Bob Brown and the end of the environment
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.
As the federal government tries to hand power over environmental regulations to state governments, parallels have been drawn to the battles fought between activists and big business during the Howard years.
But this time, there’s even more at stake.
Today, former leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, on how the legacy of John Howard’s environmental policies is shaping the current fight.
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So, Bob, in your piece for The Saturday Paper, you gave this firsthand account of a protest that you were at in Tasmania in 1997. I'm hoping that you can take me back to that day and describe it to me.
It was a brilliant late spring day at the Perth nursery in northern Tasmania. That's the Forestry Commission nursery, as it was. And we knew John Howard was coming to sign this regional forest agreement, which was basically to give a stamp of approval to clear fell logging for export woodchipping. So there were about 100 people there, including, I think most graphically, an Aboriginal man from the Great Western Tiers who had chains between his neck and his wrists and was ocher all over his body and just a loincloth on.
And he stood right in front of John Howard's car as it came around the corner and went up towards the driveway. But in the crowd around his car, he had a security guard hanging onto each handle of the car. And as the car moved forward, one of those guards and I got knocked over and fell onto the ground. And out of his pocket came a handgun, which spun around on the asphalt. I said to him, you better put that back, mate.
And he grabbed it and looked a bit embarrassed and did put it back. But the Regional Forest Agreement was signed and John Howard and his car left out the back door and across the Stubblefield to avoid coming back to where this protest was taking place. It was the second regional forest agreement, an earlier one had been signed a few months earlier with the Victorian government for East Gippsland and eight more followed for the rest of Victoria, for New South Wales and for Western Australia
And Bob, functionally speaking, what did that agreement do? What is the effect of custody of forests being handed from Canberra to Hobart?
Well, functionally, it just gave the stamp of approval to firstly the state government, in this case the Tasmanian government, taking over government Commonwealth responsibility without a Commonwealth oversight. And secondly, and more importantly, the legislation calls for enforceable, ecologically sustainable forest management. But you can see as clear as the nose on your face that the complete flattening and incineration of these grand forests, wet forest, dry forests, rain forests for the export, woodchip and plywood industry largely, is not ecologically sustainable, let alone good management. However, with the trickery of those words, they call this destruction of these forests and all the wildlife in them an ecological good.
So that agreement sparked an intense backlash from environmentalists, people like yourself. What else was the federal government doing in this space at this time?
Well, that was then followed by John Howard passing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in 1999, which has proved neither to protect biodiversity or conserve the environment. It's done the opposite to its actual name as an act. But the logging industry must have still felt uncertain about getting everything its own way. And so a regional forest agreements act was passed through the parliament in 2002.
It was the longest Greens objection to legislation in Senate history, but it passed with Labor support. And we've since then had 20 years of absolute slaughter of forests from coast to coast in Australia with clear fell logging, incendiary burning, flattening and incineration of ancient wild forests and all their wildlife. Nothing survives. It's just a scorched earth policy. So under the guise of environmental protection and biodiversity conservation, we've got this destructive process in Australia and it's time it was stopped.
Where is that campaign up to now?
The legal arrangement that John Howard orchestrated with state governments 20 years ago has always seemed dubious to environmentalists. And a coalition of groups took on the legislation in Victoria more recently in defense of the very rare and threatened with extinction Leadbeater's possum, the Victorian faunal emblem, and the greater glider. And the federal court judge has found that in 60 or so coupes, that’s logging areas that have been effectively destroyed by logging over there, this should not have happened. And that under the Regional Forest Agreement between Melbourne and Canberra, those areas should have been protected where these rare creatures were being endangered by the logging.
And in Tasmania, my foundation asked senior counsel to look again at the Regional Forest Agreement signed 20 years ago in Tasmania to see if there was any further legal action we could take. And the senior counsel were, I'm sure, surprised to find that it basically, right at its heart, is being breached.
And we believe we're on very strong ground that the governments have been in breach of their own legislation, effectively, in failing to protect these forests and their wildlife.
And Bob, why is this fight important at this moment in time?
Under the cover of Covid-19, the Minister for the Environment, Susan Ley, is about to introduce legislation to put all other industries on the same footing as logging and devolve the environmental responsibility to the states
We’ll be back in a moment.
Bob, at the same time as you're bringing this legal action, the Morrisson government is also attempting to make some legislative changes. So let's talk about that. What is on their agenda and what are your concerns?
What we have right in front of our eyes, and this is attractive to profiteering corporate ventures, but disgusting to the wider Australian public.
Archival Tape -- Susan Ley:
“...will bring serious money to the table, allow leveraged private investment, the landscape scale, habitat restoration, because so much of this has been done in a piecemeal way…”
What Susan Ley, under the direction of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Cabinet is aiming to do is to say, we'll hand this over to the states and it'll be ecologically sustainable management, knowing that it won't.
Archival Tape -- Susan Ley:
“But right here right now, this is an important move. States, labor states are knocking on our door to do this…”
And here we've got a compliant minister for the forest who's saying, well, I'll bring in legislation to enable that to happen.
Archival Tape -- Susan Ley:
“I mean the act will be protected under the current prototype standards and the fact that it’s just a few months for the national standards to come into place, I think gets us to a good starting point and a good process.”
This is very Trumpian. In America, we see the president stripping away federal environmental responsibility in an unprecedented way, in a way that's not been seen before in US history.
