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Don't hand over our environment.

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 1 Sep 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (20:03):  I oppose the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014. As an Australian Greens senator from South Australia, just like my colleague Senator Ruston—and I will take issue with some of the things she said in a minute—it is absolutely my responsibility to oppose this backward step in environmental regulation. I need to oppose this bill not just because I owe it to my beautiful home state—much of which is uniquely and hauntingly arid; it is the most arid state on what we know is the most arid continent of the world—that has wonderful wildlife and stunning wild places but because, despite the reassurances the government are giving us that they would not do anything to harm the environment, I have a duty to act on the environmental threats facing our whole country in this second decade of the 21st century. I am not prepared to put my head in the sand. Sometimes I wish I could because it is very frightening to hear what the scientists are telling us.

I was a teenager in the 1970s. In the 1960s and 1970s we started as a human species to become aware of the frightening effects that our species was having on the viability of the planet. We had an increasing understanding of the effects of pesticides in the environment. We had an increasing understanding of the effects of pollution. We had an increasing understanding of the effects of a burgeoning human population and the effects of our technology on the finite nature of the planet as we became more and more aware of what a fragile, self-contained planet we live on. Of course at that time we started to see an increase in environmental protection laws with the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States and an increased understanding around the world that we needed to take responsibility for what we were doing or we would end up with nothing.

It is with great alarm that I see we are going backwards at a rate of knots at the moment. I have to pinch myself sometimes and question: is there something I am missing? Is it in fact that these days we need fewer protections than we were putting in place in the 1960s and 1970s? Is it that we have sorted these problems? Is it that we can be complacent now about the risks to our current generation and the future generations that will be inheriting the earth from us? Of course not. There is a change, a short-sightedness and I think in some ways, nihilism, now. There is a sense that we need to give in to certain hedonism and we cannot be making those responsible decisions that we were previously making.

I will cut to the chase because absolutely nothing in this bill will protect the environment. Instead it is very clear that this bill will fast-track damaging projects and leave a legacy that will be mourned by Australians in the future as they tally up the damage.

The Australian Greens have long supported a strong role for the Commonwealth in protecting the Australian environment. That is because it is in our national interest to have robust national environmental protections to fulfil our international obligations, to protect nationally significant matters and—one of the basic reasons we needed the national government to step up to protect the environment—to mitigate the risk of the development auctions that occur when states offer the lowest common denominator of environmental protections to the highest bidders.

We only have to look around Australia today to see places that would have been trashed and gone but for the willingness of Commonwealth governments to step in and take leadership on behalf of the whole community. In 1982 I was arrested in the Franklin Dam blockade and every time I return to Strahan, I am reminded of the beauty of the Gordon and Franklin rivers still flowing free. I am reminded of what we could have lost and I do not meet anyone now who says to me: 'We should have dammed those rivers. We should have dammed the Franklin.'

It was only because a Commonwealth government in 1983 was prepared to step in and use its powers in the face of a recalcitrant, irresponsible and bloody-minded Tasmanian government that the Franklin River was saved. The Franklin River was saved because of the very environmental laws that are being trashed by this government in 2014.

Our environmental laws are failing us already. There is absolutely no shying away from that fact. We have already lost valuable places and wildlife to thousands of incremental and sometimes large-scale damaging developments that have already gone ahead. Senator Ruston talked about the importance of jobs—and of course jobs are important. But it is not a jobs-or-the-environment debate, because without an environment we have no jobs. In fact, without an environment, we have nothing—people tend to forget that we are indeed an animal species and we rely on an environment to survive. That is what we have to remember whenever we are thinking about the laws that we make in this place.

In my home state of South Australia, we have faced a long and difficult battle to protect precious Kangaroo Island from offshore oil and gas exploration. Our environmental laws have been less and less effective over time since the Abbott government came into power. Its streamlined processes have made it easier for oil and gas companies to get into pristine waters like those off the coast of Kangaroo Island. Although the proposal to conduct seismic testing in the area was originally deemed a controlled action under the EPBC Act, the government's reduction in standards for environmental approvals has given the final decision to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, NOPSEMA.

Although the EPBC Act controlled action was on the basis of listed threatened species and communities, listed migratory species and Commonwealth marine areas, NOPSEMA has recently given Bight Petroleum approval to conduct seismic testing in the waters off Kangaroo Island. This is despite the concerns of the community and the many people on the Kangaroo Island whose livelihoods are at risk due to these activities. Their jobs are at risk because of these activities and none of the economic benefits that will flow from the oil and gas exploration will come back to that precious community of 4,500 people off the coast from Adelaide. It is a tourism destination that has been called 'the jewel in South Australia's crown'—and it will not be protected.

If passed, this bill we are debating tonight would facilitate the handover of Commonwealth powers to approve damaging projects under the EPBC Act to state and territory governments, local governments and other unspecified bodies. State governments do not have a good record when it comes to environmental protection. South Australia is no exception. Recently, the South Australian government has approved mining on the Yorke Peninsula. It is a mine that will be 2.4 kilometres long, one kilometre wide and 450 metres deep. The mountain of overburden from the digging up of that hole in the ground is equivalent to a multistorey building. The life of the mine is 15 years. As a result of that mine, many hectares of some of the best barley-growing land in South Australia will be put out of production for ever.

It is on the record. The environmental assessment shows that. So do not tell me it is rot. That is a decision that this government is prepared to make because it does not have an eye on the future. South Australia has a very small amount of arable farming land and the government is prepared to allow a 15-year mine to put that farming land out of commission. One of the issues that has been raised about that mine is that an estimated 3 million kilograms of dust will be produced annually. It is a copper, gold and ore mine that could include radioactive uranium and its decay products, called 'radon gas' and 'radon daughters'. That has been acknowledged in the studies undertaken by the proponents of the mine themselves.

There is a concern that the dust blowing from the mine will affect other farming land and the residents living on the Yorke Peninsula. That is the sort of decision that the South Australian state government is prepared to make. I am also particularly alarmed by the proposal in this bill to hand over the recently gained federal protection of water from significant impacts by coal and coal seam gas mining, better known as 'the water trigger'. This move is a slap in the face to all communities facing the onslaught of coal and coal seam gas mining on their land, affecting their water supplies. Giving away these newly acquired federal powers to act in the national interest to protect water, and by extension farmland, communities and the climate, is nothing but a capitulation to the big miners—the mates of the government.

I have visited the south-east of South Australia and I have spoken with winegrowers and graziers—people the National Party profess to represent—who tell me how concerned they are about their precious and finite water supply. They want their water to be protected from unconventional gas mining. They are concerned that people like the National Party, who profess to stand up for them, are deaf to their concerns when it comes to passing legislation in parliament. Shame!

This bill puts the water trigger in its sights, so I do not support this bill. I do not support this bill, because I care about South Australia. I do not support this bill—because I am a Greens senator and I care about the environment of Australia and I care about future generations. The Australian Greens do not support this bill and we will continue to be strong and resolute in our opposition. We are a voice for the environment and a voice for all those Australians who do know that we need to protect our environment and want to see that environment protected.

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