Attacks by the Northern Territory government on a local community group trying to protect the environment damage everyones, writes Anna Boustead.
The Northern Territory’s environmental credentials have been widely scrutinised lately as reports emerged that a new oil and gas port had been built on the pristine Tiwi Islands without environmental impact assessment and that an environmental disaster was unfolding at McArthur River mine.
All this in a jurisdiction with no climate change policy, no renewable energy targets, scant water policy and no conservation plan embedded in its proposals to ‘develop the north’.
The NT Government has slated the creation of large industrial areas in the Darwin region, locking in dependence on fossil fuels rather than solar and new dams across the Top End over the next 50 years.
It is currently handing out very large groundwater licences from the Daly and Roper regions without any water plan in place, in a policy it calls ‘first in, first served’.
On balance, Chief Minister Adam Giles’ Government has few detailed environmental policies other than its slogan of ‘balanced environment’, guidelines for the onshore gas industry and a discussion paper on water management.
Our Treasurer and Minister responsible for Mines and Energy and Planning, Dave Tollner, has not helped the Territory’s poor reputation for managing environmental impacts by calling independent community environment group Environment Centre NT, of which I am the Acting Director, a “nonsense organisation” and a “politically tainted organisation”.
Mr Tollner’s extraordinary comments were made in response to a question in Parliament this week by the Leader of the Opposition, asking why he had cut funds to the community group PLAN.
“When it comes to PLAN,” Minister Tollner said, “I also note last year we ceased funding the Environment Centre in the Northern Territory, because they are a nonsense organisation”.
“They are not about protecting the environment or environmental outcomes, they have done nothing but become a tainted political organisation. I can understand why those opposite are supportive of those groups, because they are out there doing your bidding.”
The Environment Centre NT www.ecnt.org.au is a non-partisan community group, made up of over 300 members and many thousands of supporters who wish to see the Territory’s outstanding natural and cultural places protected and managed for future generations.
We do not take any political sides, but we do unashamedly advocate for better environmental policies and practices.
Tollner’s comments were made on the same day the minister confronted a rally outside parliament, organised by Frack-Free NT, during which community members, including members of Environment Centre NT, voiced their opposition to the NT Government’s unbridled support of shale gas fracking.
This latest attack follows a radio interview in June last year when Minister Tollner called the Environment Centre a “pack of greenie lefties” who opposed everything except for “tofu” when on air with Stuart Blanch on Mix FM’s 360 program.
Minister Tollner’s comments affirm our suspicions that a partisan and uninformed decision by the NT Government led to total funding cuts of $185,000 to the Environment Centre by the NT Environmental Protection Authority this year.
The Environment Centre was formally advised that the reason behind the decision to cut the operational funds was that the NTEPA had decided to use its grants program to fund projects, rather than community organisations.
As an independent body responsible for overseeing environmental impact assessment, the NTEPA is supposed to be at arms-length from the NT Government and its politics.
The Environment Centre takes great pride in its evidence-based approach to all of its projects, campaigns and programs. Together with our members and supporters, we are working with householders to reduce their environmental impact. We are working with the Mirarr people of Kakadu to raise the broader community’s awareness of the risks of uranium mining, and with people of the Daly and Roper regions to advocate for better water management practices.
Characterising community members so negatively, as Minister Tollner did, is not a response worthy of a minister elected to govern for all Territorians.
This language is reminiscent of Tony Abbott’s comments referring to anti-coal protests as “sabotage” and Attorney-General George Brandis referring to a successful Supreme Court action brought by the Mackay Conservation Group as “lawfare”. The Supreme Court found the Minister for Environment, Greg Hunt, had failed in his duty to consider the impact of the proposed Carmichael coal project upon threatened species.
In response, the Abbott-led government immediately sought to take away any community group’s legal right to object to potentially damaging developments under the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act by removing our legal standing under that Act.
Earlier this year, the Federal Government focused on how it could justify removing the tax deductibility status of environmental groups by initiating a politically-motivated inquiry into the deductible gift status of environment groups.
And this came after a decision by the Abbott Government to entirely cut the Grants for Voluntary Environmental and Heritage Organisations scheme, which funded many environment groups around Australia, including the Environment Centre NT and the Arid Lands Environment Centre.
These short-sighted attacks by our politicians and governments upon the community and the environment must stop.
We hope that under the leadership of our new Prime Minister, governments will take a far more considered and responsible approach to decisions impacting upon the environment and our children’s future.
Despite total government funding cuts, our supporters have raised over $150,000 to keep our doors open. We are standing up where we see that important ecological, cultural and social values are under threat. We have collective expertise in community engagement, energy efficiency, project management, environmental policy, environmental science and community development.
It is in politicians’ and governments’ interests to be respectful and open to the advice of community groups. This makes for better policies and better decisions which consider the needs of future generations, protect the environment from inappropriate types of development, and promote the Territory’s incredible natural and cultural values.
Rather than attack us, our leaders and representatives in parliament should listen to what we have to say.
* Anna Boustead is the Acting Director of the Environment Centre NT.
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