Campbell Newman claims to be reluctantly in his suppot for his Attorney General’s current attack on the fundamental principles of law, but the raft of legislative change being rammed through parliament is better described as enthusiastic.
Solicitors from the West-End based Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) crossed the river last night to bring the Sustainable Engineers chapter of Engineers Australia in Spring Hill up to date on the implications of the unwinding of thirty years law in the so called reduction in “green tape”.
EDO chairwoman Michelle Malone addressed the incredible paradigm shifts in fundamental legal principles that are taking place as grass roots movements form mechanisms to overcome the global attack on the environmental protection laws.
Senior solicitor Jo Bragg focused on the harsh reality of the incredible roll back of environmental protection that is currently taking place in Queensland.
Despite their regular work as environmental engineers and passion for the environment, many of the engineers in attendance had no idea of the scale of the legal battles taking place in and about the legal framework.
The recent Westender article http://westender.com.au/coal-water-battle-comes-to-west-end/ about the Alpha Coal court case that pits a community group against the might of Hancock Coal is one example of the Environmental Defender’s work and the problems we face.
That mine site will cover 65,000 hectares of the Galilee Basin (next to Clive Palmer’s China First coal mine) and the pits themselves will cover 20,000 hectares. Stradbroke Island is 17,000 hectares in size so we are talking about a series of holes in the ground larger than that enormous island.
The community group is opposing it on the ground that the mining company cannot dig a hole that size without impacting on the water table on which the local community depends (not to mention the environment that supports them and their livelihood.)
One of the changes which the Newman government is pushing through parliament right now is the removal of the rights of people and community groups to bring cases like this to court. What is not widely understood is that, generally speaking, people or community groups do not have the right to prosecute alleged criminals for breaches of the law. The EDO has fought hard to include such rights in recent environmental laws.
The Queensland Government is tearing up 13 pieces of environmental legislation and replacing the Sustainable Development Act with the Queensland Planning for Economic Development Act. This is one aspect of the government’s campaign against Green tape.
As part of these changes the minister for planning will have the final say on a whole range of rulings with the Environmental Protection Authority reduced to an advisory capacity.
Jo Bragg has clocked up an incredible 20 years at the Environmental Defender’s Office, and points out that limited as these laws have been, it is the hard work of thousands of volunteers in hundreds of community groups that have achieved those results.
“We simply need to ramp up the fight,” she said.
Michelle Maloney took a more philosophical approach explaining the underpinnings of the movements by local communities around the world to take the development of law into their own hands and reverse the onus of proof.
She fronts Earthlaws.org.au which highlights the efforts of CELDF in the USA and other groups around the world who are simply asserting their right to a healthy environment and are finding ways to challenge any organization that endangers that.
As many people have found out the hard way, the legal framework essentially protects property and the rights of property owners. Since corporations claimed the same rights as human individuals in the late nineteenth century (after a concerted campaign over many decades – well documented in Ted Nash’s Corporate Gangs of America) they have regularly asserted their right to trade without interference as protection from regulation that attempts to restrict their activity.
Underpinning these shifts in the legal focus is a philosophical movement that challenges the central role of humanity in most social, philosophical and religious frameworks. This is a view that underpins movements as diverse as Deep Ecology, Sea Shepherd and most indigenous cultures and differentiates them from our hierarchical, growth driven view of the world.
She referred to the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, the agreement between the Crown and the Whanganui River in NZ and the recognition of the Rights of Nature in the 2008 constitution in Ecuador as outgrowths of this movement that are setting legal precedents.
Michelle cited philosopher Thomas Berry as a major inspiration for many of the proponents of this movement. She recommends his book Great World as the easiest and most powerful introduction to this world view.
From a legal point of view the shift is from a anthropocentric view of the world to what is generally called earth jurisprudence. She has synthesized the major shifts into five categories.
- Subject human laws to “higher” laws that refer to the source of our creation (science, religion, …)
- Replace the notion of nature as a commodity with the idea that there is a community of interconnected subjects with legal rights. (legally a “subject” has the right to representation)
- Give nature (animals, rivers, trees) similar rights to humans, and those currently claimed by corporations.
- Replace pro-growth economic and political systems with those that recognise and respect natural limits.
- Replace legal definitions that exclude (or dismiss) cultural diversity/indigenous values with a democracy that encourages diversity.
The range of reactions from the engineers present reflect the gulf between this view and the status quo, but also the power they have to generate enthusiasm and new ideas.
Westender will watch with interest