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Tuesday, 30 November 2004
Page: 35

Senator BROWN (2:38 PM) —My question is to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage. It is about the critically endangered Tasmanian swamp eyebright, which is ostensibly one of the most rare and endangered plants in Australia. Is the minister aware that a road through the Southport Lagoon conservation area potentially threatens this plant with extinction? Is he aware that the proposed completion of that road is not under a forest practices plan? Will the minister ensure that under the EPBC Act, the environment act, an environment assessment is completed before any further approval is given? Will he make sure that the draft management plan prohibiting four-wheel drives from this area is carried into practice before any approval for a road is granted?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —Firstly, I thank Senator Brown for a question on the environment. From reading the Greens' web site, I note that most of it is taken up with policies on making drugs more freely available, trying to bring the economy to an end and putting taxes up on people. So, to the extent that this is a question that relates to a policy which receives very little coverage on the Greens' web site, I congratulate him for focusing on something that most Australians actually agree with him on—that is, protecting unique, valuable, vulnerable flora and fauna species.

The senator refers to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which was passed through this parliament in 1999 with enormous energy and enthusiasm from the then minister for the environment, Senator Robert Hill. This is an act that is regarded around the world as leading federal environmental law. It is one of the great achievements of the Howard government in its custodianship of the environment. Senator Brown points out quite rightly that this is an act that gives the federal government power to act where there are threats to significant national environmental issues. That of course relates to species that are vulnerable or endangered. It also relates to acts that might take place on important wetlands listed under the convention on wetlands, or the Ramsar convention, as it is known. The interesting thing is that, when that law was going through this place and when the bill was being debated, Senator Brown was one of the loudest opponents of it. If he had had his way, the law would have never made it into the statute book. So it is a little bit perverse that he now is asking the Commonwealth to use this act.

But it is an entirely appropriate use of the act. The trouble with Senator Brown's question is that from my information—I may well be wrong—the road that is being built is actually approved under a forest practices plan. So there is obviously disagreement over that. My brief tells me that it was approved under a forest practices plan. The importance of that is that, under the regional forest agreement, actions under a forestry plan are exempted from the federal environmental law. Part of the important agreement that the Commonwealth reached with each of the states on the regional forest agreement was to ensure that there was some certainty as to environmental approvals and some resource security for the timber industry, but also significant protections for historic levels of forest types right across Australia, including in Tasmania, as has been achieved.

Senator Brown benefits the world, though, by drawing attention to the important natural heritage aspects of the Recherche Bay area. The government has a strong interest in this area. Recently identified were historic and archaeological remains from the D'Entrecasteaux French expedition back in 1791-93. These are very important parts of heritage for Australia and for the world. There are, of course, other important natural heritage features in the Recherche Bay area. I have before the Australian Heritage Council a proposed listing because of the national heritage values particularly related to the D'Entrecasteaux expedition. With regard to the impact of the EPBC Act in relation to the road that Senator Brown refers to, my information is that it is subject to a Tasmanian forest plan. (Time expired)

Senator BROWN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister. I can inform him that that approval of the road under the forest practices plan expired in June 2003 and that a future proposal for the road insofar as the Southport Lagoon conservation area is concerned is not covered by any forest practices plan and therefore is covered by his need to protect the critically endangered swamp eyebright. Is it true, Minister, that the French ambassador is visiting Recherche Bay this week and that the whole area is under global watch? Was it featured on the 7.30 Report last night? Can the minister say whether he is inclined to grant protection to the north-east peninsula of Recherche Bay for the glory of this nation's heritage forevermore?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —I will be taking the advice of the Australian Heritage Council in their assessment of that area. I have no doubt that the Recherche Bay area is important to Tasmanians and all Australians and that the heritage values associated with the D'Entrecasteaux expedition are an important part of the heritage of a great era of expedition in that part of mankind's history. I will be looking forward to the advice of this expert panel. I think it is wise for ministers, particularly environment ministers, to get advice on these sorts of issues from expert panels and not work on the latest whim of a politician.