Documents obtained by Guardian Australia this week have raised serious questions about the protection of Australia's most threatened habitats. It has been revealed that Federal Minister Angus Taylor held meetings with then Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg about a Critically Endangered grassland that a company Taylor has a financial interest in was under investigation for illegally poisoning.
Making matters worse, Minister Frydenberg's office then canvassed whether he had the power to weaken the grasslands' protections by lowering their conservation status or changing the rules surrounding how their condition, and thus importance in the eyes of the law, is determined. The Minister's office also asked the Department whether such changes would be open to legal challenge and if they could be kept secret.
"It's extremely inappropriate that Angus Taylor sought meetings about Critically Endangered grasslands a company he has a financial interest in was under investigation for poisoning. That they were granted and led to Josh Frydenberg's office asking if protections could be watered down and done so secretly is beyond belief. The Minister and Treasurer must explain their conduct,” said Evan Quartermain, Humane Society International's Head of Programs.
Despite being underway since 2017, the investigation into the potentially illegal clearing is yet to reach a conclusion. However public statements from Nationals Senator John 'Wacka' Williams suggest it is behind the controversial Review of the interaction between the EPBC Act and agriculture and food production, with Senator Williams stating that after meeting with Angus Taylor's brother and business partner Richard, "We [Nationals' members] had a good meeting with Josh and left him in no doubt whatsoever that we were very angry and wanted this fixed … Josh has now come back and launched the independent review...”
HSI's Quartermain continued, "Federal investigations into illegal agricultural land clearing are extremely rare. The Government response to this single incident on land owned by very well-connected people has not only been improper but way out of proportion. What a world we live in if the Department investigating the clearing of Critically Endangered habitat results in an expensive and unnecessary review rather than a completed investigation.”
As the nominators of more than one third of the Threatened Ecological Communities listed under national environment law, HSI holds serious concerns about the implications of this political intervention and decisions made by Government Ministers since the meetings occurred.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that other threatened habitat listings have been avoided since the meetings between Angus Taylor and Josh Frydenberg. They happened right before then Minister Frydenberg started using a legal loophole that hadn't been touched in 20 years to avoid listing Critically Endangered habitats.”
Mr Quartermain concluded, "One positive in all this is that the documents obtained by The Guardian are evidence of a strong public service. HSI commends the conduct of the Department officials involved, who demonstrated their integrity in the face of considerable pressure from our elected representatives.”
Image: Rainer Rehwinkel
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