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Retiring Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation comments on the Coalition's policy to tighten the environmental impact assessment procedures

PETER THOMPSON: Well, as you've heard, John Hewson also wants environmental and Aboriginal concerns to be less of an impediment to development projects. Dr Hewson says if deadlines for environmental assessments aren't adhered to, then a Coalition government would allow projects to proceed with the assessment process incomplete. In response to the proposal, Phillip Toyne, the head of Australian Conservation Foundation, says Dr Hewson won't be able to match his tough talk if he wins government. Here's Mr Toyne's view.

PHILLIP TOYNE: We're already in a situation where we fear that the processes of environmental impact assessment are not going to be adequately dealt with and not going to be monitored and reviewed during the life of projects. For John Hewson to be running the same sort of line, doesn't surprise me, and it raises the same anxieties.

JOHN SHOVELAN: But the suggestion that if a deadline isn't met that the Commonwealth Government would no longer play a part in deciding whether a project should go ahead, that effective lapsing of Commonwealth powers, is that possible? Could a government do that?

PHILLIP TOYNE: I think that that's rhetoric and I don't believe that that's how a Coalition government would respond in power. They always attempt to sound more decisive in their statements from opposition. They're going to be faced with the realities of doing quite complex evaluations when they and if they become the government, and they will also find that the community at large will be repelled by any attempt to simply sacrifice the environment to get some quick fix developments in place.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Of course, Dr Hewson argues the elongated approval processes bedevilled development for years, according to him, now given the recession and focus on jobs, is the environment such a sharp electoral issue?

PHILLIP TOYNE: Well, I think that it's important to make it clear that firstly the close examination of resource development history in recent years does not bear out the assumption that many have been frustrated or stopped by environmental assessment; that's just a nonsense. There have been other explanations that can be readily found. There's certainly bureaucratic red tape is one of the problems but the much more regularly found problem is finance, and the financial backing for projects. But I think that in relation to the electoral consequence, it's fairly clear to us even in the depths of recession, that the Government's own opinion polling demonstrates very clearly that whilst unemployment has risen to the top of people's concerns, environment sits there as number three; it's an issue that won't go away; it's what pollsters would call a 'mature issue', and it's one that's been very, very poorly addressed by both Hewson and Keating in their respective packages.

JOHN SHOVELAN: So do you consider then that there's very little difference between Labor and a conservative government in terms of how they would deal with the environmental assessment process?

PHILLIP TOYNE: Oh no, I don't think that they're one and the same. I think that we're in the disheartening situation of seeing a situation now in the run-up to a 1993 election where the parties roughly occupy the same sort of ratings as they did in 1990, and that is the Democrats are way out in front, Labor is better in many respects than the Coalition, and the Coalition has done very little to re-examine its policies at all.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Well, would you expect a Coalition government to abide by the spirit of environmental legislation that's now in place?

PHILLIP TOYNE: Well, I think it would be very difficult for them to get amendments through it passed, and I noticed that Dr Hewson, for instance, talked about Coronation Hill going ahead straightaway. It's my clear understanding of that situation that he would require amendments to the National Parks and Wildlife Act. I don't think he'd get them through the Senate. I think the realities of government are going to be considerably more constraining than his statements as Leader of the Opposition would tend indicate.

PETER THOMPSON: Phillip Toyne of the Australian Conservation Foundation.