Fremantle plastic bag block sets worrying precedent

Parliament must not block local community action to protect the environment

The move by Peter Katsambanis MLC and his Liberal party colleagues to overturn a Local Government law banning plastic shopping bags in the City of Fremantle shows that something is seriously wrong in our WA State Parliament.

There is no doubt that plastic bags are a major problem. Tens of millions of them end up in litter and landfill, polluting our rivers and oceans and choking our marine life every year.

But this isn’t really about plastic bags. This is about Liberal MP’s acting on behalf of unnamed business interests to block a genuine community-led solution to a serious environmental issue where successive State and Commonwealth governments have refused to take action.

After receiving a community petition with over 1000 signatures calling for the City of Fremantle to take action on plastic bags, the local authority began an exhaustive consultation process to ensure that any solution would be workable for traders and shoppers alike.

This involved a working group comprised of business representatives including the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce as well as plastic bag suppliers. It was this working group which recommended the final law that was passed by the Council after receiving overwhelming support in submissions from businesses and community members.

In addition to strong local support, the City of Fremantle local law also had the backing of a parliamentary committee which investigated the law as well as the Minister who is responsible for waste management, litter and the environment, Hon Albert Jacob MLA.

Despite this, Mr. Katsambanis (who does not represent Fremantle) claimed in Parliament that his blocking motion was in the interests of local retailers who had expressed concerns to him directly. The names of these businesses remain a mystery.

If Mr. Katsambanis and his parliamentary colleagues are acting against the advice of their own Minister, Local Government and the parliament to block community-led environmental reforms then the community has a right to know which businesses are pulling their strings.

Perhaps their concerns could have been allayed if those businesses were more willing to raise their concerns in public through the local Council, the Chamber of Commerce, or the community that is both their host and the source of their profits.

The move to block this local initiative sets an extremely worrying precedent at a time when people are increasingly turning to Local Governments where State and Commonwealth Governments are failing to represent their interests.

In the Midwest, local shires are responding to farming communities fighting to protect their land, water and livelihoods from gas fracking while at the same time the State Government subsidises drilling through their drinking water aquifers.

In the Southwest, Shires have supported local community efforts to protect high-conservation forests from the chip mill while the State continues to subsidise a loss-making logging industry that is exempt from wildlife protection laws.

Whether it is supporting communities to reduce plastic pollution, oppose nuclear activities, protect forests, or prevent pollution from gas fracking, Local Government has a critical role in working with communities to address environment and sustainability challenges.

Where the State Parliament is unwilling or unable to represent the interests of communities and the environment, they should at least get out of the way when others show their own initiative.

 

An edited version of this opinion piece was printed in the West Australian 16 October 2015