Politics

Shock and Ore

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The Brisbane River undulates like a muddy snake through the heart of the state capital – a murky brown from dawn to dusk, by night a glittering jewel reflecting the lights of the city skyscrapers in its opaque depths.  As it winds around the cliffs of Kangaroo Point, past the dry docks that mark the start of Southbank’s parklands, and rushes towards Victoria Bridge the Queensland parliament is there on the right, buffered by mangrove swamp and 1970s freeway.

This stretch of the river up to the Grey Street Bridge, takes in some of the most enduring physical markers of Joh Bjelke Petersen’s National Party rule in the Sunshine State.  There’s the brutalist concrete architecture of the performing arts complex, state library and museum. The hardened city arteries of the Riverside Expressway, and the imposing tower of the parliament, built to house during sitting weeks the travelling MPs from far-flung corners.  The Goss Labor Government’s fingerprints are here too – all over Southbank, where toddlers frolic in man-made waterways.

Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh brought to these parts the Gallery of Modern Art with its wood and glass façade, redevelopment of the arts precinct softening some of the harder edges of the Bjelke Petersen structures, and a bus freeway into the heart of the CBD. Queensland Premiers like to leave their mark on this little patch.

Campbell Newman had a head start.

He arrived in state parliament having previously worn the mayoral robes of Brisbane, Australia’s third-largest city and its largest municipality, sprawling as it does across 770 square kilometres of the state’s southeast coast. In his eight years as mayor Newman oversaw construction of, among other things, the $328 million Go Between bridge, which connects the south and north-west banks of the Brisbane river, and the controversial $3 billion Clem Jones motorway between Woolloongabba and Bowen Hills (south-side to north-side, bypassing town).

City residents may be lukewarm about the Go-Between, and even bitter about the Clem 7, which is now in receivership. But for Newman, infrastructure projects are key markers of economic and political success.

Now, however, some Queenslanders are beginning to wonder about the cost of Newman’s nakedly pro-development stance.

In the space of eight months, his government has set a staggering pace for pro-development reform, all while aggressively pursuing the power to do even more.

One of Newman’s first acts as Premier was to push the Commonwealth to cede power to the states for environmental approvals and management. Presently, the federal government has to sign off on development in areas designated as having “national environmental significance”. However, supported by business, Australia’s conservative state leaders — Newman and his counterparts in Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria — wanted the Labor federal government to hand over control. (The federal government has since backed away from the changes and will retain oversight powers.)

Newman has offered a glimpse of how he, given greater control, would steward Queensland’s areas of natural beauty. For example, he has publicly lobbied for development in the fragile Great Barrier Reef area, for which there are about 45 development proposals in the pipeline. And dredging work in the Gladstone area, which has already led to changes in environmental standards, is supported by the state government.

It’s exactly this kind of development that the guardians of world heritage at UNESCO have asked the government to delay.

So concerned is UNESCO about Australia’s treatment of the reef, both at a state and federal level, that the international body issued a warning in June that the reef would be “danger listed” as a world heritage site in peril, unless Australia could ensure better supervision of the site.

Newman’s response? “We are in the coal business,” he told reporters. “If you want decent hospitals, schools, and police on the beat, we all need to understand that.”

This logic underpins the myriad, broad regulatory changes Newman’s government has earmarked or already enacted. The structure of the departments that deal in environmental issues — from mining, to fisheries, to national parks, and planning approvals — has been radically overhauled. Newman declares these moves are being made to eliminate so-called green tape — bureaucracy that, according to the state government, has stood in the way of a healthy economy.

Soon after the Liberal National Party assumed government, Newman appointed Liberal former federal treasurer Peter Costello to audit Queensland finances. To the surprise of few, Costello’s report found Queensland mired in debt and in a precarious economic state. The report paved the way for Newman’s service cuts and job-shedding policies. (The report was later reviewed — both independently, by University of Queensland economist John Quiggan, and by University of Sydney professor Bob Walker, on behalf of the Queensland Council of Unions — and heavily criticised as politically skewed.)

What’s driving the Queensland government is a commitment to the “four pillar” economy. The four pillars are tourism, agriculture, resources and construction — and LNP policy specifically advocates for a removal of impediments — tape of any colour or stripe — that may stifle them.

