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Wednesday, 13 November 2002
Page: 6239

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:29 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Defence (Senator Hill) to a question without notice asked by Senator Bartlett today relating to the protection of spectacled flying foxes.

I found it astonishing that the minister was not able to answer at least the general thrust of the question that I asked him. I did not expect him to give a chapter-and-verse legal recitation of the vagaries of section 33 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, but I did at least expect that the minister—who knows this act very well—would be able to easily assure the Senate that the agreement reached last week between the federal Liberal government and the Beattie Labor government in Queensland did not breach the EPBC Act. I am genuinely surprised that he was not able to do so.

That act was established and put in place a few years back. One of the big areas where it was particularly a major improvement was in protection for threatened species. Unfortunately, we have the classic conundrum for the public in relation to politics: parliaments pass acts providing alleged protection— whether it is for the environment or for people in the community—but governments ignore the acts passed by parliaments and, in some cases, blatantly breach them. That is a real difficulty. It is a difficulty with acts, such as the existing heritage act, because departmental officials in estimates have said quite openly that there is no way of enforcing an act if its provisions are not followed.

There are ways, however, to enforce the EPBC Act because it is a better act. The provisions are not ideal but they are there. Indeed, the spectacled flying fox situation in Northern Queensland, where fruit growers were electrocuting large numbers of spectacled flying foxes and other flying foxes, provides the best example of acts not being enforced. Because of the provisions in the EPBC Act that were put in by the Democrats in the Senate, against opposition from the Labor Party and the Greens, the public now have the standing to take a matter to court to get the act enforced, and this has happened. It is not ideal. It would be far better if the government just enforced its own act, without the public having to go to court to make the government do what it should do. Nonetheless, a court decision was made that the electrocution of spectacled flying foxes— which at that stage were not even listed formally as a threatened species; they have subsequently been listed by the federal minister, something which we congratulate him for— threatened not just the survival of the flying fox population but also the World Heritage values of the Wet Tropics, because the flying fox plays a key part in the web of the diverse ecosystem matrix that makes up the World Heritage values of the Wet Tropics. So the act of slaughtering these flying foxes directly worked against the World Heritage values of the Wet Tropics.

It was a clear decision of the court, and it is precisely what the environmental protection act was put in place to enable to happen: to strengthen the protection of World Heritage areas and threatened species. This government and the Labor Party government in Queensland have gone off to a back room, reached an agreement between themselves and come out saying, `Any action that we say is okay is now exempted from the EPBC. As long as you kill these flying foxes by shooting them, instead of electrocuting them, and as long as you shoot up to allegedly only 1.5 per cent of the total population, the act does not apply.' Leaving aside the absurdity of how you can set the figure of 1.5 per cent when nobody knows what their total population is, there is absolutely no way of enforcing the ability of a farmer to shoot only a certain number. In one way, if you do it with electrical grids, at least you can see the numbers on the ground and you can see it in operation. But, with shooting, since you do not know how often, how regularly and at what time of the day or night it will occur, it is impossible to monitor.

Leaving aside those absurdities, the basic fact that the two governments can do up an agreement and say, `The act does not apply, as long as you kill them this way rather than that way,' surely flies in the face of every tiny shred of the spirit of the EPBC Act. In the Democrats' view, it raises serious doubts as to whether it actually breaches the letter of the law of the EPBC Act. We look forward to the minister coming back to the Senate as soon as possible to answer the question and to provide that information. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.