Queensland’s Proposed Dams

Senator Bartlett: My question is to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell. I refer to his upcoming decision regarding the processes to be used to assess the environmental impacts of the Traveston and Wyaralong dams in south-east Queensland. The minister has indicated in correspondence to me and to others that ‘the environmental assessment must be carried out in accordance with procedures outlined in the bilateral agreement with the Queensland government’. I ask the minister: is it not the case that section 8 of that agreement states that it does not create contractual or other legal obligations between the governments, and section 9 does not preclude an assessment being done other than one accredited by the Queensland government? Given the importance of these projects, the major consequences, the enormous public interest and the high level of public mistrust about the accuracy and completeness of the information and processes followed to date by the Queensland government, will the minister ensure a full public inquiry is held into the impacts of these projects on matters of national environmental significance, as he is empowered to do under the EPBC Act?

Senator Campbell: The two major dam proposals that the Queensland government has initiated both trigger the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. I am happy that the Queensland government has referred both of those proposals. They are both, in fact, required to be assessed under the EPBC Act because there are federal triggers involved and the assessment processes will be the subject of that law and the subject of the bilateral agreement that we have in place with Queensland.

It is a very important aspect of the federal environmental law that we have, after years of proposals for development around the country having to, quite often, go through three, four or five approval processes, developed a law and arrangements with most of the states. I urge the other states to come on board with bilateral arrangements, particularly under, hopefully, the reformed environment law that will go through this place in the next 10 days, because we can get the sort of situation that we have in Queensland.

As Senator Bartlett has pointed out, the law does allow a full public inquiry for the two dam proposals. I make it very clear that the proposal to build these dams is a Queensland government decision. They have primary responsibility for ensuring that the water needs, particularly of south-east Queensland, are met. The Commonwealth government has no role in deciding the water policies of Queensland except through the National Water Initiative in a cooperative way. The Queensland government have made a decision to build these dams. They are both major proposals. They can have environmentally significant impacts and they will be assessed thoroughly under the appropriate laws.

As to the need for a full public inquiry, we are not at that decision-making point yet. It is very rare to use the full public inquiry process. I am very aware, because of the substantial interest, undertakings and submissions made to me by my colleagues, such as the Hon. Warren Truss and the Hon. Alex Somlyay in the other place and by Queensland senators, all of them—as you have, Senator Bartlett—who have come to me and lobbied me on the same matter, that this is a matter of very deep concern,. I am very aware of the environmental significance of the projects. I am very aware of the community concern expressed by you and coalition colleagues on this side of the chamber and from lower house colleagues of mine, in the other place. Whether or not a public inquiry is the best process, I am yet to be convinced.

Let it be said that, under the alternative processes, there will be a full public disclosure period and opportunities for any member of the public, community group or scientist to be engaged. And there is a huge interest in these projects from the scientific community right around the world because of the potential impact on the lungfish, as you would know, Senator Bartlett. That opportunity exists and a process that allows full public engagement without the formal public inquiry process is available. I am yet to determine whether there will be a formal public inquiry process. I am taking a very close interest in it and I am very happy to keep liaising with you on the process and the decision-making process as we move down that track.

Senator Bartlett: Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer. Could I ask him to confirm that it is not compulsory for the federal government to follow that bilateral agreement process if the minister believes that a full public inquiry is necessary? Acknowledging, as he has said, that this is a Queensland government decision and a Queensland government owned and constructed process, how can people have confidence in an assessment process accredited and run by the state government that has said that it is intending to build these dams no matter what? I also ask the minister whether he was aware that, when the Queensland government submitted the Cedar Grove Weir on the Logan River—the same river system as the proposed Wyaralong dam—earlier this year, they stated that that the Wyaralong dam may only be considered in the year 2060, and they did not mention the other proposed Tilleys Bridge dam at the time and said there were no other relevant and interdependent developments? Given this sort of misleading material provided by the Queensland government in past applications, how can we have confidence in any role they have in any future developments?

Senator Campbell: I think it is only appropriate that the Commonwealth works on the basis that we treat the proposal coming from the Queensland government on its merits and that we work in partnership with the Queensland government on a process that we have agreed and that the full force of the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act will not be in any way undermined. The full force of that law will be brought to bear on this project. But I think we have to act on the basis that the Queensland government will bring fairness to this process. I know that it is easy for others to treat that cynically but, as two governments, we have to work on the basis that their government will deal with this process as agreed through the bilateral agreement. I reiterate that it is the Queensland government’s decision to build these dams. There are nationally significant environmental issues, including the lungfish and the Mary River cod, as I understand it. They will get the full protection of the law.

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