Australian ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury

The Hon Sussan Ley MP
Minister for the Environment
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Dear Minister,

RE: Australian ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury

I write to you as a former Senior Policy Adviser to Rebekha Sharkie MP who had carriage of the environment portfolio for Centre Alliance.

Australia is to be congratulated for signing the Minamata Convention on Mercury in October 2013.

The Convention is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. Mercury is a heavy metal that cycles between the atmosphere, ocean and land, and can be toxic to humans and wildlife. According to the booklet of the Convention, “[m]ercury is recognised as a substance producing significant adverse neurological and other health effects, with particular concerns expressed about its harmful effects on infants and unborn children.[1]

Australia is one of the few developed nations yet to ratify this important treaty.

The Convention is named after Minamata disease, itself named for the poisoning of the Japanese community in Minamata Bay that resulted from eating shellfish and fish containing methylmercury (an organic mercury compound) accumulated from industrial wastewater. Signs and symptoms of Minamata disease include ataxia, numbness in the hands and feet, general muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision, and damage to hearing and speech. In extreme cases, insanity, paralysis, coma, and death follow within weeks of the onset of symptoms. Whilst conventional mercury poisoning is less severe, it can lead to serious burns; skin-shedding; kidney dysfunction; itching; hair, teeth and nail loss; hypertension, and more besides.

Whilst Australia’s mercury emissions have reduced greatly in recent years due to the deployment of mercury emission reduction technology in key gold-mining processing plants, Australia’s per capita mercury emissions remain higher than the global average[2] as they are insufficiently regulated.  More still needs to be done across other sectors, including the production of other metals, fossil fuel combustion, and intentional use and waste.

It is excellent news that the Government has now published its Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS) on the Ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury[3]. The RIS found that there will be no regulatory burden on business or the community, as existing regulatory frameworks broadly align with international obligations under the Convention. Ratification was calculated to provide a net benefit of over $5.9 million over 20 years, and this direct economic benefit will be accompanied by a range of additional social and environmental qualitative benefits.

I recognise that action by the States will be necessary to implement elements of the convention that relate to mining, manufacturing processes, pollution control and storage, and waste management. However there is still a key role for the Federal Government to legislate Convention obligations on the import and export of mercury; and the import, manufacture and export of certain mercury-containing products specified in the Convention.

  • May I please kindly confirm that the Federal Government has now decided to ratify the Convention?
  • If so, can you please outline the process of consultation with the States, and the expected timeline for the introduction of the Federal legislation relating to the import and export of mercury; and the import, manufacture and export of certain mercury-containing products specified in the Convention?
  • When would you expect that Australia will have ratified the Convention?

Thank you for your time and consideration of my correspondence.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Cornish

30 / 3 / 2021

Cc: The Hon David Speirs, Minister for Environment and Water

Cc: Secretariat of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, United Nations Environment Programme


[1] UN Environment Programme, Minamata Convention on Mercury – Text and Annexes, September 2017, https://www.mercuryconvention.org/Portals/11/documents/Booklets/COP3-version/Minamata-Convention-booklet-Sep2019-EN.pdf

[2] UN Environment Programme, Technical Background Report for the Global Mercury Assessment, 2013, https://www.amap.no/documents/doc/Technical-Background-Report-for-the-Global-Mercury-Assessment-2013/848

[3] See: https://ris.pmc.gov.au/2021/03/04/ratifying-minamata-convention-mercury

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Submission to the Senate inquiry on the EPBC (Standards and Assurance) Bill

Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications
PO Box 6100
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
e: [email protected]

Dear Committee

RE: Submission to the EPBC (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 inquiry

I write to the Committee as a former Senior Policy Adviser to Ms Rebekha Sharkie MP with carriage of the environment portfolio at the adviser-level for Centre Alliance. This submission is being made wholly in my personal capacity.

Summary of recommendations

Recommendation 1: Consultation process for National Environmental Standards

The bill should include provisions that set out and require a well-defined consultation process when National Environmental Standards are determined, or non-trivially varied. This consultation process should require, at minimum, consultation with Indigenous Australians, the scientific community, environmental stakeholders, business stakeholders, and allow for broader community participation.

Recommendation 2: Enhanced statement of reasons for inconsistent decisions

The bill should require that the statement of reasons provided by the Minister for a decision inconsistent with the National Environmental Standards:

a. refers to the public interest principle or principles which the Minister is relying upon to make that decision; and

b. details the substantive environmental implications of the decision.

Recommendation 3: Commissioner to monitor or audit all (including single) decisions

The Environment Assurance Commissioner should be provided the power to monitor or audit all (including single) Commonwealth decisions under the EPBC Act.

Recommendation 4: Tabling of audit reports

The bill should cause audit reports by the Environment Assurance Commissioner to be tabled in Parliament within an appropriate timeframe after being provided to the Minister.

Recommendation 5: Performance auditing powers

The bill should provide the Environment Assurance Commissioner with performance auditing powers commensurate to the Auditor-General [see: Auditor-General Act 1997 (Cth), Part 4, Division 2].

