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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 —Welcome. Do any of you have anything to say about the capacity in which you appear today?
Mrs Udy —I am here in a private capacity, representing myself and my own views.
Dr Udy —I am also presenting my own personal views and not those of organisations I am affiliated with or employed by.
Dr Coffey —I am representing myself.
CHAIR —We have before us submissions Nos 56 and 94, which the committee has authorised to be published. Are there any alterations or additions that you would like to make to those submissions?
Dr Udy —I was going to make a brief statement. How are you going for time?
—If you read it out people will fade off and not listen. People concentrate better if you can speak to it. So raise the points you want to raise.
Dr Udy —I know that in recent times the QCFO and scientific management of marine things have come closer together, but I was pleased to discover that I am in quite close agreement with some of their points. The bill has some positive aspects. It gives, for the first time, statutory powers relating to Ramsar sites and migratory species. It improves management of endangered species. It has the potential to improve the management of world heritage areas and to provide a coordinated approach to the Commonwealth administration of environmental issues that are of national significance.
However, the danger in the bill is in its ambiguities. As it is currently proposed the minister has large discretionary powers and, as has been pointed out by the industry representative who spoke before us, that is a double disadvantage. The minister will constantly be under pressure from vested interest groups to use his discretionary powers to help either of them—in some cases to approve environmentally damaging things and in others to stop environmentally damaging things—and it provides no clear ground rules for either industry or conservation groups to work on to provide stability for developers and conservation groups. That factor of the bill needs to be addressed before any positive steps can be made. Obviously there has to be give and take in all environmental issues. Most people in science understand that there are certain important conservation values that should not be negotiated and that there is also a large area where negotiation has to be allowed because conservation is not the only thing—there is conservation and there is also the fact that people expect to make money from the environment. Those two cases have to be looked at and balanced and this bill needs to clarify how those things are going to be balanced, rather than leaving it up to ministerial discretion.
The bilateral agreements have a potentially positive aspect but once again the lack of any public or, as we heard this morning, industry involvement gets everybody concerned that agreements are going to be signed and sealed behind closed doors and the first thing we are going to hear is that they are already signed, sealed and delivered. That aspect of the bilateral agreements has to be looked at.
My overall opinion of the bill is that, as far as I have been able to ascertain at this point, it has a lot of positives in being able to look after the environment and give the Commonwealth power, but the way some of these bilateral agreements could occur is analogous to the Senate relinquishing their ability to approve House of Representatives bills. You could make these agreements with the states and find that you are giving up your right to then say, `That is not the way that should be happening.'
Obviously, I would imagine most of you would agree that it would not be good for the Senate to say, `We trust the House of Representatives enough to let them pass bills and anything they pass will be fine.' You want to keep your right of approval. Giving the states the day[hyphen]to[hyphen]day management of the environment is good, but it is important that the Commonwealth provide the ultimate safety net for protecting the environment when either the states or local governments do not step in and protect the national interest.
CHAIR —Dr Coffey, do you wish to make a brief statement to add to your submission?
Dr Coffey —I have tabled a written submission to go with my address. I will run through it and make points as I go. I will not read it, but I will highlight the issues.
The first one concerns the bilateral agreements. I am not happy with the bilateral agreements. I would prefer national policies and regulations. It does remind me of when we had different railway gauges for different states. The Property Council said they would be happy if all Australians had the one regulation. I am sure businesses would be pleased to have one
regulation and not change between states when it comes to transport or whatever and petroleum companies. I do not like the bilateral agreements.
We should have national strategies, and of course the states can implement them and so forth, but there needs to be one set of policies and regulations with the same penalties throughout Australia. I have highlighted some examples from the Rio declaration, Agenda 21, to highlight that I emphasise national strategies. That is page 2. I have mentioned the parts in the bill that I would like changed.
Notwithstanding my disappointment at the proposed fragmented approach to environmental management and conservation, I will now move on to the bill. One issue is the objects of the act. In the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development they mentioned that we should conserve, protect and restore the environment. I would like the word `restore' to be included in the objects of the act. That is very important.
Principle 15 of the Rio declaration talks about the precautionary principle. I know that is mentioned in the act for the minister, but I think it should be part of the objects. I know it is part of ESD, but it should be stated because we have so many problems in Australia. It is really important that that is up front. That is the recommendation on my part.
