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Dec 19, 2012

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Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke yesterday gave the go-ahead to the Shree Minerals iron ore mine in the north-west of the Tarkine in Tasmania. It’s one of eight major projects scheduled for the region, and signals the start of what is sure to be a lively period in the campaign to protect the Tarkine’s natural and cultural heritage.

Not surprisingly, conservationists have expressed outrage at Burke’s decision. This reaction is partially related to the threat that the mine poses to the iconic and endangered Tasmanian devil. The north-west of the Tarkine is home to one of the few remaining populations of disease-free devils. The Shree Mine is located in the heart of this area and the road along which the ore will be transported has been identified as a devil hot spot.

Several conditions have been imposed on the mine in an attempt to minimise the threat posed by ore-loaded B-doubles and other mine vehicles. These include running regular instruction sessions for workers on the importance of the species and how to minimise the risk of road kill; erecting posters and distributing glovebox guides on the same; preparing a plan on how to protect the species from the impacts of the mine and road traffic; running a free bus service to shuttle workers and others to and from the site; “taking all reasonable measures” to ensure vehicles do not exceed 50km/h when travelling to and from the site; and removing carcasses from the road every day.

Shree Minerals is also required to donate $350,000 to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program Appeal over seven years. Further, in the event that more than two devils are killed in any 12-month period at the mine site or by authorised vehicles travelling to or from the mine, Shree Minerals is required to pay an additional $48,000 to the appeal. How the Department of Environment came up with the $48,000 figure is a topic worthy of investigation. Based on current population estimates, it suggests the species is worth roughly $1.7 billion.

There are similar conditions for the other two threatened species that are likely to be affected by the mine and its vehicles: the spot-tailed quoll (a small carnivorous mammal) and the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle.

While the attempt to reduce animal mortality is laudable, the scepticism expressed by conservationists towards the conditions is understandable. For starters, Shree Minerals has no legal authority over vehicles owned by other parties travelling to and from the mine site. And does anybody really think that handing out glovebox guides and running information sessions is going to significantly reduce mine-related animal mortality?

Whatever management measures are put in place, the establishment of the mine will increase the risk to the population, both from roadkill and through the potential introduction of the disease to the area. Given the perilous state of all three species, particularly the devil, it is difficult to reconcile Burke’s decision with the statutory requirement that “the conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity … be a fundamental condition in decision-making”.

Beyond the threat posed by the mine to the threatened species, Burke’s decision has clarified how the Gillard government intends to deal with the Tarkine heritage nomination and the remaining projects. Some conservationists believed that, if it was going to intervene on any project in the region, it would be the Shree Minerals mine because of its diminutive size and the threat it poses to the devil and quoll.

The approval has made it clear that Burke intends to approve all of the major proposed projects and draw the boundaries of the Tarkine National Heritage Area around the project sites.

The Tarkine National Heritage area will end up covering only those parts of the region that are already included in reserves or for which there are no known significant commercial uses.

The entire Tarkine saga, from its origins in the 1960s through to now, has been a drawn-out case study in the difficulties associated with heritage conservation and the interplay between the Australian and state governments. It demonstrates the urgent need for an overhaul of the federal environmental and heritage laws and the re-establishment of an independent national heritage body that can ensure areas of world and national heritage significance receive appropriate protection.

*Andrew Macintosh is an associate professor at the ANU College of Law and associate director of the ANU Centre for Climate Law & Policy

Comments & corrections

May 11, 2012

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Tony Abbott:

Gavin R. Putland, of Prosper Australia, writes: Tony Abbott is quite right: the carbon price “amounts to a reverse tariff” in that it taxes the carbon intensity of Australian products but not imported products.

I’ve been complaining about reverse tariffs for more than four years. Welcome aboard, Mr Abbott! What Abbott didn’t say is that the carbon tax, which will raise about $8 billion a year, will be only the fourth-biggest reverse tariff in Australia’s tax system.

