July 18, 2012

Newman hits defenders of the battlers

On Monday at least a couple of thousand public sector (PS) workers protested outside Parliament House in Brisbane. They are extremely concerned that more job cuts are in the offing – 20 per cent of the workforce in some departments, it is alleged. And this despite Campbell Newman's 'promises' before he was elected back in March that frontline services would be safe in his hands. On 30 June, the end of the tax year, about 3000 PS workers' temporary contracts were not renewed. According to Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney on ABC Radio yesterday, temporary contracts are just that, temporary, and have no guarantee of renewal. Some of the people who now find themselves unemployed had previously had their contracts renewed year after year, however. I worked for years in London publishing houses as a 'temporary freelancer': I had a certain amount of job security and they didn't have to pay the extra costs of permanent employees.

Once the LNP were in power in Queensland, they discovered a huge debt resulting from Labor's profligate spending (they said), but probably as least in part due to two big natural disasters that hit the state within months in 2011. Action-man Newman didn't waste any time cutting costs, from the small-scale, such as The Queensland Premier's Literary Awards and special-needs support groups, to large-scale, public sector jobs culls.

The former group includes the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), which helps individuals, community groups and conservation groups seeking to protect the environment in the public interest. This non-profit, non-governmental network of community legal centres has an office in every state, and two in Queensland (Brisbane and Cairns). Each office is staffed by one or two solicitors specialising in planning and environmental law. As well as advising and acting for individuals and community groups, the EDO has a role in the reform and formulation of environmental law and providing education (in the form of workshops, fact sheets and publications) that enables communities to participate more in decision-making about their environment.

In Queensland, the EDO's funding comes from the Commonwealth and – until 30 June – State community legal service funding programmes. In addition, there used to be small amounts of money from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) project funding. The EDO relies on donations, however, for public interest legal work, and is also supported by members and private donors. It will be much more dependent on the latter from now on.

State Attorney General Jarrod Bleijie explained on 10 July to ABC Brisbane's Steve Austin that funding for all community legal centres in Queensland comes from Legal Practitioners Interest on Trust Account Funds (LPITAF). According to Mr Bleijie, trust account funds have not accrued as much since the GFC because of fewer house sales, and there are no longer the funds available to give to the EDO. So, the cut has absolutely nothing to do with Campbell Newman's avowed intention to cut 'green tape', making it easier for the resources industry to gain approval for their projects, thus speeding up production and ultimately the receipt of royalties into Treasury coffers? Really and truly? Because weeks ago, when I first read about the noble efforts of the EDO, I predicted that they would soon be in the Premier's sights.

Reading Rich Land, Wasteland: How Coal is Killing Australia by Sharyn Munro, it's hard to imagine that certain sectors of the resource industry need further help with approvals. The book is a heartbreaking catalogue of lost farmland and homes that have been in families for generations; of health impaired by dust, 24-hour bright light, audible noise, the much more insidious low-frequency noise, and stress; of disappearing water courses and contaminated creeks and swamps; of fighting spirits broken in the face of all-powerful coal and gas companies that can march in, procure, destroy, break promises, expand, and fail to monitor their impact or adhere to conditions attached to approval.

Increasingly over the last 18 months to two years the EDO's solicitors have advised landholders and communities in their battles against the increasingly foreign-owned coal and gas companies: individuals and groups that lack the money to engage lawyers; country people who do not necessarily support one political party or another; who are not against the mining industry per se, but whose lives have been turned upside down and whose livelihoods are seriously at risk; and who need a fair go to defend themselves. The EDO provides outreach legal services to help such people mount a challenge in the absence of support from local council or state government; if necessary, to go to court; to lobby for conditions attached to approvals. The EDO have a unique role in building awareness and broadening knowledge of rights and laws and planning processes, which must help those managing the conflict between resource exploitation and environmental protection. But the EDO are not only concerned with the impacts of mining: they are just as likely to advise those trying to have their say in the felling of trees or the widening of roads or the development of mega quarries (like that planned for the Kerry Valley, top).

EDO funds have been halved at a stroke, when six month's notice should have been given. The first casualty is their invaluable publication The Community Litigants Handbook, in its third edition but unlikely to be reprinted. In the pipeline, but now dependent on a lot more donations for its completion, is the Community Mining and Coal Seam Gas Legal Handbook. With mining leases covering a large proportion of this state, such a publication is likely to be of use to increasing numbers of communities. If you would like to help make this possible, or support the EDO by becoming a member, go to http://www.edo.org.au/

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