KATHARINE MURPHY June 09, 2012
Queensland premier Campbell Newman (left) with NSW premier Barry O'Farrell and Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Canberra in April for his first COAG meeting. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
A BIT out of the blue, this fight between Canberra and Queensland over approval for a $6.4 billion coal project owned by Gina Rinehart and the Indian conglomerate GVK? Possibly, it looks that way. But this particular collision, sparked by Canberra declaring Queensland's environmental assessment on Alpha rubbish and coming over the top - has been brewing since at least April.
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman breezed into Canberra mid-April for his first Council of Australian Governments meeting since wiping Anna Bligh and Labor off the electoral map. New boy Newman, unsurprisingly, was keen to assert his new mandate.
Julia Gillard, by contrast, was looking for the meeting to remain on course and deliver concrete progress despite all the theatrics of new Liberal premiers wanting, for political reasons, to underscore the weakness of the government in Canberra. The Prime Minister came forward with a new deal on so-called ''green tape.''
States would get more scope to run complex environmental assessments before big economic developments without Canberra peering school-marmish over their shoulder - provided of course they did them adequately.
Newman's objections were immediate. Streamlining was for wimps, or for that most suspicious category of person - the non-Queenslander. He wanted control. ''The federal government, frankly, needs to delegate the powers of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to the states,'' he thundered.
Newman went looking for support for his quest. Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu demurred. He had his own axes to grind. New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell obliged with a bit of fire and brimstone.
The Prime Minister moved a quarter inch. The Commonwealth had sought final approval for projects in World Heritage areas, and for ''high-risk'' developments - whatever that meant. The final communique specified what it actually meant: nuclear actions, defence development, and developments affecting Commonwealth waters. Peace in our time, in the Neville Chamberlain sense: a peace presaging war, given the detailed work on what streamlining actually meant was all still to come at official level.
The differences that blew up publicly over Alpha Coal this week merely bring a clash of values and priorities between the two jurisdictions sharply into the public domain. The fact that Gina Rinehart is involved - one target of Treasurer Wayne Swan's ''class warfare'' campaign against billionaires prosecuting their own interests - heightens the piquancy.
The business community in Queensland suspects two things - Labor in Canberra, in picking this particular fight, has an eye to Green preferences in a future election campaign (although progressive votes are less of a worry for Labor federally right now than the conservative working base drifting to Tony Abbott).
The Greens are campaigning to protect the Great Barrier Reef against the threats posed by the coal industry and shipping. The Alpha project is in the catchment for the reef - although business is confused why the fight now, when the approval process for port-side is still to come - this phase is for the mine and the rail link.
There is also a view up north that senior bureaucrats in Canberra don't really want to delegate any power for environmental approvals to the states, whatever the Prime Minister might be saying publicly - that the federal environment department are intent on running their own little bureaucratic turf war, and won't let go lightly.
If true, there is, of course, valid reason for reluctance from the point of view of officials safeguarding public interest.
Massive resources investments are coming on stream. Given the eye-popping scale of developments in the pipeline, we are entering a period with the potential for significant conflict between two valid public policy objectives: economic growth and environmental sustainability.
There's a perfectly valid argument that suggests now is not the time for Canberra to step back, given central governments play an important role in looking through specific and short-term interests of individual jurisdictions to the long-term national interest. One person's vexatious ''green tape'' is another person's necessary and prudent regulation.
Greenpeace, unsurprisingly, wants Environment Minister Tony Burke to go further than stopping the clock on Alpha Coal. ''Like Minister Burke, no Queenslanders, or financial investors can trust the Queensland government with the stewardship of the reef or the management of Queensland jobs - especially those in the tourism and manufacturing sectors,'' said Greenpeace campaigner John Hepburn. ''We are calling on Tony Burke to go beyond his decision on the Alpha Coal project and put in place an effective moratorium on approval of major industrial developments on the reef until the strategic assessment is concluded and a management plan put in place.''
But regardless of the current fight on Alpha Coal, the Prime Minister has made it clear this week she intends to press ahead with her goal of streamlining environmental regulation. Her stated objection with Premier Newman's ''unhelpful'' disposition in this case is he is undermining that objective - not that she's reconsidering the broad goal.
Business wants a simpler approvals process before developments, and the Labor government in Canberra is keen for rapprochement with business in areas where this is possible.
In her letter to the premiers this week - a tactic designed to isolate Newman and apply pressure - Gillard said: ''I believe there are prospects for the Commonwealth to accredit states and territories to undertake assessments and approvals across a range of areas for matters of national environmental significance, including for World Heritage areas.
''Rather than fast-track and streamline environmental approvals, Queensland's current approach will only serve to undermine confidence, delay approvals and increase uncertainty for project proponents, outcomes which are at odds with our commitment.
''It is not economically efficient for different states to pursue different, ad hoc approaches to environmental approvals.''
Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent.