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Cape York in Crisis

Once again Cape York is in crisis.

Tens of thousands of hectares of native bushland are being cleared on Cape York on a scale not seen since the Bjelke-Petersen years. The aim is to open up the region to high-value agriculture in a bid to boost the struggling economy of the Cape.

The controversial approvals were quietly granted by the Queensland LNP government on January 20th just 11 days before they were voted out in a landslide defeat, and without any environmental impact assessment by the commonwealth.

It’s a horrible deja-vu.

Tim Seelig of the Wilderness Society said the timing of the decision raises serious concerns about the politics involved, “coming just a few days before the outcome of the election was known.”

Changes to land clearing legislation

The incoming Labor government inherited the weakened laws around tree-clearing from the LNP government, who made changes to the Vegetation Management Act in 2013. The amendments made it easier for farmers to clear native bush for high-value agriculture, no longer needing to apply to the Department of Natural Resources for permission.

The 2013 changes were strongly opposed by environmental groups, calling it “the biggest roll-back of environmental protection in Australia’s history”. It was also opposed by the opposition Labor government with Jo-Ann Miller saying, “The Newman Government will be back on its D9s, back on its big machinery, ripping the guts out of Queensland.”

In the lead up to the 2015 election the Labor government had campaigned to tighten restrictions on clearing, but since coming into office in February have done very little to act.

Olive Vale Station

90km west of Cooktown on the Laura River lies Olive Vale Station. Previously owned by Leichhardt MP Warren Entsch, the 136,000 hectare cattle station is now run by Ryan Global.

With almost 32,000 hectares approved for destruction, more than any other property on the Cape, Olive Vale is now the centre of an investigation into the questionable approvals process.

The bulldozers quickly moved in with clear-felling taking place an unprecedented scale to make way for commercial trials of high-value crops like rice, sorghum and chickpeas. Owners Ryan Global also hope to increase their head of cattle on the property from 15,000 to 25,000.

Image: Wilderness Society

Image: Wilderness Society

Conservation groups warned that the project would have unacceptable environmental outcomes on the heritage value woodland and wetland impacting 17 threatened species including the Gouldian Finch, increasing run-off pollution into the Great Barrier Reef catchments, and contributing to nearly 2% of Australia’s annual CO2 emissions.

Amid pressure from environmental groups the Palaszcuk government ordered an urgent investigation into the approvals. According to Palaszcuk, “The allegations into the clearing of land on Olive Vale Station while the caretaker conventions were in place, is a matter of great concern to me.”

Warren Entsch was less diplomatic, accusing environmental groups of “bullshit” and hyping the issue to raise funds for their own campaign issues.

On June 12th the clearing was halted while the commonwealth assesses the claims under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Federal environmental compliance officers visited the Olive Vale property on June 11th and 12th after which owners Ryan Global agreed to suspend the clearing while the investigation takes place.

Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles welcomed the decision to suspend clearing and expressed his deep concern about the approval.

Northern Australia white paper

The Abbott Government released their first ever Northern Australia white paper last Thursday which outlined a blueprint to create an “economic powerhouse” in Australia’s north, particularly through large scale, intensive agriculture and the development of the resources industry. This is hardly a new idea, with many governments trying and failing to bring this dream to fruition.

A common and worrying theme of the paper is the need to reduce red tape and to create a more welcoming investment environment through the establishment of a, “single point of entry for investors in major projects to help them through all regulatory hurdles.”

This includes plans to create a one-stop shop for environmental approvals, loosen fisheries restrictions, provide infrastructure loans to the resources industry, and to dam certain river systems for use in agricultural irrigation.

The document repeatedly states that the development plan will greatly benefit the Cape’s indigenous population and is something that communities both want and need. Cooktown Mayor Peter Scott is supportive of the plans which he says are important for economic growth and employment in the heavily disadvantaged region.

Others are more sceptical.

Labour Senator Nova Peris says the white paper will benefit big business and investors, but does little to help native title holders steer their own development outcomes. In fact, the document proposes “a whole lot of mucking around with native title”, encouraging title-holders to open up their land to development.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has questioned the suitability of intensive agriculture in the region.  In 2013 Traditional Owners said that a push to open up Cape York to more farming was, “grabbing at the sky”. Michael Ross, former chairman of Cape York Land Council, warned that most of the Cape is not suitable for farming with weeds, erosion and regrowth affecting cleared areas.

