|Part of the area added by Labor to Mapleton National Park on the Sunshine Coast - Campbell Newman may revoke Labor's park declarations|
Measures being implemented in Queensland by Premier Campbell Newman amount to the greatest rollback of environmental protection in Australian political history.
A small coterie of Nationals in the Liberal National Party Government ministry, backed by the LNP’s Nationals-dominated organisational wing, is overseeing the systematic dismantling of key environmental laws. Newman, supposedly a Liberal moderate, is turning a blind eye to the Nationals’ escapades in the interests of maintaining LNP unity.
The passage of the Vegetation Management Framework Amendment Bill undermines Labor’s tree-clearing laws, opening up two million hectares of bushland to the bulldozers. The consequences will include loss of biodiversity across the state, further shrinkage of remnant areas of native vegetation and increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
|Queensland is set to return to the days of having one of the world's highest tree-clearing rates|
Newman broke a pre-election promise to keep the laws. Vegetation once protected can now be cleared if land is deemed of “high agricultural value” - an open-ended definition. The protection of regrowth vegetation has been dispensed with. It is easier to bulldoze bushland along watercourses. If land-holders clear specially protected vegetation, the onus of proof is reversed so they can merely plead ignorance to avoid prosecution.
Before Labor’s laws were enacted in 2006, Queensland had one of the world’s highest land-clearing rates; those days are returning although there is less bushland left to clear. Natural Resources Minister Andrew Cripps boasted when foreshadowing the move that he was “taking an axe” to the laws. And so he did: most bushland remaining on private and leased land is up for grabs. Cripps is one of three right-wing Nationals in the ministry – along with Agriculture Minister John McVeigh and State Development Minister and Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney - who have Newman’s blessing for the new environmental agenda.
|Eungella Honeyeater - under threat from a new logging licence. Picture by Trevor Quested|
McVeigh opened up to 30,000 hectares a year of state forest for logging. Logging was stopped by Labor as part of a shift to greater use of plantation timber. The “forest wars” that were once a feature of the political landscape are returning: conservationists are outraged by a logging licence granted over rainforest in Crediton State Forest near Mackay - the habitat of the endangered eungella honeyeater.
Seeney is implementing a development blueprint that includes the scrapping of wild river declarations on Cape York. The Government aims to scuttle the proposed World Heritage Listing of Cape York, one of Australia’s outstanding wilderness areas. Seeney has declared that Cape York is open for mining and agricultural expansion.
|Mulga woodlands in western Queensland - among the habitats threatened by new tree-clearing laws|
Seeney’s plans mirror those of Cape York Aboriginal powerbroker Noel Pearson, who argues that environmental protections stymie indigenous economic opportunities. His opponents say preserving wilderness affords greater opportunities. They point to benefits for indigenous communities that result from protecting World Heritage-listed Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tujta in the Northern Territory. Wild river declarations were intended to protect the few watercourses that remain in pristine condition. Murrandoo Yanner is among many indigenous leaders who back wild rivers; they are angered by Pearson’s presumption to speak on their behalf.
|Campbell Newman has thrown open two million hectares of bushland to the bulldozers|
Cape York aside, declarations of three south-west Queensland rivers in the Lake Eyre Basin are being amended to facilitate mining and agricultural development: guidelines provide “greater efficiencies for petroleum and gas companies”. The move is opposed by an alliance of Aboriginal leaders and farmers. They fear the expansion of controversial coal-seam gas projects and cotton-farming in a region that is too arid to sustain it, and that Lake Eyre will suffer from the diversion of water that in good years would flow to it.
|The Wenlock River on Cape York - one of several wild river declarations ditched by Campbell Newman|
Newman is reviewing Labor’s national park declarations, signalling that many will be revoked. The protection of national parks is supposed to be set in stone, otherwise there is no point in having them. Queensland’s already small national park estate will contract, and in the process the sanctity of national parks is ditched. Newman has bowed to the Nationals’ demands to allow grazing in national parks - a move with potentially serious consequences for the fragile ecology of arid zone parks. Newman insists this will save the lives of starving cattle but they will be slaughtered soon in abattoirs anyway; the objective of graziers is to fatten cattle to boost financial returns, not to save their lives.
|Wongi State Forest - one of many formerly protected state forest opened up for logging|
A handful of Liberal moderates in the LNP Cabinet harbour reservations about the rollback. However, LNP unity is Newman’s paramount concern, at the price of caving into the Nationals on environmental (and a raft of social) policies. History repeats itself: as with former state coalition governments before the Liberals and Nationals merged in 2008, weak-kneed Liberals are browbeaten into submission by Nationals.
|Wallum heath - fewer protections now for coastal vegetation|
Newman’s environmental agenda is more destructive than that of former National Party Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who at least protected national parks and launched initiatives to preserve the wilderness values of Cape York. Newman has signalled that 12.5 million hectares of land under government control is under review, with assurances only that “pristine” areas will be protected.
|Cooper Creek - one of several south-west Queensland wild river declarations being watered down|
For all his defects, Bjelke-Petersen kept an environmental leash on extremists in the Nationals' ranks. Not so Newman. Now it is open slather.
This article was published in The Weekend Australian of 1-2 June, 2013