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Speech: Federal oversight needed for environmental protection

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 2 Sep 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (20:32): I congratulate my colleague Senator Larissa Waters for her coverage and the details that she has presented on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill. This is legislation that is certainly not needed. Her colleagues have outlined a very clear case of why, around the country, we still need a federal level of oversight.

Being a senator from New South Wales, I certainly know how much we need the EPBC Act. You just have to look at current goings-on at ICAC, our corruption watchdog, to see so many examples that further underline why we need to retain this legislation in its present form. In fact, it should be strengthened.

I will start off by giving you a couple of quite small examples that underline the importance of the legislation. These are examples just from the Bathurst area. The RTA started bulldozing a $3 million bridge realignment. It turns out that this is where the Bathurst copper butterfly is. I notice that the previous speaker, Senator Williams, has left the chamber now. He will often have a laugh about these sorts of things but they are very important in terms of our biodiversity. It is actually very impressive how all levels of government have responded with a rescue plan. It has involved two local government councils, five state government agencies, two Commonwealth government departments, community groups, industry and landholders, coming forward with a very clear plan to save this really stunning butterfly, the Bathurst copper butterfly. The bridge realignment was about to wipe out the site. The site had not been identified by the EIS consultant. Fortunately, an on-site consultant identified the species, and that immediately helped stop the project, with the federal government department coming in very quickly with back-up as to why the protection was needed.

Staying in the Bathurst area, the Bathurst City Council, on another occasion, was bulldozing trees along the river but 80,000 grey headed flying foxes use this area as their temporary camp. The ecologist referred from the federal department was able to get the work stopped immediately when he recognised that this was important habitat.

These are just some small examples, but when you move over to look at the role of the mining industry in New South Wales you start to butt up against some really big cases that further underline the problems of the laws in New South Wales and the network of deceit and corruption that is going on. That further underlines why we need another layer of government protection. This example is from Bulga in the Upper Hunter. As I said, it is another reminder of why we cannot leave environmental protection up to the state government. Rio Tinto, one of the world's biggest mining companies is involved here. It wants to undertake open-cut mining in a biodiversity offset area, where there is some very significant environmental species. We also have an endangered ecological community—the Warkworth Sands Woodlands—and a number of threatened animal species.

I will give you a little bit of history. Rio Tinto had promised to permanently protect this area but there has been broken promise after broken promise. They have lost two court cases and we are seeing an alarming level of collusion with the current state government. A lot of this is not before ICAC at the moment, but when you look at how the scandals have rolled out with respect to Labor, it is extraordinary how the coalition—the Nationals and Liberal Party—in New South Wales are doing things that are not that dissimilar.

Rio Tinto is just too close to government departments. Within days of Rio Tinto receiving environmental requirements for its Warkworth coalmine expansion plan it was able to respond. If you listen to these statistics you will see that what they were able to produce in record time is simply unbelievable—'unbelievable' in the true sense of the word. Rio Tinto received the requirements for both its Warkworth and Mount Thorley expansion projects on 22 May. About three weeks later—on 15 June—it submitted its response. That response was huge—two 400-plus-page environmental impact reports, along with 33 attached consultants reports running to thousands of pages

How can you do that in three weeks? How did they know what was required? They could do this because they are in the tent, so to speak. They are in the tent with the relevant government department. The reports that are now out are that Rio Tinto had been workshopping the response required with representatives of the department of planning in New South Wales for some considerable time. Again, this is a real reminder of why we need another level of government, why we need this EPBC Act. It can assist in a whole range of ways.

Staying in New South Wales, just moving a bit further north, we come to Maules Creek—an area becoming more and more famous for some outstanding nonviolent protests. Here we come up against the New South Wales Deputy Premier, Andrew Stoner. He did some interesting things when he was in opposition that are starting to catch up with him. When he was in opposition, he met with Aston Resources chairperson, Mark Vaile—well known here, obviously, as a former Deputy Prime Minister. He was lobbying for Maules Creek. This unsavoury web is even more extensive because, as well as the previous Deputy Prime Minister, Aston's lobbyist for Maules Creek in 2010 was Liam Bathgate, of Australian Public Affairs—close to Mr Vaile and a former New South Wales National Party secretary. He contacted the planning department four times in 2011 relating to the Maules Creek project, and set up meetings where Mr Vaile did the lobbying for the coal loader and associated projects.

We are still joining the dots on everything that has gone down here, but we do know that Buildev, the company involved, was donating heavily to both sides of politics. There are some interesting connections there across the political divide, a lot of them involving Mr Obeid. In the case of the Aston donations to the National Party, we find out that they were never disclosed. Donations from a developer should be disclosed while the planning process is going on. The company pleaded guilty and paid a $20,000 fine. I acknowledge that we are still learning about the ins and outs of that story, but I share it with the Senate tonight because it further underlines the problems that many people in local communities have when they are up against laws that are stacked against them and when they are up against departments that are colluding with mining companies and developers—they need another layer of protection in the law and from the federal government.

I congratulate Senator Larissa Waters for her comments about the water trigger and the EPBC Act. This is another area that has been important for New South Wales—particularly for NSW Farmers. We have heard particularly National Party senators tonight denigrating this legislation and trying to negate its importance for farming communities trying to protect their water resources—clearly essential if we are going to have high levels of productivity for the farming land that we are fortunate to have. One example is the Liverpool Plains. This water trigger has become so important because those coal seam gas and coalmining projects can no longer just be given the go-ahead unless independent scientific advice concludes they will not damage our water resources. That was an important protection put in place, and many communities are looking to activate that. Around the Liverpool Plains, I have come to understand from my many visits how aquifers work and why they need to be protected. The industry complains that they have uncertainty with this legislation but the uncertainty is just that they may need to wait a bit longer while these studies are undertaken. Surely such investigation should be the priority; surely the Nationals in this place should raise their voice strongly for that. There are so many reasons just from New South Wales alone for having this legislation at a federal level. It needs to be retained and it should be improved for the environment.

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