CAFNEC gave evidence yesterday (5th February 2015) to a public hearing in Cairns, on the Inquiry into Certain Aspects of Queensland Government Administration Related to Commonwealth Government Affairs. The Australian Conservation Foundation, Environmental Defenders Office and Mackay Conservation group also participated in the public hearing, giving evidence on a range of issues.

The opening statement provided by CAFNEC follows.

Cairns and Far North Environment Centre opening statement to the Select Committee at the Cairns public hearing 5th February 2015

CAFNEC provided some key concerns in its submission to the inquiry. In brief these are:

  • CAFNEC hold a high level of concern on the LNP Queensland government administration with relation to weakening of environmental laws and processes that have occurred over the past three years.
  • CAFNEC also holds the firm view that no State Government should have sole rights to make decisions on matters of national and international environmental significance.
  • 1(d) That proposals for port expansion along the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, directly contravene Australia’s duty to protect and conserve natural and cultural heritage for current and future generations.
  • 1(e) That the draft bilateral agreement under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) will accredit the Queensland Government with decision-making that lacks the necessary independence to ensure the intent of the EPBC Act is upheld.

As opposed to most State Government legislation, the EPBC Act is for the protection of the environment and the conservation of biodiversity – national and international.  To maintain the appropriate balance between the State and Federal legislative objectives, approvals be should not be granted under the same process.

Key issues that demonstrate and/or underpin these concerns are:

Australia’s obligations under international law including, for example:

  • protection of the two World Heritage listed sites in Far North Queensland – the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and the Wet Tropics;
  • Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species; and
  • Convention on Biological Diversity.

With regard to the GBR World Heritage Area, assessments by both the State and Commonwealth governments (Strategic Assessments and Reef Report Cards) have shown declining Reef health. More should be done to protect the Reef, rather than reducing environmental protection.

In the past three years Qld has reduced environmental protection by, for example:

  • changes to the Vegetation Management Act 1999, that provide for exemptions and self-assessable codes to remove native vegetation;
  • changes to the Water Act 2000 that remove protection for riparian vegetation; and
  • changes to the Nature Conservation Act 1992 that allow increased take of protected plants and expand uses of national parks.

The push in Qld for large scale developments, together with weakening of these laws, can lead to significant cumulative impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity. This includes: impacts on the GBR through land clearing and subsequent run-off; impacts on climate change; and reduced resilience of ecosystems to deal with climate change.

The State government has significantly slashed its environmental assessment workforce. It has also decoupled the assessment process from key legislation through the one-stop-shop state assessment and referral process. Under this process, qualified environmental assessment officers in many cases can now only provide advice, with the Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, providing conditions and approvals. The Queensland Coordinator-General is the key approvals decision-maker within the framework of promoting development in Qld.

Under the proposed bilateral agreement, the Coordinator General would be responsible for assessing the matters of national environmental significance under the EPBC Act. This is clearly not an impartial process.

In a number of the development proposals that fall under EPBC referral, there will also be strong State interests (such as with regard to royalties from Coal Seam Gas mining), and in some cases State owned corporations (such as for port development).

The proposal for the delegation of powers to the State is totally inappropriate, no matter which party holds Queensland Government; the responsibilities under the EPBC Act need to remain with the Commonwealth.

Angelika Ziehrl, Director CAFNEC