On page 4 I have mentioned three new objects I that would like to see in the act. Part C is to restore and rehabilitate degraded environments and that is a very important part of a bill on the environment. I would like to have that precautionary principle put up front in part E. In part F, I would like to take the statement out of the national state of the environment report which said that we need to embrace a systems approach to environmental protection and conservation of biodiversity, and that would include national legislated policy. There should really be a systems approach and we should not let each state have different policies, values and regulations. That is the objects of the act.
For issue 3, matters of national environmental significance, I highlighted in my submission that nature does not stay within state boundaries and ecological processes. You are talking about the air moving and we mentioned water earlier today. The Murray[hyphen]Darling is a great example of what happens if Queensland does something with the waters up in Queensland—and what is left for poor South Australia?
I really do not think we can have state boundaries for the environment. We have ecological processes. The Commonwealth has acknowledged this with a national weed strategy, because weeds and pests do not stay within state boundaries. It is really important that the environment is looked at differently because it is so mobile.
I suggest on page 5 that there are a lot of issues that the Commonwealth needs to deal with, including environmental research and teaching, because that is part of matters that I think the Commonwealth should be involved with. I have listed what I think and they are quite extensive.
CHAIR —I would like to ask you a question to start off with. How long do you think it would take to get all the states to have uniform legislation?
Dr Coffey —That would be a problem.
—If we tried to think about it, it would be almost impossible to guesstimate how long that process would take. Can the environment wait that long? Do you do one thing and try and look at the other afterwards? Do you try to do it in the way you are suggesting to get all the states to agree? You have just heard the Queensland people talking about the integrated assessment process. Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia all have different processes.
To get them all to come to some agreement that would fit within this bill, it seems to me that the environment would suffer in the interim.
Dr Coffey —We have the national strategy for ecological sustainable development already in place. We have the national strategy for conservation of biological diversity. Those two major strategies are already there. We just need to follow that.
CHAIR —But do you have to change all the legislative processes in every state?
Dr Coffey —I am talking about policy, penalties and regulation. For example, contaminated land should be the same between the states. We should have the same regulations between the states.
CHAIR —What head of power would the Commonwealth use to do that, other than a cooperative relationship with the states agreeing to have uniform regulations about contaminated land?
Dr Coffey —I am not sure specifically for contaminated land, but that would be generally for pollution and we have external affairs power that makes it imperative. We have external affairs power and signed agreements that make it imperative for us to look after the environment. The powers are not limited; the Commonwealth has the powers there.
CHAIR —Some people might disagree with you on that. I am concerned that the time frame is so long if you tried to go down your path. Maybe it happens in the ideal world and maybe it is something you should work towards, but if we try to achieve that in this process, there may be environmental degradation because of the delay.
Dr Coffey —I would not stop what is there at the moment. There is not going to be a gap. I actually think we are going backwards from the opinions in the High Court at the moment. We would go backwards by leaving it to the states. I heard that people liked the Integrated Planning Act of Queensland, but they are reducing the fact that you need environmental impact assessment. They are decreasing the need for the assessments and that is a backwards step in my opinion.
Senator Hill mentioned that this was a major reform in the environment. I am quite prepared to have a major reform, but because it is major I think we should go in the right direction, rather than go back and fragment our environmental management and protection.
Senator LUNDY —I would like to take up your point about this national approach. In much of the evidence we have heard this morning, we have heard both sides of the story, and people who believe that a state framework offers the most certainty. In terms of a national environment approach, do you believe the best mechanism is to try and beef up the Commonwealth's clout in establishing state[hyphen]based regimes, or do you believe the Commonwealth should legislate quite specifically in a way that overrides the states and provides uniformity in that way?
Dr Coffey —I think they should lead in national policy and legislate that this is the way to go. Of course, how they are put in place could be left to the states, at least if the states are working towards the aims and goals of the Commonwealth and Australia as a whole. It is the national policy that we are really aiming for and for the regulations to be the same—and perhaps how it is actually implemented and who is in control.
Senator LUNDY —That is what you mean when you talk about a systems approach in putting a structure in place?
—Yes. You may have the EPAs in each state actually doing the work of checking on industries, developers and polluters and how they go about it, but the actual penalties would
be the same, and the types of developments that would need to have licences would all be the same.
