Under the cloak of Covid, the government is rushing ill-considered changes to Australia’s environment laws | Geoff Cousins

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What a cruel irony it is that just when our prime minister is bemoaning the fact that state governments can adversely affect the economy by closing their borders, his government seeks to pass the health and welfare of our environment and natural world into the hands of these very same states.

Despite the dramatic and tragic impacts of the last bushfire season on the Australian community, both physically and economically, and the just released interim report of the royal commission into them, the government seeks to rush ahead with ill-considered changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. This report is peppered with references to the need for national initiatives. It raises the prospect of the national cabinet managing future natural disasters, calls for the immediate rollout of a national emergency warning system and highlights the need for a national app for all such disasters.

And it does all this while lambasting the states for omissions and inefficiencies. Nowhere does it suggest devolving more power to these already incompetent entities. Of course this royal commission is largely focused on natural disasters rather than broader issues of environmental management and climate change, but its findings are telling in their precision: “Current arrangements do not provide a clear mechanism to elevate these matters to national leaders.”

Is it possible that our national leaders don’t want these or any other tricky environmental matters elevated to them? What other conclusion can be reached when the government is trying with such energy to push through “new” legislation that greatly reduces its role in environmental issues?

This is fundamentally the same proposal that Tony Abbott put forward as prime minister. It was defeated then, but the thought is that it might scrape through now under the cloak of Covid. That is the hard-nosed judgment of the same climate deniers and coal lobbyists who have run the Coalition all these years. And Scott Morrison’s hands remain as black as any.

Since there is a full review of current environmental legislation being conducted by Graeme Samuel, which is due to deliver a final report in the blink of an eye (ie October this year) what possible justification can be given for ramrodding legislation into the parliament now?

Just one, it seems. The environment minister, Sussan Ley, puts it succinctly: “It will allow projects to be fast-tracked.” So that is the justification for what the government touts as a new age of environmental legislation. Not to protect the natural world in any way; not to deal with climate change issues in any way; not to aid a new vision for the use of changing technologies and their integration into our systems; not to lessen the terrible devastation of the Murray Darling or the constant loss of habitat for threatened species; not even to try to alleviate the rapidly increasing impact of our bushfires.

Samuel’s interim report recommends “national enforceable standards” as an essential part of keeping the states honest in these matters. How necessary that is when, as Ken Henry so powerfully pointed out, the states have a complete conflict of interest in their receipt of royalties from projects and the fact that they are often the proponents of them. But there is no mention of these national standards in the proposal or of referring relevant conflicts to the federal government.

Now this has been highlighted by several environmental groups, but Ley says the standards will come later. It was the then environment minister Greg Hunt who said that the conflict of interest question would be corrected by requiring any state-backed proposal to be dealt with at federal level later. That promise was made in 2013 and there is no mention of such a requirement in this proposal. “Later” is late indeed.

Samuel has contributed some fine work in areas with which he is more familiar, but he has fallen into a bear trap here. The record of the states in meeting their current environmental commitments is appalling and no “enforceable standards” are likely to change that.

The Australian government is the signatory to all our international commitments that relate to climate and the environment of which there are many, ranging from The World Heritage Convention to the Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species and at least half a dozen others. The states are signatories to none.

What is the logic in devolving power to the states at a time when these agreements and the obligations therein are becoming increasingly important? None?

The root cause of all this ill-conceived thinking is a failure to understand what an economy is. In the government’s view it is an entity unto itself – it seems to operate independently of the world in which we live, until events wrench us back to it. According to this theory, the environment is somehow in conflict with the economy rather than the integral, vital essence of it.

It might be said that an economy is no more, and certainly no less, than the sum total of human endeavour at any given time. Some economists would no doubt quibble with this simplification but I doubt Keynes, or his contemporary Frank Ramsay, would. Apparently Keynes is now a hero of Scott Morrison and treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

Surely there is no chance of a stable, strong, sustainable economy without effective action on climate change. Recently the Business Council and the National Farmers’ Federation recognised this, to name just two green groups. Neither the existing EPBC Act, nor the current proposal, nor the interim Samuel report deal with this overriding issue.

It was the recent auditor general’s report that found nearly 80% of approvals given by the Australian Department of the Environment were non-compliant or contained errors and that conflicts of interest were not properly managed. What is the government’s response? Let’s flick all this to the states.

Cynicism is an unattractive quality, but it reigns supreme here. Normally the streets would be crammed with protestors over these critical issues, but so many streets are now empty.

We can still open the windows and shout, Mr Morrison.

o Geoff Cousins is a business and community leader and environmentalist. He was previously president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and a consultant to then prime minister John Howard

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