Analysis

Professor Graeme Samuel's Final Report of the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (‘EPBC’) Act 1999 (‘Final Report’) found that “Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. The environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand current, emerging or future threats, including climate change. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.[1] The projected social and economic damage that will accompany the current environmental trajectory is immense.

The report has 38 recommendations and proposes complete and comprehensive reform. Most critically, this includes new, legally enforceable National Environmental Standards with independent oversight and audit, and facilitating the scale of investment needed to deliver environmental outcomes that actually see an improvement in Australia’s natural environment rather than the current path of terminal decline.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2020 (‘Standards and Assurance Bill’) contends to address but two of those Final Report recommendations, namely, by providing the means to introduce National Environmental Standards by delegated legislation (Recommendation3); and by creating an Environment Assurance Commissioner (Recommendation 23).  Whilst it is disappointing that the ambition of the bill is not greater, the two recommendations that the bill addresses are essential elements of desperately urgent environmental reform.

Unfortunately, the bill does not diligently adhere to Professor Samuel’s recommendations.


National Environmental Standards
(Schedule 1)

In Recommendation 3 of the Final Report, Professor Samuel stated that “[t]he Commonwealth should make the Standards, and a formal process for doing so should be set out in the EPBC Act. This should include consultation with Indigenous Australians; science, environmental and business stakeholders; and the broader community.” However, this critically important consultation process appears to be absent from the proposed bill.

Recommendation 1: Consultation process for National Environmental Standards

The bill should include provisions that set out and require a well-defined consultation process when National Environmental Standards are determined, or non-trivially varied. This consultation process should require, at minimum, consultation with Indigenous Australians, the scientific community, environmental stakeholders, business stakeholders, and allow for broader community participation.

Recommendation 3 continues: “The Act should include a specific power for the Minister to exercise discretion to make a decision that is inconsistent with the National Environmental Standards. The use of this power should be a rare exception, demonstrably justified in the public interest and accompanied by a published statement of reasons which includes the environmental implications of the decision.”

The bill does provide for this exception, and require a statement of reasons to be provided, but, critically, does require the Minister to include in that statement the public interest they are seeking to rely on in making that inconsistent decision, nor the environmental implications of the decision. In short, under the current construction of the provisions of the bill, the Minister’s discretion is largely unconstrained and insufficiently accountable.

Recommendation 2: Enhanced statement of reasons for inconsistent decisions

The bill should require that the statement of reasons provided by the Minister for a decision inconsistent with the National Environmental Standards:

a. refers to the public interest principle or principles which the Minister is relying upon to make that decision; and

b. details the substantive environmental implications of the decision.


Environment Assurance Commissioner
(Schedule 2)

In Recommendation 23 of his Final Report, Professor Samuel states that the Government should: “Immediately establish, by statutory appointment, the position of Environment Assurance Commissioner with responsibility to: (1) oversee audit of decision-making by the Commonwealth under the EPBC Act, including the Office of Compliance and Enforcement…” Yet, amazingly, under section 501C(3), the bill “does not permit the Environment Assurance Commissioner to monitor or audit a single decision.

Recommendation 3: Commissioner to monitor or audit all (including single) decisions

The Environment Assurance Commissioner should be provided the power to monitor or audit all (including single) Commonwealth decisions under the EPBC Act.

Further, Samuel recommends that audits by the Commissioner be tabled in Federal Parliament, and have performance auditing powers commensurate to those of the Commonwealth Auditor-General. Neither of these prescriptions have been adopted in the bill.

Recommendation 4: Tabling of audit reports

The bill should cause audit reports by the Environment Assurance Commissioner to be tabled in Parliament within an appropriate timeframe after being provided to the Minister.

 Recommendation 5: Performance auditing powers

The bill should provide the Environment Assurance Commissioner with performance auditing powers commensurate to the Auditor-General [see: Auditor-General Act 1997 (Cth), Part 4, Division 2].


Conclusion

The bill desperately lacks the ambition outlined in Professor Samuel’s Final Report. It also varies from the detail – and arguably the spirit – of Professor’s Samuel’s two recommendations which it seeks to implement. Professor Samuel himself warned of this concern in his foreword to the Final Report: “Governments should avoid the temptation to cherry pick from a highly interconnected suite of recommendations.

Ideally the bill would pass with all of the amendments outlined in the recommendations above, with preference being given to recommendations 1, 2b, and 5.

However, in the absence of amendments, and despite its flaws, the bill is still an important step towards urgent environmental reform and should be supported.

It is worth noting that the bill is an apparent response to the Senate crossbench concerns that were aired in response to this bill’s earlier companion, the EPBC Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020 (‘Streamlining Bill’).

The Standards and Assurance Bill does and should not, in my view, provide enough comfort to the Senate crossbench to support the Streamlining Bill; States should have less power to govern matters of national environmental significance which conflict with vested local economic interests, not more.

