environment is vital for the health of our own communities. One goes hand in hand with the other. And, at the moment, we are seeing a failure from this Labor government.

The Greens do strongly oppose the government's plan to pass responsibility for protecting the national natural environment to state governments. And the Australian community is with the Greens on this one. People understand how important this issue is. We cannot afford to let the government get into bed with the coalition and water down environmental laws. This is just too important. We need to act and act together. It is an issue for the environment, for our communities and for the national interest, because if we do not we actually jeopardise the future of our most precious asset, the natural environment. That is something we are all part of.

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