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Greenpeace comments on a package of new environmental Bills.



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PETER CAVE: Flush with its success on the Telstra vote, the government today plans to bring before the Senate a major environmental law which opponents have described as a disaster. Green groups say the law in effect hands Commonwealth environmental powers, which have been used in the past to save the Franklin River and other national icons, back to the States. But for the past few weeks the government has been holding secret talks with the Democrats over possible amendments to the bill, as our chief political correspondent, Matt Peacock, reports.

 

MATT PEACOCK: It’s shaping up as one of the Howard government’s defining weeks. Not only has it secured at least partial Telstra privatisation with the help of Mal Colston and Brian Harradine, but with any luck in a few days time it might also have stitched up its GST, thanks to the Democrats.

 

And that’s not the only thing that it’s been talking to the Democrats about. If the GST was Mr Howard’s first waltz with the minor party, he might well be about to take out a full season dance ticket as the phone calls between his office and Democrat leader, Meg Lees, occur on an almost daily basis. He’s teaching her about government, and she’s teaching him about the Senate.

 

And now they’re talking environment. As a former councillor for the Australian Conservation Foundation, Meg Lees has already taken a bruising from her erstwhile colleagues over her GST stand on diesel. Her relationship now with the ACF leadership is virtually non-existent, but suddenly the ACF and many other environmental groups are aghast that the Democrats appear close to a deal with the government on another major environmental law.

 

Everyone agrees that it’s the biggest rewrite of federal environmental laws in a quarter of a century. The minister, Robert Hill, describes it as a long overdue codification of the Commonwealth’s powers on the environment. It replaces five acts with one and asserts Commonwealth jurisdiction over six areas - the sea, Ramsar Wetlands, nationally-threatened species and internationally protected migratory birds, Commonwealth lands and government actions and significant nuclear activity.

 

Environmental groups, though, say that it hands all power back to the states, putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank. Gone are the Commonwealth triggers to stop Wesley Vale, Franklin Dam or sandmining on Fraser Island. And there are over 80 other good reasons why they say the bill must be stopped. The government is opting out of control over land-clearing, they say, over greenhouse, over forests, and even where he does have control the minister can provide exemptions at the stroke of a pen.

 

The Democrats agree with some of these criticisms, but until late last night they’d been engaged in many hours of fruitful discussions with Senator Hill and appeared quite excited that he might entertain a raft of amendments, despite green calls simply to delay the bill. But last night the government had the bill listed for the second reading today, and there’s very little else that it can bring on. The GST deal’s not ready and more ominous still, Senator Hill’s office was not returning calls. Could it be that unlike his Treasurer, Senator Hill has a plan A and a plan B. Perhaps he’s already done his deal with Senators Harradine and Colston and his talks with the Democrats were merely the insurance policy.

 

PETER CAVE: Well, we’ve been joined now in our Canberra studio by the Democrats environment spokeswoman, Lyn Allison, who’s speaking to Matt Peacock.

 

MATT PEACOCK: Senator Allison, what do you think is going on? Do you think the government plans to bring this bill through now?

 

LYN ALLISON: We don’t know, Matt. We’ve certainly been talking with the government. We’ve been taking to the government all the concerns of the environment groups, all the concerns raised at the Senate inquiry over some months, and we’re now waiting for a response from them.

 

MATT PEACOCK: Why have you been doing that? Do you think the government has seriously been entertaining what, hundreds of amendments?

 

LYN ALLISON: Well there was always a risk, Matt, that this legislation would pass with the support of Senators Harradine and Colston, so we wanted to be in there with the government, making sure that those concerns and amendments were being put to them and arguing for them strongly. So that’s what we’ve been doing.

 

MATT PEACOCK: But of course some of your critics would say that you are in there with the government. You’re basically an accomplice in a bill that should be delayed until people know what’s in it.

 

LYN ALLISON: There’s been plenty of time. We’ll work with any government of the day. We see that as our role and I think that’s quite appropriate.

 

MATT PEACOCK: So it’s still conceivable, do you think, that this bill could pass in the next week with your support?

 

LYN ALLISON: Well, it’s possible. As I say, if there are substantial changes made, loopholes closed, such as you identified a little earlier. We’ve taken those to the government and we’re reasonably confident. But we have to wait and see.

 

MATT PEACOCK: What about the criticism that you really can’t close the loopholes, that it hands too much power back to the states?

 

LYN ALLISON: I think it’s possible. We’ve always acted on the assumption that this bill is fixable, and I think the conservation groups have assumed that right from the beginning too, because there are some very positive elements of the bill. It does extend the powers of the Commonwealth environment minister, and I think there are some strong positives for biodiversity, for Ramsar world heritage.

 

MATT PEACOCK: But you are making serious enemies aren’t you - the ACF and other environmental groups. The Greens, the Labor Party all oppose it.

 

LYN ALLISON: Well, I don’t think so. We’ll have to wait and see what the government agrees to and I would believe that they’ll support it if it’s as good as we think it may be.

 

MATT PEACOCK: Lyn Allison, thanks very much for joining us.

 

PETER CAVE: Greenpeace CEO, Ian Higgins, says the legislation is fundamentally flawed and he’s urged the Senate to delay its passage until more people fully understand its true impact. He, too, has joined us on the line.

 

MATT PEACOCK: Ian Higgins, is this a case of the Democrats selling out, do you think?

 

IAN HIGGINS: Well, I hope not. I must say that from Greenpeace’s point of view there’s not too much right with this bill. In fact, we’ve identified at least 82 things wrong with it. I’m a little worried about Senator Allison’s comments, because the big test now for the Democrats is to not get pushed around on this legislation like they did on the environmental aspects of the GST package. And I think the test for observers today, or during this week when the bill is up, is whether the Democrats have succeeded or failed to get climate change as a trigger in this legislation.

 

MATT PEACOCK: What do you mean ‘as a trigger’?

 

IAN HIGGINS: The fundamental issue, as you said in your intro, is that the legislation gives much of the Commonwealth’s responsibility for the environment back to the states, allowing them to compete to lower to standards, and yet of course modern environmental issues are national, regional or international in scope. Secondly, what’s astounding is what the legislation doesn’t cover, and climate change and land clearing are two things which aren’t covered by this legislation.

 

MATT PEACOCK: There is the prospect, is there not, as Lyn Allison pointed out, that the government doesn’t even need the Democrats and you’d be in a worse boat because you’d see this bill go through unamended? From your point of view, that would be a complete disaster, with the support of Senators Colston and Harradine.

 

IAN HIGGINS: This legislation’s not great. I mean, it really is 1970s style legislation. It has this curious sort of capital L liberal concept that the environment means the threatened species. The world's moved on. It really makes Malcolm Fraser’s 1970s government look like environmental radicals, when they used Commonwealth powers to save Fraser Island, to save the Franklin, yet this sort of legislation that we have, there’s severe doubt that those big hard-won issues would actually be covered.

 

MATT PEACOCK: Ian Higgins, thanks for joining us.

 

PETER CAVE: Greenpeace’s CEO, and Matt Peacock asking the questions there.