Leadership or crisis management--what role should the Commonwealth play?
FRASER ISLAND, the Franklin River, the Queensland Wet Tropics. Struggles to protect these places have played a crucial role not only in the emergence of the environment movement. They have also had a profound influence on the law's approach to the powers of the Commonwealth government: the idea that the power to protect the environment would rest with the states alone has by now been thoroughly discredited. Yet a bill before the Senate threatens to undo this.
Depending on your mindset, the expansion of national powers provides either a platform for leadership in the great challenge of ecological sustainability, or a stage for risky political tussles. The wrestle with this responsibility has produced varied responses, including ecologically sustainable development strategies, a Resource Assessment Commission, concepts of resource security and an Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment. The latter spawned the National Environment Protection Council and accreditation mechanisms for state processes.
In a subtle shift, recent efforts have been championed under the banner of `cooperative federalism', a curious collective niceness that rarely appears between state and local governments.
The Howard government's first contribution to this was an agreement with the states about how to identify or limit the areas of possible federal intervention. In 1997, behind dosed doors, a list of areas of `national environmental significance' was drawn up. Though it identified some 30 areas, only seven of these could trigger Commonwealth assessment and approval, excluding obvious national issues such as greenhouse, vegetation clearance, water allocation, forests or land degradation.
The government determined that this secret agreement should be legislated for -- hence the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill 1998.
One step forward, many steps back
While ACF recognises the need to reform our outdated laws, the bill, as it stands, is one step forward and many steps back. It is true that the environment minister is to play a more central role and that there is room for greater involvement in wetland, World Heritage and threatened species issues. But the bill also provides some 17 ways by which the government can hand this power to the states or to other public or private agencies, or simply duck responsibility altogether.
The bill fails to require best practice for environmental assessment or to consistently apply the principles of ecologically sustainable development across the whole of government. Nor has it established mechanisms for public participation, monitoring, accountability or sanction.
ACF has been working with other groups who are united in their opposition to the bill in its current form. Before it can be said that the bill advances this country's environmental laws it must include:
* best practice definitions of ecologically sustainable development, ESD strategies for government agencies and a Commissioner for the Environment
* enhancement and expansion of triggers for Commonwealth approval and assessment
* more public participation in decision making processes
* reversing handover of power to states
* a Commonwealth reserve power to protect the environment
* `any person' standing to enforce public duties
* greater respect for indigenous rights
* stronger biodiversity conservation laws.
A rewrite of our environmental laws must be embarked on with a spirit of leadership, not crisis management. We need a robust approach that will allow Australia to rise to the challenges of ecological sustainability.
What you can do
Ring or write to your state senators, c/- Parliament House, Canberra, ACT 2600, highlighting the dotpoints below. And do it today! To find out who your senate representatives are, call Parliament House on Ph: (02) 6277 7111.
John Connor is ACF's National Campaigns Director