Watching the duelling press conferences between the Federal Environment Minister and the Queensland Premier last week left a bad taste in my mouth. Not from the unedifying spectacle of name-calling from each side — the "shambolic jokes" and the "rogue Ministers" — but from the fact that it was so removed from the reality, which is that neither of the big parties wants to properly protect the Great Barrier Reef.
The irony is that federal Labor hasalready offered to give Premier Campbell Newman, who thinks World Heritage listing is a "problem for the Queensland coast", more responsibility to protect the Reef.
In March 2013, folliowing a recent COAG decision, the Federal Government will devolve many of its environmental responsibilities under federal environment laws to the states. Most of the remainder will also end up with the Queensland Government once the Strategic Assessment of the Reef is finished.
In the future, if Campbell Newman forgets that the Australian mainland is connected to the sea, or that turtles, dolphins, dugongs and whales live there, the Federal Government will be able to do nothing about it and the latest mega-mine will coast through its environmental approval uncontested.
Similarly, the next proposal for some scientific cattle grazing in a sensitive Victorian national park, or a leisurely spot of shooting in a New South Welsh national park, will attract not a whimper of protest from the Feds.
The next Franklin Dam, or Traveston Dam, or war on Queensland’s flying foxes, or mass dredging for a new port in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, or breach of environmental conditions at False Cape, or gross over-development at Hinchinbrook — all these decisions will be left entirely to the dubious stewardship of the states.
And that’s the real story of the clash we have witnessed between Tony Burke and Campbell Newman this week. Within days of UNESCO saying that we are only eight months away from the Great Barrier Reef being listed as World Heritage in danger, and specifically warning that there should be no new development approvals alongside the Great Barrier Reef until the strategic assessment of the Reef has been completed, the Queensland Government stated that it is "in the coal business" and slapped together a dodgy approval for a new mega-mine.
It might even be comical if it wasn’t a glimpse of the very near future. Despite all of his fuming and stomping about, Tony Burke and his colleagues are determined to hand the environment over to these "shambolic jokers".
This is not to say that existing federal environmental laws, should they remain in federal hands, are strong enough to actually protect our environment. They are not.
The Federal Environment Minister has been happy to approve the developments along the Great Barrier Reef that prompted UNESCO’s intervention, and he has been careful to ensure that the strategic assessment currently underway is no obstacle to the 35 developments on the books for the Reef and that it does not consider the impacts of projects that have already been approved.
On a broader level, indicators of environmental health in Australia are trending in the wrong direction under the current scheme — we are losing species at an alarming rate, we are continuing to pump out far more than our fair share of greenhouse pollution, we are permitting the coal seam gas industry to roll out across the landscape despite uncertainty about aquifer impacts, and so on.
We need to turn those trends around, but they will only get worse if the states become the sole arbiters of environmental protection in Australia. This should be as painfully obvious to the Federal Government as it is to anyone else paying attention to the current dust-up with Queensland.
Our national environmental laws desperately need reform, but it must be reform that results in more protection, not less. It must result in prompt recognition and protection of threatened species before they go extinct. It should consider the cumulative impacts of new developments, rather than pretending that each one exists in a bubble. It should require consideration of impacts on water and the climate.
There are a range of important reforms that deserve consideration which the Greens will put before the Australian Parliament — but tossing the chooks to the foxes is not among them.
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