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Wednesday, 12 October 1994
Page: 1885


Mr TANNER (12.04 p.m.) —I applaud the government and the state governments that have decided to participate—namely, those other than Western Australia—in the establishment of the National Environment Protection Council under this legislation. I think it is fair to say that it is something that is worthwhile giving a go to but my long-term view on this issue is that the federal government should have constitutional powers to deal with environmental matters. I would certainly support a referendum to amend the constitution to enable the federal government to deal with environmental matters. As the honourable member for Corangamite (Mr McArthur) has indicated, many if not most of those matters extend beyond state boundaries. Clearly it is yet another area where the ramshackle constitutional structure that we have is now severely out of date.

  I wish to address one of the main areas relevant to the establishment of the National Environment Protection Council and the particular focus that the legislation has—namely, the development of uniform national standards. That main area is the matter of air pollution and motor vehicle emissions. This is a matter that is of particular concern in my electorate because of the nature of my electorate, but it is also of concern to many electorates across the country. The basic problem we have with vehicle emissions is that roughly 65 to 75 per cent of our total air pollution problem is attributable to emissions from motor vehicles. I will take some time to run through the basic details of the emissions that cause problems.

  Firstly, there is the problem of particulates, which are known to exacerbate asthma and a variety of other respiratory complaints and diseases, to cause certain forms of cancer and, ultimately, to contribute to premature death. Compounds such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and ozone can exacerbate emphysema, asthma and bronchitis. Carcinogens such as benzene, toluene and a variety of other compounds can cause cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma. Roughly 90 per cent of the benzene in the atmosphere comes from motor vehicles. There is no known safe level of exposure to benzene in the air.

  Finally, and perhaps most commonly known, is the problem of lead in the atmosphere. Roughly 90 per cent of the lead in the atmosphere also comes from motor vehicle emissions. Lead is known to threaten the intelligence level of young children and has a variety of other effects on such things as the renal, nervous, circulatory and reproductive systems.

  That is a very brief snapshot of the types of problems that motor vehicle emissions cause, most obviously, of course, for urban dwellers and particularly for those in inner urban areas. The area that I represent in Melbourne is a classic example of an area that suffers from these problems.

  A landmark study was recently released. That United States study, which covered 16 years, is called the `Six Cities Study'—as opposed to `sick cities'. It was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in December 1993. The study was conducted by eight eminent medical researchers. The study looked at the health effects of air pollution over a long period of time on people living in six different United States cities, each with different levels of air pollution problems.

  The study looked comprehensively at 811 people over 16 years. The conclusion that the study reached was that people in the most polluted city, the city with the highest level of particulates in the atmosphere, had a 26 per cent higher risk of premature death than those in the least polluted city. The study demonstrated a clear correlation between the presence of particulates in the atmosphere and the risk of premature death.

  The study concluded that for every 10 micrograms of particulates per cubic metre of air, for every increase of 10 micrograms of particles that are smaller than 10 microns, the death rate in the community increases by one per cent. Those statistics are a bit mind numbing because they deal with measures that we are not normally accustomed to, unless we have a scientific background, but I think it is something worth noting. What they are saying is that particulates in the atmosphere, which predominantly come from motor vehicle emissions, cause people to die earlier than they otherwise would.

  Recent research in Melbourne has shown that in areas near major freeways such as the south-eastern arterial and even some main roads, the level of particulates in the atmosphere sometimes reaches 60 to 70 micrograms per cubic metre, which is way above the standard of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which, in turn, according to the six cities study, is itself above the safe level at which particulates are acceptable.

  The six cities study in effect showed that the level at which premature deaths can be expected to occur as a result of particulates in the atmosphere is, in fact, significantly below what the US EPA currently defines as a safe level. As a result of this, the United States Lung Association is taking legal proceedings in the United States against the EPA to endeavour to force it to try to tighten up the standard. In fact, the standard is three times higher than the level at which the study found that premature deaths began. As a result of the study, it was estimated that particulate emissions from motor vehicles probably account for somewhere in the vicinity of 60,000 premature deaths per year in the United States.

  Clearly, extrapolatory figures of that nature are always vulnerable to some degree of fluctuation. They are an estimate; the figure may not be 60,000. However, the most obvious point is that, even if it is only 30,000 or 20,000, it is still an awful lot of people in the United States dying prematurely as a result of this one particular form of motor vehicle pollution.

