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Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 1035

Senator BROWNHILL(9.53) —The Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Amendment Bill 1986 basically provides amendments to existing legislation that will strengthen its administrative efficiency. In the second reading speech the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment (Mr Cohen) said that the amendments were designed to provide greater emphasis on public involvement in carrying out environmental assessments under the Act, he went on:

The object of the Act, which came into force in 1974, is to ensure that to the greatest extent practicable matters affecting the environment to a significant extent are fully examined and taken into account in relation to actions and decisions of the Commonwealth Government and its authorities.

I have no objections to this at all. They are noble sentiments, and it is important that they be contained in legislation. The problem is, however, that the Act simply does not do those things and, I believe, neither will this amendment Bill. I am aware that the amendments have come about as a result of exhaustive work done by both the House of Representatives and the Senate committees which reviewed the original legislation with the aim of strengthening and correcting the weaknesses.

I support the amendments that will, for example, require the furnishing of information to the environment Minister in order for him to determine the need or otherwise for an environmental impact statement. Other parts of the Act sound very laudable. For example, section 10 refers to the ability of any person to write to the Minister asking what action has been taken or is likely to be taken to assess a proper proposal under the provisions of the Act. The Act enables the Minister to direct an inquiry on any environmentally significant matter for which a Commonwealth action or decision would be required. A commission would conduct the inquiry and it would report its finding by a specified date.

The amendments are designed to make the Minister more accountable to the public in relation to environmental impact statements. They provide that there be consultation between the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment and the proponent during the preparation of an EIS and that there be an adequate reply. As I said before, I have no argument with any of those proposals-they sound terrific. But I do not really believe that they will change the situation very much.

For many in the community, this legislation is not, was not, and may never be of any consequence to them. But there are five groups of people in my State of New South Wales to whom this legislation and related legislation is very important. The first group, in the Orange-Bathurst district, until recently lived for over two years with the threat of eviction because of Federal Government actions. I will return to this group in a moment. The second group, in the Singleton area, is still living in the shadow of the Federal Government's action over Army land acquisitions. The third group, in the Cobar area, were affected by the Army and the Federal Government's vacillation over land base acquisitions.

The fourth group is being strangled at the hands of another Government department, this time the Department of Aviation. I refer, of course, to the people living in Badgerys Creek area. The fifth group lives around Jervis Bay. The last two groups of people to date have not suffered as long as the first three groups, but I have no doubt that unless this Government gets its act together a bit faster this group will have the same problems as the previous groups have.

The argument of where a second international airport for Sydney should be located is certainly not a recent one. It has been going on almost as long as the serial Blue Hills and it has many similar characteristics. The big difference is that it involves real people. I do not wish to get into the argument over where Sydney's second airport should go. The fact is that after much grandstanding the Government announced that it would be built at Badgerys Creek. From my understanding of the matter, some residents got in early and made arrangements with the Department for their land to be acquired at a fair and reasonable price. This encouraged a few more people to enter into negotiations. A third group was forthcoming when rumours were around that there was to be a cut in the Budget allocations for acquisitions. Of course there were Budget cuts, so we are now told that there is to be a second airport at Badgerys Creek. Some residents have offered their properties and have contracts; others have offered their properties and have no guarantees as to when and at what price the Government will acquire them. People in an even larger group know that their properties are to be taken, but they do not know when or how much they will be compensated. In the meantime, they cannot sell their land, they cannot develop it; they are in a bureaucratic limbo.

Will these amendments help any of these people? I do not believe that they actually will. Yet here we have an example of four or more cases in my home State of New South Wales where there should be some legislative protection for people affected by government action. Here we have an opportunity for the Federal Government-if it is genuine in its attempts to remove anomalies-to do all those laudable things the Minister said he wanted the Act and the amendments to be able to do; yet it has failed in its objectives. The Government cannot claim to be ignorant of the weaknesses of this legislation. People originally involved in the opposition to the desired acquisition plans of the Department of Defence for the Bathurst-Orange area have moved to examine the whole issue of land acquisition, blight, and the effects of bureaucracy on the ordinary citizen. They have approached the Federal Government attempting to bring the appropriate Minister's attention to what they see as weaknesses in the legislation. These people are not professionals; they are simply, for the most part, farmers, businessmen and generally concerned citizens who have experienced the injustices of the bureaucratic system and are making efforts to have legislation strengthened and improved.

This legislation could not possibly have come at a more relevant time, considering the recent experience of the numerous people involved in the Bathurst-Orange fiasco. Those people have been through hell, created entirely by Federal and, to a lesser extent, State bureaucratic bungling. I am very proud of the small part I played in assisting them to buck the system. If it had not been for their persistent questioning, pursuing avenues anywhere and anyhow they could, it is very likely that the Government would still be considering the matter or, worse, have acquired a large parcel of land which was entirely unsuited to the purposes for which it was to be obtained. It is precisely because of that example and the others I have mentioned in Cobar, Singleton, and Badgerys Creek that I believe this legislation does not go far enough. If we as a Senate are genuine about improving the inter-relationships between the bureaucracy and the public, of protecting the private interest, then we must do more than provide mere words. We must not only be genuine, but we must also be seen to mean what we say. That is also why I cannot accept the Democrat amendments. They will simply cause more confrontation without any real purpose.

While I am conscious that the Land Acquisition Reform Committee-LARC-is anxious that amendments be made to this legislation, I am also aware that they agree that this legislation is faulty from the start. For that reason I believe patching up shoddy legislation is not the answer.

I would hope that this year the Parliament will have the opportunity to review the Land Acquisition Act, for it is that Act that provides the only real opportunity for improvement in compulsory acquisitions of private land. I think the Democrat amendments are just cheap window dressing and are doing little more than wasting the time of the Senate for their own ends.