Environmental protection has been left behind during the Liberal-National Government’s near decade in office.
If elected, an Albanese Labor Government will have a significant task ahead in restoring Australians’ confidence that the Commonwealth is living up to its environmental protection obligations. This confidence has been undermined by the current government’s failures and their lack of concern for transparency, as most recently demonstrated by their decision to sit on the most recent State of the Environment report.
One immediate step will be to address the current government’s failures in threatened species protection, and in managing threats to species. The Auditor-General’s recent report on the management of threatened species told Australians that only 2% of threatened species recovery plans were completed within statutory time frames since 2013.
By the time of the report, there were 164 species and ecological communities still without recovery plans, despite earlier decisions requiring recovery plans to be made for them. The report revealed that in 2018 the government decided to create recovery plans for fewer than five threatened species to “facilitate a reduction in staffing levels.” Meanwhile, the Morrison-Joyce Government is currently six years into an eight-year process aimed at reducing the number of recovery plans that are required.
Alongside the delays and failures in making conservation plans, the Auditor-General’s report laid bare the Morrison-Joyce Government’s utter failure to properly monitor the implementation of conservation plans. Most threatened species are not monitored, and nor is the status of threatened ecological communities or key threatening processes.
This litany of failures reveals the extent to which the Morrison-Joyce Government has de-prioritised nature and conservation.
Through their near decade in office the current government has also had a poor record on administering project assessments and approvals under the nation’s environmental laws. An earlier report from the Auditor-General showed that by the fiscal year 2018–19, the government was making 95% of key decisions (controlled actions, assessment decisions, and approval decisions) later than required by law. There had been a 510% increase in approval decision delays, and a finding that 79% of decisions were affected by error or otherwise non-compliant.
These findings came as no surprise to industry, to environmentalists, or to anyone who had taken notice when the Liberal-National Government cut around 40% of environment department funding. But they were shocking to the broader community, and the public outcry forced the Liberal-National Government to start putting funding back into environmental decision-making.
As well as their administrative failings, the Morrison-Joyce Government’s record on legislative reform is poor. They commissioned the second 10-yearly statutory review of the nation’s principal environmental statute, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Professor Graeme Samuel AC and his panel produced a thoughtful and serious interim report, which bluntly told Australians that our current environmental trajectory is unsustainable. That interim report told the government that the EPBC Act is ineffective, does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters, and is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges. It laid out some proposals for an initial set of reforms.
Yet the government disregarded this substantial piece of work, and instead exhumed the corpse of a failed Abbott-era environment bill. It was a clear statement that this government was more interested in using the call for reform as a means of seeking electoral advantage through positioning, than they were in actually achieving reform. Their subsequent bills reinforced this impression. Worse, the government completely missed an opportunity to capitalise on the willingness, on the part of organisations and individuals with deeply divergent interests, to hammer their swords into ploughshares and work together to find win-win outcomes. In undertaking his review Professor Samuel brought together environmentalists, lawyers, traditional owners, academics, resources sector bodies, industry and business bodies, farmers and others, and together they made real progress towards durable reform. The government’s failure to seize that opportunity has left Australia with no reform, no improvement in decision-making and no increase in environmental protection.
Labor in government will take a different approach.
We have deliberately avoided cherry-picking Professor Samuel’s report, at both the interim and final stages. We believe this substantial piece of work deserves a substantial and full government response. The current government has not delivered such a response. If elected, we will. We have, however, made some broad statements of principle. We have said, many times, that we want to see strong national environmental standards, a tough “cop on the beat”, and an improvement to the government’s administrative performance. These matters should be addressed.
Establishing a “cop on the beat” would help build the public’s trust that environment laws are being properly enforced. Australians have not forgotten that Josh Frydenberg, when he was the environment minister, organised a meeting between his department and the government minister Angus Taylor to talk about the listing status of a species of grasslands. The species was present on some property that Mr Taylor part-owned via a corporate entity, and so the delisting of that species would have affected the value of the land. There was also an investigation underway about the poisoning of the endangered grasslands, on the part-owned property in question. Yet somehow the government thought it appropriate to arrange the meeting, and to have a member of the compliance team present at it. Governments cannot allow a perception to arise that environment laws are not being applied impartially and properly. Establishing a “cop on the beat” can assist in defraying any such perception and can be the foundation of renewed trust and confidence.
Importantly, as part of our response to the Samuel Review, Labor will also bring the many stakeholders, with diverse interests and views, back together. We will ask stakeholders to consider areas of compromise and, where possible, commonality, with a view to working up reforms that can attract broad support. For business and industry, certainty is critical. So, it is important that any reforms be durable. Reforms achieved by horse-trading would create uncertainty, leading to greater polarisation in and outside parliament. Seeking broad support would mitigate that risk while also making successful passage through parliament more likely.
