The Guardian June 23, 1999


Anti-environment Bill abrogates federal powers

by Rohan Gowland

An important piece of "anti-environment" legislation may shortly be passed 
by the Federal Government, although it has virtually gone unreported by the 
media.

The legislation would hand Federal powers for the protection of the 
environment to the States. This move would result in fewer areas of 
national significance being protected and see the state governments put 
their own concerns, such as loyalty to developers, mining companies, 
loggers and other business interests before the environment.

As the Greens have noted, if the Federal Government had not passed 
legislation to maintain ultimate control over major environmental issues, 
various state governments would have initiated or approved many more acts 
of environmental destruction.

The Franklin would have been flooded, the Daintree rainforests would have 
been logged, the golden sands of Fraser Island would have been mined, and 
the Wesley Vale pulpmill would now be spewing 13 tonnes of organochlorines 
into Bass Strait every day.

The legislation goes under the deceptive title of Environment Protection 
and Biodiversity Conservation Bill.

It was tabled in the Senate last September and is due for final debate 
after the GST legislation is dealt with. However, if amendments to the GST 
legislation result in it being delayed, then the environment legislation 
may be dealt with first, as early as next month.

The GST debate has also assisted in obscuring the importance of this piece 
of legislation. But the legislation appears to have other ties to the GST.

There is a suggestion that a deal was done during the GST negotiations that 
would see the Democrats allowing the environment legislation to be passed.

In a statement made after the GST deal was struck, Howard referred to the 
environment legislation. He said once it was passed, the Government would 
commit itself to make greenhouse gases an issue of national significance.

The details of any such "agreement" have not been revealed.

The Greens have drafted a raft of amendments to the legislation to address 
its many shortcomings and omissions.

The amendments aim at turning the Government's loose references to "World 
Heritage" areas into actual laws that have some teeth. They include tough 
controls and restrictions on nuclear and greenhouse gas emissions, building 
of dams, logging of forests and the release of genetically modified 
organisms into the environment.

The Greens propose an amendment to remove the discretionary power of the 
Minister to exempt proposals from environmental assessment.

The North Queensland Conservation Council (NQCC) also criticised the lack 
of environmental assessment under the Bill.

The NQCC said that the Federal Government's Bill would prevent the Great 
Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority from requiring environmental impact 
assessments for projects with enormous pollution potential, such as 
floating hotels and marinas.

"The Bill will actually determine that the Great Barrier Reef, one of the 
world's greatest treasures, will become one of the least protected areas in 
Australia."

The NQCC said the legislation failed on three major counts:

1. delegation of responsibility to state governments. Environmentally weak 
States such as Queensland may well end up with control over major national 
issues such as uranium mining, endangered species protection, and 
protection of World Heritage;

2. reduction of the Commonwealth's role on fisheries and land use 
practices;

3. minimal community participation in environmental protection and no 
public access to the law.

In the unamended form, the Howard Government's Environment Protection 
and Biodiversity Conservation Bill is aimed at removing and weakening 
environmental protection.

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