Environment in danger with Liberal government

Published on Thu 17 June 2021 12:34pm

Minister, in your speech to the Press Club, you accused your opponents, which presumably includes all Australians who rightly want to see proper protection of our environment, of being too focused on activism rather than outcomes. Isn’t it the outcomes that are the problem? Isn’t that why people are moved to activism? Minister, when are you, as the Minister for the Environment, going to exercise that responsibility rather than being an apologist for a government that has presided over serious and steepening environmental decline?

Mr Wilson (12:34pm) – I’m glad to be able to ask some questions about the environment portfolio. There is a broad question that sits over the more specific queries—that is, whether the minister believes it’s the core responsibility of that role to stand up for and fight for the protection of Australia’s environment and Australia’s heritage. What we seem to get instead is an approach of excusing or defending a number of areas of unacceptable environmental degradation and neglect; an approach that gaslights and directs opprobrium against Australians who care about and campaign for the health of our environment; and an approach that assumes, somehow, it’s the job of the environment minister to consider first and foremost the needs of industry, when industry—I’m pretty sure, coming from Western Australia—is quite confident in its ability to argue its own cause in a way that endangered species are not. In any case, of course, industry has a number of ministers responsible for its specific issues. Shouldn’t the Minister for the Environment be an unapologetic champion for the interests of the Australian environment, especially when you consider that our land and our sea have already endured very significant harm and are, in the words of the government’s own appointed reviewer, on a trajectory of further decline?

It was only a year ago the Juukan Gorge tragedy occurred, with destruction by Rio Tinto of First Nations heritage of immeasurable value. That fiasco had several components, including failures by this government, especially in its administration of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act. What has occurred since that tragedy to make sure it never happens again? The government previously committed to reviewing the ATSIHPA by December 2017. That didn’t happen. That was 3½ years ago. When is the government going to review and reform this critical and underperforming safety net for the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage of immeasurable value? Why isn’t the government looking to include Graeme Samuel’s interim standards for national and World Heritage protection in its reform of the EPBC? Is it really acceptable that the department’s timetable for work on this issue, after Juukan Gorge, with respect to heritage protection under the EPBC, only includes the following: for the first half of next year ‘to continue engagement on modernisation of Indigenous cultural heritage protection’ and then, in the first half of the following year, all the way into 2023, ‘to establish a pathway for implementing modernised Indigenous cultural heritage protections released’. So, 3½ years from the time they’d committed to the ATSIHPA review and reform in the first place, we now have to wait another two years just to get to a pathway. All the while, Indigenous cultural heritage is at risk.

It’s only two weeks until the government’s export ban on mixed plastics comes into force. There’s understandable concern about what will actually happen to mixed plastic waste, because the government has failed to ensure we have sufficient infrastructure to recycle and reprocess the waste we’ve previously sent to other countries. There’s no question whatsoever that the government took way too long to come to Labor’s position, which was that some direct investment was going to be required. The 2019 Australian Recycling Investment Fund was a joke. It was a complete failure. Not a single dollar was advanced. The face-saving Recycling Modernisation Fund, which followed on its heels, has only advanced $4.5 million to date. It’s created no additional plastic reprocessing capacity. There is now a real risk that, beyond 1 July, we will see mixed plastics sent to landfill or otherwise stockpiled, or they will need the benefit of an exemption so they can be exported. In the case of stockpiling, we know that presents fire risks. The government received a report that pointed out that the risk of this occurring wasn’t low. Minister, what contingencies are in place to deal with this possibility, and can you guarantee that, beyond 1 July, mixed plastics will not be sent to landfill or dangerously stockpiled?

Earlier this year, the minister listed the Australian sea lion as endangered under the EPBC Act. It’s one of 283 listings of threatened or endangered species under this government, a coalition government who kicked off by reducing Labor’s network of marine protected areas by 50 per cent, a coalition government whose failed Threatened Species Strategy did not include any focus on marine species. Now we’re told that might get corrected under the new strategy, which has just been delivered, several months too late. But the new strategy doesn’t have any details, doesn’t have any actions, doesn’t have any targets and doesn’t have any apparent new resources. Minister, in your speech to the Press Club, you accused your opponents, which presumably includes all Australians who rightly want to see proper protection of our environment, of being too focused on activism rather than outcomes. Isn’t it the outcomes that are the problem? Isn’t that why people are moved to activism? Minister, when are you, as the Minister for the Environment, going to exercise that responsibility rather than being an apologist for a government that has presided over serious and steepening environmental decline?

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