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Climate change and environmental impacts on coastal communities

CHAIR —I would now like to welcome the representative from the Cairns Local Marine Advisory Committee to this public hearing.

Mr Anderson —I have been asked by the Cairns Local Marine Advisory Committee to present to this committee. I am a former member of that group. I was a member from 2000 to 2008. I was put forward by my catchment management association, which is the Barron River Catchment Management Association, and that group has been around for about 15 years.

CHAIR —Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I need to advise you that the hearings are legal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House itself. In that regard, the giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The committee has received the submission from the Cairns Local Marine Advisory Committee and it has been authorised for publication. We would now like to invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to questions and discussion.

Mr Anderson —Firstly, I would like to point out that our committee is a voluntary based group, and as with any voluntary organisation there is a lot of passion. Some of the things people come up with are perceptions and in due course they do not turn out to be real. However, in my experience in natural resource management for over 20 years in a voluntary capacity, and 25 years in a professional capacity, most of the things that our group has flagged early on have proven to be correct. Our fundamental belief is that the government system does not deliver assured environmental outcomes and it requires strong community advocacy for the system to work.

The summation for our submission is basically that we have a view that the system is not working and we have a strong view that we do not need more legislation. We need to implement the existing legislation and do it correctly. With that, in terms of climate change, I will just put forward three specific examples of that for the committee to consider. The first one is in terms of water quality. Our collective organisations were raising water quality issues before they were on the public agenda and certainly before they were on the regulatory agenda. As a very brief example, LMAC in 2000 actively took on GBRMPA, at a director level, advising the agency that it needed to contemplate land based activities as they affected the reef. It is all minuted. We had very vigorous discussions and turned that institution around to actually embrace water quality as a land based issue and not just a marine based issue. With that, there has been a series of publications over the years, firstly, with the intergovernmental agreement in 1992, which recognised the precautionary principle. We then moved along to 2001, where we had a reef water quality action plan put out that set 10-year targets. Those targets are supposed to come through in 2011, but in our view they will not come through. We then had the reef water quality protection plan in 2003. Just by way of a very brief example, when that publication came out our group put through submissions and said, ‘What about temperature? Why isn’t temperature considered in this reef action plan?’ We were ignored and now I come down to this committee talking about climate change. My history in these groups is that we are probably about 10 or 15 years ahead of the regulatory system and we are extremely frustrated with the inability of the regulatory system to deliver outcomes.

I would like to move to specific examples and turn to erosion and sediment control, which has a direct influence on reef resilience. We are still struggling in our region with getting fundamental erosion sediment controls put in place. I know this is very brief, but the classic example in our region is the False Cape fiasco. False Cape demonstrates that the systems clearly cannot deliver the outcomes. Our view is before we start generating new discussions, new plans and so forth, go back and get the fundamentals right. Sediment erosion control is a very simple concept. It can be managed in the tropics, but without strong regulators to put these things in place we are not getting anywhere.

Another current example that I would like to put forward on behalf of our members is the Mulgrave aquifer, which is in the Cairns region. Currently, the Cairns community needs more water. One of the proposals put forward is to tap into the Mulgrave aquifer. The consultant’s work, in our view, is flawed. We put through a long submission saying, ‘We think there’s all these holes in this report, put it through to the federal system’, and we are amazed that report has progressed through the EPBC system. What we are saying is, ‘How can this be possible?’ We have put up our hands and are saying, ‘We have a system.’ The community is yelling out that there are problems with the performance of that system. We are putting forward evidence saying, ‘Look, pick up this report. Have a look at it. Get an independent view on this report. Please don’t just let it go through and ignore what we’re saying.’

In terms of climate change, if we get a sea level rise, you could get saltwater intrusion into aquifers. This aquifer is on the floodplain. We are saying that the report which has been done is flawed. Why does the system not listen to what the community is saying and do something about it? Both the False Cape and the Mulgrave aquifer are two current examples of the system backfiring and the community sitting back and saying, ‘Hang on, we can read this. We’re not experts, but we can read this. It does not make sense. It is illogical. The scientific arguments do not make sense. We’re not scientists, but if you can just go through and join the dots, these ones do not join up. Therefore, why isn’t someone hitting this? Why isn’t there a brake put on the system to say, ‘This is wrong. Throw out the report’?

