The Morrison government is failing to protect the environment

By Terri Butler MP

18 February 2021

'Australia's natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. The environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand current, emerging or future threats, including climate change. The environmental trajectory is currently unsustainable.' Those are the words that start off the 'Key messages' section in the final report of the independent review of Australia's environmental laws. This is a report that was provided to the government in October—the government sat on it until January before releasing it—and it comes at a time of very significant environmental degradation, as the reviewer has said.

It is a fact that Australia's environment is in unprecedented decline. We have an extinction crisis, which existed before the series of bushfires that happened over the summer of 2019-20. We have the very dubious distinction of leading the world in mammal extinctions. Koala populations are on the brink of extinction in New South Wales. There's actually no national strategy for the koala; the last one expired back in 2014 . Platypus numbers also look to be in serious decline. These are animals that have a particular iconic status within the Australian identity, and we as a nation are failing to do enough to protect them.

And, of course, then came the bushfire crisis. It was a crisis in which three billion animals were killed or displaced. It's a horrific statistic. Unfortunately, it rolls off the tongue a bit too easily, doesn't it? Three billion animals. Think about the gravity of the loss that we as a nation suffered across the bushfires. I'm talking about the environmental loss. They were horrific fires. So many people lost their lives. So many communities lost infrastructure, lost property. There was a great deal of harm to business, to tourism. But in my portfolio of the environment it's important to remember the impact on our native species and our beautiful natural environment as well—three billion animals. It's a horrific statistic.

Australians are growing more and more concerned about environmental protection here in this country. They've been concerned about bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef. They've been concerned about the increasing biodiversity crisis the world is facing and whether our nation is doing enough to stand up for it. They've been concerned to hear that fewer than 40 per cent of threatened species have a recovery plan—and, because monitoring has been so poor, the government is not even sure which of those are being fulfilled. In fact, last year, when we asked the government why 170 of the 171 outstanding threatened species recovery plans were overdue, the government complained that we were too focused on plans. These are key documents that make sure we are doing what we should be doing to protect our iconic threatened species—and all of our threatened species; there are less charismatic ones as well. I still remember the reports about the fluorescent pink slug that was affected by the bushfire. I shouldn't be taken as being focused on cuddly koalas or the beautiful platypus; all of our native species are precious to us and to our ecosystem.

The statutory review is being undertaken in circumstances where we are now in the eighth year of a conservative coalition government. Over that period, the government has cut about 40 per cent of funding to the environment department. So we're seeing a situation where what has been sown is now being reaped when it comes to environmental protection.

And it's affecting jobs and investment as well. This is a government that is so hopeless it is able to preside over both an environmental crisis and a jobs crisis and fail to deal with both. The massive cuts to the environment department's administration under this government have had clear ramifications for environmental protection. At the same time, it's also caused decision-making in respect of major projects to be absolutely terribly maladministered and underfunded.

But you don't have to take my word for it. We know this because last year the Audit Office produced their most scathing report of their entire audit year in relation to environmental decision-making under the EPBC Act.

Mr Perrett interjecting—

Ms BUTLER: It is a big call—I take that interjection from the member for Moreton—but somehow the environmental decision-making came out on top of the most woeful, scathing report from the Auditor-General. Seventy-nine per cent of decisions were affected by error or were otherwise non-compliant. There was a massive blowout of about 510 per cent in the delays of approvals, and, of course, in a single year alone 95 per cent of key decisions were made beyond the statutory time limit. Every single late and poor decision that's caused by funding cuts is a cause of delay to jobs and investment. Of course there are some perfectly legitimate reasons why there might be delay. It might be necessary to consider the environmental ramifications of a project, to consider the assessment or to consider the work that needs to be done. But, when the delay is just caused by the reckless failure to properly resource the environment department, that's a problem, and it's a problem that is laid squarely at the feet of this government.

Mr Deputy Speaker O'Brien, I mentioned to you that we are currently going through the 10-yearly statutory review of Australia's environment laws and I read to you some of the key messages about the environmental decline that Australia's environment is facing. I also wanted to mention that the reviewer, Graeme Samuel, an eminent Australian, a highly qualified regulator—he came to this with fresh eyes but a depth of experience in regulation—has not pulled his punches at all when it comes to the environmental decline that is being faced in this nation. What he has said is:

The EPBC Act and its operation requires fundamental reform to enable the Commonwealth to:

set clear outcomes for the environment and provide transparency and strong oversight to build trust and confidence that decisions deliver these outcomes and adhere to the law—

and a range of other recommendations. In fact, he's made 38 recommendations. He handed those recommendations and the entire report—and it's a substantial piece of work—to the government back in October 2020. As I said, the government then sat on it for three months and then dropped it out late on a Thursday afternoon in late January. It wasn't a sitting week; the following week was a sitting week. And did they bother to publish a response? Was a government response produced? Maybe that was the explanation for the three-month wait that we had for this to be revealed to the Australian people. No government response has been provided to the Australian people, so we don't even know where they stand on the 38 recommendations.

Here's what we do know. Last year, when the interim report came out, it made a sweeping set of integrated recommendations that laid a blueprint for reform. The government, after spending millions of dollars and many hours of consultation, took that really good solid interim report and just dropped it over here and, ignoring it, they went over to the shelf, looked up 2014 and pulled down a piece of Abbott-era legislation that had failed. They blew the dust off it and whacked that into the parliament instead. We just got Abbott 2.0. We should have had Samuel. The opposition have said very clearly we will properly consider anything meaningful the government want to put forward that's consistent with Samuel, and they just gave us Abbott 2.0.

And they've done it again when the final report was published. It's a report that annexes several proposed national environmental standards. Graeme Samuel has obviously done a lot of work. There were lots of consultations with everyone from the Minerals Council, the NFF and the BCA through to the Conservation Foundation, WWF, Wilderness Society, Humane Society, scientists and environmentalists. There were massive amounts of consultation with business, with industry, with the minerals sector and with environmental scientists, and millions of dollars were spent. And, again, what have they done? They've just shelved the Graeme Samuel standards and have gone back to the 2014 file and pulled out the Abbott-era standards. We know this not because they published a response to the report but because these were dropped out to the media, again, late in the afternoon.

It is such a disgrace, because here are the conditions that the government have for reform: they've got a majority government and they've got a situation where the opposition has been constructive, has not cherrypicked and has not played the rule-in rule-out game but is standing here ready, willing and able to properly consider anything that they want to put forward that's serious. Instead, it's just wedge politics, Abbott-era proposals and absolute nonsense. The real victim in this is Australia's national environment.