State of the Environment Report: A story of harm, damage and neglect

Published on Mon 5 September 2022 5:16pm

Labor has been clear in saying that we will undertake the necessary reform that the previous government failed to undertake. If we are not prepared to do things differently, then one thing is for sure: more and more unique Australian species will disappear; more and more distinctive Australian ecosystems will collapse.

Mr J Wilson, pursuant to notice, moved—That this House:

(1)notes that:

(a)the State of the Environment Report 2021 is an alarming story of environmental neglect and decline in Australia;

(b)the report found that:

(i)since 2016, more than 200 species of flora and fauna have been listed as threatened matters of national environmental significance;

(ii)Australia has seen the extinction of more species of mammal than any other continent, and has one of the highest rates of species decline in the developed world;

(iii)marine heatwaves have caused mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, 2017, and 2020;

(iv)the 2019-2020 summer bush fires burnt 80 per cent of the Greater Blue Mountains area, almost 60 per cent of our Gondwana rainforests, and more than 40 per cent of the Stirling Range National Park;

(v)at least 19 Australian ecosystems are showing signs of collapse or near collapse; and

(vi)waterways, beaches, and shorelines are in generally poor condition in areas near urban centres; and

(c)over the last decade, the former governments of Prime Minsters Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison presided over Australia’s escalating environmental crisis by:

(i)failing to respond to Professor Graeme Samuel’s independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act);

(ii)refusing to acknowledge and respond to the failure of their own threatened species strategy to meet its targets with respect to the most at-risk species;

(iii)delivering 95 per cent of environmental approval decisions late and outside statutory timeframes in 2018-2019;

(iv)issuing environmental decisions that contained errors or were non-compliant in 79 per cent of approvals; and

(v)refusing to release the State of the Environment report prior to the 2022 federal election despite formally receiving the report six months prior; and

(2)welcomes the Government’s commitment to:

(a)making the nation’s environment laws work better for everyone by providing a full response to Professor Samuel’s review of the EPBC Act by the end of 2022; and

(b)establishing an environment protection agency to ensure compliance with environmental laws, improve processes for proponents, and centralise data collection and analysis—so there is consistent and reliable information on the state of the environment across the country.

Mr Wilson (5:16pm) – Deputy Speaker, the damaged and declining state of Australia’s environment is not going to be addressed by an exercise in collective amnesia.

It is outrageous that the State of Environment Report 2021 was kept secret by the Morrison government.

Why was it hidden?

Because it tells a story of harm and damage and neglect; it tells a story about the consequences of inaction and incompetence.

For nine years we had a Coalition government that did not believe the health of our environment was a priority.  They rolled 5 separate Ministers through the portfolio.  They cut funding to the Department by 40 per cent.  And then they hid the truth about the consequences of their neglect.

The truth, Deputy Speaker, is a story of significant harm, with a trajectory of further decline.

In describing the Report in an address to the National Press Club, the Minister for Environment rightly said:

[…] while it’s a confronting read, Australians deserve the truth. 

We deserve to know that Australia has lost more mammal species to extinction than any other continent.

We deserve to know that threatened communities have grown by 20 per cent in the past five years, with places literally burned into endangerment by catastrophic fires.

As the Report itself says, “Overall, the state and trend of the environment of Australia are poor and deteriorating as a result of increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction.”

Deputy Speaker, unless we are reconciled to the further degradation of our environment and its biodiversity, we have to change our approach.

Our national environmental protection framework – the EPBC – has been ineffective as a shield against that harm.  That is the conclusion of Professor Graeme Samuel, the reviewer appointed by the previous government.

Labor has been clear in saying that we will undertake the necessary reform that the previous government failed to undertake.

If we are not prepared to do things differently, then one thing is for sure: more and more unique Australian species will disappear; more and more distinctive Australian ecosystems will collapse.

There has to be an uncompromising element to environmental protection in future.

There has to be a hard-eyed capacity to see cumulative impacts, and to draw some lines in the sand around the protection of threatened species and ecosystems.

Deputy Speaker, we know how and where the harm is occurring.  The question is what are we going to do about it?

I say this to colleagues in the Parliament as much as to the broader Australian community: we cannot go on like this and at the same time kid ourselves that our biodiversity can be maintained.

We can’t have a regulatory approach that essentially condones the steady degradation of the Australian environment.

We can’t keep finding ways to conditionally approve forms of harm that in some cases are not acceptable, especially where conditions are not monitored and not met.

We can’t as a matter of habit use offsets to fix projects that put threatened species or ecosystems at risk when offsets aren’t properly recorded or audited, and in effect allow a net loss of critical habitat.

We can’t subscribe to the view that any and every form of environmental impact can be approved provided is a sufficient economic benefit.

And as I have said before, we can’t fool ourselves with the concept of ‘striking a balance’ when the reality has been a profound imbalance against nature.

What we need to do is change, and we can change.

As the State of the Environment Report itself says, “Immediate action with innovative management and collaboration can turn things around.”

And, as we look to creating the long-absent First Nation’s voice in our system of decision-making, the Report notes: “Respectful use of Indigenous knowledge, recognition of Indigenous knowledge rights, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems working together will lead to positive change.”

So Deputy Speaker, let us be both resolute and energised as we face up to the task at hand.

There are lots of examples of ordinary citizens and activists and scientists and public servants and indigenous rangers putting their heart and soul into environmental conservation and restoration.

Things are not good.  But we can do something about it.

That requires us to do our job in this place.  To be the stewards of this remarkable continent and its oceans.

That does not mean zero projects, zero clearing, zero impact – but it does mean supporting the reforms and the resources that are necessary to stop the further decline in Australia’s environment.

[Dep Spkr], the Minister for the Environment was absolutely right when she said,

What our environment really needs is a changed system. 

That’s the message from the Samuel review. 

That’s the message from the State of the Environment Report.

And I would also say that is one of the clearest messages the Australian people gave to all of us when they elected this 47th Parliament.

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