The Graeme Samuel Review of the National Environmental Law – the EPBC Act – was released last week and, in our view, has characterised the situation accurately.
Australia’s biodiversity is in decline and this legislation has not helped to stem that loss.
As Samuel rightly observed in the report:
“Serious enforcement actions are rarely used, which indicates a limited regard for the benefits of using the full force of the law where it is warranted. When issued, penalties are not commensurate with the harm of damaging a public good of national interest. For example, since 2010, a total of 22 infringements have been issued for breaches of conditions of approval, with total fines less than $230,000”.
This is despite a wealth of information on the value of nature to people’s health, mental well-being, productivity and viability of our society.
The key findings of the Review and the set of 38 Recommendations would mean significant reform in the consideration of environmental impact of development applications, and the management of our biodiversity overall, but only if passed into legislation and policy.
One of the strongest recommendations is the development of an independent oversight body that would monitor approvals and actions at a National and State level, adhering to National standards. This is urgently needed to prevent vested interests continuing to drive destruction of biodiversity in favour of development.
Signalled in the interim report, this critical element was side-stepped last year in an attempt by the government to devolve responsibility to the States and have a single-step approval process. This did not pass the Senate and is unlikely to pass in the future.
The standards required for accreditation of the States are stronger than indicated in the interim report, and are a good starting position, but we will be asking for strengthening of these standards in the future.
There are elements of the current system that should not be abandoned and instead should be invested in to improve success, including the Species Recovery Plans.
But, the addition of Regional plans, if implemented and resourced well, could provide new opportunities to weave innovative approaches into landscape management that protects wildlife and ensure viability and longevity of productive systems.
Building agreement across groups – farmers, conservationists, communities and others – based on common goals improves our chances of succeeding in the long term for all parties. We are excited to build this pathway of conservation management with determination and with partners like NRM Regions to turn the trajectory of our unique habitats around.
Samuel also found that a key failing in our current environmental protection process was a failure to give Aboriginal Australians a seat at the table when making decisions. This is something we are working actively to address at all levels.
Mike Ross is an Olkola Elder and Chairman of the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation in Cape York. He is also the first Aboriginal person to chair a National Species Recovery Plan – that of his peoples’ totem, the endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot, or Alwal in language.
Mike knows his country like the back of his work-weathered hands; full of lines, and life, and experience, and stories. At a recovery plan meeting back in 2019, he led a diverse team from neighbouring lands, ranger groups, Parks Queensland and Canberra-based Threatened Species Hub staff around significant Alwal breeding mounds, explaining how they use right-way fire to keep the vegetation at the desired height to keep away other predatory birds and make sure there is access for Alwal to find the grass seeds they prefer to eat.
Olkola Managers and Rangers employ right-way science, a potent mix of traditional Aboriginal knowledge and Western science, to monitor and track the presence of deadly feral cats, building an impressive set of data to measure the various threats to Alwal. It is under his leadership, and through passing on his knowledge, that we can save species like Alwal from extinction.
Mike is not working alone and there are hundreds of stories like this dotted around Australia that you are likely never to hear of. Imagine how we could help turn around our species decline by working side-by-side with Traditional Owners.
Our environment can only thrive when we work together in partnership; Traditional Owners, conservation groups, not-for-profits, farmers and land managers all play an important part.
This will take serious investment in changing philosophy, legislation, policy and resourcing. We will urge the government to recognise the importance of protecting our biodiversity, accept these recommendations, embed them in legislation and start down the road to environmental recovery and resilience.