In lieu of Commonwealth leadership over nature protection in Australia, state and territory governments need to step up.
Australia has one of the most diverse collections of plants and animals in the world. We also have one of the highest rates of extinction. Loss of Australian mammal species tells a particularly alarming story: 35% of the world’s modern mammal extinctions have been Australian.
Australia needs a better national system of environmental laws to protect our diverse wildlife and reverse trajectories of decline.
The Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law (APEEL) is due to release a series of papers soon that will help to provide solutions to what the next generation of environmental laws in Australian could look like. EJA also continues to work with the Places You Love (PYL) alliance which is working together to advocate for better national laws to protect the places and wildlife we love.
Despite this progressive thinking and collaboration amongst environmental experts, it seems unlikely that the most recently elected Coalition government will take a national leadership role on environmental matters.
When federal laws are lacking, state laws give us another chance to address environmental issues like extinction, land degradation and climate change. There have been a number of recent changes to nature protection laws in various states across Australia, but unfortunately none of them have been particularly promising.
In New South Wales – where there is a relatively well developed system of nature protection laws – the government has recently released a new Biodiversity Conservation Bill, a Local Land Services Amendment Bill and information about proposed land clearing codes. According to EDO NSW, the proposed law and policy package is a: ‘serious retrograde step as it involves removing many of NSW’s long-held environmental protections’.
In Western Australia – where nature protection is basic at best – the government is (finally!) passing the Biodiversity Conservation Bill 2015. This replaces the outdated Wildlife Conservation Act of 1950. There are some positives for threatened species in this new Bill including options for critical habitat designations, the use of habitat conservation notices and codifying threatened species recovery plans. Unfortunately, most of the provisions are discretionary (i.e. the government can choose the extent to which it implements the law). Our experience in Victoria shows that discretionary obligations won’t work. There are also odd and potentially very harmful provisions in the WA Bill that effectively ‘permit’ extinction of some species. For a more detailed analysis, see EDO WA.
In Queensland, the government has recently taken some progressive steps to stop harmful large-scale clearing of native vegetation, but these were followed by backwards steps, and a continued failure to rectify the backward steps. A new Bill has now been proposed by the Qld government to try to once again to fix the situation, however there are concerns that this may not in fact pass the parliamentary process.
Contrary to the apparent lacklustre attempt by state and territory governments to protect our natural environments, the states have demonstrated in the past that they are capable of leading in the development of nature protection laws. For example, in 1988, the Victorian government introduced the first comprehensive nature protection law in Australia, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act. Although the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act is now well overdue for an overhaul, at the time it was introduced it paved the way for the national Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and some other states also began to follow with their own more sophisticated nature protection laws.
Victoria may again be our best hope to lead Australia and deliver an effective suite of state-based nature protection laws. The Victorian government has been busy reviewing a number of their existing environmental laws and policies: native vegetation clearing regulations, the biodiversity strategy, the Environmental Protection Act, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act and the Climate Change Act. These reviews have all been welcome and a promising step in the right direction for Victoria but the challenge is now for this state government to bring together these varied projects and to ensure they deliver good results for the environment.
Keep an eye out on our blog for further updates on each of the above review processes.