Environment Minister must protect the environment

Published on Mon 30 November 2020 5:06pm

If it’s too much to ask that the government do their job when it comes to environmental protection, they could try to stop actively making it worse: stop cutting resources to the environment department; stop weakening our environmental protection framework; stop ignoring the reality of climate change; and stop undermining the efforts of Australia’s scientists and conservation sector.

Mr Wilson (5:06pm) – I thank the shadow minister for the environment, the member for Griffith, for bringing this motion forward for our debate. It’s a critical topic at a critical time. The country is again in the grip of a heatwave, which of course freshens the still raw memory of last summer’s awful devastation. It was our first national climate change disaster. It included the largest single fire ever recorded, 12 million hectares scorched, three billion animals dead, including many koalas, and a number of species and ecosystems pushed closer to the brink. Since that time, we’ve had the interim report of the EPBC review of Graeme Samuel, who said, quite plainly, that Australia’s environment has been seriously degraded, that our environmental protection framework is not effective and that the present trajectory is of further decline. So, we have to ask: when exactly is the government going to start acknowledging the environmental reality and its responsibility to do something about it. When is a seven-year-old, three-term government going to take responsibility for presiding over the serious mismanagement and neglect of one of its core tasks, and that is national-level environmental protection and biodiversity conservation? How can it be that there isn’t a threatened species recovery plan for an iconic species like the koala when it was due in 2013? The only possible excuse, if you can call it an excuse, is that the koala is not alone in being neglected.

Under this government, 170 out of 171 threatened species recovery plans are overdue. If it’s too much to ask that the government do their job when it comes to environmental protection, they could try to stop actively making it worse: stop cutting resources to the environment department; stop weakening our environmental protection framework; stop ignoring the reality of climate change; and stop undermining the efforts of Australia’s scientists and conservation sector. It could be made even simpler than that. The Minister for the Environment should see their chief responsibility as standing up and speaking up for the environment all day, every day, and that hasn’t been the case. Instead, the various ministers for the environment in this government, because there have been four of them in the last five years, have consistently made it their priority to slash green tape. In other words, despite being ministers whose job it is to protect our environment and biodiversity, they have focused their attention on weakening regulation and in always seeking to accommodate economic interests at the expense of our wildlife, our landscapes and our marine environment.

The bottom line is that Australia’s biodiversity is under enormous pressure and it has already suffered significant harm. We are, sadly, a world leader when it comes to mammal extinctions, and now the koala, as a species, is drifting from its present vulnerable status towards a situation where its survival may not be just threatened but it may be endangered.

Of course the greatest danger to the koala comes from the destruction of their habitat, the destruction of the trees in which they live—the 50 different species of eucalypts, out of 700 species in total, that provide the kilo or so of leaves that koalas eat each day. Yet, despite the clarity we have in relation to the chief vectors of harm and risk, we also have a minister who is looking to make the environment become second best at every turn, never minding that in present circumstances, as Australia’s wildlife battles against deforestation, invasive species and climate change, second best will inevitably deliver more extinctions and more irreversible environmental harm.

It’s for all these reasons that Labor, through the shadow minister for the environment, have called for a full ecological audit in the aftermath of the bushfires—not just a koala census but a full ecological audit. We’ve called on the government to reverse its cuts to the department and to scientific organisations like the CSIRO, and we’ve fought against the government’s effort to ram through legislation that would undermine the EPBC at a time when it desperately needs to be improved in accordance with Graeme Samuel’s advice. It requires significantly improved and in some cases uncompromising national standards, and it requires an independent and properly resourced tough environmental watchdog and oversight agency. The fact that the government has ruled out such a watchdog before the final report has even landed tells you everything you need to know about this government’s lack of commitment.

In conclusion, I take this opportunity at the end of what has been a very difficult year and at the beginning of another challenging summer to acknowledge the incredible work and effort of the people around Australia engaged in our great shared cause of looking after our remarkable and distinctive environment. I say to all Indigenous rangers and traditional owners, to the fire response volunteers, to people in rural and regional Australia working on revegetation and salinity remediation projects, to those who support local animal rescue centres and hospitals, to those who work in the sustainable timber industry and fight to protect old-growth forests and to those who turn up to beach clean-ups and work to reduce the harm caused by marine plastics—to everyone who makes environmental conservation, restoration and activism a part of their lives, whether professionally or as a volunteer: thank you. You are all engaged in a vital effort. Keep going.

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