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Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts Legislation Committee
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Content WindowEnvironment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts Legislation Committee - 28/08/98 - Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill 1998
CHAIR —I declare open this hearing of the Senate Environment, Recreation, Communication and the Arts Legislation Committee inquiry into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill 1998. The committee prefers that evidence be given in public, but should you at any stage wish to give your evidence, part of your evidence or answers to specific questions in camera, you may ask to do so and the committee will consider your request. I point out, however, that evidence taken in camera may subsequently be made public by order of the Senate.
I welcome the representative of the Queensland Conservation Council. In what capacity do you appear before the committee today?
Mr Holt —I am representing the QCC and the North Queensland Conservation Council in the absence of the NQCC coordinator, Imogen Zethoven, who could not attend today.
CHAIR —The committee has before it submissions Nos 14 and 93, which have been authorised to be published. Are there any alterations or additions that you would care to make at this stage?
Mr Holt —No. I wish to confirm the QCC submission, but I want to add further comments to it later on, if that is okay.
CHAIR —Yes. We will just get Senator Margetts on line. Mr Holt, you said you wish to make a short statement?
Mr Holt —It could take about 10 minutes, if that is okay?
CHAIR —That is actually too long. Could you try to precis it? You can take it as read that the committee has read your submission, so you can comment if you have something extra to add. If you read for 10 minutes you will find that people gaze at the view. What you could do is precis it and table it for us, and we will take the document.
Mr Holt —Okay. I wish to advise, on behalf of the environment movement in Queensland, that the Queensland Conservation Council has become party to this national submission from the national environment movement. All of the major Australian environment groups have now signed on to the document that was prepared by the Environment Defender's Office of New South Wales. It is a very comprehensive document, a comprehensive critique of the bill as it presently stands. The fact that the submission makes 115 recommendations about necessary amendments to the bill is an indication of how ill[hyphen]conceived and badly flawed the bill is considered to be by the environment movement.
Those 115 recommendations are directed at converting the bill into comprehensive environmental best practice legislation that is capable of addressing the critical environmental issues facing this nation as we enter the new millennium—issues like greenhouse and climate change, vegetation clearing, biodiversity loss, and land and water degradation. The prevailing view in the environment movement, particularly in this state, is that we would prefer to retain the existing inadequate Commonwealth environment legislation than have the bill proceed in its present form. We believe that it requires major redrafting to reflect the recommendations made in the national submission before it would be acceptable to the environment movement.
The positive aspects of the bill are far outweighed by the negatives, and it is extremely disappointing that years of negotiation through COAG, and now this bill, have failed to deliver
the kind of visionary reform of the roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth and the states and environmental protection and sustainable resources management.
Before discussing the QCC submission, I want to comment on two matters which could very well become a supplement to the environment movement's national submission. The first issue relates to how well the national strategy on ESD is reflected in the object of the bill, clause 3, and in clause 136, which deals with factors to be taken into account by the minister in deciding proposals. This bill represents an ideal opportunity to give effect to the national ESD strategy as development proposals of national environmental significance are decided.
All levels of government are party to this national strategy on ESD, yet nowhere does this bill fully express or commit to the goal or objectives and guiding principles of ESD, let alone translate these into provisions that logically and fully give effect to that ESD strategy. Indeed, the bill's object only refers to promoting ESD rather than ensuring or achieving ESD, and clause 136 requires ESD principles be taken into account, but not the goal of ESD.
The bill mistakenly describes the three core objectives of ESD as ESD principles when they are not; they are core objectives. This in itself indicates how poorly the incorporation of the ESD strategy has been thought through.
I would like to hand out to members of the committee an extract from the national strategy on ESD. That sets out the goal, the core objectives and the guiding principles of the national ESD strategy. I would like you to focus on the goal, if you would not mind.
There is an environmental bottom line in this goal. Quite clearly, development is required to improve quality of life for those in this and later generations, but with the very important rider that development must occur in a way that maintains the ecological processes on which life depends. The goal, therefore, should condition our thinking about what forms of development need to be dealt with within the bill and what provision should apply to the management of development and its impacts.
