Saturday, 27 March 2010

Bulldozing Freeways through Community Rights

When a freeway is proposed, the community defends the places we stand to lose.

Not many people have seen the
Major Transport Projects Facilitation Act, which has just become law in Victoria. Under this Act, the government can declare any project a “major transport project”. There is no definition of what “major” is. It could be a boat ramp. It could be a bus stop. It’s whatever the planning minister, along with the premier, think it is.

But once the government calls it a major project, the proponents can drive freeways through the rights of the community.

The Act gives decision-making power on any declared project to the Planning Minister. Community input is in some cases removed altogether. In other cases the time lines are incredibly short (often only days - to give input on projects whose documentation will run to thousands of pages) so the "right" to comment is in practice an illusion.

Many of the decisions made under this scheme will not be subject to any right of review in the Supreme Court, removing judicial oversight from important government decisions.

The most serious change, however, is in section 77 of the Act. This section requires the Minister to "have regard to" certain laws - but not to comply with them. The Minister will not have to obey these laws, just note their existence. The laws overthrown by this stroke of the pen have been built up over decades, and provide key protections to our environment.

The list of laws now cast aside in such decisions is long, but includes:

  • Coastal Management Act 1995
  • Conservation, Forests and Lands Act 1987
  • Environment Protection Act 1970
  • Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988
  • Heritage Act 1995
  • National Parks Act 1995
  • Planning and Environment Act 1987
  • Water Act 1989
  • Wildlife Act 1975

So now, when a freeway is in question, the government of the day can ignore these protections and thumb its nose at the community.

Jeff Kennett, at the height of his hubris, would not have dared to propose this legislation. But now Labor has made it law.

The real damage under this Act will not occur until after this year's election. Labor won't want to upset people before they vote - but watch out afterwards.

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