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Thursday, 23 May 1996
Page: 1348

Mrs CROSIO(11.50 a.m.) —I am very glad to see the Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Amendment Bill make a return to the government's political agenda. It was first introduced by the previous government last year. The bill covers areas of the transportation of hazardous waste where Australia is certainly lagging behind the rest of the developed world. As the previous Minister for Environment, Sport and Territories, Senator Faulkner, put so succinctly in March last year when he introduced the bill, `The existing Commonwealth legislation fails to meet our obligations under the Basel convention.'

The Basel convention—as indicated by other speakers—was adopted in 1989 and ratified by Australia in 1992. It ties its signatories to a stringent code of conduct in the transportation and trade of hazardous waste—a code which we have been guilty of neglecting. As a nation which prides itself on its integrity in its dealings with the international community, as a nation which regards its diligence in meeting its international obligations as an example from which others can learn, we cannot afford to drag our feet any longer on such an internationally important issue as the transportation of hazardous waste.

Over the last 10 to 20 years, as we have become more attuned to the needs of our environment, we have been led to ask ourselves some difficult questions about the transportation and disposal of toxic waste products. This bill is another example of how we have slowly begun to educate ourselves. It is an example of the steps that we must take in order to reverse our environment's dire state of health. Some say that these lessons are being learnt too late and too slowly. It is hard not to disagree when one can see all around us the devastation of our environment continuing, seemingly unabated.

I suppose only our children will know whether we have acted soon enough; whether we are now acting with enough speed to reverse our environment's decline. I think I can say, without being glib, that perhaps we would be better off to not be around when our children are old enough to answer that question.

Depending on whom we talk to, we find that Australia's record on protecting the environment on both a national and an international level is either commendable or contemptible. It is true that we have led the way on certain environmental issues. The former Labor government's Landcare program was an attempt, on a vast scale, to begin the process of reversing the steady erosion of the Australian land.

However, we are presently viewed with a jaundiced eye by our neighbours in the South Pacific for not supporting the Association of Small Island States' proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2005. In fact, in regard to setting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we have now been left behind by the western European nations and are in danger of being isolated further by the United States and Canada.

In relation to the trade of hazardous waste, our recent history is similarly chequered. Per capita, between 1990 and 1993, Australia exported three times more hazardous waste than did the United States—a shameful position to find ourselves in. Those responsible for trading Australia's waste overseas have in the past taken advantage of a loophole which exists in the present act—namely, its definition of waste differs from that used by the Basel convention. Thankfully, the present bill will change this situation.

In the past, under the guise of `recycling', Australia has sent thousands of tonnes of toxic waste to darken our neighbours' doorsteps, rather than face the problem ourselves. This has all been done without contravening the 1989 act, but it is, I believe, still against the spirit of the convention.

Because waste products intended for recycling were not covered by the previous act, there was no requirement for companies to report the export of such products to the Australian authorities and in turn no prior informed consent was obtained from the countries of import. Nor was there any inquiry made as to whether these wastes would be managed in an environmentally sound manner by the importing state. The environmental organisation Greenpeace has since reported that waste exported by Australia for recycling has routinely been treated by importing countries in south-east Asia in an unsafe manner which has resulted in damages to human health and the environment in those countries. I wonder, how many Australians are aware of this state of affairs? Who would not be appalled at the thought of our waste destroying the lives of others?

As was mentioned in the other House during debate on this bill, in 1994 Australia was the main exporter of lead acid batteries to Indonesia. In 1992, we exported more than 11,000 tonnes of lead acid batteries, compared with the United Kingdom's 700 tonnes in 1993. In the following year, we exported 20,000 kilograms of lead battery waste to Hong Kong.

Up until now, lead battery acid would be considered a hazardous waste by anyone's definition—anyone's definition, it appears, but ours. Lead battery acid is a destructive pollutant and, if not disposed of correctly, can seriously affect people's health and safety. However, in the past we have considered such waste as a `good, intended for recycling' and, as such, it was excluded from control under the act. Again, this is a situation which I am pleased this bill will now rectify.

Yet as much as I commend the bill, I also think it raises just as many questions as it seeks to answer. It raises questions, not just about our past conduct in regard to the trade of serious toxic waste, but also it raises basic questions which reflect upon the desire of government and of the Australian people to change the way we live in order to produce less waste and in so doing, save our collective hides.