Senator LUNDY —You have made the point about restoration and rehabilitation. I am interested in that in terms of the other point you have made, which is to put it into the objects. That certainly makes a lot of sense in the context in which you have put it. I am interested in asking you a very practical question about other aspects of the bill that actually address that. Is there any other reference to restoration and rehabilitation in the context of the bill that would go some way to serve that purpose?
Dr Coffey —I do not know because, as I pointed out in my first submission, I only started on this last Thursday afternoon because of the problems with being a public member. I do not know if it is addressed elsewhere. I really feel that we have so many problems with land degradation and salinity throughout Australia that it has to be one of our big objectives to have a bill that is called what it is.
Senator LUNDY —I suppose that raises the question of restoration and rehabilitation and whose responsibility that is. My limited experience in this area indicates to me that a lot of the current restorative programs are federal programs.
Dr Coffey —That is right.
Senator LUNDY —In the context of this current debate, if the current restorative programs are under federal jurisdictions, that provides a very good example of the states' legislative framework failing to establish those priorities and to actually invest in rehabilitation and restorative work. I am interested in your comments on this.
Dr Coffey —At present it is right that the Commonwealth is providing funds for the Natural Heritage Trust. It is deciding which way the money will be spent. It is giving guidelines. It is giving a lot of directions at the moment on how we should restore the environment.
Senator LUNDY —That is an interesting point. Where expenditure is required, the states seem to be perfectly comfortable with the Commonwealth having jurisdiction but, where planning and decision making is required, it is, of course, the other way around.
CHAIR —Senator Margetts, do you have any questions?
Senator MARGETTS —Yes. Dr Udy and Mrs Udy have indicated the potential problems with the Ramsar requirements of protection. It has been put to us today that such things as water quality criteria could be sufficient for the states to use as a planning mechanism and that you do not need the Commonwealth to oversee the protection of Ramsar. I would like a comment on that.
If this legislation were to go through, considering that consistent polling shows that the vast majority of Australians are concerned about the protection of the environment, do either of you believe that it would create extra community pressure for changes to the constitution to put ecological sustainability as a right of citizenship?
Dr Udy —Firstly, on the Ramsar sites, I do not believe that you would want to leave that matter to the states, because it is the nation of Australia that signed the agreement. I know personally that, if I signed a legally binding contract with a builder, I would not leave my son or daughter responsible for carrying that out properly. I would want to stay in control because I was the one who was legally bound by the contract. I think whoever is legally bound by the contract—and in this case it is the nation of Australia—should have final say on whether those sites are being appropriately managed or not.
—In this bill, do they or don't they?
Dr Udy —My reading of it is that they could be given up through bilateral agreement stuff, but I must admit that I do not fully understand how this bill is going to act in that case.
CHAIR —If they did not, if the Commonwealth still retained its power, would that allay your concerns?
Dr Udy —To some extent. The other thing is—
CHAIR —Why would it not allay your concerns?
Dr Udy —It would not allay my concerns because it is then the wording of what is protected: is it just the Ramsar site that is protected, or is it the processes that actually maintain that Ramsar site as having good biodiversity and good productivity? In that case, it has to include all the things happening in the catchment, which was actually pointed out by the farmers federation who were here before.
CHAIR —I will stand to be corrected, but when I was being briefed on it I think I asked that same question. I asked: the Ramsar site does not end at the fence, so what happens on the edge of it?
Mrs Udy —It is the whole catchment—
CHAIR —That is what I said—that the Ramsar site does not start at the edge. I was advised that it did include the areas that impacted on the Ramsar site. I am not sure that that is right, but I think I am right. If that is the case and the Commonwealth does not give up all its power, then your concern would be allayed. So I want to make sure that you are not saying that the bill is not right because of a lack of full understanding. We are all coming to grips with that too. Last week we had to be experts on retransmission of broadcasting and, two weeks before that, on digital TV, so we just move from being experts on one thing to being experts on another, and you know more about some of it than we do. But if those concerns can be allayed and they are covered—
Dr Udy —Then I would see the bill as being a positive step.
Mrs Udy —There are issues that Dr Coffey was talking about, such as environmental flows for rivers. A lot of national rivers end in a Ramsar site, so if actions that one state takes have an influence right downstream and affect a Ramsar site 2,000 kilometres away, then the Commonwealth needs to be able to say, `Hey, you guys, you are not toeing the line properly upstream.'
CHAIR —I do not know how far that boundary goes outside the Ramsar site. I would need to be advised on that.
