On Tuesday 11 August 2020 the Queensland Parliament debated two bills, the Environmental Protection and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020 and the Biodiscovery and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2019, in cognate. As commonly happens for crossbench MPs in Queensland, I didn't get an opportunity to speak on the bill after debate was guillotined.
Below is the speech I had planned to givce:
Intro & position on each bill
I rise to speak on the Environmental Protection and Other Legislation Amendment Bill and the Biodiscovery and Other Legislation Amendment Bill.
My concerns largely relate to the Environmental Protection Bill.
Like the representatives of traditional owners who submitted on the inquiry to the Biodiscovery Bill, I welcome its recognition of the strong connection between First Nations peoples and Australia’s biological resources.
I note that some of the groups submitting to the inquiry pointed out ambiguities which could be made more clear, and that the government’s amendments address these to some extent.
So I generally welcome the Biodiscovery Bill.
On the other hand, the Environmental Protection Bill needs to be strengthened, particularly when it comes to the issue of mine rehabilitation, and I’ll turn my comments to these issues.
Mine rehabilitation in Queensland
It’s been clear for years that we need serious reform on mining rehabilitation in Queensland.
The principle behind this is simple: if you make a mess, you clean it up.
Extracting resources from the earth is inevitably so intensive that it has the potential to devastate landscapes, water supplies and potential future uses of the land mined and the surrounding country.
Jobs in rehabilitation could be an integral part of the transition to clean energy that we need to embark on now: they are located at the former mine sites, in those communities that will be most affected by the transition, and there is an overlap in the skills required.
Mining coal and other mineral resources creates a lot of jobs digging dirt out of a big hole. We have an opportunity to create thousands more rehabilitation jobs for mining workers pushing it back in, and cleaning up the mess.
The Greens and I believe we owe it to coal communities not to leave them stranded, but to support their transition to a cleaner economy with jobs.
I’ve been taking Labor to task over legacy mines for some years now.
Their rehabilitation legislation introduced in 2018 means that almost any existing mine can leave behind a massive final void.
Labor has completely adopted the mining lobby’s line that making them clean up their own mess would amount to ‘retrospectivity’. From a legal and commonsense perspective, that’s rubbish.
Massive holes in the ground that leach toxic chemicals and pollute local rivers are just unacceptable by basic community standards.
And yet research in 2018 showed there would have been 218 final voids left at that point, with no requirement to rehabilitate.
Even as estimated by the industry, that’s a $20 billion hole that Queenslanders are left to deal with, because the government would rather send the bill to them than to their mining industry mates who made the mess.
I will say that, like many environmental stakeholders who submitted to the inquiry on this bill, I welcome the creation of a Rehabilitation Commissioner.
Indeed, the Greens announced a policy to this effect in 2016.
Given the extent of mining in Queensland and the rehabilitation challenges it poses, we made it clear the Commissioner needed to be adequately funded, and it must have real oversight powers including reviews and audits of both the Department of Environment and Science and the mining industry.
We also specified the Commissioner must have responsibility for defining best-practice mine rehabilitation for non-use management areas and more generally.
Ministerial direction over the Commissioner
Perhaps what’s most concerning about the role of the Rehabilitation Commissioner under these proposed laws is that they’re ultimately under the direction of the minister, and therefore subject to political interference.
Like many stakeholders who made submissions on the bill, I’m incredibly worried about the impact this will have on the commission’s ability to properly protect Queensland’s environment and Indigenous heritage.
Stakeholders like the Cape York Land Council, the Lock the Gate Alliance, World Wide Fund for Nature Australia, the Environmental Defenders Office all raised concerns.
The Lock the Gate Alliance said the broad powers of the Minister to give the Commissioner a ministerial direction about the performance of the Commissioner’s functions and powers is concerning. It compromises the Commissioner’s independence, and gives inappropriately broad and unnecessary power that could be open to abuse. The Environmental Defenders Office agreed.
I think it’s fair to say that the mining industry is well represented by our ministers. If the past few decades are anything to go by, subjecting a Rehabilitation Commissioner to the whims of the executive is not going to drive good outcomes for mine rehabilitation.
I support the submissions made by the World Wide Fund for Nature, and Lock the Gate, which said this ministerial direction power should be removed, or narrowed to clearly specify when and how it applies.
Without such a change, the role of Commissioner can’t be said to be truly independent.
Other elements of the Commissioner role
The Cape York Land Council has also highlighted that the Commissioner’s proposed functions do not mention requirements to engage with and have regard for the views of Indigenous people.
I would support a requirement for such consultation, which might reveal Indigenous values or landscapes affected by mining that should be rehabilitated in certain ways, knowledge of how to manage particular rehabilitation issues, the services that Indigenous people could provide to assist rehabilitation efforts, or the post-surrender economic or other land use outcomes that Indgenous landowners seek.
I welcome the creation of the Rehabilitation Commissioner role, and want to see this role properly empowered and resourced to do its job.
Combined with other meaningful reforms to rehabilitation laws in Queensland, especially ensuring that all mines are covered, we can get on the path to ensuring the mining industry actually pays its own way.
That is exactly what the Greens are fighting for this election, because we believe those big mining corporations should foot the bill, not ordinary Queenslanders.