Image: ACF Online

Image: ACF Online

Cape York is one of our most precious wilderness areas, a biodiversity hotspot and a region of rich indigenous culture and heritage.

It’s difficult to reconcile the white paper with plans for a World Heritage listing for Cape York, which environmental groups have been pushing for years. Despite missing the deadline to submit a proposal to UNESCO in 2014, Environment Minister Greg Hunt still maintains that it’s committed to seeing a World Heritage listing happen but only after “broad community agreement” on the issue.

Working with the land instead of against it, Cape York has the potential to become a world leader in sustainability and attaining World Heritage listing is central to that. The short term and exploitative approach to economic development outlined by the Federal Government will ultimately fail the Cape’s marginalised communities.

 

Why remaining silent on the fight for other people’s wages could be bad for your health

Originally published on Polyfeministix

Many Australians will shy away from talking about, discussing and signing petitions that fight for the rights of wages and benefits for our fellow Australians.

Since the Howard era of Work Choices, and individual agreements, and his war on collectivism, we have seen a dramatic decline in union density and the Abbott Government has done its best to stigmatize and de-legitimize the hard work that Unions do in Australia.

This brings about the problem of people from all walks of life, not wanting to get involved in protests and social awareness campaigns about ‘other people’s wages and benefits.’  Many people also do not want to get involved or sign up to a union, which is simply a collective body of workers joining together to fight for wages and conditions.

Now the right-winged thinkers, Australian Liberals and Libertarians will do their best to shame you and ridicule you for fighting for wages and conditions. They will call you a dirty filthy Marxist, a Communist and a radical socialist.  They will also tell you it is “unAustralian” and it is unions who have ruined the country. However, people who are not in this group and who have fought for the wages and conditions and stood in solidarity, know that it is far more than that.  They know that what we value in Australian working life was fought for by the workers.

What we have now is the Liberals now trying to reap the rewards of their hard earned messages to decimate unions and collective action. In Queensland there is a situation, that is absolutely dire.  Every single business owner and manager in the public sector should be fighting for the best talent.  The best talent is what makes organisations great. In one area this is absolutely critical is in our Health Sector.

The Conservative arms of Government have spent years and years stigmatizing unions and collectivist fights for better wages and conditions, so they could pull stunts like they are now.

Political greedy stunts that might save a few short term dollars, but have very long term health implications for the every day Australian.  For your mum, grandma, granddad, children, babies and loved ones.

The Campbell Newman Queensland Government want to introduce a two tiered wages system, which will see a lower level of wages for entry level health professionals.   What this is aimed to do, is to drive the talent towards the Private Sector, where the QLD Government wants to outsource so many areas of public health.

The Campbell Newman’s next agenda (and no doubt Abbott’s) will be to:

Privatise Health, based on the argument that the Public Sector is unsustainable and cannot attract the right talent.

To maintain and attract the best talent in our public sector system, it is essential that all Australian’s stand up to their state Governments and to the Abbott Governments “pressure to sell public assets” to the States and their agenda on privatisation.

To ensure the best in health care is given to all Australians, do NOT let the QLD Government set this precedent, or your state will be next.

Please sign and share this petition, or we will end up with a poorer, ineffective health system.  Don’t let the Government use the argument that they cannot attract talent to privatise our health system.

Petition: Stop Building A Two Tier Health System

Stand up and be counted! As Gough would say “It’s Time”

Sickness Country: Selling Nuclear to the Neighbours

Earlier this month, Tony Abbott travelled to India to seal the deal on a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement which will allow the sale of uranium to the subcontinent. Australia had previously banned the sale of uranium to India, due to its status as a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Australia has the largest known uranium deposits in the world and is the third largest exporter, behind Kazakhstan and Canada. There are currently only three operational mines in Australia – Ranger (NT), Olympic Dam (SA) and Beverley (SA).

Newman brings back uranium mining in QLD

In October 2012, newly elected Queensland Premier Campbell Newman announced that the long-standing ban on uranium mining in the state would be lifted. The backflip on his pre-election promise not to pursue uranium mining came shortly after PM Julia Gillard pushed to reopen uranium negotiations with India in 2011.

Although not officially banned until 1989, uranium hasn’t been mined in Queensland since 1982 when the Mary Kathleen mine in the state’s north west was closed for rehabilitation. This is the first mine to be reopened, with the government opening up submissions for its development last July.

The reopening of other closed mine sites in the state is expected to follow. According to the State Government, there are more than 80 known sites containing valuable amounts of uranium, the majority in the state’s north west.

