A PRETTY parrot with an amber hue hiding cleverly somewhere in regional Victoria is suddenly giving Federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell a headache the size of Big Bird.

   The endangered orange-bellied parrot was made the scapegoat for Senator Campbell’s decision in April to veto a $200 million windfarm at Bald Hills in the Gippsland region.

   On April 5, the Minister said a report commissioned by his own Environment Department stated that “the orange-bellied parrot, which is threatened and in a very precarious situation as a species, can’t really stand any further impacts”.

   It was exposed this week, however, that on March 10 — almost four weeks before his announcement — Senator Campbell’s department had in fact informed him that the project proposed “no direct evidence of any impact on the orange-bellied parrot at Bald Hills”.

   Other suggested sites were rejected by the department, which recommended he approve the Bald Hills proposal subject to standard conditions applied by his predecessors for five other windfarms. It warned him that to use the orangebellied parrot as an excuse to thwart the Bald Hills project could have far-reaching implications for coastal development around Australia.

   Yet Senator Campbell, who had campaigned against the project in the lead-up to the last Federal election, would not agree to it.

   He told the developer, Wind Power Pty Ltd, of his decision on April 4 and went public the next day.

 Political debt-paying

  He was accused at that time of playing politics with the project, which had been a divisive issue in the electorate of McMillan — a marginal Labor seat made a marginal Liberal by a redistribution and which the Liberals won in 2004. The revelation this week adds considerable weight to that argument.

   That the parrot was used as a form of political debt-paying is an allegation being thrown at the Minister.

   Being exposed in this way has embarrassed the Government, which is left open to legal action from the windfarm’s proponents. It also leaves Senator Campbell’s handling of his portfolio open to ridicule.

   Shadow environment minister Anthony Albanese was right this week when he stated that Senator Campbell could no longer hide behind his department on this issue.

   “By blocking the windfarm for political reasons, Minister Campbell may have used his ministerial power for an improper purpose,” Mr Albanese said. “This may expose the Commonwealth to legal action under the tort of ‘misfeasance in public office’.”

   For his part, Senator Campbell continues to insist that he made his decision based on an independent report that found the impact of wind turbine collisions on the orangebellied parrot, “though small”, could be sufficient to tip the balance against the bird’s continued existence.

   But in light of what has been uncovered this week, everything Senator Campbell has said about windfarm projects in Australia must now be viewed with some scepticism.

   He tried desperately to intervene to stop the Denmark community windfarm project on the south coast of WA. He said it would not get any more Federal funding, though proponents say it is not reliant on Canberra coffers and progress continues to be made at a slow pace.

 It all smacks of political manoeuvring

  Despite it being a community project, the Federal Minister says most people in Denmark do not want the windfarm spoiling the Wilson Head coastline.

   Certainly, it appears to be a polarising proposal but can Senator Campbell’s intervention now be viewed as anything other than political?

   The local council rejected the project but State Planning Minister Alannah MacTiernan gave it the nod. Then, in steps Senator Campbell demanding that local communities not be ignored.

   It all smacks of political manoeuvring and looking after mates, particularly since Senator Campbell has argued for a national code on windfarms even though he has had a national guidelines report sitting on his desk for more than a year and has not responded to it.

   The wider question to be asked is: What is it that the Federal Government has against renewable energy?

   According to Mr Albanese, the Bald Hills project alone would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 435,000 tonnes a year — equal to taking 100,000 cars off the road.

   Yet it was canned to “protect” what now appears to amount to about one parrot every millennium.

   The Federal Government has decided against raising the national Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, meaning that subsidies for windfarms have been stunted.

   Already, windfarm projects in Tasmania and South Australia have been withdrawn by developers and taken to other countries more favourable to them, due to the decision not to increase the MRET.

  Scar the landscape

 Under the MRET system, energy retailers had to buy 2 per cent of their power from renewable sources. That target has been reached but without an increase there is no incentive to invest further in renewable energy projects.

   Senator Campbell’s Cabinet colleague, Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran, has described windfarms as community dividers, property devaluers and projects that scar the landscape. “There is no justification for them,” he said.

   What is justified are the numerous questions this week as to why the Federal Government is playing politics with the environment and why, in the face of serious global climate change challenges, it is not encouraging private investment in renewable energy.

Chris Johnson  is a federal political reporter for The West Australian newspaper.


Chris Johnson, in Canberra

  The endangered orange-bellied parrot was made the scapegoat for Senator Campbell’s decision in April to veto a $200 million windfarm at Bald Hills in the Gippsland region.