The view from Billinudgel

Death threat
Environmental protection laws do not conserve Australia’s wildlife – and government inaction means they never will

Image © Daphne Hargrove / Alamy

To those who were paying attention, Graeme Samuel’s interim report on Australia’s 20-year-old environmental protection laws provides a sombre warning.

The essential message the veteran investigator sought to convey was a simple one: the current regime is not working. Native flora and fauna are not being conserved, while habitats are in a state of decline and under increasing threat. The environment is on a trajectory that is not sustainable.

The longstanding federal legislation is dated, inefficient and not fit for purpose. As Samuel stated, “It does not enable the Commonwealth to protect and conserve environmental matters that are important for the nation.” And the legislative processes are cumbersome and slow, due partly to the overlap and conflict between Canberra and the states. They should be revised and simplified at every level.

But the key, according to Samuel, is outcomes, not process. And the essential reform needed is the appointment of an independent cop on the beat – a regulator to remove politics from a system infested by donors and lobbyists, mainly miners and developers.

This was not the message the government wanted to hear. For master marketer Scott Morrison, it is all about slashing green tape; get rid of all that tiresome regulation and let her rip. And the easiest way to do that is to get right out of the way, leaving what is left of Australia’s vandalised ecosystem to the less-than-tender mercies of rapacious premiers obsessed with either digging up the land or building on it.

Morrison’s anti-environment minister, Sussan Ley, is right into the bulldozers – she is beginning negotiations with the states even as I write this. But even before then, she had airily dismissed the crux of Samuel’s report, saying there would definitely not be an independent regulator of any kind. That’s just another layer of bureaucracy.

Ley was summarily rebutted by Labor and the Greens, but more importantly by the Liberal NSW state government, with both Environment Minister Matt Kean and Planning Minister Rob Stokes backing Samuel. But who cares? The miners were on her side.

So, there will be more degradation to come. As it stands, Australia’s extinction rate has not noticeably slowed for 200 years, and we have lost about 100 species – a third of them mammals. Much of the killing was deliberate: bounties were offered for the destruction of marsupials – mainly kangaroos and wallabies, but also smaller animals.

Systematic baiting of native fauna officially ended in the 1930s, but the biggest killer – the razing of habitat – is still regarded as good policy, and absolutely necessary for jobs and growth. And, of course, climate change is exacerbating the devastation: the CSIRO warns the extinction rate will roughly quintuple in the next 20 years if we remain on the current path.

The carnage cannot be stopped altogether, but it can be drastically slowed – if there is the money and the will. Under the Coalition, however, there is no chance of either. Ley has made her priority clear: she wants what she calls “one touch” approvals for projects, bypassing not just the federal parliament but, as far as possible, the courts as well.

Of course, the government will “strengthen compliance functions and ensure that all bilateral agreements with states and territories are subject to rigorous assurance monitoring”. That’s if there are any compliance functions and bilateral agreements left after the open slather Ley advocates.

Samuel’s review is yet to be completed. But on current indications, it will be as comprehensibly rejected as his interim demand for an independent regulator – or indeed any regulator – has already been. When we read the final report, due in October, we will not be reading another warning, another call to arms, another program for salvation. We will be reading an obituary.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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