Our environmental laws: The next Labor legacy

Arin Harman is a student at Sydney University, studying Science and Law. He’s the Convenor of the Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN) in NSW.

Australia is a gorgeous country, and possesses some of the best natural landscapes in the world. The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from space, and is the largest structure on earth made entirely by living organisms. Uluru appears to change colour at different times of the day. We’re home to some of the most unique flora and fauna in the world, like koalas, wattles, echidnas, and waratahs.

Australia is still grappling with many legacies of colonialism. One of the most pervasive myths posits that prior to invasion in 1788, Australia’s natural landscape was untouched, untamed, and thereby natural. This, like most historical myths, is wrong. Indigenous Australians around the country had a dynamic and interactive relationship with the environment, both actively shaping its contours, and responding to its signals.

Our environment laws are implicitly based on this myth, and are thus inadequate. Passive environmental management has led to the health of our environment degrading rather than improving, thereby jeopardising our beautiful natural environment. We need a new approach. 

Current regime

The current regulatory regime is largely governed by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). At the time it was written, it was considered too species oriented, complicated, reliant on co-operative Federalism, and focussed on development applications. Oh, and the EPBC Act mentions climate change exactly 0 times

Since then, environmental non-government organisations (ENGOs) have consistently criticised the legislative framework, culminating in the Places You Love campaign. Businesses dislike the slow development application process, and unclear expectations. The Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law (APEEL) have a full list of recommendations you can see here

No level of government has clear responsibility for halting environmental decline. Broadly speaking, state laws are constitutionally valid provided they are not contrary to federal laws. Stronger federal laws would preclude weaker state laws, but weak federal laws engender and allow state governments to get away with environmental vandalism, whether it be water theft in the Murray Darlingproposing to build a highway through Royal National Park, or unsustainably clearing land

The proposed coal-mine in the Carmichael region of Queensland has passed every legislative and regulatory hurdle. We have bush clearing rates comparable to Indonesia and Brazil. Extinctions are increasing, there are a growing number of species deemed threatenedall the while air pollution related illnesses kill approximately 3,000 people per year. By every metric this regime is failing the environment and people of Australia. Our laws need to change.

Future federal laws  

We need a comprehensive and holistic approach to environmental management. Taking a genuinely fresh and systemic approach to environmental laws could reverse the damage done by almost two decades of the EPBC Act. 

Federal environment laws should do two things. Firstly, they should set goals and processes for the proactive management of the health of the environment. Secondly, they should create processes for assessment and approval of development proposals. The current regime does too much of the second, and not enough of the first. Most environmental damage arises because our laws fail to do the first task. 

Take the recent Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) report Toxic and TerminalIn it, EJA reported on the licenses of coal-fired power stations, and measured their emissions. This is no-one’s job; the investigation was conducted voluntarily. We can’t proactively manage the health of our environment if we don’t even have basic data. Gathering elementary data about the state of our most precious and fragile resource should be mandated, and performed regularly in all parts of Australia, not just the densely populated east coast capital cities

Principles and Institutions 

There are three principles we believe should underpin future environment laws: 

1. Federal leadership and responsibility for proactive environmental management. 
2. Clear and robust terms for future development applications. 
3. Democratic accountability and protection of rights for local communities to participate in environmental matters. 

Environment laws need to be delivered and enforced. An independent environmental agency that can collect data, proactively manage, and issue reports on the environment are necessary to ensure this bold new approach gets enacted. Moreover, this independent agency could act as a tough, independent regulator, ensuring compliance with our first-class laws. 

LEAN is going around the party units again, asking them to pass our motion calling on Federal Labor to safeguard our unique natural heritage by creating new environment laws and institutions for all Australians, current and future. If you want to help us out by volunteering, click this link

Indigenous and community participation

In the 1970’s, Neville Wran enshrined the rights of communities to participate in environmental decisions that affected them in NSW. This visionary thinking forms best practice internationally, but over time these rights have been eroded in Australia. We need to re-enshrine community participation in environmental management. 

In particular, we need to ensure the participation and rights of Indigenous Australians in environmental decision making. As environmentalists, it is imperative we counter false historical narratives and start understanding the relationship Indigenous Australians have with the environment, including their complex environmental management techniques stemming from deep, proactive understanding. Books like Henry Reynolds’ Learning to Love Your Country and Dark Emu document some Indigenous Australian environmental management techniques, but are no replacement for Indigenous Australian voices and representation in developing future environmental laws, reports, and management suggestions. Labor must commit to working with Indigenous Australians on the development and implementation of an Australian Environment Act which would ensure the Australian Government proactively and systemically protects the Australian environment. 

Why Labor?

Labor governments have a proud history of environmental protection in places as iconic as the Daintree, Franklin River, Cape York, and marine parks. It is the hallmark of all great Labor governments to protect and better the environment.

Thus, the next Federal Labor government should prioritise environmental law reform as a key policy agenda. Protecting the environment is an issue of nation-building and inequality. This makes it a core Labor task. A comprehensive environmental law regime would be comparable to floating the dollar, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and Medicare.

The environment is important materially and immaterially. Materially, the environment is our lifeblood. The cost to the economy will be much larger than project-by-project considerations if we fail to proactively protect our natural assets. As the EJA report shows, protection of the environment is also a health issue, and insufficient action could cause blow-outs in health and related budgets. Protecting the environment is imperative economically. 

Immaterially, our sense of identity is connected to place. We are the Sunburnt Country, home to the koala, eucalypts, and macadamias. We are former home of the Central Wallaby and Tasmanian Tiger. We cannot afford to be the former home to the contemporary species, animals, and places we love. 

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