You are here

Reply to Premier's Address - Government Declares War on the Environment

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Friday, 10 March 2017

Tags: Ambulance Ramping, Ambulances, Macquarie Harbour, Tassal, Oxygen Levels

Ms WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Speaker, I rise to give my response to the Premier's Address. I am going to focus my address on the state of the environment, this Government's declared war on the environment, and talk about the impacts that is having on the marine and the land environment that we need to sustain us and will sustain any hope of long-term jobs in this state.

This Government has also shown over the last year a complete disregard for people on low incomes. They have used every opportunity to claw money out of essential services. In particular, money is rapidly being removed from the Health public service and that is having a devastating effect.

First, I speak to the state of the salmon industry in this great island of ours. I want to lay out the disastrous mismanagement by this minister and by this Government of the salmon industry. They have been putting the interests of particular parts of the salmon industry first and the long-term jobs of other industries, the jobs they provide and support, the environment and local communities, way down at the end. The Labor Party, before this Government, has a long history of putting the environment last when it comes to salmon industry regulation. This Liberal Government has taken it to another level, if that is to be believed. I want to lay out the tale of this corrupted process and how it has taken us to a situation where we see industry favouritism. This state Government and the federal Government are in court about the lack of fair play, lack of transparency and lack of accountability for the industry.

The Minister for Primary Industries and Water, Mr Jeremy Rockliff, has repeatedly called the regulations and monitoring of the salmon industry, 'comprehensive and robust', and, 'comparable to world's best practice'[TBC]. This adaptive management as practised by this Government has failed the environment. Now we are seeing how it threatens the security of the whole industry as well as failing regional communities and the jobs that flow from these.

We now know parts of Macquarie Harbour are in a state of freefall environmental collapse. It is documented through reports, leaked emails, scientific reviews, Four Corners exposes, national media, state media, many different forums, to show that we have catastrophically low dissolved oxygen levels throughout the lower parts of the harbour, zero levels recorded in some areas for more than a year. We know that life for at least half a kilometre from the pens in Tassal's Franklin lease bordering the World Heritage area is virtually non-existent.

We know that this has inevitably caused damage to World Heritage values and the CEO of Tassal, Mark Ryan, said as much before the company retracted that statement and decided to do a 180-degree turn on his comment. We also know from the evidence of people living in Strahan that the rocks, boats and jetties along the edge of the Strahan harbour are now covered in a green slime which has never before been seen.

There are serious questions being asked about whether the Maugean skate [OK], which is unique to this part of the planet, will be able to live and reproduce. How could this happen? In 2012, a 360 per cent increase in salmon farm production was proposed for Macquarie Harbour. It was vehemently opposed by conservationists and others, including a former salmon farmer from Macquarie Harbour, because there was already evidence of reduced oxygen levels caused by the volume of fish being farmed in the harbour. There were no signs to show that the waters could stand any more. The Marine Farming Planning Review Panel ignored those warnings and waved through an increase in the allowable farmed salmon from 8000 tonnes to 29 500 tonnes. The panel that approved that in 2012 had the same members it has today, including the so-called independent scientist, Adjunct Professor, Colin Buxton. They were the panel that recently gave the thumbs-up to Tassal's expansion into Oakhampton Bay.

I want to read some of the information that has been collected by Environment Tasmania thanks to Laura Kelly who principally did that work. We have to rely on non-government organisations to do the work of government in tracking the impact that this Government's mismanagement is having on the marine environment. We know that in 2013, following that decision, industry data showed a significant increase in salmon production in the harbour was accompanied by plummeting dissolved oxygen levels, dropping from what had been 20 per cent to 40 per cent, to five per cent in 2013-14. The Tasmanian Salmonid Growers Association established an industry-led inquiry into these disastrously low oxygen levels, called the  Macquarie Harbour Dissolved Oxygen Working Group.