Senator LUNDY —There is a classic example of that of course with the environmental flows proposed for the Snowy, given that it is the states of New South Wales and Victoria that have determined the water resources issues around the Snowy corporation. So that fits the example that you are describing, because the federal government have grappled with their jurisdiction over that very issue in this context. Your description of what the application of this bill could potentially be has a manifestation in a number of current issues.
CHAIR —As a committee we will seek advice about whether the bill does deal with your concern, and we will respond to that in the report. As I said, we are not all experts on it.
Senator TIERNEY —In the example you have given and in what Senator Lundy has commented on we have had a mechanism for many decades in the Murray[hyphen]Darling Basin Commission—
—Can I have my second question answered?
Senator TIERNEY —I am just asking a follow[hyphen]on question. We have Victoria, New South Wales and the Commonwealth governments involved in that commission—and in view of an earlier issue that Dr Coffey raised we should perhaps have Queensland in it as well, it being at the head waters. Surely that is an intergovernmental mechanism, which is the way to resolving issues relating to water flows that involve a number of states, even if the mechanism needs adjusting. Surely we should just enhance the mechanism we have?
Mrs Udy —I think you are right, and I think the objectives stated in those agreements were probably written quite a few years ago—
Senator TIERNEY —They might need updating.
Mrs Udy —They might need amending to reflect the current state of mind on Ramsar treaties, and all the other international agreements and treaties we have that are designed to protect certain environmental issues may need to be incorporated into those.
Senator MARGETTS —My question was in relation to the fact that quite clearly neither the Commonwealth nor the states have environmental protection per se in their bailiwicks. The argument has been about land management and international obligations, and corporate and export powers. What do any of the speakers believe with regard to constitutional change to clarify that and perhaps make ecological sustainability a right of citizenship?
Dr Udy —I would personally support that: the problem at the moment is that the Commonwealth has its hands tied on any environmental issue unless it goes contrary to one of the Commonwealth's treaties, thereby giving it the right to step in. The question often comes up: does the Commonwealth have the right to step in and stop the states from doing something it feels is inappropriate, or not? You then have High Court challenges, and lots of money gets spent on lawyers, but very little gets spent on the environment. In the end, sometimes the conservation groups win and sometimes they do not. Either way, I do not think it leads to positive outcomes, because there are always people who are quite disappointed with the outcomes.
An overriding and very clear definition of sustainable development and what the Commonwealth sees that as being—and whether it can be a right of a citizen to complain if they see that sustainable development is not occurring in their area—would be of benefit. But I take Senator Patterson's view expressed before: that may be a long[hyphen]term goal that we have to aim for, and maybe there is a shorter[hyphen]term bill that should be passed at the moment. I do not support this bill in its current state as a short[hyphen]term solution, but I know from experience that governments move very slowly when it comes to legislation.
CHAIR —When it comes to the constitution, Australia moves even slower.
Dr Udy —One example locally is a Moreton Bay marine park that was gazetted at the beginning of 1993. It took five years before a zoning plan was enacted that actually allowed management to do much and, even still, it could be improved, I suppose. You win and lose bids and you have to come to a good compromise. The point is that, if we can improve on the existing legislation, we should do that; but we should make sure that any moves we make are improving on that legislation and we should possibly be looking for a better long[hyphen]term solution.
—Yes; but I put it to you that we are having a constitutional change referendum being put to us at the Commonwealth election, and so it depends: when governments want constitutional change, the measures can be done quite quickly.
CHAIR —It does not always mean to say, though, Senator Margetts, that the Australian people will respond in the same way—as you know from the history of referendums. Dr Udy is saying that that could be a long process and that maybe you should amend the bill—if that is necessary.
Senator MARGETTS —Yes. If it is a matter of fighting the vast interests of the community and the government, then it could be a long process.
CHAIR —That is your point of view. If you were closer, I would be frowning at you; but you are not here, and so you cannot see me.
Dr Coffey —I would like to simply support that ecological sustainable development was included in our constitution.
CHAIR —Thank you. Senator Lundy, do you have any other questions? Senator Allison has not had a go yet.
Senator ALLISON —Dr Coffey, I congratulate you, first of all, on your submission. It seems to be a very thorough document, and you have obviously taken a great deal of time over it, even though you have only done it since last Thursday. Can I ask you the broadest question first? If the suggestions that you make in this document were to be incorporated in the bill, would you be satisfied with it?