Townsville declares itself nuclear free

One of the largest deposits is just 50km south of Townsville at Ben Lomond. Last mined over 30 years ago, it’s being eyed up by mining companies and the Queensland government is ready and waiting for submissions to redevelop the site.

In response, residents of Townsville declared the city nuclear free earlier this year and have been actively campaigning against the reopening of the mine since the ban was lifted.

“It’s hazardous, it’s very high risk, it’s at the top of a water catchment that’s our backup drinking supply. The risks associated with opening Ben Lomond are simply not acceptable.”  – Deputy Mayor and LNP member Vern Veitch.

Despite being located in a cyclone and flood prone area, State Resources and Mines Minister Andrew Cripps sees no grounds for objection against the Ben Lomond mine arguing that “The EIS process will take into account the prevailing environment and weather patterns of the area and they will have to have contingency plans in place to accommodate that environment.”

Global collapse in uranium price

The global uranium price has plunged since its peak in 2007, now sitting at one quarter of the 2007 price. The Fukushima disaster in 2011 and a huge oversupply in the market are cited as the factors behind the slump. Many find Minister Cripps’ claims of the potential for uranium exports to earn billions of dollars for Queensland extraordinary.

“Australian uranium exports make less than two billion a year. The uranium price has been in free fall since 2007, and with governments around the world shutting down nuclear power stations; 150 nuclear power stations in Europe alone are scheduled for closure with no plans to replace them.”  – Greens nuclear policy spokesman Senator Scott Ludlam.

Uranium mining just doesn’t make economic sense for Queensland. As with the rest of the mining sector, we continue to hear the same rhetoric about job creation and economic opportunities. But the reality is that mining employs far less people than the industry and the government would have us believe.

Environmental impacts

Given the Newman government’s poor track record, there is also scepticism about the so-called “robust framework” in place to protect the environment.

Local graziers of the land surrounding Mary Kathleen mine are deeply concerned about the reopening of the mine, fearing contaminated dust will be blown onto their land and groundwater will be impacted. Third generation grazier Ian Campbell said that the mine’s recovery was mismanaged, leaving behind dead, contaminated land.

“They talk about strict standards but that’s a joke – there are none.” – Grazier Ian Campbell

Though the tailings dam was mostly drained and capped with rock, thirty years on the rate of seepage is much faster than predicted. Metal-rich, radioactive waters have made their way into the local drainage system, contaminating the land and killing vegetation next to the mine.

Since the ban was lifted in 2012, many have questioned whether Queensland ports will be used to export the material, potentially through the Great Barrier Reef.

As it stands, there are no licensed ports in Queensland for the export of uranium. Uranium mined in SA and NT is currently exported through the existing licensed ports in Darwin and South Australia, although if Queensland is to resume mining then it’s a safe bet that it will be exported through Queensland ports.

In 2012, the Port of Townsville applied for uranium to be exported through its ports, due to its proximity to Mary Kathleen and Ben Lomond. It described Townsville as a readily equipped gateway to facilitate the transport of yellowcake.

This has been downplayed, although not ruled out by Cripps, saying the option exists but is unlikely as “the process for establishing a licensed port is quite complex and quite costly.”

QLD passes bill to block mining objections

In light of recent environmental victories against mining companies, the Newman government recently passed a bill to remove public objection rights on mining lease applications.

The Mineral and Energy Resources Bill was opposed by an unlikely team – Labor and Katter’s Australia Party – who feel the bill supports large mining companies at the expense of landholders.

“For example, if Ben Lomond Uranium Mine has a development application, landowners downstream, or the Charters Towers community, have no right to object even if uranium leaks into their water supply.” – Katter MP Shane Knuth

Indigenous Australians disproportionately impacted

It is estimated that 70% of the world’s uranium lies on indigenous lands, a situation that is reflected in Australia. Indigenous communities in Australia are disproportionately affected by the social and environmental impacts of uranium mining.

This occurs in a number of ways – bullying tactics used by mining companies, failure to consult Traditional Owners in a meaningful way, destruction of cultural sites and rock art.

The adverse health impacts from exposure to uranium continue to be downplayed by the Australian mining industry who have a history of non-compliance with environmental regulations. In December of last year, 1 million litres of uranium slurry burst its containment tank at Ranger mine in World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park. The same mine has experienced more than 200 spills, leaks and breaches since opening 35 years ago but still continues to operate.