In September 2014, the Premier and the minister, Mr Rockliff, received an email from the managing director of Huon Aquaculture and the CEO of Petuna. This detailed their very serious concerns about the deteriorating water quality in Macquarie Harbour, about fish disease outbreaks that they were seeing, and the failure of Mr Rockliff's agencies to act to prevent further pollution. They alleged favouritism by government departments towards Tassal over their own companies, and a reckless disregard for the consequences to the environment and to the salmon industry as a whole. They warned, 'The advice you are receiving beggars belief,' and, 'We believe any decision to lift the cap, even temporarily, is reckless and can seemingly only be based on short-term objectives.' The companies appealed for the minister who was the regulator 'To make decisions that will preserve the health of Macquarie Harbour and our industry's reputation. The Government needs to act to protect these key drivers for the Tasmanian economy and reputation.' They urged the Premier not to approve Tassal's request for an increase in production.

Did the minister act? No, because this is a Government of inaction. This is a Government that does the least possible action to protect the long-term security of jobs in regional communities. Instead, in March 2015, an industry insider leaked part of the dissolved oxygen group's report to the media. It showed that the licence conditions had been breached across all the fish farms in Macquarie Harbour, that feed waste and faecal matter had built up and was clearly visible at sites, and that indicated species, so-called dorvilleidae worms, had identified that there was serious pollution occurring and a degraded environment had increased the incidences of fish disease.

In April 2015 the Government commissioned the Cawthron Institute [OK] in New Zealand to review the data on Macquarie Harbour and assess whether water quality and benthic monitoring would be effective in detecting harbour-wide effects of salmon farming. In May 2015 85 000 fish suffocated in the harbour. The Petuna Company blamed a one-off storm event pushing up water with low-dissolved oxygen, but the company failed to acknowledge the impact of the fish farms in creating the low-dissolved oxygen water in the first place. In August 2015 the Cawthron Institute submitted its report and documented 'a biological system under stress with serious impacts up to 7.5 kilometres from fish farm sites'. It said there was a strong relationship between the increase in fish farming and the damage, and that the current government regulations 'is not likely to be effective in detecting harbour-wide effects'. The Government was clearly failing according to the report it commissioned.

The same month that report came out a rare chronic disease that kills fish was found in Macquarie Harbour. In September 2015 the Government responded to the report and decided that the most appropriate response was to provide no penalties to the fish farm companies that were responsible for killing the fish and damaging the harbour. None of the improvements to monitoring that were recommended by the institute were adopted, and the Government responded to the report by commissioning further research. This is what the Government does, it gets further research when it does not like the information it gets.

In April 2016 the Government responded to more evidence of pollution by not issuing fines and by removing regulations on pollution indicator species, depending on the outcome of yet further research. The response of the Premier and his Minister for Primary Industries and Water, was to act, in April last year, in the short-term interests of Tassal. Despite this mountain of evidence and international reports, their response was to lift the biomass cap in Macquarie Harbour from 20 000 tonnes to 21 500 tonnes.

This is to read to the record exactly what this minister's idea of adaptive management and world's best practice is. It is a shame. It is code for inaction, it is code for industry favouritism and it is code for boom and bust cycles in companies that are clearly not planning to stick around in Tasmania in the long term. At least if they do, not for the workers they are employing in places like Strahan.

New research conducted by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies - a damning report prepared for the EPA and the Department of Primary Industry on environmental research in Macquarie Harbour that was released in February - laid out the Government's environmental negligence and their contempt for making fair dealings between Tassal and the other companies. It includes research back to the 1980s and 1990s that showed that Macquarie Harbour, even then, was one of the worst places you could conceive of for farming salmon. They have further given strength to the argument that damage to World Heritage is highly likely and in particular damage to Tasmania's clean and green brand for an industry that employs thousands of people in regional Tasmania today.

The director of the EPA responded by reducing the biomass cap at this point to 14 000 tonnes. This regulatory chaos that is in place has been the result of Mr Rockliff attempting to distance himself and his government from the responsibility for the regulation of the salmon industry. They have dumped it onto the EPA, which is now responsible for continuing what have become entirely corrupted processes around the approval of expansion of existing leases and brandnew leases. We are seeing a 20-year-old lease being used as a wedge to expand fish farming onto the east coast, to bail out a company that has killed the life under its Franklin lease in Macquarie Harbour and which has devastated a place of unique significance and increased the threat to already endangered species.

