Friday, December 22, 2006

No Dead Parrots Please

From the Australian

More Loony Politics from the only slightly loopy Environment Minister

In a statement timed for the start of the Christmas silly season, federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell has finalised the farce that has been his handling of the great Orange-bellied Parrot controversy (no, this parrot is real, Monty Python's was the Norwegian Blue). Back in April, Senator Campbell vetoed a $220 million proposed wind farm, at Bald Hills in Victoria's Gippsland, because it would put the parrot at peril. According to the minister, with only 50 breeding pairs left, all these parrots are precious and the risk that the wind farm could kill even one of the birds was unacceptable. That blocking the project might give the Coalition an edge in the marginal local electorate did not get a mention. Nor did the way the minister ignored his own department's advice, acting instead on a commissioned consultant's report that concluded the wind farm was a risk, albeit a small one, to the parrot.

However, the more the facts of the matter were considered, the more absurd Senator Campbell's reasons for blocking the project appeared. A minister charged with encouraging alternative energy had blocked a major wind farm when an expert suggested that on all the evidence the facility might kill one of the birds every thousand years. For months, Senator Campbell attempted to dig his way out of trouble, claiming that he was both pro-parrot and anxious to expand alternative energy. In the process, he annoyed on the one hand the environmental activists who think the benefits of Bald Hills in reducing greenhouse gas emissions are worth the risk to the parrot, and on the other the sceptics, who suggest wind energy is inefficient and expensive. And he upset the Bald Hills project backers, who took him to court. Senator Campbell finally clambered out of his hole yesterday, announcing that he had agreed to a revised Bald Hills proposal, which was better designed to protect the orange-bellied bird. Some of the changes are worded to seem significant, such as the requirement that no turbines be built within two kilometres of the coast. Others do not appear of epochal importance, such as the requirement to keep wind turbines up to 800m away from a wetlands reserve. And some seem severe. The new plan specifies that after the death of a second orange-bellied or swift parrot, or a white-bellied sea eagle, acrosss the life of the project, all operations for a kilometre around "the mortality site'' will cease immediately and only start again with ministerial approval. Senator Campbell is well-known for getting worked up over wildlife, conducting himself like a sea-green zealot in his campaign against whaling, but even by his standards this is over-kill.

What started as a win-win for the minister, collecting kudos from people who did not want a wind farm on the their patch by knocking back the project on environmental grounds, has turned into a lose-lose. Senator Campbell has made a fool of himself by blocking and then allowing the Bald Hills wind farm. And he has demonstrated an absence of policy nous and basic political skill to all, especially John Howard. Whether or not the Prime Minister has a reshuffle in mind, the case for moving Senator Campbell to a less-demanding job is incontestable. Maybe the minister will complain this is all unfair, that he has been the butt of too many Monty Python parrot jokes. Perhaps, but another of the conditions of the Bald Hills approval requires an independent on-site monitor, charged with advising the minister in writing of the death of a member of a threatened species within 48 hours. "This is an ex-parrot'' should do it.

So if you are a parrot identification expert, with skills in morbidity and you like wandering around windswept portions of remote Victoria, this is the job for you. In all seriousness, I am curious how you could comply with the 48 hour requirement.

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