Uranium Pusher of the Pacific

As the so-called ‘Pusher in the Pacific’, does Australia have any ethical obligations when it comes to the export of uranium?

The Japanese PM at the time of the Fukushima disaster recently toured Australia warning politicians and Traditional Owners about the risks of uranium mining. As he reminded us, Australian uranium was powering Fukushima at the time of the meltdown.

Despite not having conducted a nuclear weapons test since 1998, India remains a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is actively expanding its nuclear weapons program. There is no way we can ensure that Australian uranium is only used for peaceful means.

Abbott would have you believe that Australia is saving India by exporting our coal and uranium to their power hungry masses. But is it really ok to export uranium to developing nations, while we don’t pursue nuclear energy ourselves?

You can follow Kate on Twitter @kateokate

Pokie-Tourism: Campbell Newman’s Dream for our Tropical North

The name Aquis probably doesn’t mean much to you if you live outside Far North Queensland.  If you do, it’s a name that’s been on everyone’s lips for the last year and has dominated local media.

Aquis Great Barrier Reef Resort is a mega casino proposed for the sleepy Cairns beach suburb of Yorkeys Knob – a beautiful, but environmentally sensitive and flood prone area on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. At an estimated $8.15 billion to build, it’s a development of unprecedented scale in a city of 150,000 people, and its bold promises to reinvigorate the region have won many followers.  None more so than than the Queensland Government, who have granted it one of two new regional casino licences up for grabs, provided conditions are met.

The Newman Government has been salivating over Queensland’s potential for gambling revenue for some time, obsessed with turning the state into Australia’s own Nevada.  Queensland’s economy has been suffering over the last few years, largely due to the downturn in the mining sector.  Though still hell bent on selling off Queensland’s environment to the highest bidder, Campbell Newman now sees casino revenue as a much needed quick buck, to line the state coffers during these economically challenging times.

But at what cost?

Since Newman opened up bidding for three new casino licences last year, one in Brisbane and two in regional Queensland, developers have been chomping at the bit to get a piece of the action. One of these developers, and the man behind the Cairns mega casino, is Hong Kong billionaire Tony Fung.  His dream?  To turn Cairns into a flashy gambling Mecca to rival Macau.  According to Fung,

“North Queensland is missing the man-made wonder of the world, which is presented in Aquis.”   

Image courtesy of katesenviroblog.com.au

Not content with Cairns’ unique, natural wonders – the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, the endemic wildlife – his vision is one of bright lights, glitz and 24 hour gambling.  And for Fung,  the bigger, the better – everything in his ‘resort’ is super-sized. His target market?  Chinese high rollers, who can gamble their days away while their families enjoy the other facilities – theatres, horse riding, a mega Aquarium, artificial lagoons, shopping, sports stadiums, restaurants, golf courses – visitors won’t ever need to leave the resort.  They won’t even need to use local taxis – on arrival into Cairns airport, they will be chauffeured or transferred by courtesy bus directly to the resort.

At the heart of Fung’s ‘resort’ is a gigantic gambling hub, consisting of two casinos.  Aquis is requesting the same number of pokies as Sydney’s Star City Casino, and more gaming tables than Australia’s two largest casinos (The Crown & Star City) combined.  Fung is also in the midst of taking over Cairns’ existing casino, the Reef Hotel.

Fung submitted his initial Aquis application to the Queensland government last July, who declared it a ‘Coordinated Project’ a mere six days later.  For a multi-billion dollar development next to the world heritage listed waters of the Great Barrier Reef, this is alarmingly fast.  The normal, stringent process of environmental and social assessments can take months, even years to complete. Aquis has bypassed the proper environmental approval process from the beginning.

In a submission to the Department of Environment in April, Fung maintained that Aquis does not require a commonwealth environmental assessment process, as any impacts on the surrounding environment are not significant enough to warrant it. Andrew Picone, FNQ Campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation thinks otherwise, stating,

“We have a developer here who thinks he should be given all the approvals, but there is due process and the community should have its say.”  

Despite a multitude of environmental concerns yet to be sufficiently addressed, the casino licence was recently granted, before the Environmental Impact Statement was even released.  According to Denis Walls, coordinator of local opposition group Aquis Aware,

“We assumed the EIS would come out before the licence was given – I mean, giving a licence to somebody before the EIS is scandalous.”