  The estimate that was made on the same basis for Australia was that we can assume that somewhere around 800 people in Sydney and roughly 400 in Melbourne die prematurely each year as a result of particulate emissions. Again, even if it is not 400 in Melbourne, even if it is only 300, that is still roughly about the number of people who die in industrial accidents in Victoria each year. It is a very serious and significant problem.

  Another study that was conducted in Melbourne recently by Dr Michael Abramson of the Monash University Department of Social and Preventative Medicine indicated that, over a period of four years, roughly 20 per cent of asthma attack victims admitted to hospital in Victoria were admitted for attacks that were triggered by air pollution. Air pollution levels that caused asthma attacks accounted for 20 per cent of total asthma attacks in that time.

  When the C3 freeway, now called the south-eastern arterial, was built in Victoria in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, no study was done about the likely impact of particulate levels in the atmosphere. As I indicated, we have already got levels way above the safety limits. By the look of it, we are soon to repeat that mistake because of the enthusiasm in many parts of government and the bureaucracy to build the western and southern bypasses and to extend the eastern freeway in Melbourne. It is noteworthy that Dr Jonathan Streeton, a respiratory specialist from Melbourne who was commissioned to do a study on the particulates issue with respect to these proposals, had his report ultimately not incorporated in the environment effects statement with respect to those two bypass projects and we can perhaps speculate as to why.

  There are other vehicle emission pollutant problems to which we need to give consideration. Obviously, lead is one of them. The nitrogen dioxide levels that are now being tested around areas like the south-eastern arterial in Melbourne are already exceeding the safety limits and, given the likely expansion and usage of that freeway, particularly if the southern bypass goes ahead, we can only expect them to get worse.

  Obviously, I have only referred to one particular aspect of the problem of vehicle emissions and that is premature death and health effects, which I think are very clearly established. As well as these things, we need to take into account work absenteeism—which, at its most basic, is a consequence of asthma and other respiratory problems that I referred to—and loss of productivity and property damage, estimated to run into billions of dollars every year as a result of air pollution.

  We can ask the question: what is the federal government doing about these things? Certainly the establishment of the National Environment Protection Council is a significant step forward. It is one small step towards gradually converting our horse and buggy constitutional structure into something that is relevant to the end of the 20th century and beyond, but there are a lot more things that need to be done.

  The decision last year to set a different price for leaded petrol, so that it is higher than for unleaded petrol—a decision for which the federal government was criticised very severely by many parts of the community, including many backbenchers within its own ranks—has been a significant step forward. I am proud to be part of the government that did that. I supported the initiative and will continue to support it. I applaud the honourable member for Canberra (Mrs Kelly) for her willingness to take on the very powerful forces in the community on that issue, and to stick with doing it. Ultimately, what we are talking about there is the health, particularly, of young children and their ability to develop their intellectual capacities fully, free of the threat of unduly high levels of lead in their bloodstream as a result of vehicle emissions. That is one major step forward.

  However, in other areas we still have vehicle emission standards that are a joke. Our current standards with respect to vehicle emissions from petrol driven vehicles are the same as those established in the United States in 1975. Next year we are going to strengthen them—but only to the level that the United States adopted in the mid-1980s; we will still be well behind the United States—and we will introduce standards with respect to emissions from diesel driven vehicles for the first time.

  Japanese truck manufacturers are pressuring the government to accept lower controls than those which now apply in the United States, presumably in order to be able to continue exporting vehicles to Australia which do not comply with United States controls. The Australian vehicle industry, with, I suspect—I have to have this confirmed—support from some of the unions involved, has lobbied the government not to adopt the standards that are now in place in the United States because to do so would increase the cost of manufacturing vehicles in Australia and make our vehicle manufacturing industry less competitive and therefore more vulnerable to overseas competition. That I find extremely disturbing.

  I have had a lot to do with the vehicle industry previously, as a trade union official. I well know its difficulties and I have been a strong supporter of retaining and expanding the Australian vehicle manufacturing industry. But I am not an uncritical supporter. I am not blind to the broader issues. If the price we are going to have to pay as a community, to ensure that that industry remains as it is, is for people to be dying prematurely as a result of vehicle emissions from substandard vehicles, that is a price that is too high. There are other ways of our ensuring as a community that the vehicle industry can remain in its current form instead of ultimately shifting the cost onto people with respiratory illnesses and people in the community who are more vulnerable to the consequences of things like particulate pollution.

  What this illustrates is that in this country we have a huge blind spot in the public arena on transport issues. In effect, most of the people in public life in this country are obsessed in some form or other with roads, with cars and trucks. We say that public transport is heavily subsidised—$1,000 million a year or whatever it is in Victoria and the like—but we never look at the subsidy to road transport, perhaps because it is not quite as obvious, not being written up as a budget item in state budgets and the like.

