"The Government-Democrat deal on new national environment laws expected to be guillotined through the Senate today is fundamentally flawed… It would still be possible as a matter of law for a State Government to approve a Franklin Dam or a sand mine on Fraser Island…"
Professor Rob Fowler, Director of the Australian Centre for Environmental Law, 23 June 1999.
On 22nd and 23rd of June, the Democrats combined with the Howard Government to radically change Australia’s environment laws. They forced a Bill with 440 new amendments through the Senate by "guillotining" debate. The deal was condemned by Australia's major environment groups – the Wilderness Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace. It was described by Australia’s foremost expert on environment law, Professor Rob Fowler, as "fundamentally flawed".
The deal allows our national Government to ignore the three biggest national environmental issues - Greenhouse, landclearing and forests - and to hand its environmental responsibilities to the states.
This sell-out of the environment comes hard on the heels of the Democrat-Government deal on the GST, whose $3000-million-per-annum tax-cuts on fuel will exacerbate Australia’s contribution to pollution and global warming.
The 440 amendments to the 430-page Bill were unveiled on Tuesday 22 June. By Wednesday evening they had been rammed through the Senate, with no opportunity for community consultation or parliamentary scrutiny.
The Democrats blocked deferring the Bill until August. They joined the Coalition to vote down a Greens motion for deferral and instead voted to gag debate. Senator Harradine and Labor joined the Greens to vote for deferral. If the Democrats had done the same, we would have won a crucial reprieve for Australia’s environment. The Greens’ amendment would have bought time to fight for laws requiring the national government to tackle problems like Greenhouse, forest destruction, land clearing, waste and pollution.
The Act establishes a number of "triggers" for involvement of our national government in conservation issues. Those triggers are called matters of National Environmental Significance and are World Heritage, wetlands, threatened species and communities, migratory species, some nuclear issues and some marine issues. Everything else is left to the states.
At the same time the three biggest national environmental issues are left out: Greenhouse, landclearing and forests (the Act entrenches the notorious Regional Forest Agreements). Also left out were most fisheries, pollution, water allocation and nuclear wastes.
The Act sets up a process for negotiating "bilateral agreements" and management plans. This will result in federal-state deals (like Regional Forest Agreements) covering all of the above environmental issues. Many of these will be negotiated over the next year. They can apply for five years, during which time a national government will be powerless to protect the environment in areas where the agreement applies.
The deal has been strongly criticised by the Wilderness Society, Greenpeace, the ACF and other conservation groups. A handful of groups (WWF, Humane Society International, Queensland Conservation Council and the Tasmanian Conservation Trust) secretly negotiated the deal with the Democrats and Government and supported the use of the guillotine to gag debate. But even they concede that the deal falls well short of the mark on issues like forests, land-clearing, fisheries, Greenhouse and Commonwealth funding. The TCT, for example, admits to being "very nervous" about the new arrangements.
The Democrats have claimed that they won 85% of what the major conservation groups wanted – this is a statistical misrepresentation. Dozens of minor amendments were agreed by the Government and Democrats, but most could be described as bureaucratic trivia. The half dozen crucial amendments sought by conservation groups were not delivered, such as adding issues like Commonwealth funding, Greenhouse, land-clearing and forests as matters of National Environmental Significance; and stopping the handing of national powers to the states.
It might be a little better than the Howard Government’s initial ambit claim, but it’s much worse than the current situation. And future greener governments could be stuck with this legislation for years to come. Five-year bilateral agreements negotiated over the next year could last for two more terms of government. During this time, we will see increased woodchipping, land-clearing and emissions of Greenhouse gases. We could even see the establishment of new nuclear facilities without the involvement of the federal government.
The Democrat empowered Howard Government has a lot to answer for.