QCC therefore recommends that clause 3 of the bill be amended so that the principal object of the bill becomes `ensuring the goal, core objectives and guiding principles of the national strategy on ESD are achieved'. We also recommend that clause 136 be amended so that the goal, objectives and principles of ESD are factors to be taken into account in decision making on policies, plans and proposals.
Incorporation of the standard definition of the goal, objectives and principles of ESD in this way helps the Commonwealth meet its responsibilities under the national ESD strategy and the intergovernmental agreement on the environment. It sets the benchmark for other jurisdictions.
This approach to ESD is most important given that the previous Queensland coalition government introduced new planning and development assessment legislation in 1997 called the Integrated Planning Act, IPA. IPA has sought to achieve ecological sustainability as its object, not ESD. This is a new and untested version of ESD. IPA also has a weak, non[hyphen]standard precautionary principle, and there is no intragenerational equity principle in IPA.
Through the bill, we believe that the Commonwealth must attempt to discourage this kind of selective interpretation and reinterpretation of the agreed national philosophy on ESD in a different context and in different jurisdictions. For example, in negotiating bilateral agreements, the Commonwealth should require other jurisdictions to adopt and give effect to the standard definition of ESD in their environment protection, biodiversity, EIA, resources
management and planning and development assessment legislation. There should be a prerequisite to Commonwealth accreditation of any state process or law.
The second matter relates to clause 146 which deals with strategic assessments. The environment movement's national submission—the submission I referred to previously—recommends replacement of that clause with one providing for strategic EIA of each Commonwealth policy, program or legislative proposal likely to have a significant effect on the environment. Please see paragraph 27 of that national submission.
QCC recommends that this committee consider extending the requirement for strategic EIA in two ways—firstly, to semi[hyphen]government and private sector policy, programs and development proposals likely to affect matters of national environmental significance or which significantly affect Commonwealth land and waters; and, secondly, by incorporating in the bill a requirement for the Commonwealth to use its `best endeavours'—it is not necessarily going to be possible to negotiate this outcome—to enter into a bilateral agreement with each of the states that states adopt strategic EIA in relation to their policies, programs and proposed laws, as well as semi[hyphen]government and private sector proposals affecting matters of state and regional level environmental significance. These recommendations create an approach to strategic EIA that reflects our federal structure.
The Commonwealth exercises EIA responsibility for its own affairs, for matters of environmental significance within its land and waters and for matters of national environmental significance in other jurisdictions. The states do the same for their activities and their land and waters where matters of state and regional level environmental significance arise. Logically, there could also be circumstances where strategic EIA could usefully be undertaken by local government, and this could also be addressed in the bilateral agreement with the states.
An excellent example of the need for strategic EIA at Commonwealth, state and regional level is the $3 billion[hyphen]plus complex of interdependent coal, power station, rail, port, dam and irrigated agriculture developments planned by Sudaw Developments and others in the Surat Basin in Central Queensland. I would welcome questions about the flaws in the EIA process that relate to that whole region development package, and how strategic EIA could be a preferable process to the compartmentalised, fragmented assessment which is occurring at present.
Senator LUNDY —Can we perhaps proceed on that point? Can you extrapolate on—certainly for my benefit—an outline as to the current processes, and then an explanation of the critical points where that process needs to be rectified?
Mr Holt —The previous coalition government entered into a kind of in[hyphen]principle agreement with Sudaw Developments to proceed to prove up the feasibility of a dam on the Dawson and a dam on the Comet River. There would be of the order of 20,000 hectares of irrigated agriculture that would be dependent upon that. The dams in turn would provide part of the water supply which would be required for some of the power stations which were going to be built, which in turn were going to use the massive coal resources in the Surat Basin, part of which would be going to export, part of which would be going to the coal fired power stations.
There were a series of transport proposals associated with this complex as well, including a minimum of two, possibly more, new rail lines to link existing systems, but possibly a completely new line as well down to a coal port which could either be an expansion of the existing coal ports at Gladstone or a new coal port near Bundaberg at an area called Coona,
which has, in fact, got a marine reserve offshore. It is of great environmental significance and has national parks adjoining it, et cetera.
