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Thursday, 28 September 1972
Page: 2216

Mr UREN (Reid) - I put on record my thoughts about the real role of the Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts in a federal system. The evolution of this Department is not at all encouraging, and I lay the blame for that fairly and squarely on the Government because for long it has not understood what this Department should do. In the Estimates debate last year I asked a question of the Government. I challenged it to describe to this Parliament its concept of what should be the concern of the Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts. Since then we have been lucky enough to get one ministerial statement from the Minister for the

Environment, Aborigines and the Arts (Mr Howson) on 24th May last in which he detailed the Department's so-called duties. Clearly the concept of such a department held by the Government is very limited and out of date and if I asked honourable members to state the first couple of items which came to their minds when I mentioned the word 'environment', we could see what part of the problem is.

Many countries have tried to set up huge monolithic departments with the power to solve environmental problems. This is a hopeless and futile path to take. One cannot put environmental problems under one bureaucratic roof, for the environment is not a thing but a complex of interconnected natural and man-made items. The environment is a complex interconnected web in a state of constant change. What the environment is like depends upon the point from and time at which we view it. The result of the monolithic approach is the bureaucratic fights of the type we saw in New South Wales where 4 departments were fighting for power to control the emissions from motor vehicles in New South Wales. In the final analysis it does not matter who regulates auto emissions and the air of Sydney and Melbourne will not be better because of such a fight. What is important is that an environmental programme be undertaken, no matter who regulates auto emissions. The Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts can investigate and write the guidelines to indicate what is environmentally wise. It does not necessarily have to regulate auto emissions.

In the case of auto emissions let me say at this point that we had a total sell-out to the auto and petroleum industries in Australia. These industries dominated the working group of the Australian Transport Advisory Council which produced the standard we are to get in 1974. As a result it will take until 1985 to reduce pollution to the levels of 1966 which was a year when no regulations were in force. In 1985 the United States aims to return to the ambient air quality of the late 1930s.

The Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts has a key role to play here to ensure that such sell-outs to industry do not occur. The Australian people are now finding out, despite Government secrecy, that carbon monoxide levels in their cities, particularly Sydney and Melbourne, are the highest in the world. Total oxidant levels in Sydney have reached 17 parts per hundred million. In Los Angeles a reading of 20 is regarded as severe. The 1974 standards in Australia do not even include emission controls on oxides of nitrogen which act to create oxidants. This oxidant creation is a key step in the formation of photochemical smog. A Labor government will greatly tighten the standards and adopt the United States standards including standards on oxides of nitrogen. The European standards are about 35 times worse than the 1975 United States standards in the items of carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen. A Labor government will consider the public's health first and not automobile companies, towards which this Government has been leaning. Guidelines which the Department of the Environment can lay down are sets of rules which define environmentally-wise ways of doing anything; of building dams or roads or a new town; cleaning land, managing city air, planting forests, building and siting industries, designing transportation and maintaining natural ecosystems to allow evolution to continue, or managing our arid interior or our precious coastline, or harvesting wood, mining and exporting minerals, generating power or viewing the population policy, and many others. The guidelines for all these things must be hammered out and then advocated. The Environment Department can advocate these guidelines to other paris of the Government, to the States and local governments and to private industry. These in turn should account to the Department of the Environment for their performance in meeting these guidelines. The Department must have teeth to use but, hopefully, they should not have to be used too often, for I believe that when most people act they do not deliberately plan to plunder the environment; they do it out of ignorance or because of special pressures. Regulation in most cases can be left where it already exists.

The key to the whole process is the socalled environmental impact statement assessment. The Minister in his paper of 24th May indicated that environment impact statements would be required of federally funded projects. It sounded too good to be true. The Government's programme is merely window-dressing. Any environmental impact statements will be for Cabinet and bureaucratic eyes only. The people to whom the environment belongs will have no say in what is being done to it by the Government. But since then of course the Government has been under pressure. The Prime Minister in a reply to a question by the Leader of the Opposition in this House on Tuesday last said that in his opinion the environmental impact statement should be made public. This was a rebuke to the Minister for the Environment who on 21st August in this House, in reply to a question by me, said that impact statements would not be available to the Australian public or to organisations but only to Government members.

But the Government has not yet made clear its proposals as to how the people will be involved - and this is an important aspect - in regard to the impact statements. In the United States all impact statements are publicly available and most agencies hold public hearings on particular proposals before writing a draft impact statement. The final impact statement sent to the Council on Environmental Quality must include all the public comments on the statement. This is open government. Here in Australia we have secret government, and I stress that fact. A Labor government will make all impact statements available to the public and will require them not only where Federal money is involved but also where Commonwealth constitutional power is involved. The constitutional power Includes the environmental protection of Commonwealth territory, the environmental impact of interstate or international trade particularly the export of natural resources, the regulation of corporations now that quite a few issues have been cleared up by the High Court in the so called concrete pipes case, and certain other areas. In areas of environmental impact assessment which do not require Federal money or power and over which the Commonwealth has no jurisdiction the Commonwealth will act to work with the States for rational management and the protection of the Australian environment.

The Commonwealth must be prepared to lead and be firm in this leadership. All sections of Australian life from the Australian Mining Industries Council to the trade unions require firm leadership from this Government. Here in Australia we have many big environmental problems. Lack of leadership at the Commonwealth level is allowing the situation to worsen very rapidly. Good examples are the ad hoc destruction of much of our beautiful coastline and the stupid competition between the States in export of non-renewable resources such as coal. Still in other areas we are a second chance country. We have the chance to meet our commitment. It is about time that the Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts gave some leadership in these matters.

The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN (Mr Corbett) - -Order! The honourable member's time has expired.

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