To those who were paying attention, Graeme Samuels’s interim review into environmental protection laws was a sombre warning.
The essential message the veteran investigator sought was a simple one. The current regime was not working – native flora and fauna were not being conserved, habitat was in an overall state of decline, under increasing threat and on a trajectory that was not sustainable.
The long-standing federal legislation was dated, inefficient and not fit for the purpose. “It does not enable the Commonwealth to protect and conserve environmental matters that are important to the nation,” Samuels concluded. And it was cumbersome and slow, due partly to the overlap and conflict between Canberra and the states, and it should be revised and simplified at every level.
But the key was outcomes, not process. And the essential reform was the appointment of “an independent cop on the beat” to remove politics from a system infested by donors and lobbyists, mainly miners and developers.
But this was not the message the government wanted to hear. For the master marketer, it was all about slashing green tape – get rid of all that tiresome regulation, 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 clearing land and either digging it up or building on it.
So his Anti-environment Minister Sussan Ley is right into the bulldozers, beginning negotiations with the states even as I write. But even before then, she had airily dismissed the crux of Samuels’s report: there would definitely not be an independent regulator of any kind, 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, more extinctions. The rate has not noticeably slowed for 200 years; we have lost over 100 species, a third of them mammals, the most photogenic kind. Much of the killing was deliberate: bounties were offered for the destruction of marsupials – mainly kangaroos, but also smaller animals, many of which did not make it.
Systematic baiting of native fauna was officially ended last century, but the biggest killer – the razing of habitat – is regarded as good policy, absolutely necessary for jobs and growth. And of course climate change is exacerbating the devastation: the CSIRO warns the extinction rate will quintuple in ten years under the current path.
This carnage cannot be stopped altogether, but it could be drastically slowed – if there was the money and the will. But under the present coalition, 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.
But of course the government would “strengthen compliance functions and ensure bilateral agreements with states and territories are subject to rigorous assurance monitoring.” Well that is, if there are any compliance functions and bilateral agreements left after the open slather Ley advocates.
Samuels’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 it, we will not be reading another warning, another call to arms, another program for salvation. We will be reading an obituary.
Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.