The Impact of Environmental Groups on Employment

Today, I would like to speak about jobs. I have been a senator for just over a year, and the most common issue that is raised with me is jobs. It is a tougher employment market, particularly where I live in Central Queensland in Rockhampton and surrounds. It has been difficult over the last few years, given the downturn in the mining sector. 

It is much harder for people to find work where they once could. I believe our fundamental role in this place, apart from defending the nation and managing the budget, is to give as many Australians as possible the dignity of work and to give as many people as possible the opportunity to have jobs to provide for their families and save for their own homes so they can be independent, not be dependent on welfare or dependent on others for help—so they can be their own boss in how they want to run their lives.

Unfortunately, there is a group of Australians right now who want to stop people from getting jobs. The biggest threat in Central Queensland, where I live, is the rise of vigilante litigation by green activists to shut down Australian industry and jobs. Activist litigation is on the increase. It has been one of our growth industries unfortunately over the past decade. Usually I would be in favour of growth industries, I want to support growth but not this particular growth industry. It is parasitic. And, like all parasites, it only thrives by trying to destroy its host. Our environmental laws mean that well-financed green groups and big environment groups get a bigger voice than ordinary Australians who actually live near coalmines and want the benefits of their development—ordinary Australians like Les Boal, who owns the Leo Hotel in Clermont. At the moment, he employs eight people at his pub and he would like to employ more. He said that, if the Carmichael mine went ahead, he would be able to dramatically increase the number and provide more employment opportunities to locals. Les feels that the Clermont economy needs the boost that the Carmichael mine would create and the recent court decision will negatively impact the small town's confidence and growth impacts. I want to give Les a voice. I think he deserves a voice in our nation's parliament, but right now, because we have a lawyers' picnic in this area, the lawyers have a lot bigger voice than people like Les, unfortunately. It is a very well-organised picnic too. It is well organised because we know it has been a key tactic of green activist groups. They might be called green, but they are not interested in protecting the environment. They are interested in shutting down the coalmining industry in Queensland and indeed across the country. We know it is an organised strategy because their strategy document was, fortunately for us, leaked a few years ago. The full document was leaked: Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom was their particular strategy. It was supported by organisations like Greenpeace, GetUp!, Lock the Gate Alliance, the New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office, the Mackay Conservation Group and the Australia Institute. I cannot believe this, but even a trade union, United Voice, was also involved in putting this document together. A trade union! Unions are meant to be supporting jobs and supporting Australians being in work, but they want to shut down the coalmining industry too.

This document was very explicit about its aim. It said:

Our strategy is essentially to ‘disrupt and delay’ key projects and infrastructure while gradually eroding public and political support for the industry and continually building the power of the movement to win more.

If they get their way, 50,000 Queenslanders will be out of work tomorrow and tens of thousands more will miss out on the jobs that would have otherwise have been created by new coalmining investments. This anti-development strategy is playing out right now in our country. That strategy specifically mentions using the courts not to improve the environment but to stop mines. Again, directly quoting from their document:

The first priority is to get in front of the critical projects to slow them down in the approval process. This means lodging legal challenges to five new coal port expansions, two major rail lines and up to a dozen of the key mines. This will require significant investment in legal capacity. While this is creating much needed breathing space, we need to continue to build the movement and mobilize to create pressure on politicians and investors alike.

This is an abuse of our legal process. It is not about trying to protect the environment. It is about one specific aim, and that is to disrupt and delay investment in our economy and the creation of new jobs in our economy. We saw that a couple of weeks ago a group from the New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office—which I will come back to—took an action in the Federal Court against the Carmichael coalmine in Central Queensland. They argued not that the mine would cause some terrible damage to the environment or threat to certain species but that, because the minister had not been shown all documents relating to a preservation order relating to some threatened species that the mine approval should be ruled out of order. There were approval conditions in this process for the ornamental snake and the yakka skink. There were conditions to protect them. They are two animals that are threatened but they do have an area across a wide area of Queensland and not just in this particular coalmine. The environmental groups did not say the mine would necessarily cause them damage. They did not argue that at all. They just said that, because all of the documents were not given to the minister—and there were hundreds of these pages of documents—it fell afoul of section 139(2) of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act because the minister had not had regard to the preservation orders for these threatened species. A ridiculous argument! It is an argument that was also used to stop an iron mine in Tasmania a few years ago that Senator Colbeck would know well. This group, this New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office, were the ones who took this action

They took an action against a coalmine that is sort of north of Clermont. It is out in the middle of nowhere really. It is actually north of a little town called Alpha. Alpha is more than 1,500 kilometres away from Sydney, but this group, the New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office, took this action. This group receives over $3 million a year in revenue. They have 20 paid staff and they receive more than $1 million a year in donations from Australians, and the Australians who make those donations get tax deductions for doing so. So we are providing tax support for this abuse of our legal process, and I think that should end. I will not go into detail here, but there is a House of Representatives inquiry into that process.

I support the government's announced proposal to toughen up the requirements to get legal standing in these cases. In almost every other area of law, if you want to get standing in a court, if you want to be given the right to take an action, to try to stop a particular project, you need to have some appropriate and legitimate interest in that particular project. I would argue that green lawyers in Sydney do not have a material interest in a coalmine near where I live that creates jobs there. They do not have a legitimate interest and they should not be getting standing, but the way the current act is worded they get it anyway. All you have to do is be doing some kind of environmental work and you get standing. That is ridiculously too easy and it should be changed. So I support the government's attempt to change section 487.2 of the EPBC Act to ensure that only people actually affected by these coalmines get standing and only they get to have a say—the locals get to have a say; the people who are impacted get a say.

I see Labor Party senators already shaking their heads. We know who they are going to line up behind. We know they are going to line up behind the green activists and the lawyers in Sydney, not locals in Central Queensland who need these jobs. That is their approach but, as a Queensland senator, I am going to be fighting hard for those jobs and I know my fellow Queensland senators on this side of the chamber will be doing the same. I wish other Queensland senators would do that too. We announced this proposal only yesterday, but we have already seen a Queensland senator, Senator Lazarus, come out this morning and say that he opposes this change, that he does not think that people in Queensland deserve a bigger say than activist groups in Sydney.

Senator Lazarus used to be quite an effective player for New South Wales. He used to cause quite a bit of heartache to me, as a Queensland supporter, when he donned the Blues jersey. He used to don the Blues jersey and I think he might still be a little bit confused. He still seems to be playing for the Blues and not the Maroons. He still seems to be supporting New South Wales ahead of Queensland, because he is saying that green activist groups in Sydney deserve a bigger say than locals like Les Boal in Clermont, in his electorate, who voted for him and put him in this place. I would think that all senators would want to put the interests of their state first. I know that all the Queensland senators on this side do.

The majority of Queenslanders support this coalmine, which will produce up to 10,000 jobs and create massive opportunities, particularly for an area of the state that is struggling at the moment. It is unfortunate that somebody who was elected on a platform opposed to a mining tax and opposed to a carbon tax—ostensibly supporting our mining industry—is now going back on that promise and is instead supporting greens in other states ahead of his own state. I ask Senator Lazarus to reconsider his position. He is a Queensland senator. He now should be donning the maroon and not the blue, and he should back Queensland in this instance because that is how we are going to get back on our feet after a slowdown in the mining sector. This is going to create jobs and people should get behind this proposal to create jobs in Queensland.

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