The Long List of Neglect. Why we need new national environment laws.

good legislation

for the nature that we love

the least we expect

Take a peek behind the letters of our national environmental legislation, the EPBC Act 1999, and you’ll see it screaming its intentions loudly and proudly – Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation!! We’re an Act and we act!! Let’s party like it’s 1999!!

Awesome. Thanks John Howard. I sleep well at night knowing that this legislation you introduced twenty years ago when you were PM is doing everything it can to protect and conserve “matters of national environmental significance”. Zzzzzzzz. Sweet dreams.

And thus have we all been dreaming. For twenty long years. Dreaming of species we don’t know the names of, ecosystems we’ll never visit, unseen plants and animals we don’t care about. Vivid, magical dreams of ancient life forms.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is a misleading name. This Act is not protecting the environment, it is not conserving biodiversity, at least, not to the extent that it should be. It is an Act with very little action. Less than 40% of threatened species have recovery plans, thanks to a change in the law which now makes such plans optional. 

Less than 40% of threatened species have recovery plans.

Over the last twenty years, as the population has increased by 6 million or so, the Act has been considerably weakened by the D word. Development. Here we have legislation that sounds like the reason it gets out of bed in the morning is to protect species and ecosystems but in fact exists mostly to facilitate the endless growth economy that makes our market-driven, neo-liberal world spin.

Did the listed-as-vulnerable yakka skink and ornamental snake ever stand a chance against the Adani Coal mine? Not a wriggle of a chance. Or the listed-as-endangered black-throated finch? Are you kidding? This is the multi billion dollar coal industry here. When our environmental laws slam up against a development project, it is all too easy to tick boxes, roll out offsets then sit back and watch a greatly diminished world keep spinning.

Whether you’re Big Business or a family farm, avoiding environmental responsibility in Australia is a breeze. If you’re not entitled to government exemptions, like those bestowed upon the logging industry, you can simply just not bother with the required approval process and hope no-one notices the 500 hectares of native forest you’ve just cleared. Hope your neighbours aren’t dobbers.

According to a recent study, twenty years under the ‘watchful’ eye of the EPBC Act has allowed the destruction of 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat, with 93% of this not referred to the federal government for scrutiny. Like I said, a breeze.

Pretty much everyone would be aware now of Australia’s shameful title of World Leader in Mammal Extinction. We’re also second in line on the global stage when it comes to biodiversity loss. The government’s response to this crisis is to create a list because apparently “listing a species is the first step to conserving it” (EPBC Act 199).

Nah, that can’t be right. Surely the first step is to keep a species off this wretched list. I don’t really want to get into the process required to add a species to our national threatened species list, which falls under the EPBC Act, except to say that it is gloriously convoluted and you could write a novel or build a home in the time it takes to get approval. In the meantime, critically endangered species waiting to be listed go extinct. It happened to the Christmas Island Pipistrelle, it has happened to others, no doubt it continues to happen.

There are currently 1,798 species, not counting the extinct, on the threatened species list. They are catergorised as critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable and conservation dependent. Threatened ecological communities are also flagged and there are 84 of these. Entire ecosystems in a state of collapse, 38 of them critically endangered. Come May, these numbers will increase.

A big festering mess is hiding in plain sight under the false promise of our national nature laws. Every year, a new bunch of species and ecosystems are added to this heart-breaking, long list of neglect. Elegant frog, Narbalek, Monte Bello worm-lizard, Woodman’s wattle. .. name after name after name. Year in, year out. Like Pinocchio’s nose, the list just keeps growing.

Here’s another list, gleaned from The Guardian and other reliable sources, as to why the EPBC Act is failing nature, failing all of us:

  • EPBC Act laws are weak 
  • EPBC Act laws focus on development, not the environment 
  • the Act does not address climate change
  • the Act does not address the massive rates of land clearing 
  • environment budgets are continually being cut 
  • there is poor monitoring of species
  • there is poor coordination between federal and state governments
  • there is a lack of accountability measures 
  • there is little interest in saving uncharismatic species

The EPBC Act 1999 is weak, outdated legislation.

Right now the Act is up for review. This is a once-in-a-decade chance for voices from all communities across Australia to tell their nature stories and why we need to bury the EPBC Act and breathe life into a whole new system. In the collective opinion of the 54 environmental groups that form the Places You Love Alliance, what we really need is:

  • a new Environment Act
  • an independent Environmental Protection Authority 
  • Community decision-making power

The new laws being asked for will address climate change and deforestation and give power back to communities, among many other things. If you want to get up to speed with what’s on the table I suggest you head to the Wilderness Society, an active leader within the Places You Love Alliance. 

If you want to be one of the many growing voices for a change to our nature laws I urge you to write a submission. The Australian government is requesting your opinions on the EPBC Act. You don’t have to read and understand the 1,000 + pages of the legislation to participate. You only have to care enough about our biodiversity crisis to put thoughts and feelings into words. Around 300 or so will do it. The time it would take to watch an episode of a Netflix series. 

Again, if you need help with putting down words the Wilderness Society has easy peasy guidelines here. There’s an urgent need to shake up the system so let’s do this. En masse. The tools and mechanisms to protect our utterly unique biodiversity are already at our disposal.

The main threat to our endangered species is the EPBC Act. 

Deadline for submissions is 17th April 2020.

PS. The Christmas Island Pipistrelle is still perched on the threatened species list as critically endangered, more than 10 years after it was declared extinct. I have no words.

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