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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 8814

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (15:30): I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research (Senator Evans) to a question without notice asked by Senator Waters today relating to environmental responsibilities.

I want to start by reading into the record a quote from a young Labor MP and it is from 1999, when our environment laws were being passed:

… in this legislation they have enabled the states and the Commonwealth to now go through a process where, through a bilateral agreement, in future the Commonwealth could say to Victoria—and states with track records of environmental vandalism like Victoria—`Here, you have the responsibility for the Ramsar wetlands. Here, you have the responsibility for the environmental impacts of a toxic dump,' and just let it happen.

The MP that was protesting that disastrous possibility of the federal government being able to hand over its powers to the states was, in fact, the current Prime Minister and so in 1999 Prime Minister Gillard thought the environment was too important to hand to the states. Back in April of this year, after a love-in with big business and a COAG meeting the next day, the Prime Minister made some statements that half the environment was too important to hand to the states, that the feds would retain responsibility for world heritage and for Commonwealth waters and for nuclear issues. Yet some confusion remains.

In Senate estimates a few weeks ago, I clarified in questioning of the officials precisely what is on the table, so just how much of the environment powers of the federal government are these department officials preparing to hand over. They clarified for me that, in fact, everything was up for grabs, that there was nothing that the government wanted to retain responsibility for and that no part of the environment was too important to hand off to the states. We then had Minister Burke say he wants to keep charge of nuclear activities. So today, after my attempt to get some clarity on this incredibly important issue about which there is much community concern, Senator Evans has confirmed, on behalf of the Prime Minister, that, in fact, everything is up for grabs except for uranium mining. I thought that was an interesting turn of phrase, because uranium mining is but one aspect of the nuclear activities that are regulated by our federal laws. Does that mean that nuclear power plants or disposing of nuclear waste is going to get given to the states? Is it just uranium mining itself that will stay with the feds? So I am seeking some clarity on that point and I am disappointed that there still seems to be some confusion about just how little the government wants to retain of its responsibilities.

The COAG agreement that was negotiated by Labor back in April is, of course, backed to the hilt by Tony Abbott. We now know, following today's clarification, that everything bar uranium mining is now going to be administered by the states. World heritage areas, threatened species, migratory species, internationally significant wetlands—all are the responsibility of the federal government and they are now going to be handed to state governments, which fills me with dread given that the government were not able to say whether they had looked at the capacity of the states to deliver these new responsibilities; looked at the job cuts, the jobs that have been severed through our environment departments, particularly in Queensland; or even looked at the track record of the states in attempting to protect the environment. If they did look they would see that the states have absolutely trashed the joint and rarely refuse any form of development.

This is really quite insulting to the legacy of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who stepped in in 1983 and protected the Franklin from the ravages of the then Tasmanian state government, who wanted to stick a dam on the river. I think it is a craven shame that this federal Labor government is now trashing that previous record of a gradual expansion of federal environment powers, and I am sure that voters across the country will also be surprised and incredibly dismayed that, in fact, it is now big business writing the environment policy of the Labor government. As I said before, there was a Business Council of Australia meeting the day before COAG and, in fact, big business had put a proposal to the Prime Minister about a week before and that was exactly what was delivered at COAG. Big business got everything they asked for. I am afraid it is not the PM that is in charge of our environmental laws anymore; it is the Business Council of Australia and those other big business groups. There are meant to be some standards that we are assured will protect the environment. Well, I am afraid the states are not complying with their standards and you only have to look at their records to know we cannot have any confidence that the states will act to protect the environment. That is why we need the federal government to keep its powers and that is why people will vote green if they care about the environment.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Waters. I remind senators to address members in the other place by their correct titles.

Question agreed to.