FRAN KELLY: In what will be a significant extension of the Commonwealth’s environmental powers, a Senate committee has given a tick to Labor plans for a new federal water trigger. The plan would mean the Federal Government will have to take into account water use when approving large coal or coal seam gas mining projects. The bill [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013] will be the last major piece of environmental reform by the Gillard Government but, as our Environment Editor, Gregg Borschmann, reports, there are four key amendments proposed by the Greens which will challenge both sides of politics.
GREGG BORSCHMANN: Two months ago, Labor unexpectedly did an about-face on the regulation of water. Responding to rising community angst over big mining and coal seam gas projects, the Government opted for a new water trigger in federal environmental law…
GREGG BORSCHMANN: In 1983, Bob Hawke famously delivered an election for Labor and significantly raised the environmental bar. This is because Labor subsequently won a High Court challenge to its promise to deliver protection to the Franklin River in Tasmania. That decision effectively confirmed an oversight role for the Commonwealth on major environmental issues. It’s been the biggest shift in environmental regulation over recent decades and the Greens now want to ensure that oversight role can’t be handed back to the states, by simply deleting the relevant section of the federal environment act.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’d be very, very concerned and it would show great hypocrisy if the Labor Party were to side with the Greens in voting for that amendment.
GREGG BORSCHMANN: Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Greens have attempted to move bills and amendments of this nature multiple times. The Coalition has consistently opposed them and actually believes that we should make greater use of the approvals powers so that we actually can work more cooperatively with the states.
GREGG BORSCHMANN: So, if Labor sided with the Greens on this one, would that mean the end of the Coalition’s proposed one-stop shop for environmental approval?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, that would be a grave concern.
GREGG BORSCHMANN: And that concern is understandable. The Coalition’s ability to create a one-stop shop for environmental approvals, if it wins office in September, depends almost entirely on section 46(1) of the EPBC Act [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999] and, in another dilemma for the Coalition, the Greens are also proposing an amendment which would give farmers the right to say no to large coal and coal seam gas mining companies.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We’re not inclined to be supporting kneejerk amendments, necessarily, from the crossbenches, from the Greens in particular. A lot of these issues should be sensibly worked through with state governments who, ultimately, have the proper regulatory processes and powers when it comes to planning issues and mining issues.
GREGG BORSCHMANN: The unwillingness of the Coalition to deliver on promises to say no has antagonised the New South Wales Farmers’ Association. President Fiona Simson says a bipartisan approach is what farmers and the wider community would like to see.
FIONA SIMSON: They don’t want politics. They’re not interested in the politics of it. They just want the outcome and the Coalition has been speaking up their concern about agricultural land and water but, when it comes to the point where somebody else is putting up a good idea, they won’t support it.
GREGG BORSCHMANN: But Senator Birmingham hints that the Coalition will support the substantive bill which creates the federal water trigger.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Our approach is certainly one of wanting to facilitate sensible regulation of the coal seam gas industry, recognising the community concerns that do exist.
FRAN KELLY: … I should have said this will be the last major piece of environmental reform for this Parliament because, of course, Parliament will rise at the end of June and the writs will be issued for the election after that and then we’ll see what happens after that.