Back in 2012 Queensland Premier Campbell Newman made a series of ‘crystal clear’ commitments to keep the door closed to uranium mining in Queensland. In a letter to former ACF CEO Don Henry, Newman wrote “I take this opportunity to reaffirm my statements, made before the last election, that the State Government has no plans to approve the development of uranium in Queensland”.
It proved to be one of his first broken promises. Just a fortnight later this commitment was dumped, without any independent assessment or community consultation. Uranium mining would not just be permitted in Queensland, the Premier started actively encouraging uranium mining companies to set up shop in the sunshine state.
Fast forward to 2014 and Queenslanders have more reason than ever to be concerned. In an echo of the heavy handed police state politics that so characterized former Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke Petersen, the Queensland government’s hand-picked co-ordinator general will now have sole authority over major new mining projects.
Proposed legislative changes introduced in the Mineral and Energy Resources (Common Provisions) Bill 2014, literally rushed through the Parliament at five minutes to midnight on September 9th 2014, in particular provision 47D entitled ‘restriction in giving of objection notice under the Environmental Protection Act’ – should sound the community alarm.
All large scale resource developments including the majority of coal, bauxite and uranium mines that are deemed by the government to be ‘State significant projects’ may no longer eligible for objection from anyone including farmers near or under the mining lease, neighbours, local communities or organised groups, or local Councils.
That means companies like the French nuclear corporation Areva who are currently exploring the Carpenteria Basin in Cape York and the Gulf country for uranium deposits may find themselves immune to community objections if they decide to advance their current uranium mining projects from the exploration to the construction stage. For the record, Areva have stated that it believes Australia has the potential to host uranium resources equivalent to a country like Kazakhastan producing about 4000 tonnes of uranium per year.
On Cape York Peninsula, Areva have largely flown under the radar, but are believed to have been interested in exploring in the Mitchell and Alice River basins and areas further south and south west. Much of the country subject to recent exploration has been identified in old geological report as having detectible levels of surface radiation.
To many Traditional Owners, these places are known as sickness country, or poison country, and are often considered sacred. Upsetting the poison and letting out into the landscape would be a disaster, particularly in the life giving and food providing Mitchel River basin.
But regardless of whether you live next door, downstream or elsewhere, your rights to contest mining proposals has just been sunk. The Newman Government has just passed the Mineral and Energy Resources (Common Provisions) Bill 2014 and when enacted as law, will take away your rights to contest 90% of mining projects according to the Environment Defenders Office.
If you wanted to object to Waratah Coal’s China First mine in defence of the Bimblebox nature refuge, too bad. If you live in Townsville and don’t like the idea of a uranium mine a couple of hundred kilometres up stream, I’m afraid you’re no longer entitled to object. The same goes if you live in Brisbane and you think the Laura rock art up on Cape York is more important than a coal or diamond mine.
This year we hope to see the Queensland Government finalise negotiations with Traditional Owners to deliver national park status to Shelburne Bay, a jewel in the crown of Cape York Peninsula. Minister Cripp’s would do well to remember that it was the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland that objected to that mine in 1985. But under the proposed laws introduced by the Minister for Mines, the spectacular dunes and habitats of Shelburne Bay would have been lost forever, with no right to contest such proposals available today.
The Bill, passed in parliament in early September, gives the Coordinator General the power to exclude community objection rights over some of the largest mining projects. In addition, what the government call ‘low-risk’ mines, or standard applications’ will also be exempt.
As for high-risk mines, community objection rights have been diminished and councils, landholders and others will only narrowly defined grounds for objection – none of which have anything to do with the environment. These amendments to Queensland’s laws are absolutely appalling and a true travesty of democracy. Mining companies, both small and large, can now run roughshod over anyone with no redress.
As the Abbott government talks up a vision to develop Northern Australia with short-sighted and ill-informed plans for mass industrialisation of an already water-starved landscape to turn it into the food bowl of Asia, the community ought to be deeply concerned about the erosion of our democratic rights to stand up and make our objections known.
Co-written with James Norman and Dave Sweeney.
Published here on SBS on 1 October 2014