While I am pleased to see that we are strengthening our position on such an important environmental issue as the transportation of hazardous waste, I think that we have largely missed another central provision of the Basel convention, and that is that the contracting parties shall:

minimise the generation of hazardous and other wastes.

Simply by taking a look around our cities and our towns—not just at the factories and the waste stations, but also at our homes and our local rubbish tips—we can see that this is quite obviously not happening. Our generation of waste continues without interruption.

We often hear our leaders talking about the economic ramifications of living beyond our means. But I doubt that there are many Australians who understand or appreciate the extent to which we are living on environmental credit and in the process, that we are destroying our country forever. The hazardous waste bill we are debating today is just the end result of our nation's insatiable appetite.

The thing that alarms me, and which the debate surrounding this bill has constantly raised, is that despite the warnings and the future global emergencies which scientists and naturalists alert us to, Australians continue to produce waste at an alarming rate of knots. Approach virtually anyone in the street and ask that person about the state of the Australian or, in fact, the global environment. More than likely, if he or she has read a newspaper or watched the television in the last 10 years, that person will say, `Oh yeah, it is dreadful, isn't it? We have got to do something about that.' Or, the comment will be, `Don't worry, they'll find an answer.'

In a poll taken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in May of 1992, 70.3 per cent of respondents considered that environmental concerns and economic growth had equal importance. And 18.8 per cent considered that environmental concerns were more important than economic growth. Yet despite their good intentions, most Australians are inadvertently part of the waste-producing juggernaut. Australians may feel strongly about the environment, but we continue to buy products wrapped in excessive and unnecessary packaging. When we shop, we fill up half a dozen plastic bags, which we promptly dispose of upon returning home—and I am as guilty as others. The vast majority of Australians have not twigged to the link between our devastated environment and our rampant waste-producing consumerism. When people say, `We have got to do something about it,' most mean `we' as referring to the government. Or, when people say, `They will find an answer,' most mean the teams of scientists and researchers in whom they place all their trust. And yet while the government and the scientists have enormous responsibilities, part of which we are fulfilling here today, Australians have to start recognising that they can, and must, play an important role in doing something about it as well. We can no longer live our lives on this earth saying, `Damn the consequences,' or we will find the consequences have, in fact, damned us.

As evidence of this point, I would like the members present to pay particularly close attention to some of the following figures, which I have researched. In 1988, every man, woman and child in Sydney generated the equivalent of a tonne of waste. That is over three million tonnes of waste in one year. Eight years ago these figures were taken out. Considering the fact that our nation's population is growing at the rate of 1.2 per cent each year—similar in size to Wollongong's population of 220,000—this is a situation which I doubt would have improved. Rather, it is one that would have become worse. Members should also be aware that this figure does not include the 70,000 motor vehicles and two million tyres discarded by Sydneysiders in that year.

The domestic garbage disposed of by Sydneysiders in our bicentennial year included paper to the equivalent of one million trees—enough timber, incidentally, Mr Deputy Speaker, to build 40,000 homes; enough glass to make 200 million soft drink bottles; enough metal to construct 75,000 new cars; and two billion drink containers' worth of plastic. This was all discarded just in Sydney. From these figures, it is not surprising that it has been estimated that Sydney, in particular, will run out of landfill sites before the turn of the century.

In relation to the ecological footprint, or ecological impact, made by Sydneysiders, it takes 4.5 hectares of productive land now to support each individual in this campaign of consumption. That is 4.5 hectares compared to an average of 1.7 hectares across the world. Putting it plainly, every Australian affects the environment 20 times more than every Indonesian. Sydneysiders and, I assume, all Australians have lived with what environmentalists call the myth of disposal for far too long. For far too long we have taken it as a given that we could take out of the earth whatever we wanted and we could throw away whatever we liked and it would never affect us.

Of course, the age of recycling has also well and truly begun; yet I am afraid that recycling on its own is not going to be enough. What we need to do is reduce our waste, be it toxic, hazardous or otherwise. If we can succeed in reducing our incredibly high levels of waste, then the question of how to dispose of it—whether by landfill, incineration or export—will no longer be as pressing. It is obvious that the message is just not getting through to average Australians. As I have said before, they have not yet twigged to the link between their lifestyles and the damage to the environment. We will not be able to cut down our levels of waste while continuing to live in the way to which we have become accustomed. Compromise, unfortunately, will not get us there.

