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Why would the ALP vote against stronger environmental protection?

This week Greens Senator Larissa Waters proposed significant amendments to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Some sought to better protect farmers and water resources from…

Moves to increase protection of national parks have been voted down. Flickr/Marc Dalmulder

This week Greens Senator Larissa Waters proposed significant amendments to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Some sought to better protect farmers and water resources from gas extraction. Others were aimed at protecting national parks and strengthening the Federal Government’s power to protect the environment. All were voted down in the Senate by the combined forces of the ALP and the Coalition. Their failure has profound significance for the protection of our critical environmental assets.

The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was passed by the Howard government. It was certainly not a radical move. The environmental NGOs and leading environmental scientists were divided at the time about whether the legislation was even worth supporting. Many argued that the new law was so weak it would achieve very little.

The main criticisms were that the Act provided limited conditions which would allow a Commonwealth Minister to intervene and overrule state approval for a development, and that even if those strict criteria were met it would still be optional for the minister to intervene. While a responsible Minister could act if the science showed clearly that a proposed development would damage the habitat of an endangered species or do serious damage to a threatened ecosystem, the law does not require that intervention.

One of the few instances of the Act being used by a Commonwealth Minister was Peter Garrett’s action to stop the proposed Traveston Crossing Dam on the Mary River. That dam had been proposed by Peter Beattie at the height of the drought-induced water shortages. With the change in the leadership of the Queensland government to Anna Bligh and the breaking of the drought by flooding rains, there was almost a sense of relief at the state level when Garrett canned the project. The cash-strapped Bligh government was reduced to selling public assets to fund the infrastructure demands of rapid population growth. It could not afford to pour money into a dam that wasn’t really needed. The project had also become a political embarrassment because of the evidence it would have been environmentally damaging.

The site of the proposed Traveston Crossing Dam Flickr/Patrick McCully

A review of the Act by experienced departmental head Alan Hawke identified several major shortcomings and recommended significant amendments. But neither the Rudd nor the Gillard government acted to strengthen the law along the lines Hawke recommended.

There was recently a serious move to weaken still further the capacity of the Australian government to intervene to protect the environment. The calls for “cutting green tape” constituted an explicit campaign to push the Commonwealth to abdicate its responsibility and cave in to the notoriously short-sighted pro-development agenda of state administrations. The Newman government in Queensland and the Barnett government in Western Australia have demonstrated clearly why we need a Commonwealth capacity to overrule irresponsible state approvals. The possibility of an Abbott-led Coalition government has led to increasing concern that the limited Commonwealth powers will not be used.

So the moves to tighten the EPBC Act were very important. The changes introduced by the government allow Commonwealth assessment of coal seam gas operations and large coal mines, but do not extend to shale gas and so-called “tight gas”. (While natural gas is normally extracted from relatively porous strata, “tight gas” is trapped in rocks that require extensive fracturing to release the gas.)

The further amendments proposed by Senator Waters, who was a lawyer working for the Environmental Defenders Office before being elected as Queensland’s first Green senator, would have given landholders the right to block proposed coal seam gas developments and would have given the Commonwealth explicit power to assess the impact of shale gas mining on water systems.

But the most fundamental change was the proposal to add national parks to the “matters of environmental significance”, which justify Commonwealth intervention.

The move was provoked by the recent actions of state governments to allow cattle grazing, mining, logging and shooting in national parks. Senator Waters argued that most people assume that the small fraction of our land set aside as national parks – about 4% – is protected from harmful development. But the attempt by the Victorian government to allow cattle to graze in the high Alps has been followed by the Queensland government allowing grazing of cattle and proposing to go back to logging national parks, the Tasmanian government supporting mines in the Tarkine and the continuation of some logging activities, and the NSW government allowing shooting.

The existing legislation does not give the Commonwealth power to intervene to protect a national park unless the proposed activity can be demonstrated to directly harm biodiversity. The proposed amendment would have greatly strengthened the hand of current and future Commonwealth Ministers to protect national parks from the sorts of proposals now being rolled out by state governments.

It is hard to understand why the government would not accept the amendments, unless it is trying to distance itself from the Greens in the lead-up to the September election.

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39 Comments sorted by

  1. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    The farming community will certainly remember this, come September.

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  2. Wade Macdonald

    Technician

    Here we go again,

    Handing one federal minister sole power is not democratic and not supported by the majority that is why it didn't pass. Typical of the greens agenda on lobbying ministers with one sided science to force unsound policy however.