Dr Coffey —Actually, because of the bilateral agreements, I think that the basic philosophy is not quite right—because of separating it out to the states. It is the fundamental philosophy that needs to be sorted out first. I really do think it would be highly changed. If it stayed the same bill, it would have to be highly modified to take up some of my ideas.
Senator ALLISON —Does that mean there are further suggestions you would like to make?
Dr Coffey —No; that is basically it.
CHAIR —You say here that you did not think that private citizens and small community groups knew about the bill and that you did not think you had time to do it. What sort of mechanism would you use? I have a view, and maybe I should say publicly what it is. I have had a feeling since I have been in the Senate that one useful thing would be—and I might get hit on the head for saying this—that, in the national newspaper, at the beginning of every parliamentary sitting week, every bill that is before the parliament should be listed with a short summary—or some other process for people to be made aware of bills.
I have felt the same as you, that people do not know about it unless they are very involved in the issue and unless they have got contact with the Internet—and, 10 years ago, they were even less likely to know. In what ways do you think small community groups could know? Given the fact that the bill goes to the House of Representatives, then comes to the Senate, then goes to the committee stage and then we have a reporting date, it can sometimes take a year or a year and a half for a bill to get through. You have to understand that the committees have got many other bills they are dealing with, as well.
You want more time from the time the committee sits and hears it—where you have enough community consultation on the bill but you actually do not have it for so long that events have passed you by, or else, as in this case, the environment suffers; or another issue such as digital television is upon us while we are still debating it—but one of the problems is that the world changes and we have to do it in a timely way. Have you got any suggestions?
—With the newspaper idea, it would be good if it were in just one national newspaper once a month, so that you only had to buy one newspaper per month, if you were interested. The problem is, with something like the notice for this being open to the public
for submissions, that it is put in a newspaper but you do not know when it is going to be put in a newspaper.
CHAIR —I am wondering if they could always appear in the national newspaper in the same place, so that all committee inquiries are all on page 5 or in some little section, because otherwise you miss them. And the same goes for nominations and hearings that are going on for other than bills. There are inquiries into this or that matter. It seems to me that it is higgledy[hyphen]piggledy. You have put that in your submission, and I think that is a reasonable thing to say. You can also see it from our point of view: doing it for a Senate inquiry is very difficult, in terms of the timing to let people know and for us to respond. The process has to go on, and we do not sit every day of the year and so we miss a couple of weeks and then it goes into the next session, because the bill has not gone in. There are all sorts of restrictions on bills, as well. It is a bit of a problem.
Dr Coffey —The page idea would be good, as long as you knew exactly when it was coming out—once a month, or once every two weeks.
Mrs Udy —Or even in every Saturday paper the Commonwealth could have a section and, if there was nothing to put in for that weekend you can say, `Sorry, nothing here today.' Most people will buy a Saturday paper. We do not buy the daily paper, because we do not have time to read it. On a Saturday, people are more relaxed and have time to go through the paper.
CHAIR —The public notices are always in the same place every time, aren't they?
Mrs Udy —Yes. If there is nothing there that week, then you know nothing is happening.
CHAIR —We will take on board the point about the submissions, but I do not think you are going to solve that one, because we have time lines we have to meet. But, if you knew as soon as we were doing the inquiry, that would be of assistance, wouldn't it?
Senator ALLISON —Can I come to the comments that you made about the bilateral agreements? I think you are suggesting that, if there is no industry or conservation group or general public involvement in those, they are going to be ongoing problems in terms of acceptability.
Dr Udy —Yes. The public, industry and everyone else are not necessarily going to trust the two political groups to come up with a positive outcome for anyone. From my point of view, I felt they were not good and so I obviously was interested to hear quite clearly from industry that they are not very pleased with them, either.
Senator ALLISON —What would be a good process to have in this bill for those agreements?
Dr Udy —You obviously have to include some form of public and industry consultation, with interested parties. At some stage, you have to allow the public to have a say, and that automatically allows all the vested interest groups to have a process. How that would happen, whether through submissions or hearings, I do not really know.
Mrs Udy —In the same way that we were talking about having bills and various other forms of legislation being proposed to be written up in the newspaper, any agreements that are being signed or being negotiated should be advertised as well.
Senator ALLISON —Exposure drafts and agreements, with some sort of public process where people can make submissions.
