You’d be forgiven for thinking that the very existence of national environmental laws creates an obligation on Environment Ministers to protect the environment. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Instead, their obligations are limited by the objects and duties that are specified in the law. And in the case of our...
You need only read successive State of the Environment Reports to know that Australia is rapidly losing its wildlife and their habitats. It’s a tragic reality that in 2018 our nation still allows the broad scale clearing of hundreds of thousands of hectares of native bushland. So much so, that eastern Australia is considered a global deforestation hotspot.
This is thoroughly shameful for a developed nation such as ours. How can the laws that are allowing this to happen cope with the intensification of environmental challenges in the decade ahead? Clearly, they can’t. We need new laws.
In 1999, HSI supported the passage of the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) through the Parliament. We advised senators at the time that, on balance, the EPBC Act was a substantial advance on the laws it was replacing. Had we stuck with them, the resources and agricultural ministers could still be our environmental decision makers and the situation a whole lot worse. But the improvements we gained in the EPBC Act 20 years ago are simply not enough to protect our environment against the remorseless and unrelenting assaults thrown at it today, which will only worsen.
Eastern Australia is considered a global deforestation hotspot. Image: Lisbet Dean – Serendipity Retreat
Chief among the EPBC Act’s limitations is its inability to deal well with cumulative impacts. Too many species and ecosystems that are listed as Matters of National Environmental Significance are suffering a death by a thousand cuts through an environmental assessment and approval process that rarely, if ever, says no. Decision making powers may now be invested in the Environment Minister, but the trade-off we made in 1999 to secure this was broad ministerial discretion—this discretion allows short term political interests to override the long term national good over and over again. The Act also contains far too many exemptions, including one that has lately been abused to allow culling and displacement of threatened species for very dubious ‘national interests’.
HSI is very concerned to see what the Minister will exempt next in the so-called national interest.
For these reasons HSI and the Places You Love alliance, a coalition of the nation’s leading conservation advocacy groups, are calling for a new generation of environment laws to face the challenges of the 21st Century.
The ‘national interest’ exemption of the current EPBC Act has been abused to allow culling and displacement of threatened species. Image: iStock.com/pniesen
Guardian Australia has launched an important series on Australia’s worsening environmental record, interviewing political veterans and campaigners from around the country, including HSI’s Head of Campaigns Nicola Beynon and our Head of Programs Evan Quartermain. Those interviewed shared the view that environmental protection is harder to win than at any time since before the wave of landmark 1980s decisions to recognise the Daintree rainforest and Kakadu National Park and to block mining in Antarctica. Everyone interviewed by The Guardian agreed that our current environment law needs to be revamped or replaced.
Australia needs national environment laws that demand strong leadership from our federal government, protect decision making from political interference, empower independent and trusted institutions, have a central and meaningful role for the community and hold the government of the day to account. But most importantly, we need laws that plan for the myriad compounding threats against wildlife and their habitats and provide resilience against climate change.
Australia need laws that plan for the myriad compounding threats against wildlife and their habitats. Image: Lance Jurd
In developing our policy asks for new laws, the Places You Love alliance has drawn on the law reform work undertaken by the Australia Panel of Expert Environmental Lawyers.
HSI has further commissioned the Environmental Defenders Office to prepare a paper on the clauses needed for the biodiversity chapters in the next generation environment law which we look forward to publishing soon.
Please sign our letter below to Australia’s major parties calling for support for new #naturelaws that measure up to the threats bearing down on our nation’s wildlife and their habitats.