    This country has had its science abused by the international conservation movement against the will of local communities and hence sound local public policy which should be based on cause and effect rationalism.

    The massive amount of foreign submissions to the federal marine parks process that were advocated on misinformation about Australian fisheries is the perfect example. This will see rec fishers banned but promote/allow other commercial activities and is discriminatory.

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Here we go again.

      There are many Australians who believe that environmental protection comes at the expense of jobs - Martin Ferguson, and various other coal-mining boosters spring to mind.

      Their belief seems to be, Australia has to trash its environment so it can sell enough coal to China to pay for all the food it has to import from China (grown in China's already toxic environment, by the way) because the Australian environment is wrecked.

      It never occurs to them, not even for a moment, that maybe if Australia didn't mine coal it could grow its own food.

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    2. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to David Arthur

      Unrelated to my points.

      The difference between me and you is that I don't advocated bans on sustainable activities in an attempt to ban mining or destructive commercial processes.

      Just like Rob Oakeshott who opposed the marine parks challenge because of mining you are oblivious to the fact this not advocacy to include rec fishers.

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    3. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      'One sided science' is it Wade - that would be the side based on research and evidence, would it, rather than the one based on economic expediency?

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    4. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Don't pretend unsubstantiated exclusion of a sustainable recreation is conservation science Felix.

      Especially when deviation mining, commercial tourism and international shipping are free to enter and destroy.

      I guess you agree with this political hypocrisy as being sound, fair policy by labor?

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    5. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Wow, Wade, you also do mind reading as well as non sequiturs!

      As you are apparently able to ready my mind I shan't waste any time replying as you will already know what I was going to say.

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    6. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Fair point, Wade, thanks for putting me back on track of your issue.

      No-take zones are a way of trying to ensure that there are some fish, to which extent they work. Following your logic, on the other hand, rec fishers want the right to dangle a line anywhere they like, even though there won't be any fish to catch.

      Now, to return to the issue that Ian Lowe is discussing, please re-read my previous comment.

      So why would ALP vote against stronger environmental protection? Because the ALP is a broad church, with nearly as many people non-cognisant of science as the other wing of the LibLab PArty.

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    7. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to David Arthur

      Agree that sanctuaries are important and that they have some benefits for demersal species. Pity the activities allowed (outside of fishing) in them undermine the whole purpose and hence verifies the discrimination I speak of. Then there is the fact that the whole consultation process was a farce under labor.

      Look up ARRF's website under news.

      What's your version of science.... real conservation that involves sound management or exclusion disguised as conservation advocacy?

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    8. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to David Arthur

      David, read my post to Bernie Masters on this thread for some examples. Not using them as an excuse not to have marine parks but do you see those examples as sound conservation policy? Consider the fact that in these countries fishing is a cultural tradition being excluded for the crimes and profits of others.

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    9. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Wade, it's you who focussed the issue on Mug Punters who demand the Right to dangle into any old degraded toxic mudpit, rather then look at whole of offshore management, and now you whinge that I do not pay sufficient lipservice to

      1) coastal development
      2) port development
      3) commercial shipping
      4) river pollution
      5) catchment management
      6) riparian vegetation
      7) rural land clearing
      8) urban wastewater
      9) industrial discharges
      10) farm chemical runoff
      11) farm tilling practices
      12) mining

      So there you go ... as well as taking you to task for your particular bleat, I've mentioned most of the other relevant buzzwords.

      Rest assured, Wade, I've got views regarding those activities and their effects on coastal waters as well. Happy?

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    10. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to David Arthur

      David

      The majority of environmentally literate are fully aware of these issues - however they are shiny and new for other people, who assume that everyone is as ignorant as themselves.

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    11. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      No doubt you still support the examples I posted in response to Bernie Dianna. Conservation at all costs and for any reason. Good or bad policy is irrelevant.
      Try sitting at a table with a minister who knows the truth but doesn't care. Then go and tell a charter boat operator who just had 200, 000 in cancellations from clients despite fishing sustainably for years. Go tell the local fish processor they will have 50% loss in supply. Go tell the marine mechanic his offshore sector is going to take a hit. No compensation nothing and no evidence these business were unsustainable either.......

      Lets just close it based on an international fear campaign about increased mining or international shipping as these family businesses matter not to you.

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    12. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to David Arthur

      David read my response to your namesake Dianna. Don't bother responding as I know you just don't care for the reality.