—I think people are very sceptical of all forms of government. I know in our little community that, as soon as the council puts something in the letterboxes, they say, `Oh, they're
doing something we don't know about.' I think people are very suspicious of what all levels of government do. If the process is opened up, then they have nothing to complain about and they feel like they are fully involved in the whole planning process.
Senator ALLISON —Dr Coffey, I think you said that anyone should be able to trigger an environment impact assessment study of some sort. How would you decide at what level that assessment should be made, and how could that be described in the bill?
Dr Coffey —I think every development should have an assessment. I know it was covered a bit this morning. I can mention a local development that we have in our area. It is simply an aquatic nursery and it wants to bring water in from the local creek—recycle the water. It says it does not discharge the water, but it does. No plan went to council to say that it was a closed system. It has non[hyphen]native species which could get into the creek. It may sound minor, but it can become a big problem. No matter what the size, you can have an environmental impact statement.
I do not expect that developer—it is just a family business, and I congratulate him on creating his own business—to pay an engineering consultant $60,000 to do the study. I do not expect that, but I do expect that, when they put in an application to the council, they have the plans of their piping and that they give information so that the council can make an informed decision. I would say that every development needs some sort of environmental statement—and then you would not have your minor or major—but you would not expect them to hire consultants, that is for sure.
CHAIR —You are talking about commercial development, but what if I want to do some hobby in my home that involves aquatic animals or whatever? Where do you draw the line at what is a development? Does it have to be commercial? What would be the trigger for the council to say, `You must present us with all this information'?
Dr Coffey —There is someone in our area who is certainly not a commercial operation but she has some alpacas—a non[hyphen]native species which is hard[hyphen]hoofed—and a dog that stays there. I feel that the council should have some information so they can make a decision. Rather than an application saying `I want to redesign my property for this,' I feel there should be some information provided so they can make a decision that relates to the possible environmental impacts.
CHAIR —Does that become a Commonwealth issue or a state issue? Is the Commonwealth going to be worried about whether Mrs Smith has alpacas in her back garden?
Dr Coffey —No, but the policy would be there to say that that person needed to provide environmental information.
CHAIR —Are you saying that you would leave it to the council to make that decision?
Dr Coffey —Following the national policy that every development provide environmental information.
CHAIR —And then at the next level up you would let the state make a decision, and then at the next level up the Commonwealth makes a decision.
Dr Coffey —On what should be allowed?
CHAIR —That is the logical progression of what you are saying, which is what the bill is trying to do on the issues that the Commonwealth thinks that it has the powers and the responsibilities for.
—I can see what you are—
CHAIR —The problem we have is: whose responsibility is it? Is it the council's responsibility that Mrs Smith has alpacas in the back garden or Mr Jones is running his small business in rare aquatic fish? You are saying that we let the council have that responsibility—that we let them make an informed decision. Similarly, at the next level up, we are saying a state can make decisions on issues such as water allocation and greenhouse gas emissions and that, where the Commonwealth has the heads of powers to deal with things like Ramsar and wetlands, the Commonwealth makes those decisions. But you were saying earlier that the Commonwealth ought to be involved. The problem is: how involved does the Commonwealth get?
Dr Coffey —That is right. It needs to be sorted out. It does not take away that national policies that everyone follows need to be there, that you provide environmental information and that you need to take the environmental issues into account when you apply for a development.
CHAIR —But isn't that what this bill is doing?
Dr Coffey —No.
CHAIR —Why not?
Dr Coffey —It has bilateral agreements between states, so there are going to be different values and different penalties. I am asking: why have different agreements between the states? Why not have one simple agreement that the Commonwealth holds and everyone agrees with it?
CHAIR —Mr Hallahan was just saying that when the CLERP bill went through, it took 10 years for the states to come to some agreement. That is the sort of time frame you are looking at. With the environment, I would say that it would probably take longer than 10 years to get the sort of ideal world you want where the states all agree. I can see your point, and I think the Property Council was saying the same thing. If you are a property developer in Melbourne, it would be very useful to know what rules apply in Queensland. You would be more likely to conform with them if there was uniformity because you do not have the excuse of saying, `I didn't know.' But, in the interim, before we get to that ideal world, we have to live with the need for development and the need to consider the environment as well.
Senator MARGETTS —Is that a statement or a question?
CHAIR —It is both. It is me trying to come to terms with Dr Coffey about the fact that her suggestion is going to take a long time and whether she wants us to go down that route.
