Charles Berger from the Australian Conservation Foundation has unearthed a very interesting episode in our Prime Minister’s past. In 1999, then-backbencher Julia Gillard criticized the Howard government for trying to delegate to the state government its decision-making power on a proposed toxic waste dump in her electorate:
I rise to speak to this legislation because in my electorate environmental issues are pivotal. My electorate contains within its bounds both internationally protected wetlands, specifically the Port Phillip Bay western shoreline site, which is protected under the Ramsar Convention, and hazardous industries including, most notably, the petrochemical industry. Under this bill, there is nothing to stop—indeed this bill is predicated on allowing—the hand back of approval and assessment processes on issues like internationally protected Ramsar wetlands to the states.
Yet 13 years later, Gillard has promised business lobby groups her government will hand back approval and assessment processes on environmental issues to the states. Business wants all federal environmental protection powers abolished.
State governments must remain accountable to the federal government. In Australia, state governments have a long history of putting short-term profit ahead of environmental protection, and many major environmentalist victories have depended on federal intervention. Gillard understood this in 1999, pointing out the bad record of the Liberal state government of the time:
Under the Kennett government, national parks have been opened up to mining and commercial exploitation, and large and persistent budget cuts have made it impossible for relevant agencies to ensure the protection of the environment. But surely the single greatest example of reckless environmental mismanagement and incompetence by the Liberals in Victoria is in the area of hazardous waste, in particular the Kennett government’s plan to dump over 120,000 tonnes of hazardous waste every year for the next 15 years in Werribee.
If Gillard didn’t trust the Kennett government to protect the environment, why does she now trust the Newman government, or the Baillieu government, or the Barnett government, or the O’Farrell government? Has she gained confidence in conservative state governments, or state governments generally, since 1999? If so, she is misguided, because today’s state governments are being similarly reckless in their destruction of the environment.
In particular, if Gillard accepts the science of climate change, why does she trust Queensland Premier Campbell Newman to assess the environmental impacts of fossil fuel exports? The state’s mining industry is planning mega-mines and infrastructure to extract a billion tonnes per year of coal and coal seam gas, and ship it through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Newman has declared Queensland is “in the coal business”, is funded by mining magnate Clive Palmer, has cut almost all his state’s climate policies, wants to remove climate change from the school curriculum, and has commended his Environment Minister for denying humans are causing climate change.
We have just heard another Coalition speaker in this debate tell us what a landmark piece of legislation this is. If it is such a landmark piece of legislation, why the completely shameful haste in getting it through the Senate before 30 June and then returning it to this House and gagging the debate so quickly? Why wouldn’t you put the bill out for consultation with the environment groups in its radically amended form and get some feedback? I will tell you what the answer to that is: despite all the claims of `landmark’, everybody participating in this debate knows this is about rolling back Commonwealth responsibility and rolling back environmental standards. If you put it out there in the community, if you give it to the environment groups, that is what they are going to tell you.
Gillard presented her Business Advisory Forum as a landmark: “For the first time in 112 years of federation, business representatives have been able to come face to face with leaders to talk about cutting red tape.” She is “determined to get this done” within a few months (why the haste?) and hasn’t consulted environment groups. The agenda was dictated by business lobbyists at the Business Advisory Forum and is opposed by environment groups; it’s pretty obvious this is about rolling back Commonwealth responsibility and rolling back environmental standards.
Ironically, in 1999 Gillard criticized the Australian Democrats for having made the same backflip she would later make:
It is indeed appropriate that this cognate debate on these environmental bills should come before the House on the same day as the GST tax package. […] Both are the product of dirty deals between the government and the Australian Democrats, and in both cases the Australian Democrats have broken their word to the Australian people in making the deal.
Did the Democrats come out to Werribee and say during that campaign, `Once we are in parliament, we will do a dirty deal with the Coalition to ensure that the Commonwealth government washes its hands of protecting Ramsar wetlands and hands the whole thing—the whole issue it cannot be bothered with—back to the states’? No, they did not come out to Werribee and say that; in fact, the Democrats came out to Werribee and said quite the opposite. […]
It is important to recognise that, despite those commitments from the Democrats, in this legislation they have enabled the states and the Commonwealth to now go through a process where, through a bilateral agreement, in future the Commonwealth could say to Victoria—and states with track records of environmental vandalism like Victoria—`Here, you have the responsibility for the Ramsar wetlands. Here, you have the responsibility for the environmental impacts of a toxic dump,’ and just let it happen.
Just like the Democrats in 1999, Gillard has broken her word to the Australian people. Did she tell Australians she was going to do a dirty deal with business lobby groups, and bilateral agreements with state governments, to ensure the Commonwealth government washes its hands of potentially all of its environmental protection responsibilities? (If you read the small print of the agreement, it does not say the federal government will keep approval responsibility for even high-risk projects; it merely “acknowledges” the existing responsibilities.)
Despite all their brave rhetoric that is where the Democrats have led us to by entering into this agreement with the government—an agreement that they did not need to enter into and did not need to deal with in this time frame. They could have had the decency to come back to the people that they had made grandiose promises to and work them through the issues, if they thought this was the right course. Instead, here we have legislation gagged and the Democrats not abiding by their word. I am sure they will be harshly judged by my electors when it comes to the next election. We know one thing in Werribee—that the Coalition does not care about the environment. After all, they are the party that wanted to put a toxic dump on top of us. Today, through this bill, we have proof positive that, despite their campaigning rhetoric, the Democrats are exactly the same.
Gillard did not need to enter into her agreement with business lobbyists, in any timeframe. That she has done so and is working with the Coalition to implement it is, by her own standard, proof positive that despite her campaigning rhetoric of 1999, she does not care about the environment, either. Gillard may want to take the time to reflect on why the Democrats aren’t around anymore. I expect she will be harshly judged by electors.
Gillard said in her maiden speech in 1998 (in which she also referenced her battle against the toxic waste dump):
For far too long public debate in Australia has failed to nourish or inspire us. For far too long it has been limited to the day-to-day monitoring of the health of our economy rather than the morals and goals of our society. The end result of this political cycle is a weary people who no longer believe what politicians say and who think the politicians saying it do not even believe it themselves.
This is, word for word, my opinion of the Gillard government. Does Gillard believe in what she is currently saying – and more importantly, doing? If so, why did she change her mind, and why has she not explained her change of mind? And if not, why has she chosen to sell out to the business lobby? Does she believe kowtowing to big business is one of the morals and goals of our society?
A final thought: as Gillard’s policy has so far received little scrutiny, I was pleased to see it recently criticized by Labor backbencher Melissa Parke. Gillard understood the importance of federal oversight when she was a backbencher; why does it now take a backbencher in her government to point out the same problem?
I advise concerned readers to email the Prime Minister.