This is particularly true for the South Australian Senators who should be exceptionally wary of delegating Federal powers to the executive arms of upstream Murray-Darling States and Territory that are not accountable to South Australian political representation.

When wielded by the Federal executive, decisions regarding upstream Murray-Darling projects in contravention of the EPBC Act or South Australian interests are at least nominally accountable to South Australian representatives in Federal Parliament.

In short, if the passage of the Standards and Assurance Bill becomes conditional upon support for the Streamlining Bill, the Senate crossbench (and Opposition) should not support either bill.

My thanks to the Committee for their consideration of my submission.

Yours sincerely,

Mr Michael Cornish

20 / 3 / 21

[1] p1, Professor Graeme Samuel AC, Independent Review of the EPBC Act – Final Report, October 2020

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Aldinga Washpool

The Hon Steven Marshall MP
Premier
GPO Box 2343
Adelaide SA, 5001

Dear Premier,

RE: Conservation of the Aldinga Washpool site

I write to you as a former senior adviser to Ms Rebekha Sharkie, the Member for Mayo, with a keen interest in environmental conservation. It was during this time that I became familiar with the current situation regarding the Aldinga Washpool site.

The Aldinga Washpool is one of the last remaining coastal freshwater and estuarine lagoon systems along the Adelaide metropolitan coast and includes a threatened temperate coastal saltmarsh, which is nationally listed as a vulnerable, threatened ecological community under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth).

With even limited investment in environmental restoration, the Washpool can also provide considerable social benefits and economic (environmental tourism, especially birdwatching) opportunities to the local community and its visitors.  Currently, ownership of the Washpool site is fractured amongst several Government stakeholders, including SA Water, the City of Onkaparinga, the Coastal Protection Board, and State Government Departments. There have been local community concerns that parcels of Washpool land may be sold for development.

A coalition of environmental, community and local business groups has been forming to pursue a State Government commitment to conservation of the Washpool site. A commitment to permanent conservation of the Aldinga Washpool site is an opportunity for the State Government to cement their local social, economic and environmental credentials with the Aldinga and surrounding communities within the Mawson electorate.

You would no doubt be aware that Mawson was the most marginal electorate in last the South Australian election and remains a highly marginal seat in the forthcoming 2022 State election. Labor has made a public commitment to conserve the Aldinga Washpool in its entirety, although their statements have omitted any detail on the how, when, or vision for the site.

As I understand it, your Government has been considering the conservation proposition for the Washpool for some time.

Now is the time to match – and surpass – Labor’s commitment.

A clear public commitment to a durable conservation solution for the Washpool site – for example, its annexation to the adjacent Aldinga Scrub Conservation Park – including a clear timeframe for delivery and modest investment in improving the site’s general environmental amenity, would be of great benefit to the local community and all South Australians, would outperform Labor’s commitment, and would certainly delight the gathering strength of the local coalition of environmental, community and business groups pursuing the Washpool’s conservation.

I strongly encourage the State Government to act decisively on this opportunity.

Thank you again for your time and consideration of my letter.

All the best,

Mr Michael Cornish

10 / 3 / 21

Cc Minister for the Environment, the Hon David Speirs MP
Cc Ms Sascha Meldrum, State Director, Liberal Party SA
Cc Cr Simon McMahon, South Coast Ward, City of Onkaparinga

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The former Le-Cornu site

Mr Peter Tsokas
Chief Executive Officer
City of Unley
PO Box 1
Unley SA 5061

Dear Mr Tsokas

RE: Council green space and former Le-Cornu site

I am a resident of Ashford with a young family adjacent to the border of the City of Unley.  With the sale of the former Le Cornu site on Anzac Highway to Kaufland having now fallen through, I write to advocate for the City of Unley to consider turning all or part of that block into a public park.

With increasing urban density in the inner ring of Adelaide – in short, more apartment and townhouse dwellers – outdoor public green spaces are becoming increasingly important. I note that the City of Unley has performed excellently in this regard – according to the 2020 Greener Spaces, Better Places report (‘Where will all the trees be?’) your council has had an impressive 3% increase in green cover from between 2016 to 2020.  Under your stewardship, hopefully the City of Unley is willing to continue this excellent trend!

Even a thin sliver of green space at the eastern end of the allotment that also provided north-south access between Leader Street and Maple Street (as currently there is none along the length of the block) would be welcome addition for local residents and workers, making the area more permeable for people on bicycles or on foot.

May I please inquire as to whether the City of Unley has considered purchasing any or all of the site as a public green space, ideally as a park?

In the absence of broader plans, would the City of Unley consider purchasing a small north-south corridor at the eastern end of the allotment to provide at least some green space, as well as access between Maple and Leader streets?

Thank you again for your time and consideration of my letter.

All the best,

Mr Michael Cornish

1 / 3 / 21

Cc Cr Emma Wright, Goodwood Ward
Cc Cr Nicole Sheehan, Goodwood Ward

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