The process that has been gone through so far with the Sudaw Developments proposal has been basically to give the private sector its head—to allow it to go out and prove up these sorts of things. The state stands back, basically. Even the water in the dams would not remain in the possession of the state. Sudaw Developments would have the entitlement to sell the water to the irrigators.
What has happened with the environmental impact assessment process is that each aspect of this overall complex of interdependent proposals is being considered in isolation. So you look at a coal power station; you look at a coalmine; you look at a railway; you look at the port—all in isolation. But we are effectively looking at the transformation of an entire part of Queensland, an entire region of Queensland, and no comprehensive environmental assessment is possible in these circumstances where everything is dealt with in a compartmentalised sort of way.
The other major problem we have is that the site specific impacts are being looked at, the regional level impacts are not being looked at, and the impacts beyond the region, including impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, are not being looked at. Another failing of the present system is that the greenhouse gas emission consequences of coalmining, which is going to unleash things like methane, potentially—which is also going to trigger the coal fired power station proposals—are not being addressed by the Queensland government.
It is relevant, in fact, I think, for the committee to consider that, towards the end of the last government, of the order of 3[half ] thousand megawatts of additional power generating capacity was announced in Queensland. That could account for—according to some expert calculations we have had made for us—an increase in Australia's national greenhouse emissions of between 3.8 and 5.1 per cent. This is by 2005. We have a national greenhouse emission target of eight per cent by about 2010 or 2011.
Queensland's unilateral decisions to proceed with the kinds of regional development proposals of the magnitude we are talking about are going to completely make it impossible for our national greenhouse commitments to be met. They are just going to be blown out of the water. What I am suggesting to you is that a strategic EIA potentially can be very valuable in terms of looking at the national environmental consequences, which probably in the context of this particular development could include things like the Great Barrier Reef world heritage values and greenhouse emissions and there will probably be land clearing and threatened communities involved as the coalmining occurs. There could be a number of triggers to look at the national interest areas. But we also believe that, in a trickle down logical sort of system reflecting our federal structure, maybe the states need to be obliged through the bilateral agreements to actually look at defining what is of state and regional significance and then, because they control local government, local government should be asked to do the same thing within its jurisdiction.
Senator LUNDY —I need to clarify a couple of points. In terms of what you are proposing with respect to a strategic EIA—and I will get you to extrapolate on that shortly—are you articulating in your submission that the strategic EIA process be established under this Commonwealth legislation and that the relationship subsequently with the state be managed through a bilateral agreement and hopefully in similarly reflective legislation in the states?
—Yes. Obviously, there will need to be bilateral agreements between the Commonwealth government and the individual states and territories covering how EIA
processes and EIA laws are going to operate and how the linkages are going to operate between the federal jurisdiction and the state jurisdiction. Logically, the strategic EIA process that we are talking about should be established in each of the jurisdictions and that also should be covered within the bilateral agreement.
Senator LUNDY —In terms of this bilateral agreement, to what degree do the current Commonwealth[hyphen]state consultative mechanisms and processes and, I suppose, bilateral committees in that regard actually serve as models or frameworks for what you are proposing? What is your assessment of their adequacy?
Mr Holt —As we have indicated in our submission, we are quite critical of the fact that the COAG agreement dealt with about 30 matters in which the Commonwealth had either primary responsibility or an interest, but only six of those 30 matters actually end up being reflected in the bill as being of national environmental significance. Big picture stuff like greenhouse, land clearing, land degradation and water allocation issues in Australia—which are emerging as major problems—were not dealt with by the legislation, which is just an absurdity when you think about it.
Senator LUNDY —Is it an issue, though, of the forum and the structure of that forum being inadequate or the actual substance of the outcomes being inadequate?
Mr Holt —I suppose it is extraordinary that you can have negotiations going on for years under COAG that generate an intergovernmental agreement that, in itself, has major problems; that, when you actually look at the agreement, it has major difficulties. But when it comes to actually trying to give legislative effect to that agreement, there are even more problems in the sense that there has been a selective exercise going on within the Commonwealth jurisdiction as to which things it is going to deal with. We do not know what the status is for 24 items out of that 30, and I think it is reasonable for this committee to challenge the federal government to demonstrate how those remaining 24 items are going to be dealt with either inside or outside this bill.
