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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 260


Senator KNOWLES (5.54 p.m.) —Today we are debating the National Environment Protection Council Bill. Listening to Senator Coulter's contribution makes us as Australians feel very glad that the Australian Democrats will never govern this country. The states would be wiped out in one fell swoop. That would be it. We would have a republic before we knew it because the states would be non-existent. It is just breathtaking to sit here and listen to such nonsense about recalcitrant states—states such as my state of Western Australia, which quite rightly stands up for the interests of the people who actually elect the government there, the people who live there.


Senator Coulter —For lower environmental standards.


Senator KNOWLES —What an absolute nonsense, Senator Coulter. You have not lived in Western Australia—


Senator Coulter —I was born there. I lived there for a long time.


Senator KNOWLES —All I can say is thank heavens you left!

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator West)—Order! Would you like to address the chair, please?


Senator KNOWLES —Certainly, Madam Acting Deputy President. Quite frankly, Western Australians are the best people to decide who can look after their environmental protection measures. I think it is absolutely outrageous for this federal government to believe that it knows best. How can it set national standards of environmental protection to apply in Sydney and in Melbourne, with their populations, in the same way as they will apply in Townsville, Kununurra, Broome, Carnarvon, Geraldton, Bunbury, Albany, Esperance and all points in between? It is absolute and utter nonsense to believe that that can be so.

  I am quite happy for Western Australia to be a recalcitrant, if that is what Senator Coulter wants to call it, if it means that, first of all, we disagree with him but, most importantly, that we consistently resist any form of federal intervention in areas of total and utter state responsibility.

  Senator Coulter cited the Tasmanian dams case as a perfect example of where the federal government should intervene in state issues. I am glad he mentioned that because the Tasmanian dams case remains the classic example of the federal government overriding the wishes of people in the states. The Tasmanian people actually voted in a government that promoted the development and the building of that dam, yet the federal government overrode their wishes. This is what is happening again, because this is purely and simply another attempt by this government to rob the states of their constitutional powers. How many times is this government going to be allowed to do it before everyone in Australia realises that this is the underhanded way in which the Labor Party is going about trying to diminish the roles of the states?

  For too long the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) has actively sought to erode the powers of the state and territory governments through the ratification of treaties and the use of its external affairs powers. Senator Coulter can quite happily stand in this place and say that the selective use of the external affairs powers is quite desirable whenever this government disagrees with an action that has been taken by a state government. The federal government now, of course, wants to rob the people in the states and territories of the right to have meaningful input into the environmental and resource management issues of particular concern to them.

  How many will really have their views considered by federal ministers, and what opportunities will they or their lobby groups have to present their arguments to the minister? The simple answer is none, because no feedback is going through to this government. The minister is not seeking input from people in the states.

  As I said before, the fact of the matter is that the requirements of a place with high density population are nowhere near the same as those of other parts of Australia. Elements within the government and the Labor Party and, of course, the fruit loops in the Australian Democrats, like Senator Coulter, would have us believe that they should be the same. There is just no logic, no commonsense, to it whatsoever.

  The powers of the NECP will be very inclusive. It has to manage and control ambient air and water quality, noise, site contamination, hazardous waste, motor vehicle emissions and recycling. Once again, how can anyone in their right mind say that those requirements need to be national. Why cannot the states, the local governments and the people in the local areas decide what is best for them.

  The inclusion of these areas goes above and beyond the original agreement on the need for a consistent approach to air and water pollution made at the first special premiers conference in 1990. This federal bill now has far greater scope and authority than was ever agreed to by those heads of government present in 1990. Why has it been changed? There has not been any further consultation in real terms. The intrusion of federal laws into what are essentially local environmental issues will inevitably lead to inefficiency, duplication and higher costs as a result of the entanglement of federal and state laws.

  When we hear people such as Senator Coulter talking about the fact that this is a minimalist role when the government should be taking a more expansive role, or that a more expansive role is required, we really have to ask ourselves, `Where is this country heading when people can stand in this parliament and say that the states have lost their rights?' There has been no vote which has caused them to lose that right. There has been no change in the constitution whereby they lose that right. Yet we get clowns like Senator Coulter coming in here and saying that it is quite desirable that that happens. It is simply, totally and utterly undesirable from the point of view of Western Australia and every other state and territory that wants to govern in its right and proper form. This is of particular concern to Western Australia because not only will it disempower Western Australia, but it will disenfranchise the local communities from their rightful place in the discussion process which should accompany the implementation of any environmental protection strategy.

  People in the local councils—whether they be in Port Hedland, or in Broome, or in any of the other country areas such as Kalgoorlie—who have real questions on environmental issues pay particular attention to make sure that they protect their environment. They jealously protect their environment because it is in their interest to do so. They do not need some heavy-handed federal government, accompanied by silly Australian Democrats who are assisting, aiding and abetting it, usurping that role from those local communities.

