After years of inaction toward saving our koalas, another term for the Morrison Government would result in their extinction, writes Sue Arnold.
A BRIEF REPORT on the Morrison Government’s attitude to environmental protection is timely. Every vote in the May Election is going to matter; there’s too much at stake.
Let’s take the big issue — climate change.
The 2022 Budget papers yearly expenditure on climate change showed a fall from $2 billion next financial year to $1.9 billion, a figure which continues to steadily fall.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was reported saying:
‘...cracking next-generation low emissions technology and exporting that to developing economies in the region, such as Indonesia and India, would be “just like the vaccine”.’
The vaccine roll-out was a national disaster. Similarly, relying on technology is going to have a similar outcome.
Morrison says the Coalition wants Australia’s coal power stations to “run as long as they possibly can”, vowing to support the coal industry if re-elected.
Morrison vowed to outlaw the “indulgent and selfish” practices of environmental groups who campaign against Australian businesses that work with companies and industries they are opposed to, such as coal.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce told the Rural Press Club Queensland that young people should be counting their lucky stars for their “rights and liberties” in Australia, instead of being angry about the Morrison Government’s ever-growing approvals for new mining projects:
“Those carrying coffins out of Ukraine churches are not focused on climate change, as the aggressor has never made it an item of negotiation on a ceasefire.”
Joyce has shrugged off climate criticism from the UN by saying the protection of liberal, democratic values is a more important short-term goal than reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Apparently, those democratic values he espouses don’t include protests, scientific evidence or legal challenges over the greatest threat facing human survival.
Then there’s the corruption number. A federal ICAC is urgently needed.
Frontbencher Simon Birmingham told Sky News that if the Coalition won in May, it would have a mandate to implement its proposed ICAC model which has been slammed by legal experts as lacking teeth.
“We’re not going to legislate for the type of reputation-destroying, star chamber model we’ve seen in NSW.”
Morrison said the agency would be a “kangaroo court”.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley challenged a ruling by the Federal court in the class action case mounted by eight teenagers over climate change impacts that would be generated by Whitehaven Coal’s proposal to extend its Vickery coal mine. The judgement indicated the Minister had a ‘duty of reasonable care’ to consider climate impacts on future generations.
Ley denied she had a duty of care and challenged the decision.
The Full Federal Court ruled on appeal that the Environment Minister does not owe a duty of care to protect young people from climate change harm when considering fossil fuel projects such as mines.
In effect, the ruling made the following provision in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act irrelevant:
‘3A (c) the principle of inter‑generational equity — that the present generation should ensure that the health, diversity and productivity of the environment is maintained or enhanced for the benefit of future generations.’
In October 2021, Ley approved three coal mine extensions in four weeks.
Then there are the national disasters caused by climate change which are not, according to the Morrison Government, emergency events.
After the disastrous floods in northern NSW and Queensland, Minister for Emergency Services, Senator Bridget McKenzie, was asked why it took so long to enact emergency powers:
‘Senator McKenzie insisted the flood disasters were of a “compounding nature” rather than an emergency event.
“It started in Gympie and we’ve headed right down through Sydney, as the rains have rolled on over the course of a week,” Senator McKenzie said.
“It was the compounding nature of this natural disaster that allowed the threshold to be met for us to be able to call a national emergency.”’
It’s highly unlikely anyone involved in the catastrophe combined with the irrefutable evidence of a rain bomb would agree with McKenzie’s definition.
Morrison’s efforts to do away with environmental legislation provisions that cause any problems for big projects, including fossil fuel, are Olympic.
The independent review of the EPBC Act by Professor Graeme Samuel in 2021 found Australia was on a ‘trajectory of environmental decline’.
In response, the Morrison Government’s 2021 Budget allocated $29.3 million over the next four years as an “initial response”, whatever that means.
$17.1 million of the $29.3 million was to be allocated to ‘timely assessments and approvals in the transition period’ (presumably when and if the Samuel review recommendations were implemented).
Ley demonstrated her rejection of the serious environmental declines outlined by Professor Samuel’s review by pushing forward with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021.
The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) indicated the Bill devolved environmental approval powers to the states and territories. A disastrous change given the history of anti-environmental decisions by state governments and territories.
Not to be outdone in handing over approvals to any entity other than the Federal Government, Ley announced a $128 million ‘plan for a stronger future’ in March, to create ‘ten new regional plans which will streamline development approvals, including those for crucial resources projects, by removing the need for a project-by-project approval under national environment law’.
In February 2022, Ley announced NSW, Queensland and A.C.T. koalas would be upgraded under the EPBC Threatened Species List:
“Today, I am increasing the protection for koalas in NSW, the A.C.T. and Queensland listing them as endangered.”
Given that the Morrison Government is preparing to hand over approval powers to state governments, exactly how this upgrading will encourage koala survival is questionable.
The EPBC Act referral guidelines for the vulnerable koala are now stamped in big red letters stating:
‘This document is NOT FOR USE from 12 February 2022.’
These guidelines allowed developers of major projects to self-assess potential damage to koala habitat against a score list with the final tally indicating if a federal referral was needed. According to a departmental note, the upgrading of koalas to “endangered” status means the guidelines are no longer relevant. Unfortunately, they never were.
Using the same self-assessment process under the previous guidelines, a developer may – not shall – wish to organise a pre-referral meeting to ‘better understand [its] obligations under the EPBC Act’.
Guidance can now be provided by the department’s ‘significant impact guidelines’ dated 2013. These guidelines actually cover vulnerable species (the previous koala listing) with exactly the same set of criteria as “endangered” status.
In other words, it’s the same old game. If koalas are in the way of projects, get rid of the koalas. Yet Morrison has the hide to be photographed clutching an unfortunate koala pretending he and his Government really care for their survival.
A national koala recovery plan is now ten years overdue. Last year, Ley’s department published a draft recovery plan which failed to adequately deal with climate change impacts. Barely a word was said about industrial forestry operations. The draft is now under consideration by koala state governments.
Given the reluctance of these state governments to provide the slimmest protection, the draft could possibly languish for another decade.
This brief history of environmental irresponsibility by the Morrison Government is a horror story. If he and his band of ecological vandals are re-elected, there will be no turning back from ongoing extinctions. Both human and non-human.
Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.
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