One key plank of the administration’s plan to achieve these goals is the Greentape Reduction Act (2012), that is intended to streamline environmental regulation so that development applications don’t languish in bureaucratic approval processes for months or even years. The bill was passed on July 31, but will not take effect until March, 2013. And it is by no means the only word on the subject from the new Queensland government. Other reforms have simply removed environmental protections, clearing the way for increased development of the state.

Newman’s administration has:

– Dismantled all carbon abatement and climate change schemes — including research into clean energy and programs that encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint — when it eliminated the Office of Climate Change.

– Pulled state government support from the $1.2 billion Solar Dawn solar research and power plant — which was destined to be the largest in the world and would have given Queensland a clear path to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

–  Eliminated more than 1,400 jobs across government departments dealing with environmental concerns, as part of a plan announced in the September budget to shed a total 14,000 positions across the Queensland public service through redundancy and “natural attrition”.

– Announced that it would roll back the Wild Rivers legislation that protects areas from development and mining in the Cape York and Western Rivers areas — despite a pre-election promise to leave the western rivers alone.

– Flagged changes to the enforcement of the Vegetation Management Act which regulates how and when landholders can clear native vegetation.

– Lifted the ban on shooting flying foxes, despite the endangered status of some species.

– Proposed changes to the management of national parks that would open them up to tourism, allowing more access for 4WDs, horses and bikes in some areas.

– Announced plans to remove the South-East Queensland urban footprint, which determines the density of development in the region, a planning tool conservationists say protects koala habitat and safeguards biodiversity.

– Prioritised development in the Great Barrier Reef area, with plans to approve projects that UNESCO has asked the government to delay, given the condition of the reef.

In total, such changes have led critics to say the government has put development first and the environment last.

“Whatever the rule book was beforehand, it’s now open slather,” says one former Department of Environment and Resource Management employee, who now works with government in the private sector and therefore wants to remain anonymous.

“[Under the previous Labor government] the environment was an important part of the decision-making process. You couldn’t just go and do whatever you wanted without giving thought to how it impacts on the environment … Under this government they’re just freeing it up so you don’t have to think about it.

“They are just going to town on everything — any piece of environmental legislation.’’

Before the Liberal National Party government came to power, environmental policy was under one umbrella: water, natural resources, national parks, forestry and the environment were part of the Department of Environment and Resource Management.

Now, Queensland has departments of Environmental Protection and Heritage, Resource Management and Mines, Energy and Water Supply, Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and National Parks, Recreation, Sport and Racing.

There’s also the department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, which regulates big projects that impact upon those portfolios.

“From an environmental point of view, we needed to deal with principally one agency and now we have to deal with six,” says Toby Hutcheon, executive director of the Queensland Conservation Council.

In a press conference after his election, Newman said the changes would “create a department with a stronger focus on environment” and that he wanted to be able to speed up mining and development approvals.

Des Boyland, of Wildlife Queensland, says moving responsibility for national parks is particularly worrying. “Having national parks in with recreation, sport and racing just goes to show a complete lack of understanding of what national parks are for,’’ he says. “There’s no question tourism has a place in national parks, but it must remain secondary to the cardinal principle of biodiversity.’’

But Newman’s government wants them together. In November, National Parks, Recreation, Sport and Racing minister Steven Dickson announced legislative changes to boost tourism in national parks. “These promised changes will deliver on our DestinationQ commitments, enabling Queensland’s struggling eco-tourism industry to become a major contributor to the state’s economy,” he said in a statement.

The Office of Climate Change was headed by Greg Withers, who is married to the former Labor premier Anna Bligh; the office was disbanded in May, with staff offered redundancy or reassignment. A spokesman for Environment and Heritage Minister Andrew Powell said 16 of some 30 to 40 staff took redundancies, the rest were reassigned within the public service. (A report in The Courier Mail puts the number at closer to 70.) The state government says the office was not needed because the relevant federal government department would handle climate change issues. “The [federal government’s] Department of Environment and Heritage Protection has created a climate adaptation strategy unit, to progress climate adaptation policies for Queensland,” Powell’s spokesman said.