CHAIR —What heads of power would the Commonwealth rely on to add other items to the list, as you suggest?
Mr Holt —I think the COAG agreement already reflects the generally understood arrangements in terms of Commonwealth jurisdictional powers. They are quite clear, and these are identified as being a matter of responsibility in some instances; and, in other instances, it has an interest along with other jurisdictions in management.
CHAIR —Would you add the whole 24? If so, where do you draw the line? For example, if it is about greenhouse gas emissions, would a road project or an urban subdivision be a trigger?
Mr Holt —No. As we have said in the QCC submission, we believe that these should be pitched at the high end of the spectrum. We do not really want to attach figures to the number of megawatts a power station might have or the characteristics of the emissions from a major energy consuming project like an alumina plant or a magnesite plant. We believe that it is probably appropriate to give the Commonwealth reasonable discretion in these matters by using words like `major' or `significant', or whatever.
—They are going to have problems then. The problem is, then, that you have either a duplication where the state and the Commonwealth are involved—we are trying to reduce that sort of duplication of process—or an argy[hyphen]bargy over what is major. One of the problems is definition.
Mr Holt —Absolutely. These things obviously need to be addressed, either through the bilateral agreements or—quite frankly, they probably should have been dealt with through this—COAG. We have had officials working on these things for years. Why has it not been possible for them to actually pin down these issues properly? I am concerned that there are going to be major discrepancies from one jurisdiction to another as well with these kinds of bilateral agreements.
Picking up your point again, in relation to, say, greenhouse, the Borbidge government announced within a matter of weeks something in the order of 3[half ] thousand megawatts of additional power generating capacity in Queensland. That was a program of public and private sector works. They were going to virtually double the power generating capacity in this state within a six[hyphen] or seven[hyphen]year period. Surely that is a matter that the federal government should have taken an interest in and should have regarded as a matter of national significance. You do not even have to consider whether you have definitional problems about `major' and `significant'. It clearly is. There is just no avoiding the issue.
CHAIR —But you have to have some rule. You cannot just say, `It clearly is.' There has to be some defining point where something becomes major. That is why I do not think you have quite convinced me yet that you can define. You can say, `Yes, it does.' But how do you get around the edges? What do you do when it is in that middle part where it could be major and it could be minor? How do you deal with that? That is the problem.
Mr Holt —It is difficult. The reason we have shied away from actually suggesting that you try to put numbers on these things to try to make the decisions about definitions and whatnot is that we have had experience in Queensland in the past where, under the former planning legislation, we had EIA being triggered by development of a designated type or in a prescribed area. The designated type ones quite often had figures attached to them. It could be that you have to do an environmental impact assessment if the size of the excavation you are making is more than two hectares on the flood plain. The number of 1.9[hyphen]hectare excavations on the flood plain that get through without any kind of rigorous environmental assessment is remarkable. These things obviously have flaws if you try to add numbers to them, which is why I am saying to you that I do not believe you can pin these things down absolutely; you need to have some discretion. Apart from having the ability to exercise discretion, I think it is also worth while considering that the bilateral agreements that are going to be negotiated between the Commonwealth government and the states allow for these kinds of issues to be worked through. Probably on a case by case basis many of these things will need to be done.
CHAIR —You just said that if you make it a two[hyphen]hectare hole, they will do 1.99 hectares—
Mr Holt —Yes. There are countless examples of it.
CHAIR —If you get a concept of what is major and what is minor, it is not beyond the wit of humankind to generate two projects that come in under the minor that together make up a major. You are going to find that people will still use whatever tactics there are to increase their certainty and to reduce the number of processes they have to go through.
Mr Holt —I appreciate that. That is another flaw in the system. You can stage the development; you can break it down into smaller component parts so that you do not actually attract the triggering of the EIA.
—Isn't the scenario that you have just described with respect to the power generation model? That in fact is precisely what is happening. We have a series of projects that have all been assessed in isolation so, in effect, we are seeing a very tangible example
of that dividing up of elements of an overall strategy in such a way that actually precludes it from being considered in a broader context?
