The so-called “reform” which could spell death for koalas
I bumped into a journalist I knew in the coffee queue at Parliament House, and he asked what I was up to these days. I told him I was looking at the environment law reforms. “Oh yeah, those,” he said confidently, then thought about it for a while before asking: “So, what’s the deal with that?”
Indeed. Most of us know something is happening with our national environment laws, but not exactly what, and if or how it will affect us. It’s quite complex, and I could talk about it for days.
But I don’t have days, I have a flat white coming in three So for all of you in the virtual coffee queue out there, here’s my three-minute, coffee-queue guide to the environment law reforms. They’re a niche interest. They only matter to you if you care about The Great Barrier Reef, native forests, The Tarkine, The Kimberley or any environmentally significant place in Australia, koalas, tassie devils or any species facing extinction, the multi-billion dollar eco-tourism industry or long-term, sustainable jobs, clean air, water or food.
The environmental law reforms may also matter to you if you have kids, or may have kids who may one day care about any of the above.
Are the current laws working?
Not well. The government’s own studies show us going backwards on the environment every decade, losing more precious habitat, forests, grasslands and marine wildernesses. The number of species under threat has nearly tripled in the last twenty years. Clearly, the laws haven’t been strong enough to protect some parts of the environment that needed protecting.
What will the reform package do?
These changes will weaken the laws even further. The biggest change will be that the federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, will hand most – if not all – of his powers to state governments. This is awful news for the environment.
Why are the states so bad?
Have a look at their track record. Without the federal government, state governments would have dammed the Franklin River, put oil rigs in the Great Barrier Reef and built Traveston Dam, destroying areas and wildlife we now consider too precious to lose. Right now, Tasmania is planning tin mining for the Tarkine, Victoria is about to log their state emblem, Leadbeater’s Possum, to extinction, and NSW will open National Parks to shooting.
You wouldn’t want this bunch looking after your dog, let alone endangered species or critical habitat. But by March next year, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Because the cash-strapped states often get direct benefit from development, like mining royalties and land tax, there’ll always be a fox-in-charge-of-the-henhouse element to it. That’s why we have a federal Environment Minister. (And also because we’ve signed some pesky international obligations to protect certain parts of our environment, like World Heritage and Ramsar wetlands.)
Why are these changes happening?
Because the Australian Government chose to listen to big business instead of Australian communities. The Business Council of Australia claimed that there was too much environmental regulation, a claim without independent evidence. With no consultation with the public, the government rolled over.
Why would Tony Burke agree to this?
To be honest, Tony Burke’s track record as federal Environment Minister hasn’t been that great either. He helped out Tasmanian miners by letting the Tarkine’s heritage-listing lapse. He let the oil and gas giants call dibs on the bits of the Kimberley and marine areas they wanted, before protecting what was left. The big stoush he had with Campbell Newman over the Great Barrier Reef was a total furphy, as it was Tony Burke’s approvals of major coal and gas ports next to the Reef that sparked international alarm in the first place. And recently, he’s just approved the largest coal mine in the southern hemisphere.
On the plus side, he stopped grazing in Victorian Alpine Parks and gave federal protection to koalas, as development approved by state governments has sent numbers in the wild plummeting – but come March next year, responsibility for protecting koalas goes right back to the states.
And these are the law changes in a nutshell – the federal Environment Minister wants to make protecting the environment somebody else’s problem. Which will make him not much more than a taxpayer-funded guy in a suit with his name on the door.
What are the politics around this?
Australians are used to thinking of Labor as OK on the environment, and the Liberals not so much. But here we have environment laws that were introduced by the Howard Government which are being made worse by Labor. Even John Howard’s old Environment Minister has said this handover to the states is a mistake.
But in case this reversal is doing your head in, don’t worry, it doesn’t last – Tony Abbott’s Coalition is backing these reforms to the hilt. So Labor and the Liberals finally agree! Unfortunately, what they agree on is selling out the environment.
Is it really that bad?
Sorry, it really is. The environment sector has called these reforms the worst thing to happen to our environment in thirty years.
What can I do?
Well, first you can have your coffee. If you’re as disappointed in these reforms as I am, you can write to the PM, her Environment Minister or your local member asking them not to flog off the environment to the states. But at the very least, next time you’re in line for your morning caffeine, you can have a chat with the person next to you about what the law reforms really mean for us. It would be a shame if Australia’s biggest environment fire-sale happened without everyone knowing about it, just because nobody took three minutes to explain it in the coffee queue.
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