Opinion

Bob Brown
The end of the environment

The handgun spun around on the asphalt near my chest. It had dropped out of a security guard’s coat pocket when we were both knocked down in the melee as John Howard was driven into Forestry Tasmania’s nursery in Perth. It was November 8, 1997.

The prime minister was in Tasmania to sign a regional forest agreement (RFA), in a controversial deal that would hand over environmental custody of forests and their wildlife from Canberra to Hobart.

Those gathered to protest knew this would change everything. The mood was tense.

An Aboriginal man from the heavily forested Great Western Tiers had turned up in a loincloth and ochre, chains between his neck and wrists. Geoff Law, my environmental adviser at the time, was allegedly bounced onto the Comcar bonnet in the chaos, causing a $7000 dent that had Senator Eric Abetz in conniptions for weeks.

Howard, ashen-faced at the audacity of the protest, signed the RFA with the then Tasmanian Liberal premier, Tony Rundle, and left through the back door, over a stubble field.

What followed, in the name of “ecologically sustainable forest management”, were two decades of the most expansive forest and wildlife destruction in Tasmanian history. More than 200,000 hectares of eucalypt and rainforests have been flattened and incinerated, not a single animal or bird left alive in them.

Tasmania’s RFA followed the first such forestry agreement, signed in February 1997 in East Gippsland, and in turn was followed by eight others covering most of the loggable forests of Victoria – where the tallest trees in the world had already been cleared for agriculture – and those of New South Wales and Western Australia. But Howard was not finished yet.

In 1999, he legislated the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. The act largely failed on both counts charged by its name, yet it was still too restrictive for the logging industry. So, in 2002, the federal parliament passed Howard’s Regional Forest Agreements Act, which exempted the RFAs from the EPBC Act on the pretext of maintaining the same level of environmental protection and biodiversity conservation. In reality, it opened the way for the destruction of habitats of many birds and animals listed in the EPBC Act as being rare or vulnerable to extinction and therefore subject to protection.

Despite the longest Greens opposition to any piece of legislation in senate history, the RFA Act passed both houses, with Labor support.

For nearly two decades, this decision has meant the devastation of forests across the country – which, besides the deadly impact on wildlife, has released millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into Earth’s already overburdened atmosphere.

On Thursday, in the Federal Court, the Bob Brown Foundation challenged the legitimacy of the Tasmanian RFA. Although buoyed by the historic win secured in Victoria to protect the Leadbeater’s possum and its habitat from decimation by the state-owned logging company VicForests, we are making a very different argument for Tasmania’s case – that the Tasmanian RFA, signed by Howard all those years ago, fails to meet the federal requirements of the RFA Act.

It does this in two key ways. First, under the RFA Act definition, a regional forest agreement must be “in force” – that is, legally enforceable. In Tasmania, some sections are legally binding and others not, notably those relating to the comprehensive, adequate and representative (CAR) reserve system and to ecologically sustainable forest management (ESFM).

Second, the requirement for an RFA to “provide for” ESFM cannot be satisfied by a state acting unilaterally. Yet, it is not the Tasmanian RFA that implements ESFM but the Tasmanian forest management system (legislation, policies, codes, plans and management practices), which can be amended by Tasmania when and how it pleases without reference to the Commonwealth.

The wider public can see these failures manifest in the sheer destruction of wildlife habitat involved in the clear-felling of native forests for woodchip and plywood exports to China, Japan and Malaysia.

Polls indicate most Australians want their remaining native forests protected. This feeling was cemented by the bushfires of the past two summers, which ravaged those forests and killed up to three billion native creatures. Scientific studies have shown old-growth and wet forests slow the pace and intensity of bushfires, while regrowth forests increase the fires’ pace and severity.

A national poll of 1461 people, conducted online in March, asked if Tasmania’s old-growth forests should be protected to help limit the severity of bushfires. Seventy-seven per cent of people agreed, including a majority from all political persuasions. Only 7 per cent were opposed.

Yet the loggers log on, regardless of the fact less than 1 per cent of direct jobs in Tasmania are provided by logging and most of the wood comes from non-contentious plantations.

Premier Peter Gutwein’s latest letter about forestry tells worried constituents that “Tasmanian forests are sustainably managed with some of the most stringent environmental protections in the world. Broad-scale clearance and conversion of native forest ceased on public land more than a decade ago.” He is blinkered to the broad-scale clear-felling of native forest continuing in many parts of the island state.

Such native forest logging is a profit-driven non-necessity. The two million hectares of softwood and hardwood plantations in Australia are enough to meet the nation’s needs.

But there is worse to come from the Morrison government’s drawing board.

The prime minister’s post-Covid-19 plan is to roar ahead with a slate of mega-projects that would be delayed by any proper consideration of their environmental and Indigenous heritage impacts. While the EPBC Act rarely leads to any project being given the thumbs down, it does require environmental impacts to be assessed, and this takes time. The government’s solution? Get rid of the federal assessment.

When parliament resumes next week, Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley will introduce a bill, under the cover of Covid-19, to amend Howard’s EPBC Act and hand the power to the states – which are more vulnerable to the corporate sector – to approve mining, gas fracking, dam building, the rapid expansion of industrial fish farming and the invasion of national parks by private enterprise. She aims to wash her hands of the Commonwealth’s responsibility for environmental assessment and protection.

The minister is not waiting for the final report, due in October, of her own inquiry into the EPBC Act, headed by businessman Graeme Samuel. Last month she peremptorily dismissed his interim report’s key recommendation that the Commonwealth set up a policing agency to watch over state management of environmental matters. This was despite Samuel’s finding that “Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat”.

Undoubtedly, the powers to protect Indigenous heritage will be the next thing shunted to the states. Ley knew the Juukan Gorge caves were to be blown up by Rio Tinto before the event and yet she did nothing. Next, she rejected national heritage protection for the ancient Djab Wurrung eucalypts in Victoria. Handing her powers to the states will spare her from such complicit embarrassment in the future.

With the Greens opposed, it will be up to Labor and the crossbenchers in the senate to take on Scott Morrison’s game plan to relegate environmental powers to weaker state governments while concentrating economic might in Canberra: a boon for corporate environmental exploiters and their lobbyists in both cases.

This is a watershed moment for Australia’s environment. It has taken more than two decades to see any success in our fight to chip away at Howard’s RFAs. And now we face another era wherein policy is being devised to ignore the certainty of environmental devastation for the promise of a quick profit.

In Earth’s sixth great age of extinction, there is a rising tide of opposition to the foolishness, if not criminality, of destroying wildlife habitats – from the deep seas to coral reefs and coastlines to what little is left of woodlands, grasslands and forests.

The phenomenon of Extinction Rebellion, temporarily quietened by Covid-19, is just a hint of the public unrest to come unless the needless exploitation of nature and our finest human heritage ends. Earth’s ecosystem is at breaking point. Our human herd is already using nearly twice the living produce this planet is capable of sustaining and yet, everywhere, the clamour is for “growth”.

If the forests continue to fall, everything else will follow. As with whaling in 1978, the time for logging Australia’s wildlife-filled and carbon-rich native forests is up.

For our forests and our wildlife, it’s time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2020 as "The end of the environment".

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Bob Brown is a former leader of the Australian Greens.