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The Government puts business ahead of the environment

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons.

The writing is on the wall for the environment. And it doesn't look good.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised to:

'Fast-track new and existing major infrastructure projects and adopt an aggressive pro-business strategy ahead of the October budget to help the country claw its way out of an expected virus-induced recession.'

Tax breaks for big business, deregulation and wide-scale industrial relations reform will form part of the Morrison Government's attempts to lift the nation out of the economic black hole, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Environmental organisations, ecologists, wildlife shelters and Australia’s biodiversity are facing an Armageddon as a result of state and federal governments’ absolute failure to protect the environment in the face of a serious economic recession.

Yet this is the nation which has lost over one billion animals to the catastrophic bushfires. A nation with dying and dead ecosystems, and thousands of hectares of burned-out forests. The forests will take many years to recover and ecosystems may never be rehabilitated.

A glimpse of what’s in store can be gained from the current review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 ('EPBC Act'), undertaken under the chairmanship of Professor Graeme Samuel AC

The review is required under the EPBC Act every ten years, to examine the operation of the legislation and the extent to which its objects have been met.

An expert panel was set up to support Professor Samuel.  Panel members include Bruce Martin, an inaugural member of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council and President of the Cape York Peninsula Live Export Group.

Dr Erica Smyth AC is a panel member with over 40 years' experience in the mineral and petroleum industry, having worked for ten years in the oil and gas industry managing government approvals for offshore facilities, LNG and methanol facilities.

Dr Wendy Craik AM is the current Chair of the Climate Change Authority and was previously CEO of the Murray Darling Commission and Executive Officer of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.  

Professor Andrew MacIntosh, an environmental law expert, stepped down from the panel after he was named one of the Commissioners on the Bushfire Royal Commission.

With no ecologists, environmental lawyers, or conservation organisations, the review and its panel completely fails the pub test. 

It is important to note that in accordance with section 522A of the EPBC Act, the review is supposed to examine:

'The operation of the Act; and

 

The extent to which the objects of the Act have been achieved.'

Added to the terms of reference is the following statement:

'The review will make recommendations to modernise the EPBC Act and its operation to address current and future environmental challenges.'

The terms of reference may be at odds with section 522A of the Act, if the phrase 'modernise the Act' is interpreted as code for change to focus on economic growth at the expense of the environment.

Further evidence of the focus of the Government’s dirty business can be found on the EPBC website which lists as one of the objectives of the EPBC Act to:

'Provide a streamlined national environmental assessment and approvals process.' 

The legislation contains no such provision, and other objectives have also been changed 'to promote the conservation of biodiversity” to 'conserve Australia’s biodiversity'.

More importantly, the following legal objective wasn't included:

'To promote a cooperative approach to the protection and management of the environment involving governments, the community, land-holders and indigenous people.'

In October 2019, Environment Minister Sussan Ley said that cutting delays in project approvals could save the economy $300m a year,"  with the Morrison Government promising to “tackle green tape”.

No one should be surprised by the review’s focus or the outcome.  

The review will be 'guided by the principles' which include:

  • Protecting Australia’s unique environment through strong, clear and focused protection;
  • Making decisions simpler, including by reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens for Australians, businesses and governments;
  • Supporting partnerships to deliver for the environment supporting investment and new jobs; and 
  • Streamlining and integrated planning to support ecologically sustainable development.

Obviously, the first principle should be the predominant, sole guiding focus of the review given the catastrophic state of Australia’s biodiversity and environment. 

Instead, the evidence of a drastically changed focus favouring the growth and the economy is made abundantly clear by the guiding principles and panel choices. There’s no explanation of the extraordinary failure to focus on the inability of the EPBC Act to have fulfilled any of its objectives. 

April 17 was the final day for submissions to the review’s lengthy discussion paper. Six major environmental groups asked the Federal Government to delay the submission deadline and the review as a result of the chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to an article published by The Guardian 'in their letter, they say the COVID-19 crisis has affected the capacity of NGOs, business and the community to “meaningfully engage in the EPBC review process'.

The request has been ignored. Access to legal challenges to protect the environment and biodiversity is rapidly disappearing at the state and federal level. 

There’s simply zero recognition of the fact that Australia’s future depends on restoring a healthy environment. 

Nothing could underline the importance of a healthy environment more than the evidence of pollution disappearing from Europe and other countries as polluting industries are closed down over the pandemic. 

Whilst any thinking person understands that the economy must be revived, if people are to survive financially and to have a future, this surely is a time for deep reflection on how that future should be realised.

Australia is currently cursed with governments and politicians who continue to ignore the environment.    It’s almost incomprehensible that after the bushfire catastrophes, the environment should sink to the bottom of the pile.

Perhaps the most serious realisation is that the public is irrelevant to the political elite. Politicians no longer feel obliged to respond to emails, letters or phone calls. Protests and petitions can be ignored.  Laws are trashed, legal challenge options removed, barriers to development tossed aside.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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