Image for Abbott’s eco folly will cost us

HEARTACHE from the flooding of Lake Pedder in 1973 by a state government hell bent on development galvanised a global green movement determined to never see destruction of unique, special places happen again.

Many of Tasmania’s biggest environmental conflicts – and victories – such as the Franklin Dam campaign and Tasmania’s world heritage listings, were a result of this new-found determination by conservationists.

Critically, these environmental wins were ultimately delivered by federal government intervention and oversight.

This sparked the creation of federal environmental laws culminating in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and federal environmental assessment processes.

Now the ability of Federal Parliament to protect Tasmania’s wild places is threatened.

Last Friday the Abbott Government announced it will scrap federal environmental oversight, replacing it with its so-called “one stop shop” for development approvals.

Through this decision, together with other recent changes, Abbott is systematically unwinding the entire environmental policy framework put in place by John Howard’s own prime ministership.

As environment minister, Liberal Senator Robert Hill established the protection Act, set up the Natural Heritage Trust and set in train a process for the expansion of marine parks and national parks.

He took the agenda that was agreed at the Rio Earth summit from 1992 by the previous government and implemented it.

Until now that policy framework has been largely untouched by Parliament for a decade or so. A comprehensive review in 2009 by the Rudd government found the Act needed to be strengthened, not weakened.

But unfortunately that review was shelved.

So with the state of Australia’s environment still in decline and a thorough review of the Act pointing to the need to strengthen our environmental laws, why would the Abbott government want to unwind the protections we have? The answer is pretty clear.

Special interests are driving the Government’s agenda, not the public interest.

It has long been on the wish list for big business in this country to unwind environmental protections, which they claim increase their costs and risk profits.

“Red tape” and “green tape” are just pejorative terms applied to important public protections.

The Abbott Government attack on environmental protections is there for all to see.

The cutting of funding to Landcare and the Environmental Defender’s Office are petty and vindictive.

Diverting funding from the Caring for our Country scheme to pay for a “pink batts” witch hunt royal commission is politics at its most callous.

Axing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, a body that actually bolsters the budget, is ideology gone mad.

The ending of the two-tiered (state and federal) environmental approvals process may be the decision that will most greatly affect Tasmania’s natural wonders.

The Greens have staunchly opposed attempts to give environmental powers to the states, believing it is dangerous and short-sighted.

Handing over federal “checks and balances” on precious ecosystems that are owned by all Australians – such as the Great Barrier Reef or Tasmania’s Tarkine rainforests – to revenue-seeking state governments will endanger some of our nation’s most sensitive and wild areas.

Asking state governments to assess environmental effects on their own state-sponsored development is also a clear conflict of interest.

Handing Commonwealth powers to the states, putting the environment at risk, is also a threat to Tasmania’s clean and green brand and our thriving tourism industry. We have the most tourism dependent economy in the country, where 75 per cent of visits are underpinned by the desire to experience our unique wilderness values, especially our World Heritage Areas.

At a recent tourism forum Terri Irwin spoke passionately on why Tasmania needs authentic, life changing tourism experiences built around rare wilderness and wildlife.

Terri Irwin spoke openly about how a future of Tarkine National Park and thriving Tasmanian devil population can deliver those experiences for the benefit of the North-West economy – if they are protected.

In this light I was very disappointed and alarmed to read in the Saturday Mercury that Luke Martin, CEO of the Tourism Industry Council Tasmania, was eagerly backing Abbott’s changes to environmental laws.

The council understands better than anyone the value of Tasmania’s wild places.

This year it officially recognised and thanked the “upriver crew” of Franklin River activists for the important environmental protests in the 1980s that led to the protection of Tasmania’s Franklin River and World Heritage Areas.

Who is Mr Martin speaking for now when he publicly backs Abbott’s extreme agenda, an agenda and policy that in 1983 would have seen the Franklin dammed, no world heritage listing, and a stinking pulp mill in the Tamar Valley.

I urge TICT members – 90 per cent of which are small businesses – not to ignore the lessons of history and how environmental protection has delivered much of our tourism brand and industry success today.

Peter Whish-Wilson is a Tasmanian Greens senator. First published in Mercury, December 26, 2013

• Luke Martin, CEO, Tourism Industry Council Tasmania, Hobart responds ... ( Facebook here )

Australian Greens’ Senator for Tasmania Peter Whish-Wilson has an article in the Mercury today criticising the tourism industry for supporting the Council of Australian Government’s decision this month to establish a bilateral environmental assessment process.

The following response has been submitted to The Mercury as a right of reply:

With such an impressive background in finance and small business, there are many in the Tasmanian community hoping Senator Peter Whish-Wilson might prove to be a different shade of Green politician, and perhaps a bridge between his party and Tasmanian industry.

Unfortunately instead of offering a fresh perspective, the senator’s statements increasingly evoke the same old deep green attitudes and battle lines that no doubt resonate with his own traditional constituency, but do little to address perceptions in the wider community his party is still fundamentally a protest movement.

This is no better demonstrated than his comments this week invoking the Lake Pedder debate of nearly 40 years ago as a compelling reason why the sensible move by the Australian & Tasmanian Governments to establish a single bilateral environmental approval process should be viewed as a serious threat to the Tasmanian environment.

The reforms agreed to by COAG this month were actually initiated by the previous Gillard Government, and deliver changes the Australian tourism industry has been seeking for years to the way proposals for new tourism activity in natural areas are assessed by government.

The reforms do not remove or water down in any way the high environmental standards established under both State and Commonwealth legislation, but should make the process of gaining environmental approval from both levels of government just a little bit simpler and quicker.

We have many examples of Tasmanian tourism operators with great ideas for low-impact, sensible Ecotourism products like standing camps and new tours in our nature areas, unnecessarily delayed because they require both state and commonwealth environmental approval.

These delays cause tremendous frustration and additional cost to usually small business operators with limited resources and support in navigating an inherently complex system.

We have one award winning Tasmanian tourism business operating within a national park that had to wait over 18 months - and go through two rounds of separate approvals in both Hobart and Canberra - to get the tick off to establish a simple, low impact standing camp to expand their business.

Having a single application and assessment process to secure environmental approvals is a sensible example of planning reform, and a practical way to reduce red and green tape to encourage private investment in the parts of Tasmania that most need it.

The premise of Senator Whish-Wilson’s opposition to these reforms seems to be that the Tasmanian Government cannot - or should not - be trusted to manage this single assessment process, citing the Pulp Mill as an example of where it can go wrong if the State is given too much control.

But this is really an emotive argument that ignores the fact these reforms are ultimately an attempt by two levels of government to streamline an administrative approval process, and will not reduce the environmental standards established under legislation.

While it might make good political fodder for Senator Whish-Wilson to make these reforms out to be something more than they are and a broader threat to our natural environment, this is ultimately at the expense of his own credibility with his stakeholders in the industries he claims to support.

If Senator Whish-Wilson does have legitimate concerns about the Tasmanian Government’s process for assessing development applications within Tasmania’s natural areas, he should raise these issues with his own party colleagues sitting within the Tasmanian Government’s Cabinet.