Archival Tape -- Donald Trump:
“In the past of America’s most critical infrastructure projects have been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process. And I’ve been talking about it for a long time. And we want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways, bigger, better, faster. And we want to build them at less cost.”
We are now in the same plight.
Different rules, different laws, different federal system. But the outcome being the same, that the national responsibility for our environmental heritage is being handed across the state governments where they can be picked off by corporations and using fast track legislation. The environment's just left to the devil of profiteering. I think Australians are going to be very aghast at this process. We know most Australians want their forests, what's left of the forest protected, and their oceans. It's a watershed period in Australian environmental history.
Prime Minister Morrison said he wants to get rid of green tape. Read for that, he wants to increase environmental destruction. He wants to sideswipe the scientists who know what's going on in our ecosystems and make them more irrelevant still. And he wants a process to be handed across to the states. It's a very dire situation.
So what is it that the federal government wants to progress, that would be helped if this environmental protection was handed to the states?
The prime minister says he's got a list of 15 megaprojects that he wants to quickly have quickly rushed through to get the economy going. And the environment's going to be a fall guy there.
And so this legislation will basically repeat what the regional forest agreements have done for other activities, like mining, coastal developments, projects in national parks which threaten all sorts of natural values. Gas fracking, oil drilling, dam building, highway construction, you name it.
And you know, Ruby, one of the great concerns out of this in the wake of the Juugan Gorge disaster of Rio Tinto blowing up ancient Aboriginal sites in Western Australia in the Pilbara, is that this process has no end. Susan Ley did not intervene to stop those caves being blown up in Western Australia.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:
“It would be equated with blowing up the pyramids of Egypt.”
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2:
“Our elders are deeply distressed about this. One of our senior elders still living here, I don’t have the strength to tell her what’s happened.”
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:
“There are stories in those areas, you know? We don’t say don’t go there for no reason. There are histories in there.”
She didn't intervene to stop the Adani mine with its huge future impact on environment's right around the world, including the Great Barrier Reef, let alone the local environment.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #2:
“This is a shocking decision that’s handing over billions of litres of precious groundwater to a billionaire to build a dirty coal mine.”
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #3:
“The obligation is now on Adani to abide by the approval conditions as it goes about its work.”
And she is not intervening anywhere to prevent the forest destruction that we see across this country and its forests and woodlands.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #3:
“Australia is a global leader on the extinction of mammals. We are 4th in the world for the extinction of all biodiversity. So we hold some very damning global titles.”
It's a horror show for Australians who care for their environment. and all the polls show they do. And for the right of future generations to enjoy this nation's bountiful, magnificent and unique wildlife and plant life abundance and extend that through, of course, to the oceans.
Right. But, of course for these environmental powers to go to states, the parliament needs to vote for it. So, do you think this will happen?
Well, yes, there's a very big test here, particularly in the Senate. It depends on labor and some independents. The Greens will be opposing it. Labor has yet to make up its mind.
We are hoping that Labor will oppose it. And, of course, then it will be up to several independents as to whether the legislation passes or not.
And I, for one, and I'm sure there will be millions of others, will be hoping that those independents will defend the national interest and block this legislation and in fact, require that the existing environmental legislation at federal level be strengthened, not weakened.
Bob, when you think back to your battle against the Howard era RFAs, which I mean, that battle began two decades ago now and it's still going on. How did these reforms from Scott Morrison compare to that? What is at stake here?
At stake here is Australia's threatened environmental heritage. Obviously, there has to be innovation. Obviously, we want progress in our time. But this is not progress. It's regress.
It's destruction of a once only wealthy, magnificent, human-inspiring eco system from which we all come upon, which we all depend. And its ongoing destruction is theft from those who come after us and a robbing of the potential for life of our fellow species on this planet.
Australia should be leading the way here with environmental excellence. Instead, it's gone to the back of the class in subterfuge in environmental plunder. And I hope that our federal parliament and parliamentarians will see this for what it is and when this legislation comes before them in the coming weeks, firstly, throw it open to public scrutiny through the inquiry system and then vote it down and insist not on weaker environmental laws and indeed indigenous heritage protection laws in this country, but stronger ones, because that's in the national interest for ever and a day to come.
Bob, thank you so much for your time today. It's been a pleasure talking to you.
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Also in the news...
New data released by the Victorian Government has revealed 70 to 80 percent of healthcare workers infected with COVID-19 during the state's second wave of infections caught the virus while working.
As of Tuesday, nearly two thousand seven hundred healthcare workers in Victoria have contracted the virus, with more than half of the infections among healthcare workers occurring in aged care.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has announced a range of new measures to reduce healthcare worker infections, including greater access to PPE.
And Qantas has announced it is axing another two and a half thousand jobs. The airline has revealed plans to outsource ground handling work at Australian airports.
The fresh round of redundancies will bring total job losses at Qantas since the COVID-19 pandemic to eight and a half thousand, a loss of almost a third of its pre-pandemic workforce.
I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.
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As the federal government tries to hand power over environmental regulations to state governments, parallels have been drawn to the battles fought between activists and big business during the Howard years. Today, former Greens leader Bob Brown on how the legacy of John Howard’s environmental policies is shaping the current fight.
Guest: Former Senator and contributor for The Saturday Paper Bob Brown.
The end of the environment in The Saturday Paper
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.
Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
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