  Let us look at the pollution costs, which are in the billions; the road trauma costs, which are estimated at around $5 billion a year for Australia; the congestion costs; the health costs; and the land use costs. Let us think of the land, the prime real estate, that is used in places like Melbourne and Sydney for the purposes of freeways and major roads and imagine the value of that land if used for other purposes. It would be enormous. Obviously, there are enormous benefits from road transport, but we insist on ignoring the costs. We do not take a balanced view on the issue and we now have a situation where the road lobby in this country is extremely powerful and as a result people die prematurely.

  Like the tobacco lobby, however, the road lobby will not be so powerful for ever and it will not be able to withstand community opinion on issues of this nature. It will be a long, hard battle to overcome problems such as particulate emissions, but it is going to be done. Already we are seeing, in places like the mecca of freeways, Los Angeles, a shift in public opinion and government opinion occurring. Now, for example, we have a project in the southern part of Los Angeles to build a major new rail link from the city to the southern coastal regions.

  I was a bit disturbed to hear earlier in this debate the comment of the honourable member for Aston (Mr Nugent)—a member from the other side whom I have some respect for—when he was referring to vehicle emissions and the National Road Transport Council. His comment was that there are safeguards in this legislation to ensure that we do not have the environment impinging unrealistically in areas with broader implications.

  I find this a pretty disturbing view from somebody who, I think, is quite a reasonable member in this place. Is it unrealistic to worry about preventing premature deaths in the community? Is it unrealistic to want asthmatics and other sufferers of respiratory illnesses to be able to lead a vaguely normal life? Too often, people in the community treat the environment as if it is some sort of separate thing, as if it is just another thing to be taken into account on a list of a whole heap of things. The environment is us; the environment is people. It is our standard of living; it is our health. It is the physical assets that we, as a community, have built up, and it is our children. It really is a shorthand term for all of these things. It is not just something to which we pay lip-service, where, as soon as there is a bit of pressure from any particular interest group that happens to have a short-term financial interest, we say, `Yes, we are concerned about the environment'. That is simply not the appropriate way to look at these things.'

  I represent the inner city area of Melbourne, where the question of extremely high levels of lead in young children's bloodstreams was first brought to public attention about 10 or 12 years ago. My constituents are tired of having their health sacrificed on the altar of worship of freeways, cars and trucks. What they would like to see, and what I would like to see, is massive re-investment in rail and other forms of public transport, adopting world's best practice emission controls on vehicles. There are plenty of people in this place who are very keen on the notion of world's best practice on a few fronts, but they are very selective in how they apply their enthusiasm, so when it comes to things that relate to people dying, or people suffering serious illness or exacerbation of illnesses, then their concerns for world's best practice tend to slide away a bit.

  Finally, we need to adopt a balanced approach to transport. One of the things that we certainly do not see in Victoria is an integrated approach to transport planning. I cannot make a definitive statement, but I would be surprised if we see it anywhere else in this country, with perhaps one or two exceptions. We have two separate authorities in Victoria. One dealing with roads, Vicroads, regards politicians as minor players who, even though they theoretically represent the community, just flit on and off the stage while Vicroads grinds relentlessly on with its 30-year plans to have freeways throughout Melbourne. The other authorities, totally separate from Vicroads, are the public transport bodies. We have no integrated planning relating to the genuine needs of transport users in Melbourne. The end result is that the force with all the power, all the clout and all the financial strength in the community—namely, the roads lobby—wins pretty well every time.

  If we have to turn these around, that involves some sort of cost on the community. If it involves, for example, problems for the vehicle manufacturing industry, then that is a separate issue. It is an issue that we have got to address, and it is an issue that we have got to tackle very seriously—but it is a separate issue. My view, in the case of the example of the vehicle industry, would be that we ought not just say, `Forget it, because of the cost that will impose on the vehicle industry; we will let the asthmatics and other respiratory illness sufferers continue to suffer and we will let people die prematurely.' What we should say is, `If solving this problem is going to impose some additional cost on that industry, then we, as a community, have to work out a way to counteract that.'  The traditional way is—or has been—tariffs and, obviously, one very simplistic way of doing that would be to jack up the tariff again, or alter the timetable for tariff reduction to take account of it. There are much more sophisticated things we could do. I commend the bill to the Committee. I think this is one very small step towards a genuine national approach on environmental matters, and it is a good step.