This speech was delivered on 22.09.2016 in the NSW Upper House. You can read the full debate online here.
I strongly support the motion moved by my colleague Dr Mehreen Faruqi to establish a select committee to look into what has gone horribly wrong in the approval and construction process of the CBD and South East Light Rail project. Members will not be surprised to know that, being the Greens planning spokesperson, I think it all went wrong with the changes to the planning Acts. One needs to look there if one wants to find out why the community has been put so offside by what should have been a positive project.
Building light rail down to Randwick should have been a project that unified the community. Fresh transport infrastructure is something The Greens and the community have been calling for for decades. Instead, because of the slipshod, aggressive and unthinking way in which this project was rammed through the planning approval process and then the construction process, what should have been a good story for the Baird Government and the community has become a shemozzle.
Where did it all go wrong? It all went wrong when Labor started mucking around with the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act at the end of the 1990s and in the early 2000s. That was further aggravated by the Coalition when it said it would get rid of things like part 3A but inserted parts in the Act and retained parts in the Act that removed all the key environmental and planning considerations that should apply to major projects. There is this strange ideology that has now captured both the Labor Party and the Coalition that says that the larger the project and the greater the impact, the less will be the environmental assessment and community consultation. It is simply nonsense. The more impact that a project will have, such as a ruddy big coalmine or a light rail project in a densely populated part of a city, the less will be the scrutiny given to the project under the planning process. That is exactly what the problem with part 5 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act.
The light rail project was approved under part 5 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. Part 5 deals with both State significant infrastructure and critical State significant infrastructure. It was just because of the opinion of the planning Minister that this project was classified as critical State significant infrastructure. One might ask, “Well, what is the problem with that? What is the problem with calling it critical State infrastructure?” The problem is that by that simple determination, key environmental and statutory protections are just turned off. The project ends up being one that is submitted for approval under section 115ZA or 115ZB of the Act, and what does that turn off? The first thing it turns off are all of the local planning instruments. As a result, none of the local planning controls apply to the critical project. What is one of the key local planning instruments that was turned off? The tree protection order was turned off.
The City of Sydney’s tree protection order, its heritage listings and its heritage controls that have protected those magnificent stands of fig trees—our natural heritage—along Anzac Parade and Alison Road are controls that had enormous community support were turned off as fast as a click of the fingers. At the whim of the Minister or the Planning and Assessment Commission, without regard to any type of statutory controls that would protect them, approval could be granted to simply clear-fell them and send in the chainsaws. That is exactly what happened. No tree protection order? No trees. It is a straightforward outcome. That is what happened under the CBD and South East Light Rail project’s approval process. It was crunched through under the offensive part 5 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. If it was not bad enough to simply clear-fell all of those significant trees, other crucial protections were turned off because the project was approved under part 5, one of which is the already threadbare protections for Aboriginal heritage under the National Parks and Wildlife Act.
I could spend the next 10 minutes speaking about how deeply offensive it is to our First Peoples that their heritage and culture should be protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Act, thereby effectively equating their heritage and culture with flora and fauna, but I will not. There are statutory protections for Aboriginal heritage that apply under the National Parks and Wildlife Act. They are not the world’s best protections—in fact, they are very second-rate protections—but at least they are there. They say in relation to most other projects that if a proponent wants to destroy Aboriginal heritage, that proponent will at least have to obtain a permit to destroy it. While it is true that the Office of Environment and Heritage basically has 100 per cent approval rates for applications to destroy Aboriginal heritage, at least there is a process that allows the traditional owners to be consulted, to be engaged and to seek to protect their heritage. But not for the light rail project, for which a stabling yard currently is being constructed on one of the most significant Aboriginal heritage sites in the Sydney Basin that has been discovered in the past 50 years.
Thousands and thousands of items of Aboriginal heritage have been identified. Some artefacts appear to be some of the first evidence ever of deep trade routes and trade connections between Aboriginal peoples in the Hunter Valley and Aboriginal peoples in the Cumberland Basin, but none of that matters. Under part 5, Aboriginal heritage protections are simply turned off, neutered and destroyed. As a result, despite the fact that thousands and thousands of heritage items either will be dug up or covered in concrete or otherwise damaged, this CBD and South East Light Rail project just rolls on regardless. That is the core problem that has been exposed in relation to this light rail project. There are appalling planning laws that are so wrongheaded that they literally say that the more damage a project will do and the larger its impact, the less will be the scrutiny and protection for our heritage, our environment and our communities. This light rail project began on the wrong foot because of bad planning laws. If we want to get it right in the future, we must fix our planning laws.