Senator MARGETTS —Madam Chair, I am just clarifying this because you do have a go at other people if they editorialise, and you are doing quite a lot of that yourself.
CHAIR —Thank you for your help, Senator Margetts. Maybe you should come over and you could do it directly.
Senator MARGETTS —I have the right to do this by phone, and I do not think we need to abuse people for being—
CHAIR —I am not abusing you.
—We never see you here at any of these hearings, and you are a member of the Greens party. It would be nice if you would turn up occasionally. Can I ask questions now?
CHAIR —Dr Coffey, if it is going to take a while, do you think this bill could be amended in a way that would address those issues if you look at what you are saying is a long[hyphen]term goal?
Dr Coffey —I would worry about making bilateral agreements because you are going backwards. I think it is harder to amend—
CHAIR —So you would leave what is in place now and try the other process; is that what you are saying?
Dr Coffey —I think there is a way. I cannot say right here and now, but there would be ways where the states could agree. We had an intergovernmental agreement on certain issues, and it had a lot more significant issues for the Commonwealth. I think there is a lot more agreement than you may be suggesting. I feel there is a way.
CHAIR —Senator Lundy, did you have a question?
Senator LUNDY —No. I was going to make a point about the discussion that occurred earlier, but I will restrain myself and submit it to you formally.
Senator TIERNEY —Dr Coffey, would you comment on the discussion we had with Mrs Udy earlier relating to mechanisms that already exist to handle interstate matters such as the Murray[hyphen]Darling? I would like your views on whether some sort of variation or enhancement of that mechanism, which has existed for decades, could solve problems, even where it involves Ramsar sites such as Lake Eyre. That commission covers New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria, and we could add Queensland if we needed to. Wouldn't that be a better approach? You did not comment when the issue was raised earlier.
Dr Coffey —I am quite happy with mechanisms that can help a national policy. I am not against intergovernmental committees, agreements and things like that. But I am worried that they may lag some of the issues. We have issues like native pollination and ecological processes that are not under any agreement at the moment. Sure, there is a commission for the Murray[hyphen]Darling now, and it is being looked after, but the problem has happened and it is extreme. Yes, if we have national policies and national regulations with their penalties, there are mechanisms to enforce them and to manage them between the states, that is fine.
Senator TIERNEY —Earlier on you gave an example of an issue like contaminated land that the federal government should get involved with. I would have thought that contaminated land is a very much localised matter, unless you can think of any examples where it crosses state borders. I would have thought it would be something that would be at the local government level particularly, maybe under guidelines. Surely, given that land management is a state issue, and local government has some role as well, wouldn't it be better to leave issues such as those contaminated sites, which are very much localised, to those levels of government?
Dr Coffey —They may be localised, but I think the different states have different registers of the contaminated sites, what has to go onto which site and different ways of dealing with it. I think, to make it more coherent, that one national approach to dealing with contaminated sites would be the way to go.
Senator TIERNEY —But surely that could be done through ministerial council agreements, couldn't it?
—If it is a national policy, but not for each state to have their different rules.
Senator TIERNEY —Dr Udy, I would like your views on the proposal to use bilateral agreements between the Commonwealth and the states to accredit state assessment processes. What is your view on that?
Dr Udy —Using bilateral agreements or the accredited—
Senator TIERNEY —To accredit state assessment processes.
Dr Udy —My main problem with that, as I read it, is that basically, once they have signed that agreement or they have accredited the state body with the right for approval, it then takes away the Commonwealth's overseeing and protective role. I think it is far more logical for the day[hyphen]to[hyphen]day management to be based in the states, but I do think it is important for the Commonwealth to maintain that overseeing role and making sure that things are being done appropriately.
Senator TIERNEY —But, surely, at the point of agreement that would happen. The Commonwealth would not sign off unless it was. A bilateral agreement is an agreement that they reach, where they then say, `Well, we're happy with that process.'
Mrs Udy —Take Ramsar, for example. If, say, the Commonwealth signs off with the Queensland government—I think Queensland has four or five Ramsar sites; I am not sure—by the year 2000 you are going to have a management plan to look after each of those Ramsar sites. The Queensland government agrees, `Yes, yes, yes, we'll do that. We'll behave ourselves,' but come the year 2000 and there is no management plan, what happens?
Senator TIERNEY —They have broken the agreement.
