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Airport developments above the law

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 28 Mar 2007

The Airports Amendment Bill 2006 is essentially about maintaining the status quo as far as some of our most important airports are concerned. Airports are amongst the most important assets in our cities and regional centres. The people who planned them recognised that, as they are a strategic and hazardous land use, they need to be surrounded by broad buffer zones to protect people in adjacent areas.

However, a side effect of these large buffer areas is that in many cases airports have become de facto nature reserves. This is particularly because large areas of our capital cities have been cleared of their native vegetation and these areas have not been. I am going to talk particularly about the impacts this proposal may have on Perth Airport.

Perth Airport bushland is a very important area of bushland. It is highly biodiverse and one of the largest areas of uncleared bushland left in the metropolitan area, particularly in the part of the city in which it is located. A large part of it has been listed under the WA Bush Forever plan.

That looks at all the different areas of native vegetation left in Perth and lists the most important so that they are protected. Unfortunately, the state government is not a long way through that list in terms of protecting it; however, it is slowly working its way through to protect those areas of bushland.

It holds all the remains of the once vast Five Mile Swamp, one of the last habitats for the much endangered Western Swamp Tortoise. While fragmented, it also holds some valuable Indigenous heritage sites. This area is an extremely important bit of bushland that is slowly being whittled away. As I said, it is one of the largest tracts of fairly intact remnant vegetation on the Swan coastal plain. Around 85 per cent of our coastal wetlands have been lost, hence the importance also of the Five Mile Swamp.

Because urban growth has accelerated in recent years, there are now unprecedented demands to develop these buffer zones around airports, leading to a proliferation of proposals for incompatible land uses. In Hobart and Sydney it is large-scale retail development, and in Perth there are a number of proposals to develop the Perth Airport. The objective of the Westralia Airports Corporation, according to the plan, is 'the development of industrial non-aeronautical land uses on a large land parcel identified as part of precinct 3A'.

So there are a number of proposals planned for this area that are of the industrial, non-aeronautical variety.

Stage 1 of this development is a 20-hectare brickworks, one of the largest in the state. There are probably more projects coming down the line that we do not know about yet. If past developments are any indication, there will be a number of them, probably including some sort of retail development as well. The whole concept of an airport buffer zone is being eaten away by incremental developments of this kind.

Privatising the airports over time has accelerated the trend. We have created a situation where private airport operators are holding long-term leases over large tracts of valuable Commonwealth land-in many cases, very valuable native bushland. The government is enabling and encouraging further commercial development of this land.

All of this is happening outside state government planning and environmental and heritage approval processes. This government has developed an ad hoc process for signing off on these developments, and the bill we are debating is part of this strategy. There are a number of clauses in this bill which make it easier for this kind of ad hoc development to proceed more rapidly. After the furore which greeted the government approval of the brickworks in 2006, it is telling that this bill narrows the amount of time for public submissions from approximately 13 weeks to 9 weeks. The justification for this is beautifully captured in the second reading speech of 30 November 2006 by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Services:

The changes to the public consultation periods are consistent with the government's commitment to reduce regulatory burdens on business, mirror the streamlining processes embraced by other jurisdictions and recognise the maturing of both the airports in preparing these documents and the public in assessing them.

I am sure the community at large really appreciate that their maturity is being used to shorten and curtail public consultation processes. We have shortened public consultation processes because the public now has a mature attitude toward assessing these projects. There are a large number of people in the eastern suburbs of Perth who have been campaigning against the brickworks, trying to have it located in a properly regulated industrial zone. I am sure they will be very heartened and surprised to hear that their maturity is being given as a justification for making it harder to properly scrutinise projects of this type.

Item 72 doubles the threshold for what will be subject to a major development plan to $20 million. Raising the bar in this way means a $15 million project which would have been subject to an admittedly minimal obligation to prepare a major development plan will now be exempt from doing so. Item 77 provides that if a proposed development could potentially impact on a flight path that there should be some detail of what the impacts would be. Surely any development that has an impact on a flight path should be disqualified by definition.

Are these airports or not? Some development may impact on a flight path, so you had better list what that impact might be.

The bill does not make the kinds of major changes to the Airports Act which would be necessary if the Commonwealth were serious about taking over control of such large and strategically important parcels of land. Instead it appears to smooth the way for ever larger numbers of poorly integrated and incompatible projects shoehorned into buffer zones which were never intended for this use or to be developed in this manner.

Last August I submitted a fairly detailed list of questions on notice about the brickworks to the Minister for Transport and Regional Services.

Debate interrupted.

I know everyone has been waiting with bated breath for the answer to the question that I asked the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. To remind people who were not here yesterday, I let the Senate know about a series of questions I asked the Minister for Transport and Regional Services about the Perth brickworks. The minister has ended up as the de facto regulator for the brickworks. The answer I got to these questions was that the airports branch of the aviation and airports division of the Department of Transport and Regional Services will monitor compliance with all conditions of approval.

With all due respect to the people who worked at DOTARS, this branch has not been set up to evaluate matters such as Aboriginal heritage values on airport land, nor was it established to safeguard the biodiversity values of this area, nor does it have the ability to analyse air shed modelling to protect residents from acid gas fallout. None of these things is in its purview and I would say that there are other agencies, particularly state ones, that are much better qualified to do this.

Nor do I believe that it has the necessary planning expertise to ensure that these developments are compatible with surrounding land uses. Again, it is not what the department was set up to do.
This bill continues a trend of allowing incompatible land uses on important areas of urban and peri-urban bushland; areas that I remind you are in very short supply in most of our capital cities these days.

Without the kind of regulatory oversight that state governments have spent years struggling to develop-and this oversight is absolutely necessary for these areas of bushland-this bill will make a bad situation worse.

The Greens will be moving an amendment. Senator Milne has already highlighted that she will be moving an amendment that allows better state evaluation of these important bushlands and the developments that affect them. We commend that amendment to the Senate to enable these important areas of bushland in our capital cities to be protected. As I highlighted yesterday, in some instances these are part of the last remnants of important biodiversity in our capital cities. The Perth airport bushland contains values that are found nowhere else on the Swan coastal plain. They should be protected and they should not be subjected to ad hoc developments that are being allowed to occur at present. We would have liked to have seen this bill deal with this by tightening up these sorts of controls so that development on these areas can be either properly controlled, or not allowed in cases where they are incompatible with the biodiversity of these areas or with the flight paths-which is what I thought airports were there for in the first place.

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