Mr Holt —To follow through with that example about power generating capacity and greenhouse implications, perhaps the way to deal with it is that the bilateral agreement between the Commonwealth and the states has to say that the states need to put forward their proposals for power generation and that they need to be jointly assessed by the Commonwealth and the states because they both have significant jurisdictional interests and responsibilities in these matters. So it would have to be a joint exercise. Maybe you do not deal with it on a project specific basis but deal with it on a program or a policy basis, which supports the proposition I put to you before about the use of strategic EIA, because lots of things can impact. Rather than being dealt with in a compartmentalised individual one[hyphen]off way, they can be bundled together so you can get an overview of what the long run cumulative consequences are going to be.
Senator MARGETTS —We have seen over time that the Commonwealth can use things like export powers, treaty powers and corporate powers on environmental issues, because the High Court has told us so in things like the Fraser Island and Franklin Dam cases and so on. Quite clearly, when the founding fathers of Australia put the constitution together, they did not even consider that things like environmental standards were constitutional issues—they basically did not consider them at that particular time. We are seeing—and I think you have pointed out—quite considerable duckshoving here in relation to responsibilities. So it is not a matter of powers; it is more a matter of political will. In terms of constitutional change, what do you think might be necessary in the medium to longer term so that ecological sustainability will be seen as a responsibility of all levels of government rather than being shoved from one level to another?
Mr Holt —The QCC submission actually deals with the big picture issue, I suppose, and we talk about the establishment of a bill of rights under the constitution.
Senator MARGETTS —So you suggest that ecological sustainability can be a right of citizenship?
Mr Holt —Yes, as can the protection of environmental values. But possibly we could build into this bill of rights certain guaranteed requirements in relation to public participation, open, transparent and accountable government, et cetera, which will address many of the structural and institutional problems that we suffer under at the moment. It is one thing to have environmental laws; it is another matter altogether to have the capacity to implement them. For example, if you do not have legal standing to go to court, then you actually do not have any real ability to rectify flaws in the enforcement of legislation. The bill, as it is presently structured, does not provide open standing; it provides limited standing for members of the general public to seek enforcement action through the courts.
The other issue I think is about ecologically sustainable development. In my opening statement I referred to the fact that we are seeing a fairly selective interpretation of the national ESD strategy in the legislation and policies that are being adopted in the state jurisdictions, and I do not believe that that is a reasonable proposition. If we have gone through literally a decade of negotiation to reach a point at which we end up with intergovernmental agreements on the environment and a national strategy on the environment to which all of the states and the Commonwealth have become party, why does that then not become the fundamental basis of all legislation in this Commonwealth of ours? Surely ESD has to be inscribed in legislation. Our proposal is that ESD needs to be more strongly expressed as an object and as a
considering factor in the bill, but it also should follow that each of the jurisdictions should have to apply ESD in accordance with the national strategy on ESD as they develop their policies, their programs, their laws, et cetera, and the bilateral agreement should operate on that basis.
Senator MARGETTS —It has been argued that, because land management is under the conditions for a state's rights, somehow or other all environmental issues therefore fall under that bailiwick. Is the environment a matter of only land management in your opinion, and where does that put things like greenhouse management? How do the states end up being, if you like, the sole responsible bodies for what they do with greenhouse gas emissions?
Mr Holt —Traditionally, it has been taken that land and water management is a state jurisdictional responsibility rather than a national one. I suggest to you that the circumstances in Australia at the moment are such that we are seeing dramatic cross[hyphen]boundary impacts of what is going on in one jurisdiction impacting on another jurisdiction. The Murray[hyphen]Darling Basin is a classic example of that.
Queensland, at the moment, accounts for approximately half of the national land clearing that is occurring and Queensland accounts for half of the national biodiversity of the country. It follows logically that our nation's biodiversity, which must be regarded as a matter of national environmental significance and interest, is being put in jeopardy by the land clearing programs in Queensland. Logically, Queensland has to rein in its land clearing arrangements if national biodiversity is going to be protected adequately.
