Monday, 20 August 2018
I'd like to speak tonight about the crisis facing the iconic Australian animal the koala, particularly in the regions of Queensland, northern New South Wales and the ACT. That koala populations in these areas are under threat is a symptom of the major failure of this government to meet its legal obligations under federal environment laws.
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which was passed in this place almost 20 years ago now, in 1999, was at the time a significant expansion in the environmental powers of the federal government. I played a significant role in the debate and decision at the time when I was in this place. It certainly was not a perfect piece of legislation by any means, and it had some significant shortcomings. Nonetheless, it was a major advance, in many respects, on what had been there before, and if it hadn't been passed then certainly the previous laws would have continued to provide very minimal protection for most of the Australian land mass.
There were those in the environment movement who were disappointed that more wasn't achieved, but there was a hope that the legislation would at least provide a stepping stone that could be built on, particularly when Labor came to government—even though it took them eight years to do so. Instead, what we've seen is that the adequacy of that act has been continually eroded over time. That has been a result of quite conscious decisions by governments of both persuasions, but particularly Liberal governments and Liberal ministers, to slowly but deliberately weaken the effectiveness of the administration of that act. They slowly but effectively developed precedents which reduced the effectiveness and enforceability of components of federal environment laws and, alongside that, simply by virtue of inertia and the winding back or redirecting of funding away from areas that should have been resourced to ensure proper monitoring and proper enforcement of the act, allowed it to decay through lack of use. As a consequence, nearly 20 years later—not surprisingly, given the ideology of putting the interests of corporations, property developers and commercial short-term profit above the interests of the natural environment and the long-term benefits it provides to the entire community, both economically and socially, in addition to its innate ecological value—we are well and truly overdue for a major overhaul of our federal environment laws.
The koala is but one example, but I think an apt example, that illustrates why our federal environment laws are broken and why we once again have a situation where the government of the day is putting the interests of its corporate donors and the interests of property developers, who are of course also big donors, ahead of the interests of the entire community. We're seeing the environment trashed and our iconic species pushed to the brink because of short-term profits for the government's donors and their mates. The examples are widespread, but I'll outline the basics for starters. The government's own Threatened Species Scientific Committee reported, nearly six years ago now, that the koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT should be considered vulnerable. It stated that the rate of the decline of the koala 'over the last 20 years readily meets the eligibility threshold for listing as vulnerable'. That advice was accepted by the government and the minister of the day back in 2012, and the koala was listed as vulnerable in those regions, with the requirement that a koala management plan be developed by the time that the then National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy 2009-2014 expired. Instead, what we saw—by which time, of course, the coalition had come to power—was nothing. We've heard continual talk about a management plan appearing, being developed or being considered, but still there is nothing. Frankly, that is disgracefully negligent. If the environment laws were strengthened so that there were criminal penalties for ignoring responsibilities under the law then I could say it was literally criminally negligent, but certainly the deliberate neglect involved is rhetorically very much criminal in the broader sense of the word. The beneficiaries of it, of course, are the property developers and the construction companies.
We've seen media reports covering major failings in mitigation strategies in both northern New South Wales and South-East Queensland in recent times. The mitigation strategies are basically the fig leaves that are used. It is a significant failure of the federal environment laws that, where approval is given to a project that seems a controlled action, it's often with a whole range of conditions attached. It can look very good on paper to say, 'We'll approve this, but we're doing all these things to ensure that overall there'll be no net environmental harm to the species or key factors of national significance listed under the act,' but the big flaw—and I'm happy to say in hindsight I wish that at the time, in 1999, I'd paid more attention to prevent it being able to be exploited—is that there's very little you can do if the government doesn't follow up on those mitigation strategies and check to ensure they're implemented or that they actually work. They all sound great at the time, but the reality is that in many cases they don't work and in many cases they're not even attempted. When the developers or the proponents of various proposals say they're going to do all these mitigation things but don't do them or do them badly—they do them with insufficient resourcing, so they're never going to work—there's no penalty at all, even assuming that there is actually follow-up monitoring.
We're seeing this with the koala in northern New South Wales. The mitigation measures—the road tunnels and other wildlife infrastructure, which are meant to protect the koalas from road strikes and damage through construction and ensure they're able to survive in the habitat after major roadworks have gone through—are simply not working. They're not working nearly well enough to prevent continuing decline in the species.
Similarly, in South-East Queensland, to use just one example, there is the area around Coomera on the northern part of the Gold Coast. Many who drive between Brisbane and the Gold Coast would know it for the amusement parks on either side of the M1, but there's a significant amount of bushland—though a lot less bushland than there used to be 10 years ago—in the surrounding suburbs. There is one development at the moment, called the Polaris Coomera development or Coomera Woods—it does have woods at the moment but by the time the development's finished, if it's approved, it won't have—that is a declared action under federal environment laws, and let this be clear: it is a tipping point. As happens repeatedly, each individual development is not enough to be denied by the federal Minister for the Environment and Energy—at least, that gives them cover—but when you add them up cumulatively they are massively destructive and, en masse, would never be in a situation where they could be approved by the minister. With this latest development, the independent environmental assessment of the koala populations shows very clearly that if that area is cleared as well then it will be a tipping point for the whole local koala population. There is simply not enough connected habitat left for those koalas to survive locally. We've seen significant publicity recently, on the basis of information given to estimates committees in the Queensland parliament, that efforts to maintain that population by transferring koalas from cleared areas to forested areas nearby really fall short. There are very significant, very high mortality rates when you try to relocate koalas.
What we need is an emergency response to the koala situation from the Queensland government and the federal government, not just to finally put in place a management plan but to ensure that it is adequately funded and has powers to back it up to prevent further clearing of koala habitat. We need proper funding of recovery and management plans for all our threatened and vulnerable species, and that is something the Greens will be putting forward alongside the need to completely overhaul and update our federal environment laws so they deliver for the entire community, not for the corporations and the donors.
Senate adjourned at 22:19