The state government has also made redundant 30 inspectors, whose role was to carry out compliance checks on resource and development projects with environmental conditions attached. The government wants staff who previously worked in office jobs to pick up those duties. “[The government] will be able to do this with its current workforce by streamlining its assessment and approval process, reducing the amount of time staff spend in the office doing paperwork and getting them out on site where they can make the biggest difference to maintaining environmental standards,” Powell’s spokesman said.

Such changes to the public service have caused much confusion among staff left behind in departments that deal with environmental oversight. The Queensland ombudsman, Phil Clarke, released a report on September 26 that found streamlined government processes designed to ensure consistent, expert advice when making environmental assessments were no longer working properly.

“The [Coordinated Assessment Committee] was created to ensure consistency in decision-making between different [Environmental Protection Agency] officers. [Department of Environment and Heritage Protection] officers have reported that the operation of the CAC is under review due to the departure of the experienced officers who used to form the CAC. One officer reported to the investigators, ‘all the experts we used to rely on aren’t there anymore’. At the time of conducting interviews with agency officers, a single officer was responsible for making decisions previously made by the CAC,” the report says.

Boyland backs up the ombudsman’s findings: “Some of the people they’ve lost — a wealth of knowledge will walk out the door with them, and maybe that’s what this government wanted, but you don’t want to then make the mistakes of the past.”

Michael Berkman was an adviser in the now-disbanded Office of Climate Change. He is one of those who took redundancy after the LNP came to power. He now works at the Environmental Defenders Office. Berkman says the speed with which the restructure happened surprised many staff.

“I get the sense, as someone now on the outside looking in, that it’s a pretty chaotic reform process that’s underway, simply because such a broad range of issues are being pushed through at the same time,” Berkman says.

“It’s just staggering the amount of reform that’s being pushed through… You get a general sense that the primary objectives that [the government is pursuing] through this reform agenda aren’t necessarily environmental objectives,” he says.

Another former staffer who asked to remain anonymous says those remaining in the job are “extremely overworked”.

“The morale is really low because they’ve been told that whatever they’ve been doing for their previous career is bullshit… and the rules are changing so fast that you don’t really know what they are.”

The Queensland government says the changes are designed to boost development and investment in the state.

In August, when the temporary state planning policy ‘Planning for Prosperity’ was released, it caught the eye of Australian Conservation Foundation president Ian Lowewho wrote for online journal, The Conversation, on September 13 that the state had taken a “Great Leap Backwards: [to] an old-fashioned determination not to let environmental concerns get in the way of expanding the mining industry in general and the coal industry in particular”.

The policy — outlining a simplified development- and planning-approval process — was trumpeted by Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney in August as the first example of a new business-friendly approach.

“This is Queensland’s first positive, enabling planning policy in recent times, which will ensure economic growth that is not adversely affected by planning processes,” he said.

“It will ensure that state agencies and councils must ensure that economic development considerations are a fundamental planning consideration in this state. Its aim is to speed — not impede — development.”

Hand-in-hand with that, the Queensland coastal-protection plan which regulated development was suspended in October because it “is not sufficiently supportive of the Government’s commitment to grow the four pillars of Queensland’s economy”, according to the draft plan that replaces it. Green groups say the new draft plan erodes environmental protections designed to moderate the impact of development projects in coastal areas.

The government rejects this.

“Claims that the draft SPRP lowers environmental protections are nothing more than the usual baseless, sensational rantings of radical green groups which will do or say anything to further their aims,” Seeney said in astatement.

But critics say that the government approach to environmental policy is to prioritise only that which fits the four-pillar imperative.

“Biodiversity issues and sustainability are considered dirty words by this government,’’ the former staffer says. “You have to tie everything back to the four-pillar economy … Weeds, pests, salinity, water access — that’s about as green as they get and anything more than that is just considered a resource to be used.’’

Former government employees The Global Mail spoke to say that now the Queensland government has shifted responsibility for climate change to the federal department, there’s no strategy to deal with issues relating to climate change either. Berkman says since the Office of Climate Change was disbanded the state government has had no plan for climate change regulation and planning, despite federal policies requiring implementation and co-operation by the state.