Senator MARGETTS —How long would it take? We have been told that we will be very quickly able to put a question to the Australian public at the time of the election in relation to the Northern Territory and statehood. How long do you think it would take to put a proposal to the Australian public about ecological sustainable development in terms of constitutional change so we can look at this legislation in the future with a bit more commonsense?
Mr Holt —I do not know if I have anything to offer on that except to say, as I was indicating previously, we do think that a bill of rights is perhaps one useful mechanism to be looked at to deliver ESD across the country. But we also believe there are other aspects like civil liberties, open and accountable government, rights to public participation, et cetera, that need to be embodied in such a bill of rights so that you end up with a package of things that allow communities to take control of what is going on in terms of environment and development and sustainability generally.
In fact, that is an element of the national strategy on ESD. The expectation is that communities will have an involvement and some degree of control over what is going on around them. That is simply not possible at the moment under the scheme of things. In fact, the federal structure quite often militates against that because of the compartmentalisation of perceived responsibilities and duties.
CHAIR —Senator Margetts, Senator Tierney and Senator Allison have some questions as well.
—Just following on from some comments from Senator Margetts and the chair and what you said to us earlier about land use and water allocation not being in the bill, if we come back to basic principles, surely they are fundamentally state responsibilities. You would not be really proposing that Canberra undertake comprehensive land and water management right across the whole country region by region, river by river, valley by valley, would you? Surely it is more a state responsibility.
Mr Holt —The adoption of the Natural Heritage Trust is a reflection of the fact that the Commonwealth is now seen to have responsibility for trying to manage land and water and biodiversity across the country, but, unlike previous impressions where this was seen to be a matter for the states to deal with exclusively, it has obviously been recognised that collectively the Commonwealth government has a responsibility for the way the environment is managed and whether or not the development that is occurring in this country is going to be sustainable or unsustainable.
Let us go back to land and water. I guess the examples in Queensland would be that we have major water systems operating in Queensland that feed into the water systems of other states, so it is quite clear that what happens in this particular jurisdiction is going to have an effect on New South Wales and on South Australia. Therefore, because it is a matter of cross-boundary impact the Commonwealth government has got a responsibility and a duty to consider what is going on in terms of managing land and managing water in Queensland. It has a responsibility to look at those matters and have some involvement in it.
Senator TIERNEY —You have raised a number of issues. I would just ask you to keep your answers fairly brief because you raise about three issues each time you give an answer.
Mr Holt —Sorry, but these matters are complex.
Senator TIERNEY —I realise they are complex, and I appreciate, through the Natural Heritage Trust, that the federal government does assist in certain areas, but it does not take over comprehensive control of the whole area.
With the cross[hyphen]border issues, these have obviously been issues for a very long period of time. We have set up mechanisms like the Murray[hyphen]Darling Commission, an intergovernmental group. States are a part of it and the Commonwealth is a part of it. It was set up to handle that particular aspect. You seem to be arguing that the only way to do this is for the Commonwealth to take control. Surely those intergovernmental commissions are suitable mechanisms for handling cross[hyphen]border issues.
Mr Holt —They can be, but they do not necessarily need to be. For example, consider the proposal to establish a major irrigated cotton development in the Cooper Basin. As far as I am aware, that matter was decided exclusively by the state. In this particular instance the state government decided that those irrigated cotton projects should not proceed. But it could have been the other way around, in which case we would inevitably have had reduced water and lower quality water flowing across our state boundary into other jurisdictions.
When we are talking about massive changes in land use or the intensity of land use that have got implications for other jurisdictions, surely they are matters that the federal government should have some involvement in. Those changes could possibly trigger environmental impact assessments at the federal level.
Senator TIERNEY —Certainly involvement, but surely an intergovernmental commission like the Murray[hyphen]Darling Commission is an excellent model of what could happen.
You did indicate also that you thought communities should get more involved in the processes, which I would certainly applaud. You are wanting to increase local involvement. That is fine. You are wanting also to increase federal involvement, but we are talking about land and water management issues that are basically state issues. What do you see as the role of the states in land and water management? If you are increasing the role of all these other groups then you are decreasing relatively the role of the state that has the major responsibility in these areas.
