Wind in sails of a new chorus of claims
The first cancellation of a project as a result of environmental activism took place 30 years ago. The previously unknown snail darter was judged to be under threat and would face extermination if the then 95 per cent completed Tellico Dam in Tennessee were commissioned.
Federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell justified his decision early this month to prevent the building of a wind farm in Gippsland on fears its blades would chop up the occasional rare orange-bellied parrot.
Australia has had many examples of anti-development zealotry. Unlike the Gippsland wind farm, most of the halted projects would have had considerable economic benefits. Malcolm Fraser led the way. Shortly after the snail darter stopped the Tellico Dam, he brandished his green credentials by banning sand mining on Fraser Island, where it would have done no harm.
We saw mighty oaks of green economic vandalism flourishing from such acorns. The ALP tapped the environmentalist current in winning the 1983 election. A policy banning the construction of a major new dam began the gradual process of locking up Tasmania for development.
This was followed by the Hawke government's banning uranium mining on a former cattle station - which one minister described as "clapped-out buffalo country" - within the boundaries of a national park. And we have seen the travails of the ALP policy from resolutely in favour of uranium mining, to adamant opposition, to "three mines" and now heading back towards support.
The High Court provided another arm to regulatory imperialism when, in the Mabo decision, it reversed the established law of property by inventing a new notion of indigenous rights. Native title overlaying ordinary title is, with environmentalism, throttling new mining developments.
Both have proved enduring and immune from criticism. Hence, Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Mitch Hooke ("Unblock minerals investment", AFR, April 11) complains about "structural impediments" to exploration. Rather than seeking removal of the regulatory measures that have a choke hold over the industry he represents, Hooke falls back on seeking tax breaks.
Campbell's ostensible concerns for the orange-bellied parrot are in stark contrast to former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett's dismissal of suggestions that the bird might prevent the relocation of the Coode Island chemical complex; he declared he would not be thwarted by some "trumped-up corella".
Campbell must have clear and well-justified reservations about the Gippsland wind project and used the commonwealth's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to halt it.
One problem with using the act is that its provisions are sufficiently malleable to be exploited by opponents of economic development. There are suggestions a bird previously considered extinct could be used to stop new iron ore mining proposals at Hamersley. A Melbourne housing development is also in the sights of the anti-development brigade, who claim a moth may be threatened.
There are too many grounds for reducing prosperity by regulating business. The wind farm furore coincided with the publication of the report of the Taskforce on Reducing the Regulatory Burden on Business, which addressed excessive regulation driven by "societal and political pressures" stemming from "a growing and unsustainable aversion to risk". Contrary to the findings of that report, Campbell has stoked the fires of environmental activism. He is wrong if he thinks he can harness them. Not only will his reactivation of the environment protection act's provisions engender a new chorus of claims, but it will build pressure for hiving off such decision making to an expert committee, the membership of which will doubtless become dominated by those with environmental concerns.
A postscript: The outcome for the Tellico Dam was a deal five years later involving unrelated measures that allowed the dam to proceed. The snail darter was found to be far from endangered. It thrived throughout the area and was sufficiently adaptable to continue doing so in the dam.