After years of government mishandling and deliberate obfuscation, kowtowing to developers, ignoring the climate science, degrading our land, losing wildlife and habitat, it’s time to change our environmental laws. 

According to The Guardian Australia, The Morrison government must overhaul Australia’s environmental laws, including establishing new independent bodies to take on responsibility for monitoring the environment and enforcing compliance with the law, a once-in-a-decade independent review has found.

The head of the review, the former competition watchdog head Graeme Samuel, made 38 recommendations to transform the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

They include short-term reforms, including the immediate introduction of legally-binding national environmental standards to boost protection, and longer-term changes needed to address the “trajectory of environmental decline”.

Stop The Logging!

In a major shift, Samuel also called on the government to abolish the effective exemption from environment laws granted to all native forest logging covered by regional forestry agreements between the federal and state governments.

Samuel said the government would be accepting “the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems” if it shied away from the fundamental reforms recommended by the review.

“This is unacceptable,” he wrote. “A firm commitment to change from all stakeholders is needed to enable future generations to enjoy and benefit from Australia’s unique environment and heritage.”

The report reiterates Samuel’s interim findings that Australia’s animals, plants and habitats are in unsustainable decline, and concludes the EPBC Act is failing both the environment and developers.

He also said the EPBC Act was unclear about what it was trying to achieve for the environment, which was now so under pressure it could not withstand current, emerging or future threats, including climate change.

The centrepiece of Samuel’s recommendations was the creation of a new set of national environmental standards that “should be adopted in full and immediately implemented”.

Among other recommendations Samuel said successive governments had taken a “piecemeal” approach to the recovery and management of threatened species, and highlighted the failure to adopt and implement recovery plans or properly address major threats.

Regional Plans

The review recommended the introduction of regional recovery plans to address threats and secure the survival of species and habitats across a landscape.

The environment minister, Sussan Ley, said Samuel’s report was “far-reaching”, but did not hold a media conference to discuss the report. The government has not released its response to the recommendations.

Ley said in a statement the government was “committed to working through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders”.

“This is a process that will take some time to complete, as Prof Samuel has flagged, and it is important that our legislation is fit for meeting the challenges facing our natural environment,” she said.

She said the government would still pursue its plan to try to pass legislation that would clear the way for the handover of federal environmental approval powers to state and territory governments.

Samuel’s final report reiterates his interim recommendation that this occur under a framework of legally-binding standards.

The report warns that while the government should consult the states and territories about the environmental standards, the “process cannot be one of negotiated agreement to accommodate existing rules or development aspirations”.

“To do so would result in a patchwork of protections or rules set at the lowest bar,” he wrote.

Recommendations

The report makes detailed recommendations for standards covering threatened species, engagement with Indigenous Australians, legal compliance and enforcement, and environmental data and information, with further standards to be developed over time.

In particular, Samuel noted that governments had failed to support the rights of Indigenous Australians in environmental decision-making and were not harnessing the “extraordinary value” of traditional knowledge in managing the environment.

He found data and information about threatened species and habitats was not easily accessible and that good outcomes for both the environment and heritage – including the cumulative effects of habitat destruction – could not be achieved under the current laws.

Conservationists welcomed the report and its recommendations, including the call for an independent office of compliance.

“It is time to overhaul our national environment law with a full package of reforms that includes strong legally-enforceable standards and an independent regulator – and these must be in force before the government pursues its Streamlining Amendment legislation,” said Basha Stasak of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

“As Prof Samuel states, national environmental standards alone are not enough.

“Standards need to be backed up by strong, independent oversight and increased accountability.”

The Wilderness Society said the review had accepted the view of scientific and legal experts, and the community, which had “overwhelmingly” called for changes that would halt the extinction of Australian wildlife.

“After all this work, after decades of worsening extinctions, out-of-control habitat loss and without reform, we can’t just have another round of this government choosing to consult and ignore. Our ancient and unique natural heritage is at stake,” environmental laws campaigner, Suzanne Milthorpe, said.

The Guardian Australia has spent more than three years examining systemic failings under the act.

Their reporting uncovered widespread problems, including poor monitoring of endangered species, major delays in the listing of threatened species and ecosystems, failure to develop, update and implement recovery plans for species and habitats threatened with extinction, failure to list key threats to species, failure to protect important habitat, and threatened species funding being used for projects that do not benefit threatened species.

(Let’s hope Mr Samuels report prevails and isn’t buried and stalled by procrastination and obfuscation by vested interests. DM)

Article first appeared in The Guardian Australia. 

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