The government review by the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel about the expansion onto the east coast to the Okehampton Bay lease explicitly excluded the right of communities to talk about the impact of fish farming on their families, businesses and lives. It was a decision that took place behind closed doors, with local residents, recreational and commercial fishers and tourism operators given no chance to put forward their views. Despite that, more than 250 people packed the Triabunna community hall on Sunday to express their anger at the Liberals' decision to approve the Tassal fish farm in Okehampton Bay and to their great shame, no Liberal or Labor Party state or federal members showed their faces.

I have it from the organisers of that event that they were all sent personal invitations but they chose not to attend, they chose not to listen to the community on what is clearly a controversial issue. They are happy to hop it to every tiny little event they possibly can to get their face in the newspaper, but the last place they would want to be seen is amongst people who would hold them to account and ask them to come up with one shred of evidence that it is going to provide real long-term jobs for people on the east coast. Nothing has been provided by the company or the Government other than hyperbole and numbers out of thin air. What that community wants is real, long-term jobs. They want pathways from early school through to end-of-age careers, and that is something this Government has failed to do in the time it has been in office.

Tasmania's economic prospects are so clearly tied to our natural endowments, yet this Government is very clear on destroying them and the very things that make us special and unique on this planet. The top reason tourists come to the east coast and to the rest of Tasmania is because of our environment. The Greens will be here to continue to speak for the communities that want them protected for the future.

Community campaigns are growing on many areas around the state, not just on fish farms. The other area I want to mention is planning and the Tasmanian Planning Scheme, which has unfolded exactly as many in the community have predicted over the last year. The process of establishing and approving the state planning provisions did not give the community a voice or give the councils time to consult with their communities. It was a sham. There was never an opportunity for people to have a real say about how these changes are going to affect their ability to control developments in their community, so they can put environmental and community interests at the top and then look at the development after it has met the benchmarks of both of those two incredibly important criteria.

The Tasmanian Planning Scheme is a red carpet for developers. It was written fundamentally with development interests first and has been approved so that developers will get a clean run at things. It has never been about being simpler, cheaper or faster. I have yet to talk to a person who has put in a building application in the last year who thinks it has got better. In fact, what I am hearing around the state is more little people having more paperwork and the big companies getting straight through the door. If you want to have your house extended or do some work on it, in any council in Tasmania at the moment you will find it is worse than it was two years ago.

The Greens stand up for a community that want planning controls that will benefit community interests and sustain environmental values. We think ministerial powers should not get in the way of planning decisions that need to be made by the independent Tasmanian Planning Commission. We want to restore the powers and independence of the planning commission, which have been gutted essentially, and the commission reduced to a shadow of its former self under this Government.

We believe that the current planning scheme and the statewide planning provisions as they have been approved will usher in an era of monotonous uniformity. As to the concerns of groups around the state, the Kangaroo Bay development, for example, is already hearing of things after they have happened, things that were advertised over Christmas. The 42-day rule is being used as a straw horse, as though it is a good enough reason that you could push through a sort of development that would be worth millions of dollars and people get no time over Christmas to have their say. It is not good enough, but the good news is that there is strong resistance on this issue, as there is on the east coast.

This Government actually thinks people are stupid. This Liberal Government thinks people do not get it and do not know what is really going on. Well, people do know exactly what is going on and they are getting together as large alliances. A total of 35 groups met in Ross a couple of weeks ago and have formed into the Planning Matters alliance. They will be resisting the noxious planning scheme approvals that have just gone through and it will be an election issue.

No-one will forget last year's energy crisis that rocked everyone, with a part-time Energy minister who was missing on holidays for more than two weeks after the Basslink cable went down. Tasmania's energy crisis gave the minister, Mr Groom, the chance to show leadership and guide Tasmania through a very difficult time, but instead Hydro Tasmania's annual records show that it was a $64 million wasted opportunity. Overall the energy crisis cost Tasmanians an estimated $126 million. The Government's narrative was 'at least we kept the lights on.' Actually, the cost blew out because the minister refused to direct government departments, government businesses and councils even to find energy-efficiency savings. We are not talking, 'Turn the lights off', we are talking, 'Use less electricity'.