The third-biggest, which raised about $18 billion in 2010-11, is payroll tax, which taxes the labour content of Australian products but not imported products. This discriminatory quality strengthens the claim that payroll tax, in so far as it applies to labour embodied in goods, is an unconstitutional duty of excise.

The second-biggest, which raised something like $54 billion in 2010-11, is the payroll tax masquerading as the superannuation guarantee. A federally mandated, employer-funded 9% super contribution is equivalent to a federally funded 9% contribution paid for by a 9% federal payroll tax. Doubling the GST, though I don’t recommend it, would be a far more sensible way to pay for super, because the GST is “border-adjusted” (taxing imports while sparing exports) but otherwise affects prices in much the same way as a payroll tax.

State payroll taxes and the federal super guarantee are patently worse than the carbon tax, not only because they raise more revenue, but also because they tax something desirable (jobs) rather than something undesirable (pollution).

But the biggest, baddest reverse tariff, which raised about $200 billion in 2010-11, is income tax in all its forms. Australia’s income tax penalises income earned in production of Australian products but spares income earned in production of imported products.

In other words, it amounts to a value-added tax without border-adjustment. If it were called a “VAT” or “GST” without border-adjustment, it would not pass the laugh test in any developed country. But separate the value added by labour (wages) from the value added by capital (profit), tax them separately, shoot them full of loopholes, rebrand the whole sordid mess as “income tax”, and you get the mainstay of the tax system in almost every developed country. It’s one of the great con jobs of the past 100 years.

Hence, I am pleased that the carbon price will at least raise the personal income-tax threshold, allowing employers to offer useful amounts of part-time work without having to withhold personal income tax (or any part of the low-income tax offset).

I confess that I will be more pleased if the carbon price is converted to a simple tax before it creates any private property rights. We discourage smoking and drinking by taxing tobacco and liquor, and I fail to see why pollution should be treated any differently. We didn’t create tradable rights to smoke or drink, and I fail to see why we should create tradable rights to pollute.

But those who are concerned about reverse tariffs should have bigger fish to fry.

Tasmanian devils:

Kevin Bonham writes: Re. “Minister’s Tarkine decision a threat to Tassie devil” (yesterday, item 14).  In their article on mining proposals in the Tarkine as a supposed threat to Tasmanian devils, Deb Wilkinson and Andrew Macintosh refer to “the fact that the Tarkine is the last remaining stronghold of disease-free devils.” Actually, no matter how many times that mantra is repeated, it isn’t fact.

First, large areas of western Tasmania outside the Tarkine — and not just wilderness areas that are seldom visited — are currently free of any known records of Devil facial tumour-diseased devils. While this does not prove there are no diseased devils in such areas,  it is even more doubtful whether devils in the Tarkine are in fact all disease-free. For instance, in February a CODE Green video purportedly showing a diseased devil “near a proposed mine site in the Tarkine” was released by Senator Milne.

Surely if a movement has been using the area’s disease-free status as an argument for its protection, and evidence appears that that argument is possibly false, then it is time for that movement to admit that the case for protecting the area based on the devil is weakened.

Not so for Senator Milne, who was happy to switch from arguing that the absence of disease justified protecting the area to arguing that the presence of disease justified protecting the area. And indeed, such instrumental uses of the Tasmanian devil as a trump card to attempt to achieve political goals, completely irrespective of the facts, have been rife ever since it was listed as threatened.

Environment

May 10, 2012

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Environment Minister Tony Burke this week is expected to decide whether two further components of Venture Mineral’s mining plans for the southern Tarkine require formal approval under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC act).

If he decides they do, it will bring to five the number of current projects being considered by the federal government for approval in the Tarkine “wilderness”: an iron ore project in the north-west (Shree Minerals); a tin, tungsten, copper and iron ore mining complex (which has been referred as three separate projects and there are possibly more components to come) in the south (Venture), and a tourist road running through the north (Tasmanian government).