  The community has a healthy scepticism of politicians as it is. When decisions are being made in places as far away as Canberra is from these local communities, is it any wonder that they continually become more sceptical as time goes by? They do not believe that a group of bureaucrats in Canberra, or politicians who do not get out into these country areas, can really decide what is in their best interest. We have a classic example of that today. This bill is doing exactly that. This bill will be intrusive and its intervention will be very confusing. It will breed uncertainty about the safety of local environments. Australia's many unique environments have been well served and successfully maintained by the state and territory governments of Australia.

  Even someone such as Senator Coulter could not give any real examples of where the state and territory governments have let down their state or territory. There are no real examples. He can wave his magic wand. He can wander off overseas on delegations and shamefully lecture countries on environmental issues—and pretend to speak on behalf of Australian parliamentarians, I might add—as can the Greens in this place. But the fact of the matter is that their vote is minuscule in this place. They do not represent a jot on the horizon in the reality of the people who vote. Those very people are saying, `Get your hands off our local areas.' We cannot deny the reality that these people represent so few in electoral terms that it is a miracle they are here. But why do they not get out there and talk to the local communities? What are they afraid of? Why do they not go and make sure that they get the majority view, not the minority view which they are always keen on attracting?

  The national uniformity of measures would threaten to set back the many achievements made in the area of environmental protection. One of the main concerns of the Western Australian government is the lack of safeguards against further Commonwealth intrusion. I agree with that concern. When we have a coalition of the Labor Party, the Greens and the Democrats, that concern is particularly real. The opportunity for further intervention is as real as I am standing here today. Another major concern is the lack of evidence that this bill will improve environmental protection or management. There is a lack of documentation on the value of this council.

  Support for the Western Australian position is quite clear in terms of a consistent approach to air and water pollution, as agreed to in 1990, but not for national and overriding legislation. Why has the decision that was taken at the Premiers Conference in 1990 been changed? There is absolutely no justification for the inclusion of motor vehicle emissions, contaminated sites, recycling, hazardous wastes and noise.

  Another major concern which the Democrats and the Greens will never have to worry about is the cost of duplication because, as I said, thankfully for this country they will never be the government. The cost of duplication does not worry them. They will never have to balance the books, they will never have to look at deficits, and they will never have to look at taxes because they simply will never run the country, thankfully.

  The reality is that we have to try to get some sense into this whole issue because this bill and the council would jeopardise efficient protection of the environment, with the confusion of water quality strategy being one of the most immediate issues. The powers of the council are complex and its functions would frustrate investors and other ministerial councils. Do we want to create more difficulties for investors in this country? We have the Mabo legislation that this mob once again helped to pass at the end of last year. That has put investment back no end in Western Australia. It has put development back. It has put a lot of the projects back. But this mob do not care about that. They do not care about the national interest with regard to investment or anything of that nature. This is going to frustrate investors, but it does not matter. It will be okay as long as they think this is in some way going to fit their narrow view of what Australia should be.

  Another major concern is that it increases the bureaucratic process. That will not benefit the environment or the economy. But, once again, increasing bureaucratic processes is not a worry for the Labor Party. It has never been a worry for the Greens or the Democrats. The council would reduce international competitiveness by the introduction of another centralised, regulation decision making process.

  Its uniform standards are impracticable because of Australia's diversity. Australia is a huge country and all parts of it are different. The council is costly. It is unnecessary. The effective consensus mechanisms already exist through bodies such as the Australian and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council. But, once again, today it appears that we are going to have further duplication.

  The concept of the council survives only because of inertia, ignorance and a lack of debate. Unfortunately, that has never stopped legislation going through this place in the past and I suspect it certainly will not today.

  Australia's environment is vast, isolated, diverse and rich in resources. Would it not be nice if we could actually use it to its full potential without constantly having impediments put in its place? It is a unique country to have such a wide range of assets. However, here we have further legislation which puts this country's diversity immediately at odds with any concept of national uniformity which presupposes that Australia and its population is one homogeneous mass. The council is therefore fundamentally flawed.

  In remote areas of Western Australia which generate much of the nation's great wealth of mineral resources, which unfortunately the minor parties would have us cease forthwith, environmental issues are generally site specific and sustainable development requires localised criteria and management. The quality of Australian skills in this area is world renowned and what makes it so is its application to a diversity of global environments.

  The state and territory governments have taken a particularly responsible attitude to the environment and are continuing to do so. They want the federal government to butt out. I believe it should butt out. It will be an unnecessary burden on all taxpayers. It is probably the most far reaching proposal ever made in this country and will continually override the interests of the states and the territories.