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Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Page: 753

Senator LUDLAM (Western AustraliaCo-Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (12:56): I move:

That the Senate take note of the explanation just attempted by Senator Cormann.

Yesterday the Senate resolved that if Senator Mathias Cormann did not lay key documents on the table relating to the $2 billion Roe Highway disaster in Perth that he would be required to attend the chamber at this time to provide an explanation for his failure to do so. It is the first time in recent memory, certainly the first time since I have been here, that the Senate has raised the stakes in this way. Anyone who has been in the chamber for more than a few weeks will know that orders for the production of documents are an essential, practical tool of transparency.

The Greens have an undertaking to our colleagues on the crossbenches and the opposition that unless there are unusual circumstances we will generally support them in requesting documents from the government, whether it is something that we are personally interested in or not. In my view, it is part of the Senate's job to do this. If you go to the Hansard you will see that we supported numerous Liberal and National Party orders when they were in opposition. You can spend a year getting snowed in the labyrinth of freedom of information obstruction or you can come in here and order that things be tabled on much shorter deadlines—obviously, within reason.

When I first showed up here in 2008, I remember it being a pretty big deal for a government to defy such an order. Governments either handed material over or they provided a compelling reason why it was not in the public interest to do so, or they copped the consequences. In the New South Wales parliament, they have had a mechanism for many years where, in the event of a stand-off between the parliament and a minister, an independent arbiter would be called on to determine if the minister's excuse was valid or not—and it works. Ministers know that if their public interest excuse is watertight they will have an independent umpire who will back them up. The parliament knows that there is an independent check and balance in the system to prevent the kind of abuse of process that we are bearing witness to today. I hope that Senator Rhiannon will go into more detail about how this worked in the New South Wales context.

In 2010 Senators Brown and Milne and the member for Melbourne Adam Bandt got agreement from Ms Julia Gillard to introduce such a mechanism into the Senate, and two years later the Labor Party formally reneged. I can remember at the time that one of my fiercest allies in the quest to hold the government to their agreement was none other than Senator Mathias Cormann. This is what he said in 2009:

I am sincerely shocked at how quickly this government have turned into a secretive government—

I am not going to try and do the accent, but these are his words—

I am shocked at the long and detailed presentation we have just had from the government, which essentially sums up one thing: they are running scared from openness, transparency and public accountability. This runs counter to everything they have said not only before the last election but also since. I will quote … a statement made by Senator John Faulkner at a recent conference. The speech, entitled ‘Open and transparent government—the way forward’, was made at Australia’s Right to Know, Freedom of Speech Conference. He said:

… the best safeguard against ill-informed public judgement is not concealment but information. As Abraham Lincoln said: ‘Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.’

That is a bit of a Russian doll of a quote—I apologise. For Hansard's benefit, that is Senator Cormann quoting Senator Faulkner quoting Abraham Lincoln. So the Senate has no recourse to an independent umpire. There is no-one we can go to to check the validity of the kind of claims that Senator Cormann is asking us to trust him on. The reason we do not have such an umpire is that Senator Cormann's crusade for such an office mysteriously evaporated right after the Liberal-National Party won government.

In the absence of such an umpire the Senate has to figure out the consequences it believes are appropriate. To give you one example, when Senator Minchin was communications minister we supported him in sanctioning Senator Stephen Conroy over key reports relating to the NBN. After Senator Conroy had defied a number of these Senate orders to produce documents, the Senate determined by majority that it would not deal with any legislation in his portfolio until he fronted up. Months later, we got a lot more than the minister was initially willing to hand over. In other words, it was worth raising the stakes. But it is a very long time since the Senate has asserted itself in this way and in the meantime standards of transparency and accountability have fallen apart. I cannot remember a time when such casual contempt has been shown to the Senate and to its role, to the crossbench and to the opposition, who hold a majority in here and are sent here to do a job.

What happened to Senator Cormann? Where is our transparency warrior today? For the benefit of those listening on the broadcast, he has left the room. Today marks the seventh time that the minister has defied Senate order drafted in various ways demanding disclosure on this $2 billion dead dog of a project. For senators not from Western Australia you probably know what I am referring to: $1.2 billion of your taxes are going to fund an environmental obscenity. The Western Australian community have every right to believe that the minister this morning was abusing his position and the very principles of public interest that he fought so hard in favour for when he was in opposition. Release the full business case and release the cost-benefit analysis. Otherwise, we have to assume that you are hiding something.

