Communique 17 May 2012.
Environment groups from across Australia met today in Canberra to challenge recent attacks on Federal and State environmental protection measures.
We are alarmed at this attack on our environment protection laws. These laws protect our way of life, they protect the environment which gives us clean air, clean water, protect threatened species and the environmental values that are important to all Australians.
None of us are untouched by these threats to our land water communities and wild places and none of us is willing to allow that to be taken from us what makes our lives meaningful, beautiful and important. We represent a substantial cross-section of Australian society and will inform and mobilise our communities.
We support measures that can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of environmental regulation, and reject the concept of "green tape" as an industry-based construct, a Trojan horse that is designed to achieve the winding back of almost 40 years of hard fought environmental protection measures for short-term economic gain. It is a matter of grave disappointment that our political leaders, sitting in COAG, have blindly accepted this rhetoric and acceded meekly to the demands of business and industry.
Environmental policies and laws must protect our special places and should result in their protection, not loss. This protection must be underpinned by science and evidence based measures. Decisions around the protection of these species should not be fast-tracked or streamlined but given adequate time and funding to allow full consideration of all available evidence and scientific data.
Reject the attack on environmental laws
Our organisations specifically urge the strengthening of our national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). The Hawke Review of the Act proposed a reform package to streamline development balanced by better environmental provisions and increased transparency, oversight and public participation. The Government has rejected most of these "balancing" reforms, thereby ignoring the relevant checks involved and placing the environment at greater risk than it is under the present Act.
Abandonment of the Commonwealth's environmental approval powers
We express our steadfast opposition to the proposal by COAG to fast-track arrangements for the accreditation by the Commonwealth of State approval processes by March 2013, which would result in the "turning off" of our most important Federal environmental law, the EPBC Act. We reject the underlying assumption on the part of COAG that the exercise by the Commonwealth of its approval powers in relation to projects that involve matters of national environmental significance constitutes "duplicative and cumbersome environmental regulation".
We urge the Commonwealth to retain this most important approval role as a means of checking the unbridled pursuit of development at the State and Territory level, whilst also maintaining its extensive international treaty obligations with respect to the Australian environment. Our national environment values must be held in trust at a national level, and not devolved to State and Territory Governments to make decisions on matters for which they cannot have a national view. The Federal Government must not walk away from its crucial role in protecting our environment.
We also hold deep reservations about proposals recently advanced by the Commonwealth government outside COAG, in its response to the Hawke Review of the EPBC Act, to shift the focus of its efforts under this Act to strategic assessment and regional plans, insofar as this is intended to result in a substantial withdrawal by the Commonwealth from project-level assessment and approval. Whilst we support robust strategic and regional planning to address cumulative impacts, these processes cannot substitute for project-level assessment and approval and believe the Commonwealth should reconsider its proposed approach.
"Streamlining" of State assessment and approval processes/ environmental standards
We have deep concerns about COAG's proposals for States and Territories to propose reform of their State assessment and approval processes for major projects for consideration at the next COAG Business Advisory Forum later in 2012. In particular, we fear that the so-called "streamlining" of such processes will amount in practice to a further weakening of already inadequate assessment and approval processes within most States and Territories.
Similarly, we are sceptical of proposals advanced by COAG under its "deregulation" initiative for the "improvement" of assessment processes for "low risk, low impact developments", which we believe is essentially code for the further dismantling of State and Territory planning laws in order to meet the incessant demands of the property industry.
We also question the motives for, and the means by which, State and Territory governments will pursue the COAG agreement for them to develop "environmental risk and outcome-based standards" by 2012. Insofar as this might involve the substantial reform of existing environmental standards of a different nature developed over many years, we believe that any such process should be undertaken in an open and fully consultative manner. A 6-month time-frame is not feasible for a proper process of review and reform of existing environmental standards.
Dismantling of carbon reduction and energy efficiency schemes
We have grave concerns about proposals by COAG to "fast-track and rationalise policies and programs that are not complementary to a carbon price", particularly if such rationalisation is based on a set of so called principles that were developed without public consultation, and tenuous assumptions about the capacity of the carbon price mechanism to deliver adequate carbon emissions reductions by itself by 2020. We call on the Taskforce established by COAG to consult publicly on its proposals before any revised principles are submitted to COAG.
A carbon pricing mechanism with weak targets should not be used to stifle or diminish other efficient policies and programs that reduce emissions and which would make it easier for Australia's National target and scheme caps to be tightened faster than the carbon price acting alone. The carbon price should be used to enhance climate action, rather than constrain and crowd out these efforts.
A voice for the environment and the community
COAG has provided an exclusive avenue for consultation by governments on high level policy agendas with one, privileged sector of the community, to the exclusion of the rest of Australia's civil society, through the establishment of the COAG Business Advisory Forum. Given the secretive nature of COAG processes, this is an unprecedented and inappropriate form of privileged access for the business sector. It can only result in the type of distorted and inappropriate policy initiatives that are manifestly evident in the COAG response to the first meeting of its Business Advisory Forum.
We call on the Prime Minister, as the Chair of COAG, to rectify this inequity immediately by establishing a parallel COAG forum for key representatives of civil society.
We note that business leaders have not approached us to discuss their concerns and we would welcome an opportunity to do so.
We give notice that we will not stand by as vested interests seek to do secret deals with the Federal and State Governments to gut environmental protection measures at a time when our environment needs more protection. If, as a consequence of the reforms proposed by COAG, there is a dismantling of these measures, and we return to the situation that existed in Australia several decades ago, we believe there will be an inevitable return to the trench warfare style of environmental activism that was also widely practiced at that time. When governments move to abandon the "rule of law" with respect to environmental protection, such responses from within the community are inevitable.
This communique is supported by the following organisations:
- ACT Conservation Council
- Australian Conservation Foundation
- BirdLife Australia
- Conservation Council of SA
- EDO Victoria
- Environment Victoria
- Greenpeace Australia
- Humane Society International
- Invasive Species Council
- National Parks Australia Council
- Nature Conservation Council of NSW
- Queensland Conservation Council
- Total Environment Centre
APPENDIX: The losing battle for Australia's environment
Every year we see further decline in the quality of Australia's environment. We see forests cleared and swathes of bush destroyed. We have seen vast grasslands and bush sacrificed to urban expansion, mines and coal seam gas wells that poison our water and air. Water is treated as though it wasn't a precious and life giving resource. We are witnessing the greatest extinction rate of mammals of any country in the world. We are losing species that exist nowhere else on earth.
Every 5 years the Federal Government produces a national State of the Environment Report. Every report says we are going backwards. Information, evidence and data are all regularly ignored. The few successes and few changes we see are overwhelmed by our failures and our indifference. Just this week, a report by WWF ranked Australia as the 7th worst polluter on Earth (behind Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Denmark, the United States and Belgium - one spot worse than in the last report in 2010).
We reject the notion that the problem we face is duplication and red/green tape. The problem we face is the highest mammal extinction rate in the world, the worst per capita rate of carbon emissions in the world, contaminated rivers and water, clearing of forests and bush, declining soils, overfishing and a host of bad decisions made every day all over Australia that benefit the few. Our environmental laws need strengthening and increased funding to combat these threats, not gutting.