Environment minister outlines task ahead for APS

By Melissa Coade

July 20, 2022

Tanya Plibersek
Tanya Plibersek’s views on what the new government’s approach will be to Australia’s deteriorating environment will include a lot of work for public servants. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Tanya Plibersek has shared her views on what the new government’s approach will be to Australia’s deteriorating environment, and it will include a lot of work for public servants delivering the institutional reforms being called for. 

Public servants can look forward to a comprehensive response to Graeme Samuel’s review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act, and clearer environmental standards with explicit targets in the works under Labor’s environment agenda. 

A new Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has been flagged, as well as a major overhaul of Australia’s environmental laws, and the inclusion of environmental indicators in October’s upcoming budget. 

“By the end of the year, the Australian government will formally respond to the Samuel Review. We will then develop new environmental legislation for 2023,” Plibersek said on Tuesday. 

“We will consult thoroughly on environmental standards. But in the meantime, I want to see an immediate start on improving our environmental data and regional planning, establishing a shared view around what needs to be protected and restore the areas where development can occur with minimal consequences.”

Addressing the National Press Club on the same day Australia’s State of the Environment (SOE) Report was released, the minister who has had responsibility for the portfolio for six weeks said the environmental outlook was ‘difficult, confronting, depressing’.

“I’ve been reading the data that tells me […] we continue on the trajectory that we are on the precious places, landscapes, animals and plants that we think of when we think of home, may not be here for our kids and grandkids,” Plibersek said.

“Australia has lost more mammal species to extinction than any other continent. Threatened communities have grown by 20% in the last five years, with places literally burned into endangerment by catastrophic fires. The Murray Darling fell to its lowest water level on record in 2019. And, for the first time, Australia now has more foreign plant species than native ones.”

The minister slammed the former Coalition government’s inaction and apparent lack of a plan to protect and manage Australia’s environment, accusing her predecessor Sussan Ley of choosing to hide the SOE document until after the election. The report, which is produced every five years, was handed to the government last December. 

“As part of my statutory duty as minister, I am publicly releasing the 2021 state of the environment report. It’s one of the most important documents in environmental science,” Plibersek said.

“Some of Australia’s most respected scientists are given access to the best available tools. They’re told to show us the full national picture of the health of our environment or, as one of the authors put it, ‘take a good hard look at ourselves’.” 

The minister said the government was committed to improving environmental protections and working to restore what damage the last government had done to undermine the institutions responsible for this work. 

She pointed to funding cuts to the environment department by 40%, leading to longer times to make environmental decisions and more errors.

“Without proper funding, environmental decision times exploded,” Plibersek said. 

“According to a National Audit Office review in 2020, the average federal decision for a new project was 116 days behind schedule. And all of these decisions around 80% were either non-compliant or contained errors.”

It was clear Australia had fallen far short of targets set by the previous Morrison government, Plibersek added, across recycling pledges, water allocations and management of the Great Barrier Reef. 

The water market was also ‘broken and barely regulated’ for about nine years, she said, with the ACCC finding there were no rules against insider trading or requirements to keep proper records. 

“Again and again, the former government behaved in a way that undermined public trust in environmental management,” Plibersek said of the controversial Great Barrier Reef Foundation

“It actually doesn’t matter how good an organisation is, no one should walk into the prime minister’s office and leave with hundreds of millions of dollars they didn’t even ask for.”

This resulted in distrust in the system, exacerbated by what Plibersek described as ‘wilful damage’ under the previous government. 

The minister said a national EPA would be empowered to restore the lost trust and transparency around how national environmental laws were enforced. Law reforms to strengthen the framework were also being considered, she said. 

“We need to protect our environment and heritage for the future. We need to restore environments that have already been damaged. And we need to actively manage our landscapes, oceans and waterways, and the critical places that we’re bound to protect, so they don’t become rundown through neglect,” the minister said of the three goals she would be guided by. 

“This will require a fundamental reform of our national environmental laws, and empowering a new environmental protection agency to enforce them. 

“Decisions need to be built on good data to show the public how we’re tracking in real time, […] to build over time a useful, usable, rich picture of our environment. We also need certainty and efficiency,” she said.

While environmental law reform was likely to be a challenging task, Plibersek said she was optimistic and hopeful that the right balance could be struck. ‘Structural change’ was essential to avoid yet another decade of inaction and arrest Australia’s environmental decline, she said. 

“As minister, I will probably make some calls that some people disagree with but I am absolutely determined to improve the system.

“I want to work across the board to build on that goodwill. Because ambition is really important but it’s not much good without achievement,” Plibersek said.

The minister announced Labor will expand the national estate to set a new goal of protecting 30% land and 30% oceans by 2030.

“We’ll explore the creation of new national parks and marine protected areas, including by pursuing the East Antarctic Marine Park. 

“We also need to actively repair past damage,” she said. 

Plibersek also paid homage to First Nations custodians who had managed Australia’s land and sea country for more than 65,000 years.

“As the minister for environment and water I’m committed to learning from this remarkable example,” she said.


READ MORE:

This is Australia’s most important report on the environment’s deteriorating health. Here are its grim findings

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