Mr Holt —Without wishing to unduly complicate it any further, the situation in Queensland over recent years has been that there has been an increased tendency to devolve to local government lots of environmental management responsibilities. This has been done without due thought to the capacity of local government, or the interest of local government, to take on these matters, let alone provide the resources to local government to take on these matters.
The Integrated Planning Act and the Environment Protection Act are classic examples in Queensland of where we have effectively bundled up lots of functions and given them to local government. That enables communities to have a say in those things.
But, at a state government level, I would have to say that the environment movement is not terribly impressed with the performance of state governments of all political persuasions in terms of the way that they approach environment protection and sustainability of development. Although the federal jurisdiction does not have a particularly pure track record in that respect either, I guess we have got greater confidence in the federal jurisdiction on the basis of past performance. The Commonwealth government will stand up for the environment, and stand up for local communities if needs be as well, and probably it does do a better job than the state jurisdictions.
Senator TIERNEY —We are impressed that you think Canberra is the font of all wisdom, but after looking from the inside of government for the last several years, I must say that, given the responsibilities we have got in areas like trade, defence, immigration, social security and things that are obviously the proper responsibilities of the federal government, federal governments find it incredibly difficult to handle the complexities in all of these areas.
What you seem to be suggesting—and you are not the only group that suggests this—is that the federal government take on an even a wider range of powers. The education people think the federal government should run the whole school system. That has been put to us. Health people tell us we should be running all the hospital systems. The point is that, from remote Canberra, things that are specific problems on the ground right around Australia we just cannot control.
You indicate that Queensland has gone back to the local level. Would it not be a better model to have local control and local decision making, providing it was properly resourced? That is probably the problem, I would assume, in Queensland—that these responsibilities have been handed over but there has not been proper resourcing for and proper structures. Surely, that would be a better way to go than try to have Canberra control things in remote north[hyphen]west Australia. Do you agree?
Mr Holt —I would go back to what I said before relating to the COAG process and to the bilateral agreements. If the COAG process of this bill has got any significant problem attached to it, it is the fact that we have not dealt with those kinds of issues; we have a federation, but we have not apportioned out the responsibilities and the roles appropriately. The federal government has selectively chosen a few areas in which it is prepared to accept responsibility and has not said how the balance of those responsibilities are going to be dealt with; nor has it, through this legislation, set in place any kind of process to require the states and the territories to do a similar kind of exercise within their jurisdictions to work out what their responsibilities and their roles will be.
Also, if I can repeat what I said earlier, the bill should set the principles and the processes, set the benchmarks, the standards, for how environment protection, biodiversity conservation, et cetera, should operate within the state jurisdictions. We are a federation. Surely we are capable of apportioning those roles and responsibilities in a reasonable fashion. It could be,
at the end of the day, that the federal government will be able to say, `Okay, we've got these agreements in place with the states; we can effectively assume that the environment is going to be managed reasonably within those jurisdictions.' There is just no guarantee though, with the system we have in place for a COAG and this bill, that this is going to happen now.
Senator TIERNEY —Earlier, in response to questions—
CHAIR —Senator Tierney, Senator Allison has some questions—
Senator TIERNEY —Could I just have one last question?
CHAIR —Just one more, because we are beginning to run behind time.
Senator TIERNEY —Thank you. In response to Senator Lundy earlier, I think you were giving an example from around the Gladstone area of developments being site specific approvals, and you wanted, basically, a comprehensive plan initially. But given the dynamic nature of the economy, that projects just keep coming up in response to certain situations, do you think that is realistic? Wouldn't the effect of that, as we have found in places like Hinchinbrook, just freeze everything and drive away development?
Mr Holt —No, I do not think so. When I was talking about Gladstone I was in fact talking about the whole complex bag of interdependent proposals in the Surat Basin. What I was saying was that some kind of strategic, regional level environmental impact assessment would have been an appropriate way to deal with those kinds of issues, rather than looking at the rail separate from the port, separate from the coalmine, separate from the power station, et cetera, or a dam or the irrigated agriculture—because the things all intermeshed; they did relate. In fact, it is a bit like a pack of cards: if you take one or two of those elements away, the whole thing just crumbles. There has never been a regional level environmental impact assessment process undertaken in Queensland. And I am not aware of it ever happening in any other jurisdiction.