There is also the 50-year old Savage River mine that sits in the heart of the Tarkine and further mineral exploration work is under way elsewhere. In 2010, Tasmania Magnesite sought and received approval under the EPBC act for exploratory work for a magnesite mine in the north-east. The company deserves some credit for this as other companies (with the Environment Department’s blessing) have simply gone ahead with their exploratory work without approval.

In November last year, Venture sought approval under the EPBC act for its Mount Lindsay tin, tungsten, iron ore and copper mine. The application prompted environment groups to ask Burke to list the Tarkine on the National Heritage list using his emergency powers so that he could consider the impacts of the proposal on the area’s heritage values. He declined and, as a result, the heritage impacts of the mine will not be considered in the assessment and approvals process.

At the time Burke was considering whether to list the Tarkine in response to the Mount Lindsay proposal, it was common knowledge that Venture had grander plans than just the 194-hectare mine put before the minister.  In early April, this was confirmed when it referred two more components of its southern Tarkine mining complex under the EPBC act, an iron ore mine adjacent to the Mount Lindsay mine and another iron ore project some five kilometres to the east.

We have previously argued that, given the close proximity of the mines, and the fact that they are all proposed by the same proponent, they should be treated as one project (certainly the two adjacent projects should be treated as one). Again, the minister has declined to do this. Moreover, when considering whether to emergency list the Tarkine, the minister and his department have compartmentalised the threats, treating each proposal in isolation without looking at their cumulative impacts.

Splitting projects into smaller components is a relatively common practice under the EPBC act. At times, proponents do it for legitimate business reasons. In other cases, it is done to avoid or minimise regulation (if you split an action it is less likely to clear the “significance” threshold that governs whether actions need formal approval, some proponents also employ a Trojan horse strategy — if you can get one component approved it is harder to knock back the other sections of the development).

In 2003, the Australian Democrats tried to shut this loophole but only managed to persuade the Howard government to give the minister the power to “call in” other components of a split project. It is a power that has been used sparingly.

In Venture’s case, it is now arguing that its two latest actions do not need formal approval because they won’t have a significant impact on protected species, including the threatened Tasmanian devil. This is despite the fact that the Tarkine is the last remaining stronghold of disease-free devils. And  again, because the Tarkine has still not been included on the National Heritage list, Burke and his department are legally prevented from considering its heritage values — even though a recent report done for the Tasmanian Forest Agreement process found that it meets the criteria for inclusion on the national and possibly World Heritage lists.

Chair of the Australian Heritage Council Carmen Lawrence recently has said that the assessment and approval of mining projects in the Tarkine should be put on hold until the council has completed its second assessment of the national heritage values of the Tarkine. While this would be the ideal outcome, it cannot occur unless Burke emergency lists the Tarkine. Without an emergency listing, Burke is required by law to make a decision on the referred actions.

*Deb Wilkinson and Andrew Macintosh are from the Australian Centre for Environmental Law at the ANU

The World

Jan 16, 2012

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With the January 25 first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution approaching, it is interesting to look back, in the context of some new research, on the widespread belief that social media was a decisive factor in the uprising.

A new paper, The Dynamics of Protest Recruitment through an Online Network, suggests very strongly that what we are seeing is not so much new and more something old in a slightly new form. Indeed, its findings would not be surprising to Gutenberg, Martin Luther, the Apostles and the 17th-century British revolutionaries.

The paper, by Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, Javier Borge-Holthoefer, Alejandro Rivero and Yamir Moreno, was published in Scientific Reports (1:197 DOI: 10.1038/srep00197) and studied the “surge of mobilisations” that took place in Spain in May 2011 in the context of the use of social networking sites that help protesters organise and attain a critical mass of participants.

The authors say: “There is, however, not much evidence on how exactly SNSs encourage recruitment. Empirical research on online activity around riots and protests is scarce, and the few studies that exist show no clear patterns of protest growth. Related research has shown that information cascades in online networks occur only rarely, with the implication that even online it is difficult to reach and mobilise a high number of people.”

Their research focused on Twitter messages over a month around the protests and analysed 87,569 users tracking 581,750 protest messages.

