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Tuesday, 10 February 2015
Page: 304

Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (16:24): I am pleased to rise today to speak on this urgency motion. We in the Labor Party are very concerned about the impacts of development on our environment. I am a member who lives on the Central Coast, which was a hot spot for many of the shenanigans—which I think might be an appropriate term to describe the way in which the Liberal Party raised funds in the lead-up to the last election—that have been the subject of considerable discussion at ICAC. As a person from New South Wales who lives in an area where the heartbeat of that plan to redirect funds was exercised I am very aware and very concerned about the influence of inappropriate donations and their impact on how development proceeds in New South Wales. But let us be clear: we the Labor Party share the concerns of others in this chamber that mining operations minimise their impact on the environment and on communities, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

With reckless disregard, the Abbott government is pushing ahead with its move to hand over environmental approval powers to state and local governments. This is the key in any debate about environmental approvals and about the protection of our environment generally. This government—a government that has been governing badly for 520 days that is now, as expressed by the Prime Minister yesterday, attempting 'good government'—would happily allow state and local governments to approve developments on a mighty scale in some of Australia's most iconic environmental and agricultural assets.

On the Abbott government's watch, we will have Colin Barnett in charge of the Ningaloo Reef and Will Hodgman and his 'cut it down' government in charge of Tasmania's iconic World Heritage listed forests. But this government's approach goes beyond pro-development state governments. It provides the ability for these same state governments to accredit local government to undertake critical assessment and approval processes. This is a matter of great concern. It should be a matter of great concern to every Australian. This government is presiding over a period of devolution of responsibility that puts at risk not just the piece of land nominated for discussion by the Greens this afternoon but also the entire country. This is a government intent on allowing the states to approve anything anywhere, without limitation. That is worrying.

The states are planning on further diluting accountability by putting local government in charge of Australia's major natural assets. We know the real work of delegating approval powers is being done in the bilateral agreements that this government is making with the states; and one of Labor's concerns about this is the lack of quality and consistency in the processes with the states. Under the Abbott government's approach, World Heritage sites and species protected under international treaties will be put in the hands of state and local governments. I keep repeating it because it is hard to believe that there could be a government so intent on abrogating its national responsibilities.

Labor will steadfastly oppose this approach. We continue to support streamlining environmental assessment processes for major projects, but final approval on matters of national environmental significance should remain with the national government. Labor began negotiations with the states to establish agreements to reduce regulatory doubling-up in 2012. Through those negotiations, it became clear that some states could not be trusted with Australia's unique environment. The Australian government has the responsibility of protecting Australia's precious environment, and the EPBC Act, in particular, accounts for matters of national environmental significance.

The Abbott government has no interest in protecting Australia's environment for the future. Since coming to government, Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt have made bad decision upon bad decision that have clearly hurt our environment, and have ignored the community. This government simply has no credibility when it comes to the environment. Its record makes one ask why ministers for the environment have not gone the way of ministers for science, because clearly the government is ignoring the realities. The record, so far, of the 529 days of 'bad government' is simply astounding, ranging from moving backwards on climate change to risking our reputation for outstanding World Heritage icons.

Soon after coming to office, the Abbott government began rushing through environmental approvals that included the Abbot Point coal terminal on the Great Barrier Reef.

Let me tell you that in my public encounters I have had conversations with young people, including a person as young as four, who presented me with a picture of her concern about what Tony Abbott was planning to do at Abbot Point. The risk to the environment that this government presents is so evident that a four-year-old can come and lobby a federal politician on the issue. That is how clear its abrogation of responsibility is. This is the government that disallowed the endangered community listing of the River Murray from the Darling to the sea. This is the government that went against all reason and all advice and sneakily had the world's largest marine reserve system re-proclaimed to undo the management plans that gave it effect. The government has begun a process of handing over environmental approval powers to the state, as I said. It has given Colin Barnett the keys to Ningaloo marine reserve and Will Hodgman control of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area—as if these great, iconic environmental assets belong only to one state, or even down to a local government level. They belong to every Australian. We are a Commonwealth, a federation of states, and the national responsibility is the responsibility of the national government. This government has all but abandoned efforts to have Queensland's Cape York added to the World Heritage List.

But it does not end there. The government has disenfranchised communities across Australia by ripping Commonwealth funding from the Environmental Defenders Offices, which means that those who have a concern about environmental approvals will no longer have the capacity to protect the places they love and to contest decisions. Not only the Environmental Defenders Offices but legal aid, women's legal services, and welfare rights and community legal centres all agree that this wicked slashing of federal government funding has hit them hard. Access to justice for people who wish to use the law to stand up for and protect their environment will be effectively lost when the EDOs have to close. For this government, that is what it considers a good outcome. That is the great shame of witnessing in this place every day the stripping away of the capacity of Australians to fundamentally protect the things that are of value to us.

Defending the environment and defending community amenity and cultural heritage will simply become unaffordable for many Australians, as the local EDO has often been the only place many people could afford to go for expert legal advice on complex matters of public interest with regard to environmental law. The government's ridiculous decision to remove funding from environmental legal centres will expose communities to damaging developments and reduce scrutiny, particularly on the very powerful and cashed-up mining industry.

The government has taken us backwards on climate change by repealing the carbon price in favour of a taxpayer funded, dressed-up slush fund that certainly will not work. Tony Abbott abolished the Climate Commission, which was established to provide public information on the effects of and potential solutions to global warming. The government also wants to axe the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the Climate Change Authority, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the renewable energy target—all that blood on its hands.

The government approached the World Heritage Committee to delist 74,000 hectares of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. This embarrassing application was dismissed out of hand by the World Heritage Committee. The government ripped nearly half a billion dollars out of Landcare, taking money away from landholders and local communities to run its Green Army program instead. The government has the National Water Commission in its sights, with plans for its abolition for a small budget saving at a time when water management in Australia is at dangerous risk of backsliding.

The government has been entrusted with one of the great honours of public life: to protect and promote Australia's magnificent natural assets. The problem with this government is that it has no mindset for the environment. (Time expired)