Our Hero, Article 487

A proposal that seeks to narrow down who can challenge development plans will adversely impact the environment.

When Abbott was removed as Prime Minster, Australians discontented with his policies may have unduly celebrated. However, many of the key issues remain on the same path with Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull in power. The same sex marriage debate has not improved, the bill to strip citizenship is set to pass, and the data retention scheme is causing the expected concerns as organisations try to access our online activity. To add to this dismal assault on our rights, a proposal to amend a bill to make it more difficult to challenge plans that could harm the environment has been fast-tracked under Turnbull’s government.

The proposal to repeal section 487 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act would mean that only those directly affected by the plan could challenge it in court. Law professor Samantha Hepburn says this keeps environmental groups from acting as watchdogs, leaving more room for harmful developments to be approved. The proposal was first put forward by Environment Minister Greg Hunt back in August of this year. It was in response to The Mackay Conservation Group successfully halting Adani’s Carmichael mine in Queensland after it has already been approved by Hunt. Mackay argued that the Environment Minster did not adequately consider the implications the mine would have on two threatened species, the yakka skink and ornamental snake in particular. After Hunt acknowledged this error in judgement he was forced to reassess the plan only to re-approve it a few months later with new provisions implemented.

The government’s idea that only those directly affected should be able to challenge decisions fails to appreciate the ‘watchdog’ role these environmental groups have. It also fails to take seriously the environmental consequences of such plans that are not isolated to that region. But even the argument that only those with special interest should be able to challenge the decisions is doubtful considering the National Farmer Association said it did not support the repeal citing fears of losing the right to appeal against government decisions.

After Mackay had the approval for the Adani mine revoked, Attorney-General George Brandis branded it as “lawfare” whereby such green groups had undertaken a targeted campaign to undermine Australia’s mining industry. Abbott chimed in calling it a “sustained campaign of harassment through the courts”. This type of colourful rhetoric paints a clear picture of the intent of the policy, which is to limit rights to protest plans. Now we have a Prime Minister with more subdued rhetoric but the same intentions.

The reason environmentalists were protesting the Adani mine, which inspired this proposal, was not as simple as seeking to “play games” as Abbott suggested. There’s evidence to show that it is a much more serious matter.

The Australia Institute released a report that said the Adani mine would produce emission levels that would exceed Tokyo’s. At a time when emissions is a global issue it’s hard to understand why our government is choosing to build new mines at all, especially Australia’s biggest one. With nations currently meeting for the climate change summit in Paris, Australia would be able to take with it the news that half of Japan’s reduction target will be offset by the Adani mine’s production. Furthermore, a report by The Carbon Tracker Initiative said that building a new mine could prevent us from reaching the international goal of limiting the world’s temperature rise by 2 degrees Celsius, an expected outcome of the Paris talks.

“Radical green activists” engaging in “vigilante litigation”, according to Brandis, are not the only ones concerned about the mine. The Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owner’s Council rejected the plans back in 2014 but it was approved when Adani took it to the National Native Tribunal because it was thought to be in the public’s interest. However, spokesperson for the Council, Adrian Burrugubba, said Adani provided the Tribunal with incorrect job figures.

As well as the details of the proposal, the procedure itself has also been criticised, diminishing its credibility.

The Senate Committee cancelled public hearings and bought the report date ahead, which previously wasn’t due till February next year. Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Ariane Wilkinson says that this means the repeal was not properly “scrutinised or tested”. Tasmanian Labor Senator Anne Urquhart accused the government of using its majority numbers in the committee to “change the reporting date to a non-parliamentary sitting day to avoid scrutiny” when it bought the date forward.

Wilkinson also stated that “the Australian community have every right to access the justice system; this case is a great example of democracy in action…Brandis’ comments are another example of the power the mining industry wields over the government.”

Environmental groups still consider the mine to be a threat to the environment, including The Great Barrier Reef, and will continue legal action. Burrugubba vows to also continue fighting against Adani for fears the environmental implications will destroy their ancestral land and cultural heritage. Repealing this section would make it considerably harder for them and anyone in the future, from doing so. We should not be making it harder to defend our land.

The Adani mine approval is an example of the loopholes in the justice system, which, if approved, would have had severe implications for our environment. It was only Section 487 that provided us with ‘watch dogs’ necessary to prevent such action.

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