Powell’s spokesman said the government had created a “Climate Adaption Strategy” Unit within DEHP to manage federal government climate policies.

Powell, the environment minister, is on the record saying he doubts whether global warming is caused by humans.

Queensland Conservation Council executive director Toby Hutcheon agrees with Berkman that the government’s lack of a climate-change strategy is a problem.

“It’s been identified in the climate science that most of our coastal communities are vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surge and that’s all been mapped,’’ he says. “Now we’re in a situation where there is no funding for local government to investigate where are the vulnerable areas in their communities. As a result no one can really move forward on this — no one can build.

“They don’t know whether they’re building on vulnerable land or safe land. So these are the kind of problems that are starting to emerge for a government that’s not taking the impacts of climate change very seriously. Clearly there are those in the government who are sceptics.”

The Insurance Council of Australia says it would be hard to find an insurance policy that would guard against climate change sea level rises anywhere in the world. “Almost no insurers cover actions of the sea in residential policies, and none covers anticipated gradual change in sea levels,” council spokesman Chris Sealey said in an email.

What policies do cover is influenced by maps and projections drafted by local councils and government planners.

“Liability for planning decisions is closely linked to compliance with planning laws and known information at the time of planning decisions. It is a matter for local planning authorities to carefully consider their potential liabilities when making these decisions.”

Climate change projections that predict sea rises and show potential impact on coastal communities were once the domain of the Queensland Office of Climate Change, but since its closure there is no central body to co-ordinate the mapping, and keep it up to date.

But a government spokesman told The Global Mail a new Climate Adaptation Strategy Unit has been created to “progress climate adaptation policies for Queensland”.

All of this, and more, has happened in fewer than eight months.

“Under the previous government if you wanted to make a legislative reform it was like a one-year process and took at least three months to get through cabinet,’’ the former employee says. “There was public consultation, industry and peak group consultation, submissions would be analysed.” Newman specifically campaigned against this, whipping up his image as “Can Do” Campbell Newman. And so, the former staffer says of the previous legislative process: “That is completely gone. Overnight they’re writing these new rules. Overnight they’re changing legislation.”

Powell’s spokesman rejects this claim — pointing specifically to the Greentape Reduction Act which he said had been two years (and governments) in the making. He said the Newman government’s legislative changes “have recently been subject to full public consultation in a regulatory assessment statement”. But did not provide any examples.

The Greentape Reduction Act is the government’s flagship legislation, but it’s the other changes, outside of this law, that have raised the most concerns – things like the new temporary planning policy.

Boyland is worried that the state government’s plan to put more planning control into the hands of local councils, through the temporary planning rules, will jeopardise environmental needs.

“Local authorities are going to be empowered to override regional plans,’’ he says. “So we’re going back to the bad old days of total inconsistency between adjoining areas — unfortunately vegetation and wildlife don’t recognise local authority boundaries.”

Decisions that used to be made with an eye for impact on a region as a whole can now be made without taking into account the way a neighbouring council area might be affected, he says.

Hutcheon says this government is lacking an environmental agenda, and isn’t taking sustainable development or biodiversity seriously.

“The government has come in with an agenda around economic development and while they have said they will protect the environment, it’s noticeable that they’re not using any terms like eco-sustainability or sustainability when they talk about economic development,” Hutcheon says.

“It’s almost like because they’ve been out of power for a generation they’ve missed the development of ecologically sustainable principles, and that seems to be missing in all their language.”

Certainly, September’s state budget — which dealt with a projected $10.768 billion deficit by raising mining royalties and axing staff — did not place high emphasis on environmental management. There was money for koala habitat protection and north Queensland crocodiles, but in his first budget speech, Treasurer Tim Nicholls said that the government’s priority was economic growth.

“Growth depends heavily on a critical but narrow part of the economy — investment in the resources sector, and particularly the [coal seam gas] to [liquid natural gas] processing and export industry,” Nicholls told the Parliament.

His budget speech foreshadowed the heavy cuts to the public service and set out government priorities. The environment was never mentioned.