They concluded from the analysis that: “The role that SNSs play in helping protests grow is uncontested by most media reports of recent events. However, there is not much evidence of how exactly these online platforms can help disseminate calls for action and organise a collective movement.”

Their conclusion is hardly unexpected. There are two processes taking place — the “dynamics of recruitment and the dynamics of information diffusion”. But when these underlying processes are analysed it seems that they are based on very traditional network effects and links: a core of people who reach many others; the “collective effervescence” phenomenon (I didn’t realise others felt like I did — isn’t that great and liberating?); and the subsequent impact of multiple messages from different sources.

The Twitter network also has an impact because it functions as a global news broadcaster and a local, personalised network but its major contribution to the recruitment process is its speed rather than social activation as such. Most importantly the authors conclude that “… being able to generate recruitment patterns on a scale of this order is still an exceptional event, and this study sheds no light that helps to predict future occurrences; but it shows that when exceptional events like mass mobilisations take place, recruitment and information diffusion dynamics are reinforcing each other along the way”.

And that’s exactly what has happened throughout history. In the case of the British Civil War, the Reformation, the French Revolution and the spread of Christianity it is the barrage of pamphlets, books, leaflets, cartoons and posters that disseminated the information and helped recruit new participants and allowed people experience the “collective effervescence” that we have seen more recently in the Velvet Revolution and the Philippines anti-Marcos protests.

In the Egyptian case — as the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent electoral triumphs show — the significance of core networks that can exploit the capacity for information dissemination was crucial. While the West is constantly surprised by the electoral successes of the Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah, that success is not based on collective insanity among their constituents. Instead, it is based on the long hard yards of building networks and providing basis on the ground services ranging from food and education to medical treatment and social support. (See the article by Yasmine El-Rashidi, NYRB but reproduced AFR on January 6, for how the networks succeed where the state fails.)

The West can busily describe them as terrorists, which many of them are, but their heroic status in their communities is based on other factors. Indeed, as with Menachem Begin, a history of terrorist attacks doesn’t preclude you from being elected Prime Minister.

The Economist also throws light on the historic role of networks in an article: “How Luther went viral — five centuries before Facebook and the Arab Spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation.” RMIT University’s professor Peter Horsfield, one of the world’s leading scholars of media and religion, has demonstrated in several papers and articles the critical significance of different media and network effects in the growth of Christianity and is now writing a major book on the subject. Harvard University’s Robert Darnton (the great historian of information-sharing networks in pre-Revolutionary France) has said: “the marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past — even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of the television and the internet (cited in The Economist see above).

For politicians the message is clear — social media may be a powerful tool but it’s no substitute for old-fashioned networks activated by some uplifting story that will promote collective effervescence. So far the two major Australian political parties — except in circulating negative online messages among the already converted — haven’t overcome the problem of inspiring people to recruit others and disseminate their messages.

For activists such as GetUp — just “tell them they’re dreaming!” They didn’t save the forests and they are not about to “save” the Tarkine just with online media.

And for marketers and PR people — another interesting finding  (this time from the Financial Times), which reported on New Year’s Eve that an IBM study had found that on Cyber Monday, when US retailers offer big post-Thanksgiving online discounts, just 0.56% of buyers were referred from social networks.

Environment

Dec 8, 2011

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Last Friday, the federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, announced that he had no intention of using his emergency powers to include the Tarkine on the National Heritage List. His reasoning was that he didn’t believe there was any evidence that the national heritage values of the area are under imminent threat. As there appears to have been blockage in the flow of information to the minister’s office, here is an update on what is going on in the Tarkine.

The Mount Lindsay mine

As we’ve previously explained, on November 4, Venture Minerals referred to Burke a proposal for a tin, tungsten, magnetite and copper mine near Mount Lindsay under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). This project will ultimately cover more than 10 square kilometres in an area just north of the Pieman River and require the clearing of extensive rainforest areas. While Venture has grand plans for the project, the action that was referred to Burke covers a mere 194 hectares on a mining lease that extends over 1104 hectares.

