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.