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article imageAustralia’s environmental fixes not good enough, says ACF Special

By Paul Wallis     Mar 7, 2021 in Environment
Sydney - Australia’s environmental credentials have taken a fully deserved hammering in recent years. A grim review of legislation has received a mixed response, notably from long-time advocates the Australian Conservation Foundation.
I was lucky enough to get an interview with Josh Meadows, spokesperson for the ACF on the subject of a recent legislative review of the governing legislation. The review conducted by Professor Graeme Samuel didn’t mince a single word. It was truly scathing, and rightly so; we can do our environmental management so much better, and there’s no drive from the top to do it.
The press-release level response from the government has been drawing more than a bit of flak. A mix of skepticism and cynicism is the usual Australian reaction to these traditional monotonously inadequate responses. This isn’t 1950. We can’t pretend it is any more.
I thought I was up to speed on the key issues, but I found out quite a lot more than I expected.
• The review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 has been controversial from the start. How effective was the review in getting productive responses from the community and government?
ACF: Graeme Samuel’s review of the EPBC Act was wide-ranging and thorough. Professor Samuel canvassed the views of a very broad array of stakeholders. ACF and other environment groups were consulted – along with business and resource industry representatives – at various stages of the process. There were several points in the process where the community was invited to contribute. As part of the process the Australian Conservation Foundation delivered the biggest petition in the environment group’s 55-year history to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Environment Minister Susan Ley. ACF’s 409,908-signature petition called for stronger laws to protect nature and bring Australia’s wildlife back from the brink.
• The review delivered a pretty damning report on the state of the environment. Does ACF agree with the report’s findings or was the review inadequate in some ways?
ACF: Professor Samuel’s final report was indeed damning, finding the EPBC Act to be ‘ineffective’ and is ‘not fit to address current or future environmental challenges’. There are many aspects of Professor Samuel’s findings and recommendations that ACF welcomes, such as the recommendation for an independent statutory Environment Assurance Commissioner who would report to the Parliament. We also welcomed the proposal for an independent office of Compliance and Enforcement. Investigations by ACF and the national Auditor General have found significant failings in compliance and enforcement under the EPBC Act. We believe an independent compliance and enforcement body should be housed outside of the existing Department. We also support Professor Samuel’s call for a form of merits review. This would allow for greater community involvement in environmental decision making – a critical accountability mechanism in a democracy like Australia. ACF strongly supported the recommendation to remove the logging industry’s special exemption from national environmental law. Unsustainable logging has pushed numerous Australian species – like the Swift parrot, Leadbeater’s possum, Greater glider and more – to the brink. This loophole must be closed. We disagreed with the recommendation to restrict the application of the Act’s water trigger to only cross-border water resources, but we welcomed the suggestion that the trigger be expanded so it covers other actions beyond coal mining and coal seam gas mining. We are nervous about the suggestion that federal environmental approval powers could be handed to state and territory governments without a loss of protection.
• The report made several key recommendations including new national environmental protection standards. Does ACF support the proposed changes to environmental management? Do these proposals go far enough or not far enough?
ACF: We believe strong, legally enforceable standards and an independent regulator need to be in force before the government pursues its Streamlining Environmental Approvals legislation. As Professor Samuel stated in his report, national environmental standards alone are not enough. Standards need to be backed up by strong, independent oversight and increased accountability.
• Can these proposals for change actually work? If not, why not?
ACF: They can work, but they really need to be implemented in full and on the double. Half measures and cherry-picking one or two of Professor Samuel’s recommendations will only push unique, much-loved wildlife like the koala and the bilby closer to extinction. The Government has suggested a framework for national standards, which is welcome, but the government’s proposed interim standards, as reported in the media, are weak and would lock in the extinction crisis.
• What would be the most effective government-level response to environmental degradation on the scale seen in Australia?
ACF: Australia is a world leader in mammal extinctions. In the 20 years we’ve had a national environment law, an area larger than the entire state of Tasmania has been logged, cleared and bulldozed. ACF analysis has revealed that only 10% of the koala habitat cleared in NSW and Queensland between 2012 and 2017 was even assessed by the federal government. Clearly, the present system is not working.
• Given the state of Australian land management over the last century, what’s the best strategy for long-term sustainability in environmental protection?
ACF: There is no simple fix, but there are people thinking about how changes to the law can safeguard Australia’s incredible landscapes, unique wildlife, ancient forests and beautiful reefs. The Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law has come with a vision of what a new generation of effective federal environmental laws could look like. This expert panel spent two years developing a series of technical papers that recommend reforms to our national environmental law. They cover a range of areas, including governance, democratic frameworks, terrestrial and marine conservation and climate law.
I’d like to thank Josh Meadows and the ACF for putting Australia’s self-inflicted extremely complex environmental issues in such a clear light. The situation is drastic, the fixes demanding, and the time to get on with the job is now. The alternative is a continent-wide catastrophe. This is the ultimate no-brainer.
More about Australian Conservation Foundation, Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservati, Australia 'environmental management, Professor Graeme Samuel, Josh Meadows ACF
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