Senator Cormann made reference to the fact that the top-line figures for this project had, in fact, been released, and he is quite right. There is a summary of the business case in the public domain. There is a summary of the cost-benefit analysis in the public domain. But we know what is actually going on here. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the 'roads are good for the environment; roads are good for mental health' Prime Minister—these are direct quotes, believe it or not—as part of his big push to be the infrastructure-concrete-through-wetlands Prime Minister, introduced three road projects, I think effectively, on the same day: WestConnex, East West Link and the Roe Highway extension.

He basically came out and said, 'No work's been done on these things, but the Commonwealth will be funding them because I am the concrete-pouring Prime Minister. I am the infrastructure Prime Minister.' Then it was basically left to the infrastructure department and the state main roads departments' planning authorities to retrospectively justify these disastrous projects. It was a complete perversion of due process, and that happened in three states at the same time. Our Victorian colleagues managed to checkmate theirs. Our New South Wales colleagues are well on their way to checkmating theirs. In fact, in Victoria that project cost the Napthine government office. In Western Australia we are 3½ weeks away from seeing an eerily similar repeat of the same debacle, where this ghost project introduced by Tony Abbott that has had its head severed but is still shambling along like a zombie—a $2 billion zombie—apparently can only be stopped by an election. That is our task in the next 3½ weeks.

What happens is we get these top-line figures that Senator Cormann dances in here with, and maybe Senator Back, who is in the chamber, will give us some information from those as well. What we are asked to do is simply trust the top-line figures. We are asked to trust the government and the analysts who rapidly and hastily did this work to justify the pre-emptive announcement by Prime Minister Abbott and Premier Colin Barnett. 'Trust us,' says Senator Cormann, 'the cost-benefit analysis stacks up. Trust us, the business case stacks up.' We know from consultants, whistleblowers and people who have worked on these things that the numbers do not stack up. That is the reason why Senator Cormann cannot release them. That is why they are not being put into the public domain, because the numbers do not stack up. Of course they do not, because Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced these projects without the due diligence having been done.

The Labor Party, to their credit, when they were in government introduced this thing called Infrastructure Australia that created the first instance of an arms-length assessment process between a proponent and consolidated revenue, so that you would not just get National Party MPs stamping around out in their electorates announcing freeway projects, bridges, tunnels and ports willy-nillly.

As one of their first acts with Tony Abbott as Prime Minister the government reversed this process. You have these prime ministerial announcements. He gets to hang out in a fluoro vest and a hard hat for the TV cameras, announcing roads that everybody else then has to go away and try and justify. That is why they are not putting this material into the public domain.

You have these black box projects where contractors are invited to submit their bids and at that point everything disappears into this shroud of commercial-in-confidence. That is what happens. That is the other justification. What we were told was, 'While this tender process is live,'—this was that excuse from a year ago—'we are not going to release any of the information. You cannot have the business case or the CBA because that will prejudice commercial negotiations.' That is commercial-in-confidence. Personally, I was of the view at the time, and we were backed up by a majority of the Senate, that that was garbage. You redact the documents and you put them into the public domain.

The fact is it is not out for tender. Leighton won. They got wonderful value for money for their $700,000 worth of donations to the Liberal-National Party. They got the gig. We have no idea why they got the gig, but they did. So you would have thought that argument of commercial confidentiality has been wiped away. There is no possibility that an independent arbiter, if we had one in the Senate to break these deadlocks, would uphold the minister's contention that because some tender process finished up six months ago they cannot put the primary information into the public domain so that people can analyse it. Yet that is effectively what Minister Cormann just did, and I presume his colleagues are going to back him in, to stand up and say, 'You just have to trust us. It is all commercial-in-confidence.'

