Tuppence a tonne – States to control our environment?

“The number of threatened species has nearly tripled in the last twenty years”

Our national environment laws have never been particularly strong. While the Business Council of Australia has protested that these laws are too onerous, the big picture tells a far different story. The five-yearly State of the Environment Report clearly shows that we continue to go backwards in the battle for Australia’s environment. Our carbon pollution continues to rise, as does the impact of climate change. The number of threatened species has nearly tripled in the last twenty years, and we are losing more and more precious habitat to mining, logging and other development.

The federal Labor Government, supported by the Coalition, is planning to weaken these laws and hand over most of the Environment Minister’s powers to the states. This would be disastrous.

Most of our state governments have already shown they won’t allow environmental considerations to hinder development. From mining the incredible Tarkine forests in Tasmania, to the huge boom in fossil fuel exports being shipped out through Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef.

Cash-strapped state governments haven’t hesitated to approve the destruction of crucial habitat. The states have direct incentives to approve most types of development – whether it’s for mining royalties, land tax or stamp duties.

In April this year, Federal Environment minister Tony Burke listed the koala as a threatened species and gave himself the power to protect them, citing the poor performance of the states as the reason he needed to step in. Alpine Grazing and the Super Trawler issues were similar.

The rare environment wins of the past have been when the federal environment minister stopped a project already approved by the states. The Franklin River is one example, as well as Queensland’s Traveston Dam, cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park and oil drilling in the Great Barrier Reef.

If the ALP and the Coalition succeed in removing the federal environment minister from these decisions, this kind of win won’t happen again.

The national environment Act (EPBC) does not set out clear levels of unacceptable environmental impacts. Rather, if a development has a large impact on environmental values, then it triggers the federal environment minister’s consideration. Whether or not the development is allowed to go ahead, and under what conditions, is largely left to the whim of the minister, or soon, possibly the whim of the states.

The reforms have been hailed as the worst thing to happen to our environment in the last 30 years.

When the Howard Government passed the EPBC Act in 1999, the prospect of federal powers being handed over to the states was greeted with horror by Julia Gillard.

Now it’s Prime Minister Gillard’s own government which will deliver the very same disastrous outcome she warned of 13 years ago.

Our environment laws should be made stronger, not weaker. The Australian Government should remember they’re being paid with our taxes to govern in the interests of all Australians, and do their damn job.

Larissa Waters
This is an abridged article by Qld’s Greens Senator Larissa Waters (ABC Environment Opinion– 7/9/12) on the ALPs plans to hand environmental responsibility (is that an oxymoron?) to the states.


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