Burke was due to make a decision on this project on December 2. After preliminary issues were raised — potentially related to the manner in which Venture has split the project for the purposes of the referral — the stop clock was put on the process while the Environment Department seeks more information. At this point, it is unclear when Burke will announce his decision but Christmas Eve is a reasonable guess.

The road to nowhere returns

In late 2009, the Tasmanian Department of Infrastructure referred the “Tarkine Road Project” to Peter Garrett, while he was still the Environment Minister. This project was touted as a tourist road and would have stretched over 131 kilometres across the northern Tarkine, near the Arthur River. It would have required the construction of large sections of new road, as well as the widening and sealing of old forestry roads. The road proposal triggered community outrage and brought back memories of the Heemskirk Road-Western Explorer Road dispute of the 1980s and 1990s (the original “Road to Nowhere”). Concerns about the road focused on two issues: heritage and wilderness impacts, and the threats the road would pose to Tasmanian devils and spotted-tailed quolls.

Faced with fierce opposition, Garrett used his emergency powers to include the Tarkine on the National Heritage list then declared that the proposal would be subject to an in-depth environmental impact statement that would look at heritage and threatened species impacts. The Tasmanian government later dropped the project, which led Burke — who had taken over as environment minister — to allow the Tarkine to drop off the National Heritage list through a statutory loophole (even though he had already received advice from the Australian Heritage Council that the Tarkine met the criteria for permanent inclusion on the list).

Two years down the track and the Tarkine Road Project has returned; a revised road project was referred under the EPBC Act on December 1. The project has a new name, the Tarkine Forest Drive, and is slightly shorter than the original at 93 kilometres; but in all other respects is the same. On the positive side, the shortening of the road means that a controversial stretch of new road in the north-eastern part of the Tarkine has been dropped. Notwithstanding this, substantial heritage and environmental concerns remain.

Of particular interest is the fact that the proposal involves the sealing and upgrading of the Temma Road, which runs along the Tarkine’s west coast, from the Arthur River to just south of Nelson Bay near Couta Rocks. This area is home to an extremely high density of Tasmanian devils and road kill is already a problem. Sealing the road and encouraging increased use will pose a heightened threat to this already imperilled species.

Adding to this threat is the proposed Nelson Bay River magnetite and haematite mine, which will be conveniently located adjacent to the upgraded Temma Road (mere coincidence, of course). This proposal is also currently undergoing assessment under the EPBC Act, with the final impact statement due in mid- to late-2012. If it gets approved, not only will the devils and quolls have to dodge tourist traffic but a fleet of fully loaded B-doubles trucking ore to Burnie (there will be mining traffic at one end of the Tarkine Forest Drive and logging traffic at the other — it is going to be an interesting tourist attraction).

Other ongoing and proposed mining projects

There are currently at least 10 active mining leases held over parts of the Tarkine. Two of these relate to the 50-year-old Savage River mine. Another three relate to the controversial mining projects that are currently subject to the EPBC Act: the Mount Lindsay mine, the Nelson Bay mine and Tasmania Magnesite’s magnesite proposal in the north-east of the Tarkine. The remainder are a collection of smaller interests, including a gravel mining lease granted to Forestry Tasmania in 2009 (and it is currently seeking another one). In addition to the mining leases, there are tens of exploration licences held over parts of the Tarkine and extensive works involving vegetation clearing, road construction and drilling being carried out under these licences.

You be the judge about whether the heritage values of the Tarkine might be threatened by all this activity.

ALP national conference and the ALP national platform

On a related issue, at the ALP national conference on the weekend, the delegates debated whether to retain a provision in the ALP national platform that states, “the identification and listing of properties of heritage significance should be carried out by an independent expert body”. This provision was included in the 2007 and 2009 platforms and, had the Rudd and Gillard governments adhered to it, the Tarkine would have been included on the National Heritage list years ago. We are waiting for confirmation on whether this provision was carried over into the 2011 platform.

