A hostile environment

When the government tapped businessman Graeme Samuel to undertake a year-long review of the nation’s foremost environmental law, it may not have foreseen such a candid appraisal.

The task set for the former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman was clear: “tackle green tape and deliver greater certainty to business groups, farmers and environmental organisations”, in that order.

But Samuel’s interim review, released this week, is scathing. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, he found, is not fit for purpose.

It fails to protect threatened species or guard the environments vital to their livelihood; it fails to respect Indigenous knowledge and sidelines traditional owners. It is arcane, unnecessarily labyrinthine in structure.

“The EPBC Act is ineffective,” he wrote. “It does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.”

Under the act, some threatened species have waited years for their assessments to be finalised. Much to the government’s frustration, development has been similarly delayed.

“We need to do this for jobs,” Environment Minister Sussan Ley said this week. “We need to do this for the Covid recovery.”

Convinced that resources will lead Australia’s economy out of its pandemic-induced tailspin, the government has eschewed key recommendations in Samuel’s report – there will be no independent regulator, that much is clear – in favour of a return to his original remit: “green tape” must be cut.

Samuel called for the act to be redrafted and strengthened; instead, the government has chosen to hand the delicate task of balancing environmental and economic concerns over to state governments.

This will include the McGowan government in Western Australia, which allowed Rio Tinto to blast 46,000-year-old rock shelters sacred to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people in the Pilbara.

And the Berejiklian government in New South Wales, which in March gave approval to Peabody Energy to mine for coal under one of Sydney’s water reservoirs. Some 10,000 people signed a petition opposing the approval, but the NSW parliament did not sit to hear it.

In Victoria, under Daniel Andrews’ watch, VicForests – a timber company owned by the state government – was found to have violated federal law by logging the habitat of endangered species.

But the environment isn’t of concern to the Morrison government. The pandemic has wiped all memory of the one billion animals thought to have died in the summer’s bushfires – the gruesome images and the devastation have been forgotten. The grief has been supplanted by a more acute, more tangible fear.

Resources are Australia’s only chance of economic recovery; on this the government is adamant.

Asked by the ABC’s Fran Kelly to explain the haste with which she is pushing approvals onto the states before any national standards are in place, Ley offered a frank reply: “Projects are waiting.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2020 as "A hostile environment".

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