Without doubt, Far North Queensland is going through some economically challenging times.  With high levels of unemployment, particularly amongst the youth, I understand the need to boost the Cairns economy and to stimulate much needed growth and development in the region.  But using a mega casino as a bandage to fix a flawed economic model will not accomplish this.

Gambling is not a stable source of state revenue.  The success of Aquis is completely dependent on the economies of the Asian tourists that Fung is trying to lure. Most people realise that the Cairns economy is too reliant on tourism and needs to diversify in order grow sustainably. Diversification ensures that the local economy survives through the tourist low season, as well as any global economic downturns which may reduce overseas visitors dramatically.

Even the Cairns Chamber of Commerce listed diversification as one of their top 5 federal election priorities in 2013. Hedging all our bets on Asian tourists to solve economic problems is doomed for failure and is not aligned with the Chamber’s own top priorities.

And what about the tourist sector, the backbone of the Cairns economy?  Sure, Fung will reap the benefits of the gambling high rollers.  But turning the city into a flashy gambling hub has the potential to discourage the huge numbers of existing tourists, who already flock to Cairns for its natural wonders and relaxed, unflashy lifestyle.  According to Tourism Australia’s own research,

“Research… on the drivers of demand for international visitors to Australia shows that our natural attractions are by far the greatest appeal… casinos, bars and nightclubs came at or very near the bottom of the list of 19 appeal factors.”

Perceived benefits to local businesses from the increase in tourist numbers is one of the main reasons that people support the new casino.  But the reality is that local business suffer when you centralise shopping, restaurants, hotels, entertainment into one facility.  With everything in one resort, guests will have significantly reduced need to leave the complex, meaning small business may have to downsize or close altogether.

Tourism and business aside, do we really want Cairns to become the new Macau of Fung’s dreams?  Macau has been plagued by a host of problems since opening up its economy to foreign casinos in 2002 including organised crime, prostitution and environmental degradation.  It’s certainly not something to aspire to, and I question anyone who thinks otherwise.

And the supposed employment of thousands of local workers? Aquis has promised thousands of jobs to Cairns locals during both the construction and operational phases. However, we know the original plans include 1,800 staff accommodation units.  If Aquis will employ locals, why is so much permanent staff accommodation required?   Any construction jobs will be temporary, and will likely consist large numbers of workers from outside the region to meet the skill demand.  Speaking about local labour Justin Fung says,

“Obviously we will have a management team and we need Mandarin and Cantonese speakers … but we remain dedicated to improving the employment rate in Cairns.”   

This means that the front of house staff will need to be Chinese.  In recent months, the Federal Government has been trying to negotiate a free trade deal with China.  In order to clinch the deal, it is willing to consider visa options for skilled workers to come to Australia to work on major Chinese projects.  The free trade deal will certainly benefit Tony Fung if he wishes to use Chinese workers.

But the biggest bone of contention for many is the casino itself.  Does Cairns really need two more casinos? The social impacts of these mega casino in a city which already has high levels of problem gambling have not been adequately explored.  Per capita, Cairns is Queensland’s highest spending pokie city, with the average resident spending $45.41 per month on pokies in 2012.  Those behind Aquis, including the Newman government, insist that the casino will be frequented mostly by wealthy Asian tourists and that negative community impacts will be minimal.

But the Productivity Commission found that high rollers only count for 11% of revenue in casinos, with the rest coming from locals playing cards and pokies.  In addition, studies have proven that big pokies venues are the most dangerous to local communities.

The debate is growing outside of the Far North, with recent national and even international coverage with amusing headlines like, “Hippie Town Seen as New Macau With World’s Biggest Hotel”.   It has also drawn many prominent anti-gambling advocates into the fray.  World Vision CEO Tim Costello, who is also the Chairman of the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce, has called the plans madness saying,

Their business model, because they’re never up front about it, is always heavily reliant on local custom.”  

South Australian Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, has also lent his vocal support to the growing campaign against Aquis.  On June 20th, he will speak at a community forum hosted by Aquis Aware, warning locals of the “fools gold” that is Aquis and the dangers of a gambling resort.

The dream of Aquis has an undeniable lure, especially for those who have been hit hard over the past few years.  It has the potential to change the face of Cairns forever, but I fear it won’t be for the better.

All that glitters is not gold.

If you want to voice your opposition to this mega casino, you can sign the petition: www.communityrun.org/p/StopReefCasino

This article was first published in Kate’s Enviro Blog.

Also by Kate O’Callaghan:

Abbott’s International Tour de Farce

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