Stalling on the environment

Six months ago, Bob Brown launched a legal challenge many said would rival his storied campaign to save the Franklin River.

If successful, the case would have invalidated Tasmania’s regional forestry agreement, which, like other such agreements around the country, is exempted from Australia’s key environmental law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

This week, the Federal Court ruled against Brown and his foundation. Tasmania’s agreement will hold.

A flippant response was offered by the Morrison government – not from the Environment minister but instead from Tasmanian senator Jonno Duniam, federal assistant minister for Forestry.

The judgement, Duniam said, was “a victory for every hard-working man and woman in forestry across the nation”.

In Tasmania, as Brown has pointed out, that would account for about 1 per cent of the state’s population.

But the logic – economic and environmental – of propping up the forestry industry has long been in collapse. What remains now is dogmatic adherence to the belief that any reform of the industry would be akin to surrendering to the fringes of the green left.

As such, it is unlikely the government will enact a key recommendation of the recently released Samuel report, which called for the abolishment of the exemption from the EPBC Act granted to regional forestry agreements, including the agreement Brown is trying to overturn.

The government has held off accepting any of the 38 recommendations made by businessman Graeme Samuel. Instead, it has tried to ignore the existence of his report entirely.

The report was quietly dropped last Friday, three months after being handed to the government. Despite this being a once-in-a-decade review into Australia’s key environmental law, Sussan Ley did not hold a media conference.

As yet, the only aspect of the review the Environment minister has committed to pushing forward into law is a handing over of responsibility for environmental approvals from the federal government to the states.

Samuel has explicitly warned that if the states aren’t legally bound to a common framework, this shift “would result in a patchwork of protections or rules set at the lowest bar”. Yet none is forthcoming.

Once again, any compromise on environmental issues is seen by this government as conceding defeat to the greenies.

But the reality is that Australia’s environment is suffering. Climate change, land clearing, pollution and overdevelopment have wrought carnage.

In December 2019, a group of researchers from Charles Darwin University and the Australian National University found that 100 Australian endemic species have become extinct since colonisation in 1788. Many others are teetering on the brink.

Our government can no longer pretend those calling for the protection of the swift parrot or the Leadbeater’s possum simply want to stand in the way of economic progress.

This binary divide no longer holds. Without an environment, there is no economy.

That is why the prime minister shouldn’t be lauded for standing up in his Press Club address and saying, “Our goal is to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050.”

This isn’t a compromise – it is a stalling tactic. As is the protection of the forestry sector, an industry that has long since become unviable, environmentally and economically.

Bob Brown says he will keep fighting for the forests. In the courts and, if that fails, on the ground. “Legal action is only one action in our quiver.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 6, 2021 as "Stalling on the environment".

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