Public transparency is at a loss when there are links to the coal industry on both sides of politics - while community groups looking to protect the environment are labeled as extremists, writes ACF economist Matt Rose

Prussian Statesman Otto Von Bismarck once remarked, “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” In a modern democracy we would argue that it would be preferable not just to see how our laws are made but to also have a clear sense of the true motivations of our lawmakers.

This is particularly relevant in the recent debate about changes to Australia’s environment laws. We know that the current political system is not perfect. Public transparency is often lost through the revolving door of political lobbyists and the connections of politicians, political staffers and public servants to the very industries they are legislating on.

However, events in the past week have made clear the divide in Australian politics between the influence of the fossil fuel lobby and groups representing the environment. And these connections are not restricted to any one side of politics.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten appointed his new chief of staff Cameron Milner who is the owner of a lobbying firm Milner Strategic Services and Next Level Holdings - a lobbying firm that has been employed by Adani, proponents of the Carmichael mine.

Former MP Larry Anthony, now President of the Federal National Party, has a history of acting as a lobbyist for Shenhua, the mining company looking to develop a mine in the Liverpool plains.

And if that weren’t enough, last weekend’s Federal Conference of the National Party was being sponsored by Queensland Coal Investments, a company owned by Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting.

The Minister messed up - but instead of acknowledging his mistake, he decided to try to change the law itself.

In August, Environment Minister Greg Hunt introduced amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. These amendments are designed to make it much more difficult for environment and community groups to use the legal process to ensure the environment is protected and the law is upheld.

Yet new polling reveals that only 22 per cent of Australians support the Federal government’s proposed environment law amendments to strip community groups of the right to challenge mining approvals in the courts, and 77 per cent believe Australians should be able to use environment laws to protect the environment.

Considering his acknowledgment of the polls in his pitch for the leadership one would assume the newly elected PM Malcolm Turnbull would pay attention to this community concern. At the very least I would hope he doesn’t think “coal is good for humanity.”

The government introduced this legislation following the mistakes made by Environment Minister Greg Hunt concerning the Carmichael mine. The Minister messed up - but instead of acknowledging his mistake, he decided to try to change the law itself.  Yet listening to the debate on these amendments in the House of Representatives last week – you’d never have gleaned that backstory.

The balance is tipped in favour of the coal industry both in terms of their influence in political circles and how they are treated by law.

Community groups who want to protect the environment were attacked as economic vandals and extremists. In fact you would think that environment groups were trying to use every legal avenue possible to stop every possible project. During the law’s 15 years of operation, analysis shows that of 5500 objections only two mining projects have been stopped – this points to the need to strengthen not weaken the laws.

With these facts laid out it is obvious that this legislation is clearly an attempt to strip communities’ rights to challenge approvals under our national environment law that favours the rights of big polluters over communities. 

The government has argued that Australia has world class environment laws and that these are well balanced with economic imperatives. The reality could not be further from the truth, Australia has one of the highest loss of species of any country in the world – in fact it is terribly difficult under our environment laws to protect animal and plant species.

Victoria’s emblematic Leadbeater possum is disappearing due to extensive logging in its habitat. Sydney’s drinking water catchments are open to coal mining, and world heritage sites like the Blue Mountains are polluted by waste spilling from nearby coal mines. The truth is our environmental laws are not fulfilling their objectives.

At present, Australia’s environment laws do not consider climate change. Carmichael mine is planned to be the biggest ever coal mine built in Australia. If built, on a yearly basis the coal burned from this single mine would create approximately the same amount of emissions as the total emissions produced by New Zealand. 

Our laws are clearly failing and community groups seeking to protect our environment face a David vs Goliath situation. The balance is tipped in favour of the coal industry both in terms of their influence in political circles and how they are treated by law.

One of Turnbull’s first test as Prime Minister is whether he allows legislation that strips the rights of communities to care about and take action to protect the environment. If he allows this legislation to proceed it only further concentrate power and influence into the hands of the coal industry.

  • This article first appeared at SBS Online
  • Image by ACF

Matt Rose

Economy and Democracy Program Manager