Leaders of peak conservation organisations and the legal team for Mackay Conservation Group's successful challenge to Adani's Carmichael coal mine today joined forces to condemn the Federal Government's latest plans to gut Australia's environmental protections.
The groups together represent more than two million Australians.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis yesterday signalled the government's intention to introduce amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act into parliament this week.
The changes are designed to strip away the legal right of communities to object in the courts to major mining and industrial projectsthat threaten their land, water resources, biodiversity and iconic natural features like the Great Barrier Reef and native forests.
Contrary to the government’s claims of an avalanche of “vigilante litigation”, only 0.4% of the 5,500 projects referred for assessment under the EPBC Act have been subject to legal challenge since the Act came into force in 2000.
Geoff Cousins, President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said, "It seems Tony Abbott and George Brandis are determined to make it easier for loggers, miners and big polluters to damage nature by taking away Australians’ democratic right to challenge an approval when the law hasn’t been followed.
“I believe Australians will not stand for this. What we want is not ‘lawfare’, but simply fair law.”
What we want is not ‘lawfare’, but simply fair law
Dermot O'Gorman, CEO of WWF Australia, said, “The EPBC Act was brought in by the Howard Government to put in place the appropriate safeguards and checks and balances on major development projects.
“The ability to take legal action to test decisions made by governments reduces the risk of corruption and gives the community confidence that decisions are being made for the right reasons. Far from damaging the economy, these cases promote good government decision-making and transparency and therefore a stronger economy.”
Lyndon Schneiders, National Campaign Director, The Wilderness Society, said, "This government has a tin ear to criticism and will do anything to override community concern and sentiment, including removing community standing to enforce our national environment laws. Mr Brandis's action is a disgrace."
Sue Higginson, Principal Solicitor, NSW Environmental Defenders’ Office (who represented Mackay Conservation Group in the Federal Court case that overturned approval of Adani's Carmichael coal mine), said, "The proposed repeal would wind back Australian environmental laws, returning us to a time when the environment was not recognised as requiring protection and communities were sidelined from accessing the courts."
Paul Oosting, National Director of GetUp!, said, “Yesterday’s disastrous announcement proves that the government has no respect for the law or for the environment, and reeks of desperation. The EBPC Act was critical to the World Heritage Committee's decision not to place the Reef on the endangered list. This government tried to wind back protections for Tasmanian forests, and it approved one of the world’s largest coal mines near the Great Barrier Reef, places our members have worked tirelessly to protect.
“These changes are right out of the play book of the mining industry, and this is a government doing their bidding", Mr Oosting said.
Kate Smolski, Executive Director of the NSW Nature Conservation Council, said, "We have experienced first hand the impact of restricting merit appeal rights, nature and communities pay the price when these protections are removed. Communities under threat from inappropriate development have little recourse in NSW state courts, federal protections under the EPBC Act are the last defence to safeguard against destructive projects.
"People acting in the public interest, up against large corporations with deep pockets, deserve the right to be heard through our judicial process.”
Michael Kennedy, Director, Humane Society International (Australia), said, “What has become clear is that enforcing environmental law is too important to be left solely to government. The problem is not the community, it is the government’s incompetence, and its total lack of empathy for effectively protecting the environment.”
The groups called on the Prime Minister and the Attorney General to act responsibly, and in the public and national interest, and abandon their reckless plans to dismantle a core tenet of Australia's environmental safeguards by denying the community its legal rights on matters of major environmental significance.