Environment

Nov 21, 2011

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Within the next two weeks, federal environment minister Tony Burke will make a decision on whether a massive tin, tungsten, iron ore and copper project at Mount Lindsay in the Tarkine requires formal assessment and approval under federal environmental law. In all likelihood, Burke will declare that it does but, unless changes are made, the process will be a sham.

Because of Burke’s refusal to include the Tarkine on the National Heritage List, the impacts that the project will have on the Tarkine’s famous heritage values will be ignored. The assessment and approval will only consider impacts on threatened species, most notably Tasmanian devils, Tasmanian wedge-tailed edges and the giant, freshwater crayfish.

To make matters worse, the process will only assess part of the project.

For strategic reasons, Venture Resources has only referred a section of its Mount Lindsay project to Burke. This part of the project covers an estimated 194 hectares, while the total project could ultimately stretch across more than 10 square kilometres in an area just north of the Pieman River.

The practice of splitting projects into smaller components is not uncommon. Proponents do it to suit commercial time frames, investment priorities and, in some cases, to manipulate the assessment and approvals process. Smaller projects are less likely to trigger the formal assessment and approval process and, when they do, they generally face less onerous assessment and approval requirements. Further, if one component of a multiple stage project is approved, it is difficult for the government to reject the latter stages.

In 2003, when the Coalition was still in power, the Australian Democrats tried to change the law to stop companies from splitting projects and ensure developments are assessed and approved as a whole. The logic was simple — if you want to weigh the costs and benefits of a project it is no good looking at a section of it, you have to look at the whole. The Howard government rejected the Democrats’ proposal, preferring to give the environment minister a discretion to “call in” whole projects in these circumstances. This discretion has been used sparingly, and some proponents still get away with splitting projects, even though it undermines the efficacy of the process.

In this case, Venture Resources has stated in its official referral document that the 194-hectare component of the Mount Lindsay project, covering the so-called Main Skarn and No.2 Skarn, are not related to any other proposed actions in the region and that any future developments it undertakes in the area “would be separate, stand-alone actions and would not be related to the Mount Lindsay action”. This conflicts with statements that the company has made to the Australian Stock Exchange, where other target areas in the same rock unit, including at Stanley River (a site only 3.5 kilometres from Mount Lindsay), have been grouped as part of the Mount Lindsay project.

Other facts about Venture’s activities point to the same conclusion. All of the planned future parts of the project are on the same or adjacent mining tenements (most of them will be located within a single exploration licence area — EL21/2005), involve mining parts of the same rock unit, will utilise the same infrastructure, will be undertaken by the same or related corporate entities, and are at least partially dependent on the central components of the project for their viability.

On the face of it, the company appears to have come perilously close to committing an offence under federal environmental law by including false and misleading information in its referral about the relationship between its activities in the area.

To protect the integrity of the assessment process, and ensure all of project’s relevant impacts are evaluated, minister Burke needs to do two simple things. First, include the Tarkine on to ensure the project’s heritage impacts are taken into account. Second, direct Venture Resources to withdraw its application and start again, this time referring the entire Mount Lindsay project for assessment.

If either of these two things aren’t done, people will legitimately ask: why bother?

Environment

Nov 15, 2011

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In the next two weeks, federal Environment Minister Tony Burke will decide whether a major mine in the Tarkine requires approval under federal environment law. If he makes his decision before the area is included on the National Heritage List, the Tarkine will almost certainly become wilderness in name only.

The Tarkine is the last great unprotected wilderness in southern Australia. It is an area of profound importance and has been under consideration for inclusion on the National Heritage List since 2004, which makes it the longest continuous assessment process in the history of the National Heritage regime. This delay is the product of deliberate manipulation; the federal government has held up the listing to enable it to approve mining developments with minimum fuss.