Reforming environmental laws, and ensuring that they are administered well, should be a priority for the next government. So too should showing leadership internationally. The ongoing discussions in the lead-up to the postponed conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity provide an opportunity for such leadership. The next government will also face an immediate and significant international challenge in relation to the World Heritage status of natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef in the face of the effects of climate change. Climate change is the most significant threat to the Reef. The World Heritage Committee has a significant body of work underway in relation to its policy settings relating to climate change impacts on World Heritage properties. If we are elected, we will need to engage rapidly with this work, for the sake of the World Heritage status of the Reef and other sites across Australia.
There are other threats to the Reef as well, such as water quality. In this area, Labor has made policy commitments including funding for the Reef 2050 Plan, supporting projects to promote the twin aims of conservation and tourism, and investing in research work being done on the southern end of the Reef by Central Queensland University and Indigenous rangers in Gladstone. We will also move to restore public confidence in Reef programs funding following the Liberal-National Government’s much-criticised process for providing a grant of almost half a billion dollars to a private foundation without a tender.
Indigenous rangers are already doing critical work to promote biodiversity and care for country. Labor’s first environment portfolio announcement for the coming election was back in August 2021, and it was an announcement to double the number of Indigenous rangers. We are pleased that the government has, recently, followed suit. We call on them to also match our commitment, made at the same time, to significantly increase funding for Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs). These areas will be critical to Australia’s efforts towards the international community’s call for the protection of 30% of land and sea by 2030. IPAs are also emerging as a means of strengthening of First Nations-led governance over country, and as a locus for organising for people within First Nations diasporas to return to country and sustain culture.
When we made the announcements in relation to doubling the number of Indigenous rangers and increasing funding for IPAs, we also committed to delivering the $40 million for Aboriginal ownership of water entitlements in the Murray-Darling Basin. The under-representation of Aboriginal nations in ownership of those entitlements will only worsen if left unaddressed. The Morrison-Joyce Government should be ashamed of its failure to deliver on the commitment made back in 2018 to deliver this funding. Beyond the delivery of much-needed funding, Labor will work to increase Aboriginal nations’ opportunities to exercise authority and participate in decision-making in relation to water policy and management in the Basin.
For the Basin more broadly, Labor will expect to work in good faith with the full spectrum of stakeholders to give effect to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We have released a five-point plan to do so, and we do not underestimate the scale of the task ahead.
Water policy extends beyond the Basin. Climate change and other challenges make it more important than ever to make sure the Commonwealth has the policy capacity to plan for Australia’s water future, not just leave it to hope and chance. We have announced that if we are elected we will establish a National Water Commission, to create that policy capacity. Its immediate task will be to lead the renewal of the National Water Initiative and the implementation of Infrastructure Australia’s water-related priorities. The Commission will ensure that climate change and its likely effects are factored into water policy.
At the same time Labor will take practical measures to improve waterways in urban settings. Protecting and improving urban rivers, creeks, wetlands, lakes and catchments can have multiple benefits including improving water quality, promoting biodiversity and protecting ecosystems, reducing erosion and siltation, and flood mitigation, among others. We have committed $200 million towards this important work, for waterways in urban settings across the country.
We support grassroots measures that promote community involvement in environmental conservation work. If elected we look forward to working with Traditional Owners, Natural Resource Management (NRM) organisations, Landcare groups and catchment groups to promote grassroots approaches. We have recently announced $9.8 million to contain and eradicate gamba grass. This funding will allow the Northern Territory’s Gamba Army to scale up, removing this invasive weed, creating jobs and reducing bushfire risk. In our view, programs that support the creation of real jobs are preferable to the welfare-based models favoured by Liberal National Governments.
At the time of writing we have yet to announce all of our environment portfolio policies, but we are keenly aware of the need to step up the Commonwealth’s effort in relation to nature. Among many other things, that means more action to protect iconic species like the koala, as well as the many less charismatic species that have also been left behind under the Morrison-Joyce Government.
We also appreciate the importance of building the information that is available to decision-makers and others in relation to the state of nature in Australia. The Samuel Review’s final report told the government a “quantum shift” was needed in the availability and quality of data. Improving environmental data, including through environmental accounting methods and monitoring the results of conservation efforts on threatened species, for example, can assist government in policy and decision-making. Better data can also help scientists and other environmentalists in improving and directing conservation efforts. Better quality data and systems can also reduce transaction costs for development proponents, a point well made by Professor Samuel.
Sadly, the Morrison-Joyce Government has failed to act on this advice, just as it has failed to prioritise the environment more broadly. Even in areas they have sought to highlight, like recycling and waste management, the Morrison-Joyce Government has engaged in more spin than substance.
After nearly a decade of inaction from this government in relation to the environment and water, Labor is under no illusions about the scale of the task ahead of us. We believe that our record in government demonstrates the commitment we will bring to that task. Labor’s proud environmental legacy includes establishing Landcare, passing the laws to create the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, becoming one of the earliest signatories to the Ramsar convention, expanding and establishing the largest network of marine parks in the world, and protecting Antarctica, the Franklin River, the Daintree, Kakadu and the Tasmanian World Heritage Area. If we form government, we will seek to build on that legacy.
First published in the Australian Environment Review Terri Butler MP (2022) 36(7&8) AE 167.