Press Conference Transcript: Hands off NSW Climate Laws

featuring Ben Oquist

E&OE Transcript

BEN OQUIST: My name is Ben Oquist, I’m the Executive Director at the Australia Institute and I’m delighted to be with such an eminent group of people. David Morris, CEO of EDO NSW, Janet Reynolds, bushfire survivor from the 2015 Tathra fires, Ken Thompson, former deputy commissioner of NSW Fire and Emergency Services and member of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, and of course Paul Stein who you know, AM and QC, former Land and Environment Court and a former judge here in NSW.

All these people have come together because they know something wrong is happening in New South Wales. And this is the start of the fightback. At a federal level, you’ve seen the Prime Minister announce new laws at the behest of the coal industry, here in New South Wales you are seeing the wind back of existing laws at the behest of the coal industry.

Quite unbelievably in this day and age of climate emergency calls, increasing evidence of the dangers that are caused from climate change because of the excessive burning of coal here and overseas, we are seeing laws implemented either for the coal industry at the federal level, or laws wound back here in New South Wales at the behest of the coal industry. It’s almost unimaginable that in an age of climate emergency this could be happening. So, this is the start of the fightback.

These people have come together to help launch a new TV advertisement as a fightback to the coal industry’s attempts to wind back the laws in New South Wales, I’ll just start by showing that ad.

Ad plays (view here)

First off, David Morris, CEO of EDO NSW.

DAVID MORRIS, CEO OF EDO NSW: Thanks Ben. Look these new laws proposed by Minister Stokes are a retrograde step, make no mistake about that. They attempt to do two things – the first is to prohibit decision makers from imposing conditions on NSW based projects which relate to the overseas burned emissions from coal-fired projects. The second is to remove an explicit requirement for decision makers to consider those downstream emissions when weighing up the pros and cons of a particular project. That’s undesirable for many reasons, but first and foremost it ignores the important local issues that are driven by our products being burned overseas. That is, when our coal is burned overseas, it has local impacts right here in New South Wales. And trying to exclude that important impact of these local projects, from a decision maker’s consideration of that project, is simply really grotesque at this point in time when we are seeing what we are seeing around the country and around the globe. I’m happy to answer any technical details about what the Bill does, but first and foremost it’s those two things. It tries to eliminate the ability to impose conditions in relation to overseas-burned emissions, and it removes the explicit requirement for the fulsome consideration of climate change impacts when weighing up the pros and cons of a local development.

PAUL STEIN AM QC: My name is Paul Stein, I’m a former judge of the New South Wales Court of Appeal and the Land and Environment Court. Following on from what David has said, it seems to me that this is very regressive legislation in a time when we should be doing the very opposite. And that all citizens in New South Wales should be alarmed by the Bill. It’s a dangerous step which flies in the face of combatting global warming. It also is what is in essence an attack on the independent decision makers, namely the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales and the Independent Planning Commission who make merit assessments of all of the relevant considerations and weigh them up. And I should add that climate change doesn’t have a veto, it is one amongst many relevant considerations to be taken into account. And now to be instructed that it is no longer a relevant consideration to take into account downstream emissions outside of New South Wales is, in my view, ludicrous and flies in the face of the reality of global climate change, if we’re not able to take into account the effect of our exporting of emissions, and confine it only to New South Wales, then that will hamstring the decision makers. I think it is really an opportunity for the government to think again about this legislation and withdraw it.

JANET REYNOLDS, BUSHFIRE SURVIVOR: Hello I’m Janet Reynolds and I’m from the Bega Valley where I’ve lived since 1992. Last year in 2018 in the middle of winter, a massive bushfire carrying winds of 130 km per hour ripped through my property, destroying absolutely everything. Melting my stand-alone solar system, and completely destroying absolutely everything that was there. I was lucky to escape with my life; I drove out through the flames and very glad to be here. I have seen the results of the fires on our community in the Bega Valley and the emotional and physical impact that it has had on the community is huge. It’s not just the fire and losing a few things, it’s a massive emotional impact on our whole community. I know that the winds now, reading the climate science, are increasing, the westerly winds are increasing because of the warming of the atmosphere, and the people who have lost their properties are in dire need of knowing that something constructive is being done. I think that for the New South Wales Government to even contemplate allowing the selfish attitudes of the coal lobby to influence something that is going to have worldwide implications is absolutely wrong. We should be really investing now in 100 per cent renewables and making our place a place that is safe with a future for all Australian citizens. Thank you.

KEN THOMPSON: Good morning. My name is Ken Thompson, I’m a former deputy commissioner with Fire and Rescue New South Wales, I was also a founding member of a United Nations international search and rescue advisory group and a founding member of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, so I think I bring to the table quite a bit of experience with emergency management and disaster management.

But I have to say that over the last 30 years or so I’ve seen very significant changes in the behaviour of emergencies and disasters in New South Wales, particularly bushfires. Fire seasons are much longer than they used to be, fire seasons are being brought forward to August, which is the middle of winter, we have had total fire bans in the middle of winter which has never happened before. We’re seeing now, this time of the year, catastrophic fires in the northern part of New South Wales and South-Eastern Queensland again, types of events that we haven’t seen before.

Now some people say well this is the new normal, well my response to that is that this isn’t the new normal, this is just the beginning of a whole future of catastrophic consequences if we allow the sorts of changes that are being proposed here now to go ahead. The government’s proposal to amend the existing legislation to make it easier for coal mines to be approved is a betrayal of thousands of firefighters and the community itself. On the one hand we have the government that expects firefighters to respond to ever-increasing fires and more catastrophic fires, and on the other hand we have the government trying to ease up regulations or legislation to enable the industry that is a major contributor of these climate conditions that are creating these conditions, to make it easier for them to do that. For people like me that just doesn’t make sense at all. Flies in the face of all the science we’ve been receiving over the last 30 years or so, the same science the government’s been receiving. The government seems quite happy to accept the opinions of the coal lobby but seems to ignore the opinions of the scientists. Scientists probably don’t have the amount of money the coal lobby does to be able to lobby the government.