The latest mining proposal that the federal government is posed to usher through is a massive open-cut tin, tungsten, magnetite and copper mine. This proposal has been the focus of concern for several years because of its size and the fact that it will destroy an important rainforest area. Two weeks ago, Venture Minerals applied to Tony Burke for the mine to be approved. Since the Tarkine is not currently on the National Heritage List, the company was only obliged to make the referral on the basis of the potential impacts on threatened species (most notably the Tasmanian devil) not because of the mine’s impacts on the heritage values of the area (wilderness, aesthetics, geological, indigenous heritage, flora diversity and natural history).

If he wanted to, Burke could consider the heritage implications of the project by immediately including the Tarkine on the National Heritage List. But if he is to do it, it has to be before December 2. At that time, he is required to make a decision on whether the mine needs formal assessment and approval under federal environmental law. If the Tarkine is not on the National Heritage List before he makes this decision, he will be prevented by law from considering the heritage impacts of the project when formally assessing and approving the project — a fact that the Environment Department has previously drawn to the minister’s attention.

Will he do it? The minister’s history on the Tarkine is not cause for much hope.

In December 2010, he allowed another company, Tasmania Magnesite, to conduct test drilling in a magnesite karst system that was specifically covered by an emergency heritage listing his predecessor had put in place for the Tarkine.

A couple of weeks later he allowed that same emergency heritage listing to lapse, despite having been advised by the Australian Heritage Council that the place met three national heritage criteria for listing. He claimed that he allowed the listing to lapse because the threat to the area’s heritage values — a proposed tourist road through the Tarkine — no longer existed. This made no sense. He was required by law to make a listing decision (not use a loophole to allow it to slip off the list) and numerous threats remained, including the mining proposals.

Just after the emergency listing had lapsed, in February 2011, the minister received a referral from another mining company, Shree Minerals, to develop a mine in the north-west corner of the Tarkine. Again, he decided not to list the Tarkine, and so that project is now being assessed without consideration of the mine’s impact on the area’s heritage values. To add insult to injury, the minister’s decision was made on the same day as he released his final decision on the Bell Bay Pulp Mill, thereby shielding it from media attention and public scrutiny.

The minister’s poor performance on the Tarkine has been ably assisted by his compromised Environment Department.

In 2010, the department advised the minister that rather than listing the Tarkine in accordance with the Australian Heritage Council’s findings, he should instead ask the council to conduct further consultation. Then, a few months later in March this year, the department advised the minister that the proposed Shree Minerals mine affected the aesthetic national heritage value of the Tarkine only and that it was not likely to have a significant adverse impact on the place as a whole.  This “desktop” assessment was made with no information from the proponents on potential heritage impacts and conflicted with its own impact guidelines.

Now, the Australian Heritage Council, which is headed by former Labor politician Carmen Lawrence, is either deliberately or inadvertently providing political cover for the minister. Its second assessment of the Tarkine’s national heritage values was due to be completed by the end of September, but it has since been delayed indefinitely, because ironically, the council now says it needs more time to consider its assessment. The reason for this change of heart is the council’s desire to further consider the arguments put by the mining companies in relation to the location of the boundary and the question of the accuracy of the aesthetic and wilderness values for the area. This is great news for the mining companies who have executed a simple but nevertheless effective strategy: delay the listing and get the projects approved before the heritage listing takes effect.

Given what has occurred, it seems the Tarkine is destined to be chopped up by a series of economically marginal mining projects. The only way this might be avoided is if Burke is persuaded to follow due process and immediately include the Tarkine on the National Heritage List. But this would require public pressure and, as of yet, none of the nation’s major environment groups have stepped up. In August this year, the Australian Conservation Foundation accompanied the minister to the Kimberley to congratulate him on his decisions to include it on the National Heritage List. Now’s the time for the foundation and other environment and heritage groups to start saying something publicly on the Tarkine.

*Deb Wilkinson and Andrew Macintosh are from the Australian Centre for Environmental Law at the Australian National University

Environment

Mar 18, 2011

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The Tarkine is an extraordinary wilderness area located in Tasmania’s north-west. It contains Australia’s largest and least fragmented cool temperate rainforest, countless rare and threatened species, and Aboriginal archaeological sites and cave systems that are of international significance. In the 1990s, parts of it were found to meet the threshold for inclusion on the world heritage list and, late last year, the Australian Heritage Council concluded that 433,000 hectares of it met the criteria for the national heritage list. By any measure, it is one of Australia’s treasures.

