Have you noticed how Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has been strangely silent on the government’s push to change national environmental law to curtail communities’ ability to bring legal action when he fucks up?
There’s a reason for that.
It’s not because George Brandis is our nation’s ‘top legal officer’… It’s because the source of all the trouble that’s been making headlines is Greg Hunt’s failure to do his job properly.
Brandis has only come to the rescue over Hunt’s bungled approval of Australia’s largest ever coal mine — Adani’s Carmichael mine — because the government is desperately seeking out some talking points as it tumbles, mammoth-like, into the tar pit of politics.
The Federal Court rescinded Hunt’s approval last week, and the government’s response smacks of sour grapes and stale port.
Announcing the government’s newfound issue with the Howard-era law, Brandis said yesterday that “it is now for the federal Labor Party to show that it cares more about jobs than inner-city greens”.
Brandis didn’t mention the unravelling Royal Commission into Trade Unions, marriage equality, or the nation’s pissweak climate change targets, but that’s what this is really all about.
The Australia Institute has crunched the numbers and found that since the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act commenced in July 2000 approximately 5,500 projects have been through the approvals process.
Just 33 have been taken to the Federal Court by third parties. That’s about 0.6 percent of them.
In short, “the hysteria being whipped up by the current government is completely out of whack with the reality,” as Glen Klatovsky, representing a coalition of 42 leading Australian environmental groups, said.
Further proof that this is a desperate and not particularly clever wedge can be found in the fact that the Australian Network of Environmental Defenders Offices, which brings most of these cases in the Federal Court, has not had a single action thrown out as frivolous or vexatious in at least the last five years.
We know that because it was noted in a Productivity Commissions report on access to justice, which recommended the funding the Abbott Government snatched from the EDOs on taking office be reinstated.
It’s worth noting (and acknowledging, as former Howard minister Philip Ruddock reportedly did this week) the safety valve built into the system: if an EDO does run a frivolous case, it risks having costs awarded against it by the courts.
Labor appears to have broken with recent tradition and smelt the rat, with Shadow Environment Minister Mark Butler tweeting yesterday that “Labor won’t support weakening environmental protections or limiting a community’s right to challenge government decisions”.
Neither will the Greens, neither, it seems, will independent Senator Glen Lazarus, and another key crossbencher, Nick Xenophon, is unlikely to support the change either.
Because that’s exactly what the government’s proposing — to take away the communities’ right to challenge the minister when he doesn’t do his job properly. Court documents show that the approval for Carmichael mine was rescinded “by consent” of the government, which didn’t go to trial, because Hunt had failed to consider advice relating to two threatened species.
According to the Department of Environment the approval can be re-issued within two months, so given Adani’s mine hasn’t got its state approval yet, or the necessary financial backers, it’s hardly the mortal blow the government's making it out to be.
Nonetheless, Brandis claims that green groups’ so-called “lawfare” is “sacrificing the jobs of tens of thousands of Australians” and the government, which is presiding over record high unemployment, will fight to protect them.
This morning Michael Roche, the Chief Executive Officer of the Queensland Minerals Council, painted ABC radio a picture of Townsville in “despair”, struck by the ability of all Australians to access the law.
“[The law] is extremely broad about who’s given standing so it gives every Australian citizen or organisation, whoever feels they’re aggrieved, [the ability to bring a case]as long as they’ve had some involvement in the environment over the last few years,” Roche complained.
How outrageous. Ordinarily, average citizens with a right to be heard on a matter that affects them. Damned democracy.
Brandis has described this as a “red carpet” for cashed up activists trying to bring down innocent mining companies, and yesterday the Prime Minister spoke out about the loss of jobs, jobs, jobs afflicting places like Townsville and the punters in general.
“This is a $20 billion investment. This is a project that will create 10,000 jobs,” Abbott said.
If only it were true.
The proposed mine is a $16.5 billion project – the last time I checked $3.5 billion is not small change, particularly in an era when the ‘Age of Entitlement’ has apparently ended, and the government’s debt is at record levels.
Add to that the reality that Adani’s own expert witness testified in court the project would create just 1,500 jobs, and the Prime Minister’s comments reeks of deceit, desperation and politics.
What Abbott also neglected to mention is that the Queensland Treasury warned the previous Liberal government the project may not even be bankable. This, along with its extreme environmental footprint, is why 11 major international banks have ruled out financing it, and why the fallen Newman government was preparing to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to subsidise it.
Reading straight from the government’s playbook —or more probably the other way around — Roche hit out at the Labor Party this morning asking “what is the Opposition prepared to do if it’s not prepared to back the government [position]?”
“That’s the real question for Bill Shorten, Mark Butler [and]Gary Gray,” he said. And it absolutely is.
If the Opposition’s prepared to find its spine and call bullshit, the government will be left exposed to another protracted bout of horse trading with the crossbench, something it’s proved startlingly ineffective at so far.
Brandis will need to find 6 crossbench votes out of a possible 7 (if you don’t count Lazarus) to push the reform through, and although he’s said the government will introduce a Bill to the House of Reps this week, it will take time to negotiate that support.
If Labor, the Greens, and Lazarus band together to point out what a sensational dummy spit this has been, and refocus the electorate on the very real issues plaguing a government with no agenda and rumbling leadership woes, it’s likely this ‘reform’ will end up on the scrap head along with university deregulation, the government’s industrial relations agenda, the Medicare co-payment, and all the other refuse of a government in free fall.
Good government starts when?
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