Mrs Udy —So the Commonwealth then steps in?
Senator TIERNEY —It is the way you set up the agreement in the first place. If you set up deadlines for things, you would have procedures in place presumably that will handle not meeting those deadlines. You would do that in the initial agreement, I would have thought.
Dr Udy —I think my main concern with this bill is that it leaves too much to be decided in the future as opposed to outlining some of the guidelines and processes that should be followed during the bill. I think that the passing of the bill now with all these things left for these agreements that are going to be devised in the future is—
Mrs Udy —Really an open book.
Dr Udy —It is making people think that you are passing a bill that has something to it, whereas actually it has very little in its body; it is all reliant on these future things being passed, and, as Senator Patterson pointed out, we do not know how long some of these other agreements are going to take.
CHAIR —No, no, no, you are putting words in my mouth. I did not say that. I was saying for all states to agree to get the sort of thing that Dr Coffey said—not the agreements. Don't misrepresent what I was saying.
Dr Udy —Okay. In this case, in agreement with Dr Coffey, I think the important thing is that the bill should be more specific about what it sees as the environmental values that have to come out of some of these bilateral agreements rather than just saying, `Yes, in due course we will sign bilateral agreements behind closed doors that nobody will participate in, but don't worry, trust us, we'll look after you.'
—The thrust of what all of you have been saying is towards greater Commonwealth involvement. What is your view on the local and regional involvement in issues that specifically affect their areas? How should they be involved in the process?
Dr Udy —Do you mean local and state governments?
Senator TIERNEY —Let us stay away from state governments at the moment. How do you see the role of local and regional organisations that might exist in that particular area in the management of the environment on significant issues?
Dr Udy —At the moment their role is very central. Local governments actually say yes or no to the majority of environmental decisions that take place every day. I think that local governments could do with some larger more broad scale guidance on that. Obviously, it is the tyranny of small mistakes that make for a very big mistake. I have actually read consultants' reports that say things such as, `This development is going to have no significant impact on seagrasses at Moreton Bay because it is only going to affect'—for argument's sake—`one hectare and Moreton Bay has so many thousand hectares.' The trouble is that there are thousands of people out there that probably want to do something that is going to impact on their one hectare of seagrass in their specific region. If you allow all those one hectares to be developed, then you are going to have a significant impact.
That gets back to the bill, which is very vague. It says `a significant impact', but scientists cannot even agree on what a significant impact is. To be using that terminology in legislation, it seems to me, is like asking for millions of dollars to be spent in the High Court and other courts of the land on arguing about what a significant impact is. You are putting in a terminology that you cannot get scientists, let alone all the other members of the community, to agree on.
Senator TIERNEY —Going back to my original point, if we manage in some way to beef up local involvement in the management of these issues, and if you see also a need to beef up Commonwealth powers, where does that actually leave the states which, under the constitution, have power over land and water management? How do they fit into that sort of analysis?
Dr Udy —I think the states, with some direction from a national policy, would provide the policy and the direction that the local governments would actually give the approvals on. At the moment the local governments give the approvals for day[hyphen]to[hyphen]day developments that are happening in each local government area, but the state can provide the overall guidelines for those approvals and for what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. At the moment, I think there is a management plan being done by the Queensland state government for the coastline, but when that is going to come out, I am still not sure.
Dr Coffey —At the moment a lot of local people are being involved in their region. We have the integrated catchment management groups, and that is a regional approach. I think that is really good. It has worried me that a lot of the local community are developing strategies for their region, which can be quite large—the Fitzroy catchment is huge. I would like them to relate some of the Commonwealth and state policies to their strategies. I feel that there is a problem with the community knowing what the policies are at the state and Commonwealth levels. I wholeheartedly agree with the local people developing their strategies, but they really should keep in mind the higher policies.
I am also concerned that we have value setting at the moment where the community can actually say they are happy with the water in the creek to be suitable just for swimming. That does not follow ecologically sustainable development and caring for your future generations if you are going to allow so much pollution to go in there and ruin it. I really feel that community participation is important, maybe for implementing how to correct the problems
and how to prevent the problems. People also need to be aware of what Australia has agreed to as a country.
CHAIR —Thank you very much. We need to stop for a short break. Thank you for your submission and, as individuals, thank you for making submissions. We appreciate the time you have given today to come before the committee.
Proceedings suspended from 11.45 a.m. to 11.57 a.m.