It’s a global problem and it doesn’t matter whether the coal is burned in New South Wales or Australia or anywhere else in the world, the burning of that coal releases carbon dioxide, that carbon dioxide has a massive influence within our own borders, it’s having it now, it’s been having it for quite a long time, and it will continue to have it for a long time into the future. This legislation is not going to help anybody in this country.

BEN OQUIST: Thank you, there you have it. The coal industry in New South Wales producing 57,000 tonnes of pollution an hour. More pollution than France or the UK. Yet we have, here in New South Wales, laws to wind back the regulation of that industry while Scott Morrison ponders laws to stop effective climate activists and consumer boycotts at a federal level. In this day and age, when 57,000 tonnes an hour of pollution is accelerating climate change, increasing the likelihood of more severe bushfires, we have a craven collapse of the politicians here in New South Wales, just passed special laws for the coal industry. You couldn’t make it up. This is an issue which goes beyond climate change, it’s now affecting our democracy, and it’s time we had politicians that stood up to the coal industry, rather than say “how high?” when that industry says jump. This is the start of the fightback. Make no mistake the community is getting sick of it, increasingly worried about climate change, seeing the effects of that coal burning, congratulations to Paul and to David and to Janet and to Ken for leading this fightback, because there’s going to be more from this coal industry unless we stand up to them. We’ll show the ad one more time.

Ad plays (view here)

OQUIST: As I said, thank you David, thank you Paul, thank you Janet and thank you Ken. Happy to take any questions.

QUESTION: Just wondering if you would accept that if coal has a short-term role still to play in Australia? Whether or not it does, and at what timeframe do you think it needs to be phased out completely in Australia?

OQUIST: I guess there are arguments about how quickly coal needs to be phased out, but soon. And what we are contemplating here is not a phase out of coal, but simply stopping the expansion of coal. You can’t have that transition and phase out until you stop expanding it. And of course what these laws are potentially about stopping the increase in coal mining and we can’t start that transition while we are expanding. So, first step – stop the expansion, and then we can debate about how quickly to transition out of it.

QUESTION: Some energy companies have sort of agreed with you on that point, is that sort of a bizarre alliance almost? 

OQUIST: Well it’s true that when it comes to coal burning in Australia, coal is getting out of coal. And you do have the absurd situation where AGL is trying to shut Liddell because it is an aging coal-fired power station, and you have government ministers, particularly at the federal level, urging that coal-fired power station to keep open. Coal wants to get out of coal, and in some places the government is hindering it. When it comes to coal mining, unfortunately the Minerals Council is having too much sway over politicians at both a state level and a federal level and policies are being put in place to allow coal expansion of that mining industry let alone a contraction.

QUESTION: It’s clear that this Bill is part of a broader attack on the IPC and trying to rein them in after a few bad decisions in the view of the Minerals Council, but what do you think we should be doing to empower the IPC as part of the review that’s happening now?

DAVID MORRIS: I’m happy to speak to that, I think the first thing to note about the two particular decisions which have caused great controversy, the first was in the Land and Environment Court, the decision of Chief Justice Preston, and the second by the panel that was reviewing the Bylong Valley project. They’re not radical decisions, they’re a really rational response to the scientific evidence of our contribution to climate change, and a really logical development of the principle of ecologically sustainable development. In terms of what the IPC needs, it needs to be better resourced. It needs to be appropriately resourced to interrogate the differing bodies of evidence that are going to be before it when they are weighing up the pros and cons of a particular project. That’s important because we’ve seen that when you do get that opportunity for a full merits hearing before the Land and Environment Court, often the evidence put forward by a proponent is found wanting. And you see that in overstatement of the economic benefits and understatement of the environmental and social costs of a particular project. And that was one of the, I think, great things about the Rocky Hill judgement, was that it was a very comprehensive judgement of the pros and cons of the Rocky Hill project outlined for Gloucester. It looked at the benefits in terms of local job creation, short-term local job creation, but it also looked at the costs, the long- and short-term costs, costs in terms of jobs in the tourism industry, in the agricultural industry in that area. So that’s the importance of merits appeals, it allows decision makers to properly consider the available evidence and have that interrogated in a good forum.

PAUL STEIN: I think the question is important because I think it’s fair to say that the attitude of the general public to governments in Australia today is at a fairly low ebb. And one of the reasons that it is at a low ebb is that there is a loss of trust. Now independent institutions such as the IPA and such as the Land and Environment Court and the court system generally, and the various corruption commissions around Australia, and the Human Rights Commission and I could go on with many, many illustrations, Auditor-General – there’s another one – are extraordinarily important for our democracy, and they are extraordinarily important to allow the general public to have trust in their governments knowing that there are these institutions that are independent of government that have to make decisions that are ultimately in the general public interest. There’s taking place – and has taken place over the last few years, but seems to be increasing – attacks on these institutions, sometimes coming from government and sometimes coming from other quarters, and I think that we have to defend these institutions because they are essential to our democracy.

OQUIST: Terrific, unless there are any other questions, thank you very much, it’s only through action of concerned experts, citizens, survivors, lawyers, that these laws can be defeated and further laws can be defeated. Thank you all very much for taking the time out to make this case, this is the start of this campaign not the end of it, you’ll be hearing more. Thank you very much.


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