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    13. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Dear Wade

      I choose not to read your response to David, just as I choose when, what and to whom I will address comments. Such is my reality.

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    14. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Thanks Wade.

      Tell me, for what "reality" do I not care? The reality that the world is a complex interlinked interacting place requiring thoughtfulness, care and respect, or the reality that you've been denied access to somewhere that you reckon has got a fish in it?

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    15. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      "Handing one federal minister sole power is not democratic ..."

      What's democratic is legislative authorisation of power, and its vesting in and delegation of responsibility to an individual minister, who is answerable and accountable to that legislature.

      This country has had its science aided and facilitated by the international scientific community. To the extent that conservationists refer to that science in developing their arguments is illustrative of their own responsibility.

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  3. Tim Beshara

    logged in via Twitter

    Without meaning to be a contrarian here I will point out some of the issues with the Emeritus Professor's shallow piece.

    1. He says "[the Act] was certainly not a radical move". No it was a comprehensive government response to the Rio Earth Summit and the Convention on Biological Diversity. It replaced a time when Fed interventions in Enviro matters were at the whim of the politics of whoever was the Minister.

    2. He says "The main criticisms were that the Act provided limited conditions which…

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Tim Beshara

      Great post.

      Real conservation is lost in amongst many agendas disguised and promoted as conservation on here.

      Good to see you also see straight through the real intentions on said topic.

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    2. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Tim Beshara

      The idea that the EPBC Act "... replaced a time when Fed interventions in Enviro matters were at the whim of the politics of whoever was the Minister", is not even wrong, it's just silly. In fact it replaced the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974, which had been tested a number of times in various circumstances and was inadequate to deal with some of the new situations arising eg. the whole idea of World Heritage properties.

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    3. Hugh McColl

      Geographer

      In reply to Tim Beshara

      Tim, you appear to be satisfied with the way the EPBC Act works and you don't think it needs amendment - is that your point? You make the point in your first piece that "(T)he Act isn't about ruling or overruling state approvals, it's about assessing impacts against matters of national environmental significance." But the Act COULD be about overruling state approvals (and don't we wish they had thought about that at Gladstone?), and it COULD require the Commonwealth to intervene in matters of national…

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    4. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Tim Beshara

      Regarding a couple of the points Mr Beshara uses to justify describing Prof Lowe's article as "shallow":

      Point 1 essentially agrees with Prof Lowe, so why is it made, other than to bulk up the number of points?

      Point 3: Mr Beshara takes issue with Prof Lowe not mentioning that the EPBC Act has been applied to other cases than the Traveston Crossing Dam proposal (TCD). If you read the article, Mr Beshara, you'll note that Prof Lowe uses the expression "one of the few"; in the English language (the medium of Prof Lowe's article), "one of the few" does not mean the same thing as "the only".

      Mr Beshara's concluding paragraph on biodiversity conservation aspects of the EPBC Act may be well-founded. On issues of environmental protection, however, the EPBC Act has already been of some value.

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    5. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to David Arthur

      Indeed, the North is a very diverse combination of eco-systems - no single plan can ever accommodate all.

      http://www.nt.gov.au/d/Primary_Industry/index.cfm?newscat1=Pastoral%20Production&newscat2=&header=Rangeland%20Management

      http://www.nt.gov.au/d/Primary_Industry/index.cfm?header=Biosecurity%20and%20Product%20Integrity

      http://www.nt.gov.au/d/Primary_Industry/index.cfm?header=Beef%20Cattle

      http://www.nt.gov.au/d/Primary_Industry/index.cfm?header=Indigenous%20Development%20Program

      The above few links are merely a starting point for Tony Abbott to get his head around, before even starting a white paper on the IPA's proposal for the North.

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  4. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    'Why would the ALP vote against stronger environmental protection? '

    Well, equally, why doesn't the ALP ban all cars and reduce the road toll to zero? Or raise parental support to $2000 a week?

    Because governments have to balance conflicting needs and demands. They have a responsibility to compromise, and come up with something that's good for everyone.

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  5. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    This is the easiest of questions ...

    The same reason Labor sidled up to the Greens in the first place, to get a root .. into that part of the electorate; and now that they've had their way with the Greens (despoiled and disgraced by their continued 'loyalty' despite numerous public humiliations a la Nigella), Labor want to show the macho-knob LNP followers that they're just as much Abbot-he-men, befriending the rich and screwing the ever increasing poor ....

    Plain as the nose on your face ...