ONE SERVICE THAT NOW FACES UNCERTAINTY is the Environmental Defender’s Office. Two weeks after its contract, worth almost $100,000 a year, was scheduled to be renewed, the staff of the Queensland EDO were told there would be no more money.

“We had to shut our doors to new enquiries and we had about 60 enquiries that were in train and we’ve been trying to get through that backlog on the remaining federal funds that we have,” EDO solicitor Sean Ryan told The Global Mail.

He singled out one change that, he claims, will severely curtail environmental law enforcement in the state.

In Queensland third parties (that is, those who are neither a developer nor the government) who are opposed to a development on environmental grounds, or who believe there is a breach of environmental law that needs to be addressed, can appeal to the Planning and Environment Court. Until earlier this year, provided the complaint was not a nuisance or vexatious claim, opponents were liable for only their own costs; this made it less onerous for a small-budget not-for-profit to challenge the plans of a deep-pocketed corporation.

After the state election the Queensland government announced the rules would be changed, making the default position of the court that the loser pays all.

“It doesn’t really matter what the laws say on the books, when they’re not abided by, by the companies, and they’re not enforced by the government, it then falls to the community to make sure those laws are complied with,” Ryan says.

Boyland is likewise concerned. “It’s virtually going to stifle a lot of not-for-profits, and certainly individuals, challenging inappropriate developments … would you run the risk of paying $3 million or $4 million in high-flyer-developer legal costs if you happen to lose a case?” he says.

This revision to liability for legal costs, says Ryan, falls outside the realm of “green-tape” reduction.

“When people talk about green tape they usually mean redundant or unnecessary bureaucratic rules that delay without any benefit,’’ he says. “Certainly some of the changes of the Newman government have been directed towards that … But what I don’t think can be described as green tape is any reduction in the community’s rights, or any reduction of the enforcement of environmental laws, or reduction of the level of environmental protection.

“I think the cloak of green tape has been misapplied to some of the changes that are going through.”

The government disagrees. Powell’s office refused repeated requests for an interview with The Global Mail, and the premier’s office directed our questions to Powell. But through his office, Powell rejected the criticisms others had raised with The Global Mail that said the new procedures would lower environmental standards across the state.

“There is no change to the environmental outcomes expected from regulated businesses,” Powell’s spokesman said. “Our changes to reduce green tape will not lower environmental standards. Rather, they will boost transparency and accountability for environmental activities.

“Cutting green tape makes the process simpler for the companies which do the right thing and meet our high environmental standards, it also makes it easier for us to identify those who are not.

“The streamlining of these cumbersome processes will also let my department free up resources which can be redirected to frontline compliance and enforcement activities to ensure the ongoing protection of Queensland’s environment.”

Boyland is unconvinced.

“What they’re going to do is decrease the rigour that people have to go through for environmental assessments, and the only loser out of that is going to be the environment,” he says. “Heavens above, we’ve had measures for preserving biodiversity since 1996 and we’re still on a sharp decline with all the protections that are in place at present.”

BEFORE THE MARCH STATE ELECTION environmental groups put out a report cardfor the major parties. The document slammed the Liberal National Party’s policies on mining regulation and protection of the Great Barrier Reef as “poor”; it said the LNP’s plans for national parks and world heritage sites, along with protecting rivers, forests, wildlife and marine life more generally were average; and it assessed protection for coastal zones as half-way between poor and average. On no marker did the LNP earn any “good” ratings. The Labor party got three rankings between good and average, one poor (for regulating mining) and one average for Barrier Reef protection. The Greens, unsurprisingly, won plaudits in every section. Bob Katter’s Australian Party achieved one “good/average” on the regulation of mining, with almost uniformly poor ratings in other fields.

So it is reasonable to think that perhaps the people of Queensland did not expect the best environmental protections to be delivered by an incoming Newman government. Some may even support a shift in policy. But such swift, sweeping reforms have caught many by surprise.

Says Hutcheon: “They’re a government who definitely came into power with their own ideas, and I think that it remains to be seen whether those ideas are going to be effective and beneficial [to the environment] or not.”

A version of this post originally appeared on The Global Mail. You can see it here.

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