Senator TIERNEY —Can you see any way of fast[hyphen]tracking such a complex, interrelated set of projects in terms of developing regional growth?
Mr Holt —With respect, Senator, the agreement between Sudaw Developments and the previous government was a fast[hyphen]tracking package. It—
CHAIR —Can we just hold it there and let Senator Allison ask a question, because we must finish on time today. Thank you.
Senator ALLISON —I am interested in your suggestions about the criteria for accreditation. I wonder if you could relate those criteria to land clearing in Queensland, for example—how, if they were adopted, we would deal with this question of land clearing and the implications for greenhouse, which is a national concern?
Mr Holt —There would be two avenues available. What happens in Queensland at the moment is that we have land clearing guidelines that apply to leasehold properties in the state—and leasehold represents roughly three[hyphen]quarters of the surface area of Queensland, so those leaseholds guidelines obviously are very important in terms of consequences for land clearing, for biodiversity maintenance, et cetera. It would be possible, I suggest, for the program of land clearing which was to be approved under the state Land Act to be referred to the Commonwealth government to see whether or not the Commonwealth government had any concerns from either a greenhouse emission point of view or a biodiversity maintenance point of view.
The other aspect of biodiversity maintenance would be in relation to threatened species and nationally endangered communities. In our submission we suggest that the nationally
endangered ecological communities need to be extended to those communities which are vulnerable. Queensland has a very large number of vulnerable communities, and by vulnerable we mean a community where only between 10 and 30 per cent of the original extent of that vegetation community is still in place. If you take a precautionary approach to biodiversity, you would look at protecting a vulnerable ecological community, so that might trigger a Commonwealth environmental impact assessment if one of those communities was to be affected, but also an endangered community or a threatened species.
CHAIR —Mr Holt, could you make your answers as succinct as possible because we are now running five minutes behind time?
Mr Holt —Okay. I am trying to introduce other ideas—
CHAIR —I know.
Senator ALLISON —I want to quickly ask you about consultation—you refer to it in your submission—and the involvement of the public in the processes that have been laid down by the bill. It would be fair to say, I think, that there has not been a conservation group that has supported the bill—certainly not in its entirety if in some aspects of it.
Mr Holt —We are opposed to it in its present form.
Senator ALLISON —Yes. Regarding the discussion paper, you also criticised the fact that comments appear not to have been taken up by the Commonwealth. What submission did you make at the point of the discussion paper and were any of the suggestions you made—if you made them; I presume you did—taken up in the bill?
Mr Holt —Again, it was a national approach on the part of the environment movement. There were individual groups who did put in some submissions. I am not entirely sure whether we put in a separate submission, but we certainly became party to the national submission that was put in on the discussion paper. As we have indicated in our submission to you, those comments do not appear to have been taken up.
Senator ALLISON —Not at all?
Mr Holt —That is right. So we have now gone through a number of processes and nobody seems to be listening.
Senator ALLISON —The COAG agreement is, of course, between two levels of government; it is not an open process and it does not involve—
Mr Holt —That is a flaw in the system.
Senator ALLISON —How can we correct this bill to make sure that there is an avenue for public participation?
Mr Holt —You do not mean in relation to COAG; you mean in relation to the processes of the bill?
Senator ALLISON —Yes—of the bill we are talking about.
Mr Holt —We believe that the bilateral agreements, the accreditation processes, et cetera, should all be subject to an open and accountable process. We believe that the initial proposals should be freely available to the community. There should be opportunities—
CHAIR —You have outlined that in your submission?
Mr Holt —Yes, we have.
—Therefore, that question has been answered in the submission, Senator Allison.
Mr Holt —There should be opportunities for submissions, et cetera, and for these things to be taken into account before they go to a finalisation stage.
CHAIR —I am sorry, at this stage I am going to have to close this hearing. We could go on all day, Mr Holt, but there are some other people who have points of view to put, and a lot of our questions will be answered in the submission. Thank you very much for your attendance, for your submission and for your time this morning.
Mr Holt —Thank you.