Twenty years ago Humane Society International welcomed the commencement of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). We had contributed to the negotiations that led to the Act, and while we recognised the final legislation had limitations, it still represented a leap forward in environmental protection for the time. Since then we have sought to use the EPBC Act to protect species and habitats whilst continuing to push for improvements. HSI is responsible for the listing of more than 70 species and millions of hectares of habitat under the Act and have provided countless detailed submissions to important consultations under the Act. We have also never shied away from pursuing proper implementation through the courts where we have seen the Act not being implemented properly.


However we have been increasingly frustrated at the underutilisation of certain parts of the Act and its chronic underfunding. HSI has successfully fought attempts to hand over decision-making powers from the Federal Government to the State and Territory Governments, which would lead to weaker environmental protections. Sadly to this day it remains Government policy as part of the ‘One-Stop Shop’ approach, which makes the current review into the Act even more important.


Australia’s environment is facing one of its toughest periods. The combined threats of the clearing of habitat, drought, bushfires and more means that Australia’s wildlife and their habitat are facing an extinction crisis. It is clear that stronger laws are required if we want to protect what we have and to avert further loss. Australia is not alone in this challenge and last year a panel of experts convened by the United Nations identified the need for ‘transformative change’ to tackle the extinction crisis.


It is in this context that HSI has approached the latest 10 year review of the EPBC Act, which commenced in October 2019. The review is an opportunity to set out the changes needed to Australia’s environment laws and provide the review with solutions. HSI has not been shy in putting forward our recommendations for what effective environmental legislation needs to look like in the face of the extinction crisis, having released two detailed policy papers on Next Generation environment laws in recent years thanks to the help of the Environmental Defenders Office. The first focused on best practice elements of biodiversity laws, and the second on best practice wildlife trade provisions, even more poignant given the current COVID-19 pandemic attributed to wildlife trade.


Whilst our recommendations are detailed and complex, the actions that need to be taken are simple.


Our wildlife is facing compounding pressures, yet currently the EPBC Act only deals with developments, habitat clearing or other threats on a case by case basis, with no ability to identify and measure these threats. These so called ‘cumulative impacts’ facing our wildlife need to be considered and better assessed looking at how a particular species and their habitat as a whole are impacted by an activity from past, to present and the future. Ensuring federal environment laws consider cumulative impacts could significantly improve the recovery prospects of many species.


More protection needs to be given to species’ breeding and feeding places—their ‘critical habitat’. Currently our laws allow critical habitat to be destroyed, preventing the recovery of many species and accelerating their extinction. It is essential that critical habitat be strictly protected and subject to a ‘red light’ policy whereby adverse actions are off limits, impacts on the critical habitat refused, and conservation agreements or covenants sought with landowners to protect critical habitat. If we cannot protect critical habitat there is no hope for recovery, making strengthened protections vital to prevent extinction.


It is essential that the Commonwealth government retains and expands its responsibility for protecting our most threatened species. And we must never sacrifice our environment for short term political gain at the behest of donors over scientific facts and data. For this reason HSI is calling for the establishment of two new independent institutions—a National Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and a National Environment or Sustainability Commission—as independent bodies operating at arm’s length from Government. These would help ensure that decisions are made in line with national standards and plans using clearly defined and objective criteria and annual reports made to parliament on the state of the environment.


Overall we need stronger laws to protect our environment. Laws that ensure the recovery of species is prioritised and funded. HSI is working with colleagues calling for new laws in the longer term, however much can be done to improve the existing laws whilst we wait.


HSI has always been at the forefront of promoting the need for strong environment laws to protect our most precious animals and we continue to actively call for improvements to be made to the existing laws. Our detailed submission to the review sets out what we believe is needed to tackle the extinction crisis. It is clear that much more needs to be done to protect our most threatened animals and their habitats, and HSI will continue to do our best to strive for this outcome.


You can send your own submission to the review panel here!


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Alexia Wellbelove is a Senior Program Manager at the Humane Society International (HSI). She joined the organisation in 2009. With over two decades experience in conservation her current focus is environmental policy, marine conservation (particularly marine mammal and fisheries bycatch) and wildlife trade. She helped found the Places You Love alliance and serves on a number of state and federal government committees. She has represented Australia as a member of the delegations to both the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).


Image credit: iStock-Windzepher

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