In terms of the things we thought we could put forward to this committee regarding positive actions, we think there should be mandatory protection of wetlands—full stop. We have been advocating that for at least 10 years. I heard you discussing a WA example. We have a case in Cairns called the Bluewater development. The state changed the legislation to allow that development to go ahead. Fundamentally that is what happened. You can go back and check the records, but that is what happened. Now in that Bluewater development there are the inevitable questions about who pays for the dredging. They are all popping up. All of those things were predicted and strongly advocated.

CHAIR —What was the name of the development?

Mr Anderson —Bluewater.

CHAIR —Where is that located?

Mr Anderson —It is in Trinity Park in Cairns.

CHAIR —In Trinity Park?

Mr Anderson —In Cairns, yes. In terms of a positive thing for local government who are under the hammer, we think there should be direct federal assistance to local government authorities to come up with defensible limits on development in terms of sea level. The federal system comes in and helps local government come up with where you put the line on a map that says ‘no more development in that area’; we think that should just happen.

In terms of the sustainability question, we think there should be direct assistance to establish a sustainable taskforce in regional areas. Rather than having an approach based in Canberra or Brisbane, go out to the regions and establish sustainability taskforces in those regions and have it based on a community driven approach. Why we are so passionate about the community is that we have been involved so long we think the community effects change. We do not think the system effects it. The community is at the forefront. The political system responds to the community five or 10 years after the community has identified it and then the regulatory system kicks in later. I will take you back to the example of temperature. We wrote to the system in 2003 and said, ‘By the way, with this protection thing, have you considered temperature in climate change? Have you thought about it?’ The rest is history.

CHAIR —You must be pleased that a lot of your earlier insights are now coming to fruition?

Mr Anderson —It is extremely frustrating because you are at the coalface watching these things evolve and then if you have a Bluewater or you have a False Cape you are sitting back and saying, ‘Hang on; these things are now coming up to being 20-year-old ideas’, and they are fixable. The frustrating thing with erosion sediment control, which has direct impacts to reef water quality and resilience of the environment is that it is fixable. We are not talking rocket science. We are talking practice.

The crux of our submission is that we believe there is a disconnect between poor performance and poor outcomes and accountability with respect to the regulatory system. When something goes wrong there is no accountability, either at executive management level or, may I suggest, at the ministerial level. There is no direct linkage. Therefore, these issues we talk about persist. I do not know how we can pull it off, but we believe that there is a disconnect in accountability and so these problems persist.

I heard the previous speaker’s comments. In our region we have two World Heritage areas. We have also got Cape York on our doorstep. We are at the forefront of natural resource management and the people who live in the area are actually the experts in this field. We are trying to grapple with it. If you look at how wet tropics came about, our community groups predate most state government departments. In Queensland the EPA Act came out in 1994, and the federal act came out in 1999. We were operating in 1990 and that was driven by the community.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Dr WASHER —I am glad to hear your passion. Basically, this Mulgrave aquifer that you talk about is a preventable thing. The rest has happened, but that has not happened yet. Tell me the processes you have been through. What is the mechanism, so we can understand this? You have gone to the EPA. I guess that is where you started.

Mr Anderson —It is currently going through a referral through the EPBC process. Through that process there was a report released for public comment. Our group commented on that report. We wrote back and said, ‘There are all these holes in it.’ There were two groups. LMAC wrote back through GBRMPA, because we are an advisory body to GBRMPA. The Mulgrave Landcare and Catchment Group, which is a catchment management group, wrote directly to the federal Department of Environment. In that they said, ‘There are these problems with it and we recommend the report be withdrawn and fixed up.’ Those problems are still there.

I am from the consulting sector. In terms of the report, there are sections of the report missing. With the report that can be downloaded from the web there are sections missing. The group would write and say, ‘Where are these pages?’ There was silence. There is a lack of scientific rigor in terms of the fieldwork done. What we said to the federal system was, ‘If you have not got tropical hydrological expertise, please go out and engage that.’ You can’t have a situation where a community group is going through a report and saying there are problems and no-one is saying, ‘No, those problems don’t exist.’ The local government authority wants water. They are reliant on the federal and state system to say, ‘Does this make sense in a regional context or a national context?’

CHAIR —Who has the authority to make the decision about tapping into that?


CHAIR —Is that the state governments’ authority?