They are going to do that to stage 2. Former state transport minister Dean Nalder, who is gone not forgotten—he is not particularly missed either—was pushing for a tunnel under Stock Road which would cost another $600 million, $700 million or $800 million. Presumably when Labor, Independent and Greens senators and our state parliamentary colleagues try to figure out where the exhaust stacks taking carcinogenic pollution from this hideously expensive tunnel and venting it into suburban areas are going to be we will be told, 'That is commercial-in-confidence,' as well. It is obscene, but that is what we are faced with.

You will be aware that there are two key arguments against this project—there are a great many more than two, but there are two key ones that I want to focus on today. Firstly, it does not have to happen. Work that was done under the Court state Liberal government in the 1990s identified that we were going at some stage to need an overflow port in Cockburn Sound. That work was picked up and run with by the state Labor government for a period of years. A whole heap of due diligence has been done that we would have thought had cross-party support by now: that the container port in Fremantle Harbour is approaching capacity—not just the laydown areas in the container yards but in fact the approach roads—and at some point you are going to need to take either container traffic or bulk freight into Cockburn Sound, into the industrial area, which has great road links and rail links with Kewdale industrial area and the airport; and that that really is where we should be starting to move our freight task to. Fremantle stays as a working port, but the overflow traffic, particularly either the container traffic or the bulk freight goes down to Cockburn Sound. All of that work had been done, which means that really that project should be moved forward for a proper environmental impact assessment. In the Senate here we, we do not get to just stand here and say that it should go ahead. What we are saying is that that is a live option that should be investigated and submitted for environmental impact assessment. But no. The government, on the zombie commitment of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is determined to push ahead, and now it is going to cost the Barnett government office. That is a determination and a commitment that we make in here today.

The other issue, obviously, is that the project is an environmental and Aboriginal heritage obscenity. This is four lanes, or possibly six or eight lanes, of tarmac—we are not even sure how big this thing is eventually going to get—pushing through wetlands and an incredibly important Aboriginal heritage area—40,000 or 50,000 years of continuous occupation of the Swan coastal plain. I am not in here to speak for the Aboriginal mob; they have been speaking for themselves at events that we have been to and in the courts. In here we have had delegations, and we have had people who have stood up with a great deal of determination to make their case against destroying sites in this way. It is a one-two punch from the state and the Commonwealth. The Barnett government deregisters sacred sites that have been on the statute books for decades. Then the Commonwealth government writes out a billion-dollar cheque to cover them in asphalt. It is absolutely obscene.

You always know that you are going to get done over in one of these things when the proponent—in this case the main roads department—boasts of stringent conditions that the project will be subjected to. We have observed, and campaigners on the ground doing the job that should have been done by state and federal environmental compliance officers have observed, literally hundreds of breaches of environmental conditions. Fifty-three of them are recorded with photographic evidence in a letter that I have here today, which has been sent to Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg, and what I might do—because I am going to refer to it briefly, and it has been to the government and opposition whips—is seek leave to table that correspondence now, and then I can refer to it and other senators will have it.

Leave not granted.

Senator LUDLAM: Well, that is remarkable. I presume that that was not from the Labor side. I believe that leave was denied from the government side. Senator Fifield, you live a long way from Western Australia. I would have thought you would appreciate having the evidence to hand. That letter has gone to Minister Frydenberg, and what it does is identify an extraordinary pattern of noncompliance with the very environmental conditions that, we were promised, would lead to the kind of world's best practice that Senator Cormann was going on about a short time ago. But guess what: we have been advised that the senior compliance manager at the EPA, the state environmental watchdog, has stated that the agency does not have the power to suspend works no matter how serious the breaches of ministerial conditions may be. No matter how serious the breaches are, the state government does not have the power to stop work. So why the hell do we bother? Why do we bother with state environmental law? The reason that we bother—the reason that governments keep these fig leaves around them—is so that they can wave around these lists of stringent conditions, and they are being violated by the dozens and by the hundreds every single day on the ground. We know that this is occurring, because it is being documented.

This letter—if the government senators had done me the courtesy, after we tipped them off, to actually be faced with the evidence; I understand why you would be a bit unwilling to do that—has 18 pages of evidence. We outline 53 very clear, photographically backed up breaches of the ministerial conditions that Minister Frydenberg believes are guiding environmental conduct at this project. Endangered quendas have been trapped just 90 minutes before bulldozers rolled in, in breach of the fauna management plan that he signed off. Why bother doing a fauna management plan if you do not care whether or not it is being upheld on the ground?

