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Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Page: 9405

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (16:08): I rise to speak on a matter of public importance—the Gillard government's plans, at the upcoming COAG meeting on 6 and 7 December to hand federal responsibility for protecting our nationally important wild places and most vulnerable species to state governments—all at the behest of big business.

For people who may not know, the federal government, spurred on by the Business Council of Australia and by state governments—and backed to the hilt by Tony Abbott's opposition—is planning to hastily hand over nearly all national environmental powers to the states by using sections of our national environment laws that John Howard wrote but which even he never used.

The handover includes the abandonment of national powers on World Heritage Areas as well as threatened species to the very same states that have comprehensively failed to protect those species. The next stage of the negotiation of the handover is the COAG meeting in Canberra on 7 December and of course the Business Advisory Forum the day before, on the 6th. The government plans to negotiate the framework of the handover at this meeting and to sign over the final approvals powers to the states by next March. This represents a major threat to threatened species, to World Heritage values, to precious places and to wildlife right across the country. The Wentworth Group, major environmental NGOs and local campaign groups all acknowledge the danger this handover represents. They say—and they are right—that this is the biggest step backwards in national environmental protection in 30 years.

So 7 December is the day that this government, with the full backing of Tony Abbott's opposition, will sign off on the framework to abandon its job to protect the national environment and just leave it up to the states. That is the day that Australia's environment will be completely sold out, and sold off, to suit the mining and the business lobby, who apparently run this country. The decision to hand over environment powers to the states was a snap judgement made after a day's meeting between the ALP government and the Business Council of Australia—the day before the COAG meeting in April this year. There was no equivalent community meeting, of course. All the Business Council of Australia had to do was claim that our environment was too regulated and development was being held up. The government did not do any independent assessment of those claims; they just accepted them. They agreed to gut environmental protections and to get completely out of the way and just leave the states in charge.

Comments from Minister Ferguson last week to the ABC again confirm that these changes to our environmental protections are simply being made to suit the mining and gas industries. He spoke as if environmental protection is a luxury that we can no longer afford because of the fall in commodity prices. I have no doubt that they are his genuine views, but they show that Labor is happy to turn its back on its previously held belief that the environment is of national importance, deserving national protection. Sadly, today's Labor Party is happy to trash the legacy of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who stepped in to stop the rapacious Tasmanian state government, which was going to dam the Franklin River, and who fought that all the way to the High Court. That step increased the powers of the Commonwealth like no other event since Federation.

This same Labor government is now, with the stroke of a pen, after one day of lobbying by the BCA, winding back that role and taking environmental protection back 30 years. What a tragic backflip for Labor. And what a backflip for the Prime Minister, who, in 1999, railed against the inclusion of these delegation powers when the EPBC Act was first introduced. She described the Victorian and the other state governments as having 'a track record of environmental vandalism'. Yet, here is the Prime Minister acting on the very powers that she railed against, that John Howard had enacted but even he had not used. In 1999 Julia Gillard thought the environment was too important to hand over to the states. But, sadly, now she thinks that none of the environment is too important to hand over, except uranium mining—so she can ensure that we can ship out this toxic material to India. Even Robert Hill, John Howard's environment minister, told the Press Club in August this year that he thought Labor had gone too far with their plans to hand off environment powers to the states.

When you look at the evidence, on all indicators our environment is clearly in decline. The threatened species list has nearly tripled in the last 20 years. We are losing more and more crucial habitat and biodiversity. We have just had Professor Tim Flannery in the latest Quarterly Essay describe our current biodiversity decline as the gathering of a second extinction wave, set to empty 'vast swathes of the continent'. Our incredible Great Barrier Reef is turning into a coal and gas highway, and we have been warned that it is in danger of losing its World Heritage status. Instead of becoming a new World Heritage area, the Tarkine forests have 10 new mines planned for them. Being the state emblem of Victoria cannot save the Leadbeater's possum from being logged to extinction, even though there are now less than 1,000 of them in the wild. All of this evidence and much more that I do not have time to go into shows that our environment is suffering from far too little protection, rather than too much as the Business Council of Australia would have it.

Putting the states in charge of the environment can only hasten this decline. Let us look at their record.

Historically, states put short-term profits ahead of the environment. And because state governments are far more likely to be fixated on the short-term royalties and returns from mining and development—much of which are trumped up, I might add—there will always be that conflict of interest.

This is why the big environment wins in the past have been when the federal government has stepped in and overturned a bad decision by a state government, such as oil rigs in the Great Barrier Reef or cattle in the Victorian Alps. The states simply cannot be trusted to look after our environment. The sad thing is that our national environment laws are already failing us, but, instead of making them stronger, both of the old parties are ganging up to make them even weaker.

The government will say that they are putting standards in place to ensure that the level of environmental protection will be the same, despite the states being solely in charge. But no standard in the world can or will change the fundamental approach of state governments from prioritising mining, big business and other short-term profits ahead of environmental protection. These weak standards—and I say 'weak' because they might not even need to be reflected in state laws—might just have the status of policy, which makes me incredulous. Those weak standards will not change the states' attitude to environmental protection, and they cannot prevent states determined to approve megamines from destroying the environment. The states will simply find a way around these standards or they will deliberately flout them, as we saw recently in Queensland when the Campbell Newman government refused to comply with the assessment standards for the Alpha coal mine in Queensland.

The reason we have a federal government is to govern in the interests of all Australians on the issues that matter to all Australians. Australians everywhere care about the reef, the Tarkine, the Kimberley and our iconic koala. It remains the federal government's job to look after the most important and precious of Australia's environment assets, which are of international significance, like the World Heritage Great Barrier Reef. No standard will be able to replace the protection that is meant to be provided by the federal government for our precious places and wildlife.

The ALP and the coalition will not believe that these places and wildlife are precious to all Australians. They will not step up to protect our environment from big business and other industries. They will not hesitate to sacrifice these precious places for short-term profit. Sadly, the ALP and the coalition have abandoned voters who care about the environment. With the recent revelation—and the publication of the draft standards showed this—that all environment powers, bar for uranium mining, are eligible to be handed over to the states, there is now no difference between the ALP government's and Tony Abbott's policy on the environment. Just like on refugee policy—and we have seen that again today—same-sex marriage and reducing support for single parents, there is now no difference between Labor and Tony Abbott on the environment. It is now perfectly clear that, if people believe our environment matters, their only choice is the Greens.

Our environment is under attack like never before. We cannot leave protecting Australia's environment up to the states. We can make our national environmental laws stronger, not weaker. We can keep decisions about Australia's environment in the hands of the Australian government. We can protect what we love about Australia, now and into the future. We have so much in this country that is simply too precious to lose. If Labor and the coalition will not step up to save it, it is up to all of us.