Mr Anderson —My understanding is that it is federal first, because it has threatened species. Firstly, it comes under the EPBC Act. In terms of state legislation, you are extracting water so you will have the state role, and then you will have the local government. It still needs to go through a process. What we are flagging early is that, in our opinion, the federal process is not working. We want to find out who is accountable for not making the process work, rather than in several years time saying, ‘It didn’t work. It is because this person was not held accountable for that decision.’ That is what we are trying to do. We agree with the last witness. There is a system in place, so let us make that one work. We think the reason it does not work is that positions are not made accountable. From the minister down we do not think people are made accountable.

Dr WASHER —I had a horrible feeling when you said that first up, because I was a great critic of the state bureaucracies. Obviously we have some problems federally, too, so we ought to start having a look at ourselves a bit carefully. That sounds terrible. How long has this process been going on?

Mr Anderson —I cannot give you the exact dates.

Dr WASHER —Roughly.

Mr Anderson —It is like a 12- to 18-month process.

CHAIR —The feds have to tick off on it before the project can go ahead?

Mr Anderson —That is correct.

CHAIR —Is it at a stage where it is with the department federally to give advice to the federal minister?

Mr Anderson —That is correct. We advised that department to go and get a tropical hydrologist. I know the department in a professional context. We say, ‘If you haven’t got expertise, go and get it’, because if you dewater an aquifer and you create saltwater intrusion then you are talking about generations. That is why I raised the precautionary principle and the intergenerational equity thing. We are talking about intergenerational equity in a fair dinkum sense. That is why we are saying, ‘Why worry about climate change?’ We can’t even deal with the nuts and bolts today. We would want the nuts and bolts today dealt with in a reliable fashion rather than the whole society goes off on a tangent and spends an awful amount of money trying to come up with the next solution, but we have not fixed up the first problem. Erosion sediment control, in our part of the world, is the other issue. It is a festering sore. That is a bigger issue to fix up than the Mulgrave aquifer.

Dr WASHER —Chair, through you, could we ask for some more details, because we are going to see the department and it would be nice for them to tell us why the communication fell apart here?

CHAIR —Yes, can you write specifically to the secretariat about the problems that you perceive with giving approval to tapping into the Mulgrave aquifer? We have a follow-up discussion with both departments, so we will certainly raise that, if you can forward that on. I am just mindful of the time. We have about five more minutes.

Mr Anderson —Yes.

Mr ZAPPIA —I sense your frustration and I think I understand you to be saying that the framework and the system that is in place is okay, but it is not being administered as well as it could be. Why do you believe that is so? In other words, why do you believe whether it is those who administer the EPBC Act or others are not following through with their obligations under it? Do you have a view about that?

Mr Anderson —Yes, I do. It is a personal view and also one that has come from the committee. Fundamentally, the EPBC is new legislation. When it came out people made comments that it had holes in it. A classic example is in terms of licence conditions. Licence conditions, which come out of the federal system in the EPBC Act, are rudimentary in comparison to something that comes out GBRMPA, for instance, or coming out of the state agency. They are absolutely rudimentary. I can sum it up as being a young department learning how to apply the legislative tools, and I would venture to say ignoring the collective experience in other agencies. GBRMPA has been around for 25 years, or even just state government regulatory agencies. The licence conditions are not very strong. That could be inexperience and possibly resources. In terms of implementing, I think there is a real live disconnect between being held accountable for making decisions at a high level. False Cape is a classic example. How did False Cape happen? Why did it happen in 2006-07? Why are the people who made those decisions not being held accountable so it does not get repeated?

CHAIR —There was a challenge to that under the EPBC Act, was there not?

Mr Anderson —False Cape, yes. False Cape is a classic example of where the community got it right and the system just let it down. It is a very good example.

The final thing is resourcing. If one looks at the federal agency, how many audits have been done of projects? Since 2000 all of these projects came under the EPBC Act. How many compliance audits have been undertaken versus how many projects have been approved? You will be astounded as to the lack of compliance auditing, that is, when a federal agency gets out of Canberra, goes out to the site and does a routine inspection versus where something has gone wrong and you are obliged to go and do something. For example, someone is going to take prosecution action so you go out and set forth. I think that is a resourcing issue. I think the compliance department within the federal agencies may be two years old or 18 months old. It is a very young agency.

