Playing politics with the environment


Just as few Australians were naive enough to believe former Environment Minister Graham Richardson’s comment following a flight over the Tasmanian wilderness in 1986 that he had become ‘a born-again greenie’, few Australians will fall for the current Environment Minister Senator Ian Campbell’s recent claim that the ‘environment is above politics.’

The Minister’s comment was made in response to a report by The Australia Institute on the legislation that transformed federal environmental protection in 2000: the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). The Act celebrated its fifth anniversary in July. Drawing on all publicly available evidence, the report concluded that the Act’s environmental assessment and approval regime has failed to produce any noticeable environmental improvements and its failure is at least partly attributable to the fact that the Government has been playing politics with the process.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

This conclusion was based primarily on four facts, which have not been disputed by the Minister.

Firstly, only a very small number of agricultural, fishing and forestry activities have been referred to the Minister as is required under the legislation. Fishers have been particularly remiss. Over the last five years, not one referral has been made in relation to commercial fishing – a staggering statistic when you consider the number of overfished species in Commonwealth waters has grown from seven to seventeen since the Act was passed.

Secondly, in sharp contrast to almost all other regulatory regimes, only two out of over 1500 referred activities have been stopped. Minister Campbell has defended this statistic on the basis that the Government is merely balancing the needs of the environment with those of the economy. He has been quoted as saying, ‘I don’t think any Australians would want to have an environment law that stops all projects.’

We agree, but surely they want a regime that stops activities that drastically harm Australia’s biodiversity or heritage. The details of the projects that have been approved and a refusal rate of less than 0.5 per cent suggest this is not occurring.

A stand out example is the Minister’s approval of several land clearing proposals in the Wimmera district of western Victoria, which is the home of the endangered mascot of the 2006 Commonwealth Games – the south-eastern red-tailed black cockatoo. The Minister has allowed all of the clearing proposals to proceed despite compelling evidence that the clearing will imperil the future of the cockatoo.

The only significant restriction that has been imposed on the clearing is a requirement to plant compensatory trees, notwithstanding the fact that the trees will take around 100 years to reach a stage where they provide appropriate habitat. Sadly, by then, the only place you are likely to see a red-tailed black cockatoo is in a museum cupboard.

Thirdly, only two prosecutions have been carried out and only one of these was successful. Unfortunately, this hit rate is not surprising given that when the Act commenced the Department of the Environment informed the Director of Public Prosecutions that it would not support the prosecution of fishers. Although not in writing, it appears that the Government has a similar intention with respect to farmers.

Since the Act commenced, land clearing for agricultural purposes in Queensland has actually increased, rising from around 350 000 hectares in 2000-1 to more than 520 000 hectares in 2002-3. Yet no farmer has been prosecuted in Queensland for illegal land clearing. Even the Productivity Commission has acknowledged that the EPBC Act is not having an effect on the agricultural sector.

Finally, there is the evidence in relation to the lists of threatened species, threatened ecological communities and national heritage places. Despite a statutory obligation to ensure the list of communities and species contains all those that meet the listing criteria, they contain conspicuous omissions.

For example, the Minister has been unable to explain why no commercial fish species has been listed as threatened, despite overwhelming evidence that a number of species (including the southern bluefin tuna, eastern gemfish and several species of dogfish) meet the listing criteria. Similarly, a report published by the Commonwealth in 2002 indicates that there are currently around 2800 threatened terrestrial ecosystems and ecological communities in Australia.

But, in five years, the Minister has only listed ten ecological communities.

The only plausible explanation for these omissions is political – that the Minister is afraid of upsetting the farmers, fishers and foresters that will be affected if these species and communities are listed. In fact, rather than stopping damaging activities, the Minister is now trying to use the National Heritage List to force the Victorian Government to return cattle grazing to the environmentally fragile Alpine National Park.

Politics cannot be divorced from the environment. But we have a right to expect that a desire to do what is in the best interests of the Australian community is greater than the desire to achieve short-term political objectives. Unfortunately, the administration of the EPBC Act suggests that the opposite is true of the Howard Government. If Minister Campbell wants to be remembered as more than a political operator, he is going to have to stop telling us how he stands up for the environment, and start doing it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.