The Coalition’s Hatred For Environmental Protection Has Left Its Mark On Turnbull’s Government


The war on non-for-profits and environmental defenders – which some thought would halt under Turnbull – is still raging, writes Thom Mitchell.

The government is cracking down on environmental groups, blatantly, and it’s unlikely Malcolm Turnbull will make a spot of difference to the agenda of his front bench colleagues.

On Wednesday, a legacy of Abbott-era attacks on environmental organisations resurfaced when a Senate Committee dominated by government members unexpectedly dropped a report recommending green voices be gagged, and locked out of the courts.

It’s been in the pipeline since August when Attorney-General George Brandis, Environment Minister Greg Hunt, and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott mounted a clumsy charge against conservationists in the wake of a legal challenge which proved Hunt had botched his approval of a massive coal mine in Queensland.

Yesterday, the government confirmed it still wants to strip all conservationists of the legal standing to stick their head above the parapet of development fervour and challenge environmental approvals.

The policy is an extension on the government’s angry response the Mackay Conservation Group’s legal challenge, which acted to uphold the law but was dismissed by the government as “lawfare”.

Hunt’s invalid approval ultimately led to the project’s environmental consent being temporarily revoked after government lawyers conceded the minister didn’t consider all the conservation advice national environmental law required him to.

But, as it was under Abbott, the Liberal Party continues to exhibit its contempt for any constraint on its ideology.

As it stands, the Howard-era Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act allows more or less any interested group or person to challenge the minister’s decisions on big developments. If the project’s approvals are legally sound, of course, they’ll stand up.

It’s just that Hunt’s wasn’t.

In spite of the fact that within three months he would issue a fresh approval, and in spite of the fact the mine still hasn’t gained state consent, Hunt’s reaction was swift and righteous.

“The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act standing provisions were never intended to be extended and distorted for political purposes as is now occurring with the US style litigation campaign to ‘disrupt and delay key projects and infrastructure’ and ‘increase investor risk’,” he said when introducing the Bill to strangle standing on August 20. It came before Parliament just two weeks after it emerged Hunt’s approval had been invalid.

But the Environment Minister didn’t mention the climate risk associated with Carmichael mine, which would give rise to four times the carbon emissions of New Zealand each year. He didn’t mention that it’s key to opening up a new coal province which would create more emissions than the entire United Kingdom. And he didn’t mention the multiple threatened species it will imperil, some perhaps terminally.

As New Matilda reported earlier this week, Labor, the Greens, and conservationists dismissed in remarkably strong terms the government’s arguments for shackling environmentalists’ standing at law, characterising it as an undemocratic dummy spit.

This is another in a “long line of attacks by a government that cannot face criticism or dissent from independent voices for the environment,” Greens Deputy Leader Senator Larissa Waters said in a dissenting report.

And fair enough: they did defund an organisation the environmental lawyer used to work for, the Queensland Environmental Defenders Office.

It’s part of a national network of public interest law firms known as the Australian Network of Environmental Defenders Offices (ANEDO), which had received bipartisan Federal funding for over 18 years until the Liberals pulled it all following the 2013 election.

A Koala on Phillip Island. (IMAGE: Prerak Patel, Flickr)
A Koala on Phillip Island. (IMAGE: Prerak Patel, Flickr)

The reason ANEDO had been funded by governments of both stripes was, as a Parliamentary Committee not stacked with government members noted earlier this year, that it has played a “vitally important role” in empowering communities and “providing access to justice where it is in the public interest for environmental matters to be pursued”.

But the government’s environmental policies reflect their devotion to corporate rights, not the community’s right to challenge them.

The Environmental Defenders Offices run many of the nation’s public interest conservation cases, like the one against the Carmichael coal mine. They facilitate the questioning of exactly the sorts of developments the government does not want scrutinised. That’s why the razor gang was set on ANEDO.

It was one part of the government’s broadside offensive against environmental regulation and its enforcement by independent voices.

Since the Liberal Party came to office in September 2013 the Lower House’s Standing Committee on the Environment has held just two inquiries. Both were transparent attacks on environmentalists’ ability to operate.

Over and above their efforts to strip environmental not-for-profits of standing, the government is actually trying to palm off its responsibility for protecting the environment almost entirely.

Australian NGOs – but also the nation’s fraternity of environmental law experts – take a very dim view of this push to pass off Federal environmental powers and responsibilities to state governments, and potentially even local councils. Again, Labor and the Greens oppose the reform.

None of the states and territories have environmental laws stringent enough to match the Commonwealth’s and there’s nothing in the legislation to force them to meet that higher standard. Known as the ‘One Stop Shop’, experts say this reform would take environmental regulation back 30 years.

It’s chief proponent, of course, has been Greg Hunt, the Minister ‘for’ the Environment. But the crossbench has shown more concern for the environment than Hunt, and he hasn’t managed to sell his ‘One Stop Shop’. It’s stalled in the Upper House.

The government’s third major line of attack against environmental organisations’ ability to operate, however, may have a better chance at success.

The second Inquiry of the House of Reps Standing Committee on the Environment involves a push to cripple green groups’ finances by removing the tax-deductible status on donations they receive.

That Inquiry held public hearings in Sydney on Tuesday, just one day before government members recommended green groups be stripped of their standing to challenging Federal environmental approvals.

If government MP George Christensen’s word is anything to go by that Inquiry, when it reports, will make recommendations just as hostile as those contained in the report on restricting standing.

“Time to get the donations in. I can’t see it continuing longer once we report,” he told an environmental organisation he’d been grilling in July.

That threat, especially coming as it did in Tweet form, provides an insightful example of the broader government attitude to environmental advocacy, and the flippancy with which undermining community driven not-for-profits is viewed in comparison to hampering corporations’ profits.

The series of inquiries that have specifically targeted green groups – not to mention the general assaults on renewable energy and climate action – expose an ideological opposition to the organisations that are proving effective as a check on the power of developers.

The government has set the razor gang on the lawyers who run public interest cases for the environmental, and they’re threatening the operability of environmental advocacy groups by going after their charitable tax status.

So it’s no surprise they’re also trying to gag green voices by removing their right, and the right of their thousands of members, to access environmental law.

It was Hunt and Brandis, ministers who survived Turnbull’s Cabinet reshuffle, who led the charge against conservationists after the government’s Carmichael defeat. So admittedly, it would have been an awkward backdown if the Committee recommended against their Bill.

But there was no need to do it so soon, and the fact that they did suggests a keenness that appeared to have dissipated after Turnbull’s ascension.

As Labor explained in its dissenting report against the standing bill, “Following referral of the bill to the committee it was agreed that, in order to conduct a thorough examination of the bill and to allow the views of submitters to be fully explored, the committee would hold four public hearings”.

Three days after Turnbull seized the top job, though, the heat was taken out of the government’s campaign. It was agreed the Committee’s reporting date would be put back by four months, to February next year, and the hearings rescheduled.

Then, “government members of the committee used their numbers to bring the presentation of the report forward to 18 November 2015, thereby not allowing time for any hearings to take place”.

It had appeared that Turnbull might be planning to park the reform: He might have let the heat go out of the debate, and ultimately let the bill die out with other especially extreme legacies of Abbott’s failed agenda.

But if the prematurity of the report’s release this week came as a surprise, it really shouldn’t have. The pole Turnbull climbed to become PM is greased with resentment for environmental regulation, and he knows he’d quickly slip down again if he called a ceasefire in the government’s war on green groups.

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.