STATE and territory governments in Australia are too inept, tainted by corruption and compromised for anyone to have any confidence in their capacity to make decisions on whether developments are environmentally acceptable. In the 19th century a local stream could be dealt with locally. But now environmental issues are becoming more national and international. Constitutional developments in the way Australia deals with the environment over the past 30 years reflects that.
The world has an interest in atmospheric pollution, species preservation, the preservation of environmentally unique areas and so on. As the world becomes a global village, everyone has an interest in who defecates in the local stream.
In short, as population pressure makes human impact on the natural environment more severe, it is precisely the wrong time to divest decisions about the environment to more local authorities.
And yet, this is precisely where Australia is headed.
At the behest of that well-known guardian of the environment, the Australian Business Council, the Australian Government is about the surrender a great deal of its environmental decision making to those other environmentally sensitive creatures, the state governments. And it is being done through the processes of the Council of Australian Governments – a secretive body far too remote from voters.
It is all being done under the name of reducing “green tape” or cutting the bureaucratic requirements of proponents of development.
Cutting duplication is quite laudable. It is wasteful to have to comply separately with the different requirements of several state governments as well as the federal government and local government if the process could be done in one package – provided that standards and scrutiny are not relaxed.
It can be done. Food is a good example. Until recent decades, states had often inconsistent regulation so that food which complied with one jurisdiction’s requirements (for example, margarine must be in rectangular packages) could not be sold in another (which required circular packages).
Transport is another example. Road, rail and maritime transport has to run a gauntlet or a myriad of state, local and federal regulation, whereas air transport has a single federal regulator.
In general, the inconsistencies between the regulations of the several states causes more “red tape” or “green tape” than any imposition by the central government – provided one defines “red tape” or “green tape” only as unnecessary duplication or unnecessary regulation.
So it is quite reasonable for the Business Council or anyone else to ask for less duplication in bureaucratic requirements.
With food the answer has been obvious: if you satisfy the requirements of one state or territory, you can sell into all states and territories. But that is underpinned by the obvious imperative that no state wants to poison its citizens, so the rule is an ideal vehicle to obviate duplication.
But that cannot work for the environment. Compliance with Queensland requirements, for example, might allow damming of every waterway so that no water flows to NSW or South Australia, which would be an environmental catastrophe. Or some short-sighted NSW Dirty Air and Water Act would attract industry to NSW for some small local gain because it would not have to meet the cost of cleaning emissions. But it would be at the cost of the health of the rest of Australia.
Or some short-sighted policy of allowing industry to fish, farm and do hydro till they drop in one state would destroy nationally significant tourist attractions which benefit the nation (and the world) as a whole in the long term.
The COAG proposition is appalling because under the guise of cutting duplication in the steps to get environmental approval it is handing over to state authorities the scrutiny and final decision on whether a development should get the environmental tick. But history shows that the states have invariably been the backers of environmentally destructive developments.
Tasmania destroyed Lake Pedder (pictured) and was about the destroy the Franklin River because Tasmania would – in the words of its then Premier Robin Gray – run out of electricity by 1990 without it. The prophecy has been proved utterly wrong. The state government was a majority owner of the Tasmania Hydro and was thus hopelessly compromised in making any independent environmental decision as to whether it should dam the Franklin River, the last free-flowing wilderness river in the temperate world.
The Queensland Government would have ripped Fraser Island apart. The Western Australian Government would have hunted whales to local extinction. And so on.
The prospect of a few pennies into state coffers through payroll and other taxes has always been enough for a state government to allow the environment to mashed.
It has only been in the past 30 years – since the Tasmanian Dam case and Commonwealth intervention – that environmental considerations have had a chance against developer greed and state government acquiescence.
In the Tasmanian Dam case, the High Court recognised that the Commonwealth’s foreign-affairs power enabled it to give effect to international treaties on the environment.
I am all in favour of COAG ensuring the streamlining of environmental requirements, so that only one set of environmental reports has to be done for any given development. But the present COAG process could result in state authorities make the ultimate decision as to whether a development complies with environmental values and can go ahead.
Robin Gray’s bureaucrat decides whether the Franklin Dam is environmentally acceptable? Of course, it is.
More recently, should WA Premier Colin Barnett’s WA Environmental Protection Agency decide whether James Price Point, 60 kilometres north of Broome, be pegged out for the world’s biggest liquefied natural gas plant?
No problem. Why would it matter that four out of five members of the EPA board had to rule themselves out because of conflicts of interest with the mining industry? As Barnett has put it: “There is nothing untoward in this. It is unfortunate that the final recommendation had to be handled by a single person, but very experienced – Paul Vogel’s the chairman of the EPA, highly-respected, highly regarded. Now that was unfortunate, but Western Australia’s a relatively small community. You will find people that have connections in history with various companies and projects.”
Not a glimmer of shame or embarrassment that four fifths of WA’s environmental watchdog is so compromisingly linked with the mining industry.
And Barnett unwittingly highlighted the central flaw in allowing the states to have the final say on development – the state’s “relatively small community”. Precisely – local interests will always trump more important national and international concerns.
And in NSW, recent ICAC hearings have revealed links between the family of a former state government minister and the mining industry gaining approval for fracking for gas resources.
Let’s face it. No sensible person could have a jot of confidence in any state government making an independent decision balancing the environment against development.
Yes streamline environmental processes, but let’s not expunge the Commonwealth’s national and international role so hard won over the past 30 years.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 8 December 2012.