As with most things worth doing, there will have to be some level of inconvenience. As the worldwide respected environmentalist David Suzuki writes:

This new sacred truth of raised consciousness—that we can fit saving the planet into our lifestyle—is as patently false as are the inherited ones we cling to. And it is dangerous. We can't negotiate with a faltering life-support system. We can't buy a future for our children. The only thing we might be able to buy them—if we act now—is a little time; the time it takes to embrace a new way of living, a new world view.

Further to the questions the bill raises about our level of waste production, I think it also raises serious questions about the extent to which Australia wishes to lead the world on environmental matters. Does Australia want to show the flag, or will it continue, as is the case with this bill, to play catch-up, doing only the bare minimum required by its international obligations or when pressured by its trading partners or the sway of world opinion?

As has been stated by other speakers, this bill is all about bringing ourselves into line with the other signatories to the Basel convention. But we are not going any further. We are not inspiring our international partners such as the United States—which, incidentally, remains conspicuously absent from the membership roll of the convention—to go further with us. We are simply doing the bare minimum required.

In the second reading speech on this bill, the Minister for the Environment (Senator Hill) said:

. . . it is in Australia's trade interests, as well as within our international obligations, to abide by these rules.

Those rules are the ones laid down by the Basel convention. But does he not see our adherence to the convention as also being an important environmental statement to the rest of the world? Does he not see it as also being an important step in putting an end to Australia's role in the shameful environmental degradation of our neighbours through the exportation of our toxic waste? This is the sort of political approach that we need to change. And to do so we need to change opinions at ground level.

The recent tragedy in Port Arthur showed how quickly politicians and governments were able to come together and produce a solution to the problems of gun control in this country. The plans devised by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) and supported by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley) and the state premiers have received almost total support from the Australian people. Unfortunately, it took a tragedy in order to get action from our leaders and to change the opinions of Australians.

Before that terrible day, most Australians recognised that controlling guns would be in everyone's interest, yet the issue failed to make political waves. The people did not ask the governments and, by and large, we failed to act. I fear that it will take an environmental tragedy on the scale of Port Arthur to bring about the ground swell of opinion needed to force the kind of action we need from government, at all levels, to solve our environmental problems.

As I said, Senator Hill's second reading speech on this bill was indicative of the political mind-set we need to overcome if we are to salvage our environment. While I appreciate that the political realities of economics and business continue to tie our hands, and while I understand that blind idealism will never get us anywhere, I hope that one day we will reach the point when environmental legislation is passed not because we look bad or suffer economically if we fail to have it passed, but because it makes environmental sense—first and foremost. Perhaps it is too much of a homily, but if we do not change the way we think now, as Australians and as international citizens, those same economic ties will become like anvils around our necks as the chance to restore this country's environment slips beyond our grasp.

As the opposition has stated, while supporting the bill before the House I am particularly pleased that we have finally got it there. I am not saying that this present government is at fault any more than the past government. But I am saying that the conventional wisdom which we always seem to put in environmental legislation before this House must change. It is about time that all of us, as both legislators and leaders, stopped to think, but most importantly to look, learn and listen to what is happening within Australia, to what people's concerns are and how we should be meeting our obligations to overcome those problems.

In commending the bill, I believe we should go that step further. We should lead by example. Australia, as a country that we continually say has come of age, and Australians, as citizens who stand up and say we are so proud of our country, should not follow. We should stand up and we should lead. If it means that at times we are going to suffer for it economically, I believe the average Australian will understand and appreciate that if it is explained to them what the long-term ramifications of not taking these decisions could mean to them, to their children and to their children's children.

We cannot continue to complain and to whinge when a particular bill comes before the House. The pressure must be applied continually to make sure that legislation is enacted so that Australia stands proudly as a nation; to make sure that we will lead by example and start cleaning up at our own doorstep the environmental problems we have created through industry and through grabbing the short term economic return for so many years in the past.

I am not condemning the people of the past. Perhaps inadvertently, they did not understand or appreciate some of the mistakes they were making at the time. But, with the knowledge we now have available to us, I do condemn anyone today if stringent steps are not taken to make sure that we have a country we are not only proud of, but one that environmentally will sustain all future generations within this continent. I commend the bill to the House.