Mrs Rylah - Rubbish!

Ms WOODRUFF - It is not rubbish, Mrs Rylah. There was no serious practical assistance to help small businesses and households use energy-efficiency measures. There were a few advertisements in the newspaper that I saw but no serious assistance to help people save money in the process of doing that.

The energy crisis has also shown us how insecure our state's energy supply is, which is an absolute travesty, given that it is yet another reason Tasmania is special in the world in that we are best placed of many regions on the planet to become self-sufficient in our own electricity generation.

Tasmania's renewable energy generation deficit continues to cost us a fortune. We spent an extra $15 million in January importing power over Basslink or generating it through the Tamar Valley Gas Power Station. This Government needs to look at targets and it needs to look at them urgently.

I will conclude talking about the state health system. The Liberals came to government with the promise of making Tasmania the healthiest state by 2025. It could not be further from the truth because that objective, although it is a laudable one, means nothing. The evidence is there have been steps away from that, not toward it, sadly.

They have failed to implement and fund their own promised preventative health strategies to keep Tasmanians out of hospital. They have also failed to look after people when they came to the hospital system at a time they are most vulnerable. They have successfully taken money out of the public health sector and put it - we do not know where it has gone but it is not in the hospital budget, as it was last year. The current under-funding of the state's public hospitals has had a huge negative impact on the quality and safety of care, on elective surgery waiting times and on the wellbeing of hospital staff.

Emergency departments are continuously subjected to overcrowding with bed block and ambulance ramping because there are not enough inpatient beds available to move those people into. Tasmanians who are admitted through an overcrowded emergency department into an overcrowded hospital have an estimated 30 per cent increase likelihood of dying. We have some of the worst bed block in the country. Overcrowding in hospitals in Tasmania, according to the national estimates, accounts for more deaths than our road toll. Despite this, the minister cut the emergency department budget by 5.7 per cent, equating to $7 million in this financial year's budget. It is far more in real terms given the increasing cost of equipment and supplies.

The 2017 Report on Government Services paints a damning picture of the minister, Mr Ferguson's legacy so far. It records our hospitals as having: the lowest rates of cardiac arrest survival in the country; the lowest percentage of hospitals accredited under the safety and quality health service standards in the country; the highest rate of patients who have an extra bad episode during their hospital stay, 8 per cent extra; the highest rate of health care associated infections in the country; the highest rate of falls resulting in patient harm occurring in our public hospitals while people are in our care; and the second highest rate of unplanned readmissions following surgery in the country. Elective surgery median waiting times skyrocketed. These figures rose from 55 days in 2014-15 to 72 days last year, which makes us the worst in the country for elective surgery waiting times; the worst in the country.

Even the top pick of this Government, even the Premier's top pick to say about the health department is a lie. It is not true to say the median elective surgery waiting times have improved. He is talking about a cherrypicked, very small section of elective surgery. It is talking tricky figures but Tasmanians will not be fooled. Unfortunately, they know the reality of what is happening in our hospital system.

Under this Government, the Emergency Care Review report - which was conducted and released only after a right to information request from the Greens last week. It has shown that the physicians in our hospitals, the staff, and experts from interstate agree that this Government's mismanagement of the health system is causing terrible affects on quality of care and terrible affects on the staff working in our hospitals. The report describes a sick cultural issue in the hospital, along with a fear of public scrutiny that pervades the staff and pervades the hospital system.

'The culture of secrecy', one clinician noted, 'of data hoarding and the fear of going to the Mercury needs to stop. Let everyone see the pressure we are under'. The root causes, according to the report sources, are the major problems with the hospital governance and structure and a culture that has left clinicians unable to do their job.

That report was gathering dust on the minister's desk for six months. While it was doing so, the situation at both of our major hospitals was getting worse. He ignored the pleas of senior clinicians - as evidenced by emails, as evidenced in the newspaper reports over the last six months. The minister's response to the release of that report has been a number of dishonest announcements about additional beds. The more important underlying issue is the failure on preventative health, which is the driver of the acute hospital crisis. It is the driver. It is the Government's centrepiece in health. It was what the Government was going to do. We have been three years and we have not had any action on that either.

Time expired.