Australian Groups Protest Business ‘Attack’ on Environmental Laws

CANBERRA, Australia, June 5, 2012 (ENS) – In a united front on World Environment Day, environmental groups across Australia are challenging what they call “an unprecedented attack on Australia’s environmental laws” that would shift approval for industrial development from the federal to state governments.

Twenty environmental groups today released a joint communique developed at a national summit of environmental groups held on May 17. It objects objects to plans agreed by the Council of Australian Governments, COAG, and the newly formed Business Advisory Forum.

“We feel that establishment of the COAG Business Advisory Forum is an unprecedented and inappropriate form of privileged access for the business sector,” the groups said in a statement. “We call on the Prime Minister, as the Chair of COAG, to rectify this inequity immediately by establishing a parallel COAG forum for key representatives of civil society.”

One of many open cut coal mines in the Hunter Valley, state of New South Wales, Australia, April 2012 (Photo by vldschmidt1)

“Environmental laws safeguard our way of life. They protect our land and wildlife, and ensure that our air and water are not polluted by destructive development,” said Michael Kennedy, director of Humane Society International. “But big business has convinced the federal government to wind back environmental protection by allowing state governments to have the final say on more development proposals. This is quite simply unacceptable.”

The groups are reacting to the plan to slash environmental regulations agreed at the inaugural meeting of the COAG Business Advisory Forum on April 12. Chaired by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the meeting was attended by premiers and chief ministers, business CEOs and executives.

The governments agreed to develop state accreditation of assessments and approvals for major development projects, to fast-track accreditation, and to establish taskforces to facilitate removal of unnecessary duplication and reduce business costs.

“From discussions today, our ambitions are clear,” said the Forum in a statement, “streamlined environmental regulation that delivers strong environmental outcomes and better conditions for business.”

“The Commonwealth will maintain its capacity for a final approvals responsibility for World Heritage and high risk projects, with a framework to assess risk to be agreed between the Commonwealth and States, including on a bilateral basis,” the Forum said.

Protesting the environmental policies of the state government of Victoria, thousands of people marched backwards from Parliament House, November 13, 2011 (Photo by Environment Victoria)

“This state-based approach won’t work,” said Pepe Clarke, CEO of the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales. “Nationally significant environmental assets must be protected at a national level. We know from long experience that state governments do not assess development proposals with the national interest in mind.”

Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Don Henry said handing federal approval powers to the states would set environmental protection back by decades.

“Time and time again, federal governments have had to step in to save our national icons from short-sighted state ambition. That’s why the Great Barrier Reef isn’t scarred with oil rigs, the Franklin River is still flowing freely in Tasmania and Victoria’s Alpine National Park isn’t being trampled by cattle,” said Henry.

“We need the Commonwealth to increase protection for Australia’s unique natural places, not leave these decisions solely up to the states,” Clarke said.

To limit greenhouse gas emissions, the Gillard Government has set a price on carbon to take effect on July 1. The carbon tax will be in place for three to five years before a full emissions trading scheme is introduced.

With this in mind, the COAG Business Advisory Forum urged that the ongoing review of “unnecessary carbon reduction and energy efficiency schemes” be placed on a faster track “to remove policies and programs that are not complementary to the national carbon price and may be ineffective, inefficient or impose duplicative reporting requirements on business.”

The endangered swift parrot, Lathamus discolor, breeds in the state of Tasmania and migrates to southeastern Australia. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia)

The groups said jointly, “We reject the notion that the problem we face is duplication and red/green tape. The problem we face is the highest mammal extinction rate in the world, the worst per capita rate of carbon emissions in the world, contaminated rivers and water, clearing of forests and bush, declining soils, overfishing and a host of bad decisions made every day all over Australia that benefit the few.”

Every five years the federal government produces a national State of the Environment Report. “Every report says we are going backwards. Our environmental laws need strengthening and increased funding to combat these threats, not gutting,” the groups warned.

BirdLife Australia CEO Graeme Hamilton said Australians would not stand for big business influence over government, nor for weak Commonwealth responses to the protection of their environment.

“This is not just an attack on the environment; it is an attack on democracy. Big business and industry have successfully lobbied behind closed doors to ensure the weakening of our environment laws,” said Dr. Hamilton.

“A healthy environment is essential to the Australian way of life. We need stronger environmental laws, not weaker ones,” Dr. Hamilton said. “Today we call on all Australians that value clean air, clean water and wild places to contact their federal member of parliament to demand protection for our environmental laws.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.