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Tony Abbott and Co. Declare War on 'Vigilante' Green Groups

Australian Conservation Society says the political maneuver is 'nothing short of an attempt to strip communities of their right to a healthy environment'

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, pictured above, said he was "frustrated" by a recent court ruling that overturned his government's approval of a massive coal mine near the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo: Department of Veterans' Affairs Australia/flickr/cc)

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, described this week by author and activist Naomi Klein as a "climate villain," is cracking down further on environmental groups—and democracy itself—by seeking to repeal a section of the country's conservation law that allows green groups to mount legal challenges to environmental approvals.

The move is described by the Sydney Morning Herald as a response to the controversial decision that stopped Australia's largest coal project—Adani's Carmichael coal mine—in its tracks. Earlier this month, the federal court overturned the Abbott government's approval of the mine, saying the environment minister, Greg Hunt, ignored his own department's advice about the mine’s impact on two vulnerable species, the yakka skink and the ornamental snake.

"If these changes go ahead, it will undermine basic justice and fairness for rural communities who are facing off against the biggest mining companies in the world."
—Nicky Chirlian, Upper Mooki Landcare Group

The successful challenge, brought by a small environmental group, was decried by Abbott as "legal sabotage." Attorney General and Senator George Brandis, who will take the repeal amendments to Parliament this week, said the country's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act as it currently stands had encouraged cases of "vigilante litigation" and he was "appalled" by the Adani decision.

"Section 487 of the [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act] provides a red carpet for radical activists who have a political, but not a legal interest, in a development to use aggressive litigation tactics to disrupt and sabotage important projects," Brandis said in a statement.

But Lenore Taylor, the Guardian's Australia political editor, put it another way: "When an environment group successfully uses 16 year-old national environmental laws to delay a project, the Abbott government tries to change the law to prevent them from ever doing it again."

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Under the current laws, anyone "adversely affected" by a decision or a failure to make a decision has the legal right to challenge it.

This includes any Australian citizens and residents who have acted "for protection or conservation of or research into the environment" any time in the two years before the decision was made.

The changes proposed will mean that legal challenges can only be made by people directly affected by a development, such as a land holder.

"I won't be directly affected by the Shenhua mine, but my regional environment and my entire community will be," said Nicky Chirlian, a member of the Upper Mooki Landcare Group challenging another controversial project, the Shenhua Watermark coal mine proposed for the Liverpool Plains of New South Wales, Australia. "If these changes go ahead, it will undermine basic justice and fairness for rural communities who are facing off against the biggest mining companies in the world."

Echoing that charge, the Australian Conservation Society said the political maneuver was "nothing short of an attempt to strip communities of their right to a healthy environment."

And Greenpeace chief executive David Ritter added: "Australia's environment laws aren't very restrictive; they allow you to mine coal in prime farm land and are even failing to protect world heritage areas like the Great Barrier Reef … but today the government [has] announced that they are going to gut them to prevent local communities from objecting to mega mines like the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland."

Essentially, Ritter said, Abbott and his coalition are "seeking to legislate special treatment and fast tracking for an industry in decline that causes significant environmental and economic damage."

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