There are missing surveys of nesting hollows of the iconic and endangered Carnaby's black cockatoo. We are running out of the kind of ecosystems and habitat that can support these endangered creatures. They are iconic. Anybody who has been to Western Australia—Senator Back and Senator Reynolds will know this; we have a reasonably good cross-section of Western Australian senators here—knows that these species are going to be locally extinct on the Swan Coastal Plain unless something is done. But what the Barnett government is doing, with cheques cashed by the Commonwealth government, is wiping out another 100 hectares of their habitat and saying, 'Well, if they fly 120 kilometres further south, we've changed some lines on a map and we've created some offsets.'

We do not believe that those surveys were even done, and if that is the case—and the evidence that we have in this letter makes it very clear that it is the case—then this project is proceeding illegally. This project is proceeding unlawfully, in violation of a dozen or more of the conditions that the government placed upon it. So I want to know how serious a breach has to get before Minister Frydenberg stops the clock, because, if he does not stop the clock, the clock will be stopped by the electorate of Western Australia on 11 March, when the hopeless, bitter, clapped-out talent vacuum that we have come to know as the Barnett government is thrown out of office once and for all. That is how we will stop the clock. It will not prevent the extraordinary damage that has been done, but at least it will give us the opportunity to wind some of it back.

As we speak this afternoon, I have been advised that contractors have started clearing section 5 this morning. There is some incredibly sensitive wetland habitat. People right now on the ground have described it as beautiful. There are balgas, huge majestical tuarts, thick bushland, cockatoos circling and living in the trees, and rainbow bee-eater nests. We know that they have caught quendas, endangered southern brown bandicoots, in the area as recently as yesterday morning.

I want to acknowledge, in the brief period of time that I have left, special thanks to Andrew Joske, Naomi Caceres-Seeber, and the rest of the extraordinary team of volunteers working around the clock under the incredible guidance of Phoebe Corke. They are taking up the work that EPA and Commonwealth compliance officers should have taken up to monitor compliance breaches on site every day. It is not even that we do not have eyes on the ground. If the state government and Minister Frydenberg were interested in the evidence, the evidence is there that they are in flagrant violation of the conditions that the state and the Commonwealth put on them. There are people like Rex and Felicity who have been at this campaign for 30 years. There are people like Kate Kelly and Kim Dravnieks—campaigners of incredible standing and wisdom, and they know the history of this area. But there are also everyday people—mothers, friends and people like you—out there listening who were so moved to protect this precious place that they took on the courts and they formed an alliance with more than 30 disparate groups. They have waged a very, very powerful war against this thing.

Every local council in the area is opposed to this but ignored. Friends of mine—very close friends and colleagues—have been arrested down there in very well-disciplined, non-violent direct actions where basically you say: 'I know I'm going to be breaking the law; I will take the consequences. That's how strongly I feel about protecting this extraordinary bit of bush.' We have stood shoulder to shoulder with Independents and we have stood shoulder to shoulder with Labor MPs, both state and federal, with councillors from across the political spectrum, and with residents not just from the impacted area but right across Perth metro. This campaign has gone national, and so it should because it is national Commonwealth taxpayer dollars that are paying for it. If your hospital or transport system in Western Sydney is run down or if you are in outer suburban Melbourne and you do not have cycleways or you do not have decent schools, it is partly because Tony Abbott committed a billion dollars of Commonwealth money to this project without even knowing where it was. He probably could not even have pointed to it on a map.

I also want to acknowledge my dear colleague Lynn MacLaren MLC, who has been the state member for the South Metropolitan region for eight years and hopefully many more years. The Greens, the Labor Party, the Independents and even Pauline Hanson's One Nation party have come out and condemned it. How bad does a project have to be before One Nation sits up and takes notice? I think it will be to their regret that they then proposed to preference the very same people who are driving the bulldozers. But, nonetheless, this has very strong and deep cross-party community support, and it is going to bury the Barnett government come 11 March.