Despite this, in December last year, the federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, allowed the area to drop off the national heritage list. He now plans to decide whether to approve several large mines in the Tarkine without even considering their impacts on the area’s heritage values.

To understand how this could happen, you have to travel back to July 2004, when the Tarkine was first nominated for inclusion on the national heritage list. Due to opposition within the Tasmanian government and fears the listing could be badly received in forestry- and mining-dependent communities in Tasmania’s north, the assessment of the nomination was delayed for over five years. Then, in late 2009, the Tasmanian government proposed putting a “road to nowhere” through the area, prompting Peter Garrett, the former Environment Minister, to put the Tarkine on the national heritage list using emergency powers.

The emergency listing meant the heritage assessment could no longer be postponed; by law, the Australian Heritage Council had to produce it within a year. After a brief extension, it handed the final assessment to Burke in October 2010, confirming that the Tarkine has outstanding heritage value to the nation.

Ideally, a finding that the area meets the listing criteria would lead immediately to its inclusion on the national heritage list. Decisions on how the area should be used and trade-offs between economic, social and environmental demands could then be made through the approvals process, where the heritage issues would be duly considered.

While this is the best practice framework, the federal heritage regime gives the environment minister far greater control over how the listing and approval processes work. The minister can refuse to list places that meet the criteria merely to avoid political embarrassment and, almost more alarmingly, if he does this, he is prevented by law from considering the place’s heritage values when deciding whether to approve projects.

In the case of the Tarkine, mining is now the contentious issue. Over the past few years, the area has become a hotbed of mining activity and there are now at least three large projects planned — a magnesite mine, an iron ore mine and tin mine. The Tasmanian government is keen for these projects to proceed and it appears the federal government is in no mood to stop them.

Burke thought that the best way to do this would be to allow the listing of the Tarkine to lapse. This would exclude heritage issues from the assessment and approval processes for the mines (effectively lowering the bar for approval), while simultaneously preventing the release of the council’s assessment report on the area’s heritage significance.

Burke’s plan was working perfectly until someone in the Environment Department accidentally published the council’s assessment on a website. When the report was drawn to the media’s attention last Wednesday, the minister immediately went into spin mode. By late in the day, he was telling journalists he had sought urgent advice from the department on whether the Tarkine should be relisted because of the threat posed by the iron ore mine, which he is now considering approving.

A day later, Burke advised the media that he had received advice from the department that the Tarkine should not be relisted and he was accepting that advice. The department’s advice stated that, on the basis of a desktop analysis, the open cut mine would have no impact at all on the area’s wilderness values, while the impacts on aesthetic values would be insignificant.

These were startling findings. They directly contradicted the Australian Heritage Council’s assessment that “consideration of wilderness in the Tarkine … must encompass all of these areas as parts of a whole, as a single wilderness region”. In other words, damage to one part of the Tarkine will affect the nationally significant wilderness value of the whole, not just the parcel of land on which a project is located and its immediate surrounds.

The department’s advice was also in direct conflict with its own guidelines, which state that projects that involve vegetation clearing and construction, or that could introduce pollutants, in a national heritage place will be taken to have a significant impact on the area’s wilderness and aesthetic values.

There are only two possible explanations for the advice: either the department is unaware of the council’s views and the content of its own guidelines or its advice is being run through a political filter to suit the minister. Regardless of which is correct, it reflects badly on the department and again has  highlighted why we need an independent statutory authority to control the national heritage list.

Our natural heritage is too important to leave in the hands of politicians and a politicised bureaucracy. The time has come for the Australian Labor Party to deliver on its national platform, which for almost a decade has called for the heritage listing process to be independent.

*Andrew Macintosh and Deb Wilkinson are from the ANU’s Australian Centre for Environmental Law.