Nature: Not negotiable
Environmental protection laws under attack
Changes are afoot to dramatically wind back cornerstone federal environmental protection laws. Under these changes, State Governments would be given sweeping powers to assess and approve major development projects. If implemented, these changes would be a disaster for our nation's environment and wildlife.
In 1999, the Howard Government introduced the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. It was meant to protect environmental areas and wildlife that were so important, and so at risk, that their existence was of national importance.
[Right: Law reforms threaten the survival of the endangered Leadbeater's (Fairy) Possum]
Since it was introduced, the EPBC Act has saved only a few wild places from mining and other development. Many thousands of developments have gone ahead.
Australia's environment is now under unprecedented attack. Nine open cut mines are planned for Tasmania's pristine Tarkine forests. The Broome community are battling the construction of a massive gas hub at James Price Point that would mark the beginning of the industrialisation of the Kimberley . The Great Barrier Reef is becoming a coal and gas highway, and could lose its World Heritage status.
The State of the Environment Report 2011 paints a grim picture. More and more endangered species are moving closer to extinction, and we are losing our precious places.
In April this year the Business Council of Australia released a discussion paper claiming that excessive environmental regulations were reducing the productivity of Australian businesses. Although there is no evidence to support the claim, the Gillard government bowed to the demands of big business and within days negotiated an agreement with other COAG (Council of Australian Governments) members to roll back federal involvement in environmental protection. Tony Abbott and his Coalition support the move to weaken the national environment laws.
There will be three parts to this handover:
Firstly, giving the states power over environmental decisions by fast tracking 'approval bilaterals' under the EPBC Act. These authorise states to make decisions currently made by the Commonwealth. COAG is to agree on these arrangements by December 2012 and implement them by March 2013.
Secondly, legislative amendments to the EPBC Act, some time this year, that will favour the rapid and 'seamless' approval of developments over protecting species and habitats.
Thirdly, allowing states and territories to reform state assessment and approvals to fast-track approval of major development projects.
The disastrous 20-year Regional Forest Agreements are the model for this initiative. There is a risk that RFAs themselves will be automatically renewed until 2037 and beyond as part of this package of measures, which would enshrine the industrial logging and woodchipping of native forests, and see wildlife like Victoria's endangered Leadbeater's Possum pushed closer to extinction
40 years backwards
This is the most serious attack on environmental protection in over 40 years. It doesn't take much imagination to see what the environmental implications of state decision-making would look like for our environment. In Queensland, Premier Campbell Newman has opposed any delays to coal projects, saying that Queensland is "in the business of coal".
In Western Australia, four out of five Environmental Protection Authority decision-makers on the proposed James Price Point gas hub had to disqualify themselves because of conflicts of interest; the single remaining member, unsurprisingly, approved the proposal.
[Below: the Great Barrier Reef]
In Victoria, intervention by Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke was required to stop Premier Baillieu from overturning the previous government's ban on alpine grazing, to reintroduce cattle into national parks under the guise of a 'grazing trial' that was likened to 'scientific whaling'. Meanwhile, the New South Wales Government has changed laws to permit private hunters to shoot in national parks and allow fishing in critical grey nurse shark habitat.
The major environmental victories of past decades have largely been won by the Federal Government overturning bad development decisions by state governments. Without strong federal laws, the Franklin River would be dammed, the Great Barrier Reef would have oil rigs and Fraser Island would be a sand mine.
New Friends of the Earth campaign
In December, COAG meets to agree to the framework for handing over of approval powers to the states. Decisions about renewing Regional Forest Agreements could be made at any time.
We need decision-makers to hear our voices now. Friends of the Earth is mounting a campaign − 'Nature: Not Negotiable' − to prevent the gutting of federal environment laws and to strengthen the federal government's role in protecting the natural environment.
This campaign includes mobilising around the upcoming COAG meeting, organising with local campaigns, lobbying and community campaigning.
For more information on this work or to get involved, please email email@example.com
You can also find us on Twitter @naturenotneg or on Facebook at 'Nature: Not Negotiable'.
[image: Nothofagus, Myrtle Beech trees]
What else can you do?
- Meet with, write to and/or phone your federal MP. This makes a difference. As more and more contact is made, the issue gets heard and parliamentarians become nervous. They need to know this matters to voters.
- Call Prime Minister Gillard. As the head of COAG, the Prime Minister needs to hear from concerned citizens in defence of ournatural environment. PM Gillard's Canberra office: (02) 6277 7700.
- Sign our petition to the Prime Minister, available here.
- Send an urgent action alert to your networks asking people to do the same.
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