Australia’s new laws can take conservation backwards

The Albanese administration appears to be retracting from its commitment to significantly overhaul Australia’s environmental conservation policies, a move deemed concerning by eight prominent environmental organizations in the country. These groups express apprehension that the government intends to divide promised legislation for new environmental laws and postpone some challenging reforms until after potential reelection, potentially exacerbating the situation.

According to submissions obtained by Australia from the Places You Love alliance, comprising leading conservation entities such as Environmental Justice Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation, and WWF-Australia, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek had pledged reforms aimed at steering Australia towards zero extinctions. However, the proposed changes presented in private consultations fell short of demonstrating such ambition, with the draft laws appearing to offer mere incremental adjustments rather than the transformative overhaul necessary.

The alliance, echoing sentiments from the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s threatened species campaigner, Alexia Wellbelove, stresses the urgent need for robust environmental legislation. They highlight the impending extinction crisis faced by species like the maugean skate, underlining the imperative for immediate action.

These concerns were raised following closed-door consultation sessions in December and February, during which both environmental and business groups were solicited for feedback on the proposed laws, which have not yet been publicly disclosed.

Key apprehensions voiced by environmental groups include the potential inclusion of a “call-in” power granting the minister authority to intervene in decisions made by a proposed environment protection agency (EPA) arbitrarily. Additionally, the proposal to allow developers to offset environmental damage through monetary contributions to a restoration fund rather than providing direct “like-for-like” replacements for ecosystems or species affected by development raises significant red flags. Concerns also extend to doubts about whether the proposed EPA would possess the necessary autonomy and effectiveness to regulate the environment adequately.

Despite these criticisms, a spokesperson for Plibersek defended the government’s approach, asserting that the proposed updates to national environment law align with their nature-positive plan, purportedly aimed at balancing business interests with environmental conservation.

While there are some positive elements in the proposed legislation, such as the introduction of national environmental standards and a commitment to defining “unacceptable impacts” on nature, environmental groups caution that these may be overshadowed by other problematic aspects.

Labor’s pledge to address shortcomings in environmental legislation follows a 2020 review led by Graeme Samuel, which highlighted decades of governmental failure to safeguard Australia’s unique biodiversity. Samuel’s warning that failure to implement fundamental reforms would lead to continued environmental decline underscores the urgency of the situation.

Plibersek’s declaration that the environment is once again a priority under Labor resonated with many, but the efficacy of proposed reforms will ultimately be judged by their ability to halt deforestation and species extinctions.

As pressure mounts for comprehensive environmental reforms to combat Australia’s ongoing extinction crisis, environmental advocates emphasize the importance of prioritizing the protection of wildlife and habitats in shaping future legislation.

Furthermore, the environmental groups underscore the necessity for swift and decisive action, urging the Albanese government not to yield to pressures that prioritize economic interests over environmental conservation. Nicola Beynon, head of campaigns at Humane Society International Australia, emphasizes that the urgency of Australia’s extinction crisis cannot be overstated. She insists that strong, new nature laws are urgently needed to prioritize the protection of the country’s unique wildlife and their habitats.

The backdrop to these concerns lies in the alarming findings of the state of the environment report released in 2022. Tanya Plibersek described it as a “shocking document” depicting a decade of governmental inaction and negligence towards Australia’s environment. This acknowledgment underscores the gravity of the situation and the imperative for meaningful legislative reform.

The environmental organizations’ apprehensions are rooted in a history of insufficient protection for Australia’s natural heritage. Graeme Samuel’s comprehensive review in 2020 laid bare the systemic failures that have allowed the continued decline of iconic species and ecosystems. His call for fundamental reforms was a wake-up call, highlighting the urgent need for legislative changes to avert further environmental degradation.

As the Albanese government grapples with the task of enacting meaningful environmental reforms, it faces mounting pressure from both environmental advocates and business interests. Balancing economic development with environmental sustainability presents a significant challenge, but it is one that must be addressed with urgency and foresight.

In summary, the Albanese government’s retreat from its promise of transformative environmental legislation raises serious concerns among environmental groups. The proposed changes fall short of the ambitious reforms needed to address Australia’s extinction crisis effectively. As the government navigates the complexities of environmental policymaking, it must prioritize the protection of Australia’s unique biodiversity and ensure that future generations inherit a healthy and thriving natural environment.

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