Coral reaching

In terms of money, it was a small announcement. But in the emptiness of this big campaign, small things can appear comparatively large.

On Tuesday, Labor’s environmental spokesman, Mark Butler, committed to returning $10.8 million over four years to environmental legal centres. He also announced Labor would take back environmental approval processes handed to the states.

Butler pledged that inside the first 100 days of a Shorten government an expert group would be convened to develop “new environment laws” and “new frameworks for truly national protection and management of Australia’s natural environment”.

There is too little detail in this announcement, but the principle is to be applauded. The Coalition might have committed $1 billion to protecting the Great Barrier Reef, but as long as Malcolm Turnbull retains his predecessor’s decision to defund the legal organisations that scrutinise the commercial projects contributing to the reef’s decline the promise is empty.

As it is, the money committed is substantially less than what scientists recommend is needed, and it will be delivered by Clean Energy Finance Corporation, a body the Coalition has twice attempted to abolish. The Queensland government’s own modelling of the cost to meet necessary water-quality targets over the same period is $16 billion.

But back to environmental legal centres, or Environmental Defenders Offices. In 2014, the Abbott government began a program of attrition against these bodies, often the most effective critics of environmental degradation. In the face of biddable governments, it is only the law that keeps miners and other polluters accountable.

Abbott’s government cut all federal funding to Environmental Defenders Offices. It then set about removing their tax-deductible status, in the hope of limiting their chances of surviving on donations.

At a meeting of the Liberal Party’s federal council, a motion that “eco charities be treated as corporations under consumer and competition law” and “should not be eligible for deductible gift recipient status when advocating political issues” was passed unanimously.

In the wake of a successful appeal against approval of Adani’s Carmichael coalmine in 2015, Attorney-General George Brandis moved to repeal section 487(2) of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act, greatly limiting avenues for public interest litigation.

“I think the Adani case has shown why it’s very important that the courts not be used as a forum for vigilante litigation,” Brandis said, “by people whose aim is to game the system.”

He said the litigants had “no legitimate interest other than to prosecute a political vendetta against development and bring massive developments, on which in this case some 2600 jobs depended, to a standstill.”

This was the centrepiece of the Coalition’s war on the environment. It was a mischaracterisation of the moderating powers of the courts, a wild attack on environmental law. It was again proof that governments alone cannot be trusted with the environment.

Labor has made the first tentative steps to repairing the damage done to this system of independent oversight. In a campaign mostly absent of policy, it is a moment of real importance: a genuine response to the actions of the Coalition, a real difference on a matter of principle and import. The money committed is modest, but its significance is great.

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