Leanne Minshull's OP ED from September 20, 2020: Environment Act review can send Australia, including Tasmania, faster down the road to extinction, writes LEANNE MINSHULL
From the bush to our beaches, from koalas to Tasmanian devils, Australia’s identity is rooted in our natural world. Yet we are driving our species to extinction and degrading our landscapes faster than 90 per cent of all other countries.
Australia has the highest rate of mammal extinction. There were 1800 species listed as vulnerable or worse before last year’s bushfires. Responses to the list are universally accepted as inadequate so the true picture could soon be much, much worse. It’s not just Australia, the world is in a biodiversity and extinction crisis, but if damaging the environment were a sport, Australia would be a gold medallist. Every five years, since 1996, Australia has produced a state of the environment report. Every five years, the indicators get worse.
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) commenced in 2000. It was to be the Australian government’s key piece of environmental legislation. The purpose was to “enable the Australian government to join with the states and territories in providing a truly national scheme of environment and heritage protection and biodiversity conservation.” And it is clear it has failed.
Over the two decades under stewardship of the EPBC Act, threatened species habitat larger than Tasmania has been destroyed. More than one million native fish died in the Murray Darling system last year, extensive bleaching has occurred on the Great Barrier Reef and even koalas have been listed as vulnerable.
The EPBC Act must be reviewed every 10 years. An interim report was released to the government last month. This should be a moment to recognise our failings and reset our nature conservation settings. If state and federal leaders can work together on the best scientific advice to crush the COVID-19 curve, surely they are capable of doing the same for our environment? We may create a vaccine for COVID-19, we can never do the same to stabilise the climate or restore biodiversity. If the climate fuelled bushfires taught us anything, it’s that you cannot negotiate with nature.
I am an optimist by nature, but early signs are testing that disposition. Despite the dire situation we have placed our environment in, the Prime Minister chose to focus solely on how we can impact it faster during his State of the Nation speech at CEDA in June. He said he was “determined to get out of the way and speed up progress by improving approvals processes.” and “Our goal is to cut these times by a further 25 per cent by the end of this year to 30 days for major projects.” This against a backdrop of a federal budget cut of 40 per cent since 2013.
Through the review, the federal government is pursuing a strategy of “single touch approvals”, the centrepiece of which will see the federal government abrogate its responsibility for our environment to the states. This idea has been done before and it didn’t work, for the environment or industry. It was lose-lose. Regional Forestry Agreements were put in place to strike a balance between conserving forests and using them for economic production and recreation. Under the 20-year agreements, principles on forestry management were agreed. Then forestry operations were handed to the states and effectively exempt from the EPBC Act. Under this process, our native forests have been devastated, habitat destroyed and state forestry bodies in the big logging states NSW, Victoria and Tasmania operating at a loss, propped up by state taxpayers.
Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley must take the interim report, get stakeholders around the table and agree on national guidelines. If the primary focus is to cut red tape and speed up approvals, the minister will repeat mistakes of the past and only serve to condemn our environment and industries to climactic and economic chaos