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  6. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    I'm not sure why the author is wanting to rewrite history by belittling the importance and significance of the Howard government's EP&BC Act. It was and, in my view, remains as intrusive piece of legislation that gives Canberra the ability to act on issues that are clearly not national issues, allowing it to be used to constrain the states in ways that may well be in conflict with the Australian constitution. It has been used wisely in some situations but for political purposes in others. Tim Beshara's…

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Why don't fishers get any rights against mining induced IUCN advocated marine parks Bernie?

      The Cook Islands PM...."But he admitted that the real reason behind the marine park declaration was the prospect of deep-sea mining of rare minerals."

      http://www.scidev.net/en/agriculture-and-environment/eye-on-earth-summit/news/deep-sea-mining-drives-cook-islands-huge-marine-park-1.html

      Then there is the Chagos exclusion....

      "The expulsion has been described by critics as one of the most shameful…

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    2. Bernie Masters

      environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Wade, I'm not quite sure what you're driving at. There's a difference between privately owned terrestrial land which someone has purchased, lives on and earns a living from, compared to the seabed and land beneath a marine park which aren't privately owned in the same sense. In the case of a marine park or sanctuary, while a community of people may have been earning a living from such marine areas, the water and land is typically owned by a national government. I'm not sure we're comparing apples with apples, but have I misunderstood your point?

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    3. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      What difference?

      Since when are indigenous islanders who are forced off their islands or banned from conducting traditional activities (in the name of so called conservation) different from land purchased with $$$$ by farmers?

      Dissapointed in your response personally and thought you would have understood money means what exactly to most fishers whether recreational or indigenous commercial? Plenty still pay to fish as licenced stakeholders!

      For many around the world its a way of life that is being trodden on by mining and other interests including the international conservation movement through marine parks.

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    4. Bernie Masters

      environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      My experienced of marine parks in developing countries is limited to the Philippines where I met with fishers who voluntarily gave up access to their former fishing grounds in exchange for tourism opportunities and increased fish numbers spilling over from the marine park into remaining fishing areas. Your concerns about how other marine parks have been created are beyond my experience so sorry but I can't comment.
      Even so, if fishers can show a long history of their use of a marine area for food and other important resources, their usage should be respected. Recreational fishing is quite different, of course, but that's another issue.

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    5. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Fair enough Bernie.

      As I have exampled, marine parks are often used for unsound purposes and lack policy separation against the varied forms of fishing yet allow other destructive processes to continue. As I exampled, they often get forced upon local communitites because of large scale mining operation plans or draconian conservation group organisations like PEW who run misinformation.

      The coral sea MPA is another example.

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    6. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Mr Masters is right that the Howard government's EPBC Act has proven to be an intrusive bit of legislation: indeed, it has intruded upon the cosy relationships between corporate Party benefactors and cash-starved State governments by limiting nation-destroying infrastructure projects such as the Traveston Crossing dam proposal.

      Mr Masters suggest that perhaps landowner powers of veto over mining projects would remove much politics from the issue, thereby disappointing Greens by denying them of an election issue; au contraire, Mr Masters, those Greens that I know would be delighted if landowners had right of veto over access to their properties.

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    7. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to David Arthur

      "those Greens that I know would be delighted if landowners had right of veto over access to their properties.:

      I second that.

      Bernie Masters in trying to play both sides has again demonstrated he is not as politically or environmentally aware as he would have us believe.

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  7. Dianna Arthur

    Environmentalist

    The great propaganda machine (Murdoch/Rinehart - News Ltd/Fairfax and a completely infiltrated ABC) has managed to convince Labor the Greens are too "extreme" to be seen with.

    Complete nonsense. But the campaign is obviously successful with this latest cave to capitalist pipers.

    Meanwhile, progress is being made in some of the most reviled nations:

    http://www.trust.org/item/20130617172459-w2kfm/?source=search

    And Rome still fiddles:

    http://www.climatecentral.org/news/coastal-us-airports-face-increasing-threat-from-sea-level-rise-16126

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  8. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Here's how to "cut green tape": hand over all responsibility for environmental approvals to the Commonwealth.

    After all, as University of Newcastle Centre for Climate Change Impact Management director Garry Willgoose pointed out in his 4 April 2013 article, "Independent research is the answer to coal seam gas dilemma" (http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/4609344.html), State Environmental departments often don't even have the in-house expertise to conduct competent environmental assessments.

    If we truly wanted a one-stop environmental approval shop, it would be run by the people with the resources to do the assessment, ie the Feds.

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