BREAKING: THE Abbott government has announced it will push for changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to stop “radical green activists” engaging in “vigilante litigation” to stop major projects such as mines.
A statement from Attorney General George Brandis today said the move was about saving jobs being lost by the ongoing delay to large, controversial projects like the proposed Adani coal mine in Queensland.
The Shenhua Watermark open cut mine in NSW on the Liverpool Plains has also been delayed due to ongoing concerns about irreversible damage to water and environmental assets including from leading farming groups.
But the Attorney General’s statement said Section 487 of the EPBC Act provided a “red carpet for radical activists who have a political, but not a legal interest, in a development to use aggressive litigation tactics to disrupt and sabotage important projects”.
“The activists themselves have declared that that is their objective; to use the courts not for the proper purpose of resolving a dispute between citizens, but for a collateral political purpose of bringing developments to a standstill, and sacrificing the jobs of tens of thousands of Australians in the process,” he said.
“It is now for the federal Labor Party to show that it cares more about jobs than inner-city greens.
“The legislation will be introduced into the Parliament for passage through the House of Representatives later this week.”
The proposed change to the EPBC Act was vigorously debated during question time in the House of Representatives today, as senior ministers accused green groups of using the law to shut down legitimate mining projects at the expense of jobs.
Green groups slam move
But the government’s move was heavily slammed by green groups like the Lock the Gate Alliance and Australian Greens Deputy Leader and climate change spokesperson Larissa Waters.
Senator Waters said the Abbott government’s decision to gut public enforcement of environmental laws was “an attack on democracy and our most important environmental assets”.
“This is a dummy spit from a government that got the law wrong twice and now wants to stop the community from holding government to account,” she said.
“All the Abbott government cares about is keeping its big coal and gas mates happy, leaving Australia’s economy stuck in the past, while the rest of the world races ahead with renewable technology.
“Public enforcement of laws is a crucial tenet of our democracy and Senator Brandis has become the first ever Attorney General who wants less enforcement of the law.”
Yesterday Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the blocking of major projects like the Adani mine was a “serious issue”.
Mr Abbott said there had been “a sustained campaign of harassment through the courts of this proposal”.
“I don't want any development – whether it's a mine or a building or a road – to go ahead if it doesn't meet the highest environmental standards,” he said.
“But once the tests have been applied, once the tests have been passed, the projects must be able to go ahead.
“What we've seen is again and again and again new fronts being opened, all of a sudden new issues being raised after the matter has seemingly been resolved and this is just unfair.
“And let's not forget what's at stake here: it's a $21 billion investment that will create 10,000 jobs in Queensland, in a part of Queensland that has been particularly impacted by the mining downturn.
“This mine will provide power to 100 million Indians who currently don't have power and we all know the difference between life with electrical power and life without electrical power.”
Mr Abbott said he wasn’t saying people should not be able to exercise their legal rights or “for a second criticising the courts”.
“What I am being very critical of is the tactics of some elements of the green movement and their apparent ability to play games and to game the system,” he said.
“That must end.”
Act needs strengthening: Laird
But Lock the Gate’s Phil Laird told Fairfax Media the EPBC Act actually needed to be strengthened not weakened to protect national environmental assets in the national interest, where State governments failed to consider broader impacts.
“We think the Shenhua mine approval has been roundly shown in all aspects of the community to be unacceptable,” he said.
“And we think the EPBC Act should be able to prevent places like the Liverpool Plains being mined.
“These matters should be decided in the federal sphere.
“No one State can really be trusted to make a proper decision for the other States that are affected.”
This week, Mr Laird held talks in Canberra with federal cross-bench Senators and each of the main political parties about his group’s concerns with the way mining approvals are granted under federal laws.
He said the precautionary principle must be applied for managing risks around nationally significant water assets like the Murray Darling Basin and Great Artesian Basin which cross State boundaries.
The Shenhua mine has undergone stringent scientific assessments at both state and federal level - but Mr Laird said he believed it still hadn’t been given the all clear and that the federal minister and governments had “put a spin on it”.
“Scientists will always talk in terms of risk and percentages but no one can say this mine will definitely not impact on the water table and we need to make a decision as a society whether that risk is acceptable,” he said.
Last week, Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb raised concerns about sovereign risks associated with green groups conducting “lawfare” to stifle progress of the $21 billion Adani mine and Shenhua project over several years.
But Mr Laird said “a law has been written and it needs to be upheld”.
“The Environment Minister is not above the law and neither is this project,” he said.
“The idea that getting rid of community appeal rights is somehow going to make better approvals or better projects is just wrong.
“Farming and agriculture - with a lower exchange rate and with the Free Trade Agreements - has a bright future so it’s important that the government sticks to a plan instead of just coming up with this random piece of legislation when they’re under a lot of pressure.
“I just don’t think the community will cop it and people on the Liverpool Plains and people in other parts of the community just won’t cop it.
“They (federal government) just need to get a grip really and understand there’s a rule of law, there’s a separation of powers, there are democratic principles that need to be upheld and political expediency is just not cutting it with the community.”
'Stripping communities of rights'
Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Kelly O’Shanassy said the government’s move was “nothing short of an attempt to strip communities of their right to a healthy environment”.
She said Prime Minister Abbott and the Attorney-General “seem determined to strip Australians of the right to legitimate legal action to protect nature in this country”.
“We’re not engaging in ‘lawfare’, Mr Brandis, we’re demanding fair law,” she said.
“The truth is our national environment law, the EPBC Act, has prompted very little court action.
“While more than 5000 projects have been referred under this law, only 30 have been brought before the court for judicial review.
“So less than half of a per cent of actions that have been referred end up in the courts.
“This move to strip communities’ rights to challenge an approval under our national environmental law favours big polluters over communities and is an attack on people’s rights to clean air, clean water, fertile soil and thriving nature.”