News - 21 January 2015

Newman’s paradise for developers

Newman’s paradise for developers

QUEENSLAND is home to some of Australia’s most important environmental assets. The Great Barrier Reef, the rainforests, Fraser Island, Cape York and the Channel Country have either been protected through World Heritage listing or have been recommended for future protection due to the global significance of these places.

Economically however, Queensland very much remains a frontier state. Its decentralised population and dependence on a narrow economic base mean the contest between development and conservation provides a constant backdrop to all features of public policy.

These tensions have become particularly pronounced during elections over the past few decades. The coming Queensland election on 31 January is no different.

Since the 1980s, the debate between jobs and the environment has turned into electoral flashpoints over issues including the protection of the Daintree, Fraser Island, the infamous Koala toll road, landclearing, the Traveston Dam on the Mary River and the protection of wild rivers.

This election campaign has already featured debate about the future of the Great Barrier Reef, coal mining in the Galilee Basin, and controversy about the winding back a raft of existing environmental protections and laws by the Newman Government.

Environmental debates have often driven wedges between the conservative political parties in Queensland, particularly in respect to issues such as land clearing.

These divisions have been papered over since the creation of the Liberal National Party but these divisions remain.

Added to this volatile mix, the Queensland economy has been struggling for several years. Campbell Newman and the LNP were elected with a heavy focus on the promotion of mining and agricultural development over environmental considerations.

Following his landslide election, many hoped that the election of a large number of Brisbane-based LNP MPs would constrain some of the ‘‘develop at all costs’’ instincts of the old Queensland Nationals.

The actions of the Newman Government since then have shown this hope was misplaced.

Over the past three years, Premier Newman used his massive parliamentary majority to weaken land clearing laws; remove protection from rivers on Cape York, the Gulf and the Channel Country through the repeal of the Wild Rivers Act; promote cattle grazing in existing national parks; and dust off discredited plans to build a cable-car through the World Heritage listed rainforests on the Gold Coast hinterland.

The Government has also removed a range of incentives to support renewable energy, and limited the ability of community members to object to large scale development proposals – particularly in respect to mining.

The Newman Government is a supporter of plans to build an irrigation development on the Gilbert River in the Gulf country, championed by the people that brought us the Cubbie Station cotton farm debacle in western Queensland.

The coal industry has also been strongly backed by the Newman Government. Controversially, the Government is proposing to provide hundreds of millions in taxpayer funds to build the infrastructure required to enable the Adani company to open up the Galilee Basin coal fields in central Queensland.

This is at a time when thousands of Queenslanders have lost their jobs through cuts to the public service and through cuts to services. The Galilee Basin coal proposal has also led to renewed concerns about the future of the Great Barrier Reef, with proposals to build coal export facilities at Abbott Point and significantly increase the number of coal ships through the reef.

These concerns have caught the attention of UNESCO, which later this year will consider whether to list the reef as ‘‘in danger’’ because of overdevelopment and the lack of adequate plans to guarantee the ongoing health of the reef.

Such has been the vigour of the Newman Government’s support for mining that even traditional allies, such as Agforce, have accused the Government of abandoning them in favour of the interests of mining.

On 7 January, the President of Agforce, Grant Maudsley, told the Courier-Mail that “the Newman Government was not looking after the interests of the individual against the power of multinational coal and gas companies."

Few expect the LNP to lose government, though the tightening of the race over the several months underlines the deep sense of concern that this Government has gone too far, and that the balance has shifted too far in favour of development over the environment.

If re-elected, perhaps they will hear this message and take environmental concerns much more seriously.

Lyndon Schneiders is the National Director of the Wilderness Society.