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Kelvin Thomson objects to motion to disempower environmental groups

This article contains a speech by Kelvin Thomson, critical of a motion to change environmental law by George Christensen, Member for Dawson, Queensland. Monday, 8 February 2016, House of Representatives, Chamber Speech, page 22 Hansard proofs.

KELVIN THOMSON I do not support this motion by the member for Dawson. The environmental law is there to protect the environment and to protect endangered species. The member for Dawson's own party brought it in. All environmental groups ask is that mining companies, agribusiness and so on do not break the law, just as environment groups and ordinary citizens are expected to abide by the law.
If companies abide by the law, there is no issue. All the provisions that the member for Dawson complains about do is give people a right to take action if the environment law is not being complied with. The implication in the member for Dawson's motion is that mining and other companies should not have to comply with the environmental law—that they should be able to break it with impunity.

The member for Dawson may not care about the black throated finch, but I do. It is a beautiful little bird. We should not push it to the edge of extinction in our quest for ever-increasing material wealth. Mining booms come and go but black throated finches do not. If the black throated finch becomes extinct, there is no way to bring it back. We have the EPBC Act precisely because we have learnt from the mistakes of the past and we should support it and strengthen it, not undermine and white-ant it.

Since being passed by the Howard government 16 years ago the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act has been the overriding national environmental protection law, including throughout the mining boom, and environment groups are required to operate within this law. Since the act commenced in the year 2000 there have been approximately 5,500 projects referred to the minister under the environmental impact assessment provisions. Of those projects around 1,500 have been assessed as requiring formal assessment and approval.

Around 33 actions have been commenced in the Federal Court by third parties in relation to the EPBC Act's environmental impact assessment process. The proceedings taken by third parties have related to only 22 projects that had been referred under the environmental impact assessment process, so this means that third-party appeals to the Federal Court affected only 0.4 of one per cent of all projects referred under the legislation.

Environmental advocacy is in the public interest. Environmental advocacy enhances environmental decision making and accountability and drives policy reform to protect the environment. The Australia Institute conducted national polling and found that 68 per cent of Australians support environmental advocacy. While 27 per cent said environmental groups had too much influence in public debates, 34 per cent said they had not enough influence.
By contrast, most people—62 per cent—said big business and 58 per cent said mining companies had too much influence.
While six in 10 Australians are concerned that big business and mining companies have too much influence, the coalition enthusiastically promotes them and even encourages them to become political activists and fight government policy. In the last five years the mining industry has spent $340 million on lobby groups and more on registered lobbyists and in-house lobbyists. The government is arguing to silence environmental activists while on the other hand it wants industry lobbyists to become activists—the irony, the double standard!

Section 487 was designed to address issues of standing, a legal term that broadly means an individual's or group's right to challenge an approval on the basis that they are either affected by it or have a special interest in the outcome. It does not provide for open standing, whereby anyone can bring an action for review, but it does authorise representative standing in which groups can act on behalf of an affected community. This is a crucial component of a national environmental act that seeks to promote rigorous and effective environmental review for approvals that, potentially, affect matters of national environmental significance, such as the development of Queensland's Galilee Basin coal deposits.

Removing section 487 will stop environmental groups from acting on behalf of affected communities and performing their important function as a watchdog. As The Australia Institute has highlighted, advocacy is essential for a well-functioning democracy, providing for those most affected by government decisions to be involved in policy formation, helping keep government accountable to the wider community and counterbalancing the influence of corporate organisations over government decision making.

Robust environmental review by focused, engaged, representative organisations, like the Mackay Conservation Group and the Australian Conservation Foundation, has never been more important. Rolling back the legal provisions that allow this to happen would be a backward step.

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