In our neck of the woods we are very reliant on EPBC legislation because of the World Heritage areas and you need to have the federal system working and functioning very well because as you move down the local government people have ratepayers and money; they are between a rock and a hard place. You need the federal system to set the benchmark and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ Currently they have just got the benchmark and they are not following through. If it is not monitored it is not done. It is a fundamental premise; if it is not monitored, it is not done. If you do not get out and write decent licensing conditions and go out on the site and see the proponents are actually doing what they said they were going to do—

CHAIR —When you say ‘monitoring’, that is the conditional approval that has been given for a development?

Mr Anderson —That is correct.

CHAIR —Whether it has been actually enforced and happening?

Mr Anderson —That is correct.

Ms MARINO —And how it is working afterwards.

CHAIR —You have an example of that in your submission?

Mr Anderson —We definitely have. In terms of hard evidence, it would be simple enough going through how many conditions have been issued and what is the monitoring of the compliance effort over the last six to nine years. I guarantee you will be astounded.

CHAIR —We are more than happy to pursue those issues that you have outlined with the department when we meet again. You are suggesting that it is not that the legislation is inadequate, it is the actual giving effect to the powers that are there?

Mr Anderson —Yes.

CHAIR —For example, with False Cape, if you are saying there is no limitation in the legislation, how does that get the tick of approval? It seems a little bit inconsistent.

Mr Anderson —How does it get a tick of approval?

CHAIR —Yes. If the regulatory framework is all okay, and you are saying that False Cape got the tick of approval, then there is nothing wrong with the legislation; it is just the implementation.

Mr Anderson —Yes. I have to be careful because I was contracted by the federal agency to review False Cape and give them expert advice, but some of this information is on the public record. False Cape was approved in terms of the erosion sediment control features, which was a condition of approval, and that is where it fell over. So you approve your development, which is a decision by society, and then you give them conditions. Those conditions were not enforced. If one goes through and examines that, the documentation for the erosion set of control plans, the plans that were actually put in were flawed. Those plans should have been thrown out. It is like the Mulgrave aquifer. The report is in there. If it is not up to scratch, stop it and put it back to the consulting sector. By the way, in terms of the natural resource management, the consulting sector is a sector which does most of the planning and delivery in Australia. If that sector is not brought in by the regulatory system, you basically get bad outcomes.

CHAIR —You would be aware there is currently a review of the EPBC Act being conducted by the Senate. Did your advisory committee make a submission to it?

Mr Anderson —No.

CHAIR —That is a shame.

Mr Anderson —This is our opportunity. We see this as our opportunity to rattle the cage.

Ms MARINO —I well understand some of the frustration at a community level when people put in submissions. There is a perception amongst some in the community that it is just a process, and simply the approval will happen, and you are part of a process. I note in your submission that you referred to the fact that:

The federal government should provide local governments with a legally defensible threshold (metres above sea level) as to where future coastal development can and cannot occur …

With the various local councils that you deal with, as a result of this do you believe that would give them greater confidence in their approval or non-approval of proposals that are put to them?

Mr Anderson —Without a doubt, because they can then shift the blame to the federal system.


Mr Anderson —I can foresee compensation to be dealt with, but the local government authority does not have the wherewithal to deal with that. Yes, they would say, ‘The feds have brought in this system’, and they will probably fight the feds in the course of doing it, but without a doubt in my experience when you have a federal requirement it brings about better planning. It does not let the local government off the hook, but it gives them guidance. That is what they require.

Ms MARINO —From your experience, what number of local government councils have these sorts of issues that they have to deal with on a regular basis? Is it the majority?

Mr Anderson —In North Queensland it is all local governments, because the urban development is on the coastline. I would venture to say probably Australia, but certainly in North Queensland it is every local government authority on the coastline. The only ones excluded are the ones in the hinterland. We are talking about a significant number of people.

CHAIR —Thank you for coming along. If you would like to send a note to the secretariat, particularly about the Mulgrave aquifer issue, then we can pursue that.

Mr Anderson —I will be very happy to do that.

CHAIR —The secretariat will send you a copy of the transcript for any corrections. We would be grateful if you could refer the material requested to the secretariat as soon as possible.

Mr Anderson —Thank you very much. On behalf of the committee, we very much appreciate the opportunity to present and the time you have taken to listen to us.

Resolved (on motion by Dr Washer, seconded by Mr Zappia):

That the committee authorises for publication the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 11.17 am