As the Coalition’s relentless internal struggles over energy ideology capture media headlines, a dramatic roll-back of protections for nature is underway. At State and Commonwealth levels Coalition governments have defunded environment programs and unpicked key legislation. Even fundamental conservation actions like the creation of protected areas have stalled as governments appear to see protections of nature as impediments to economic progress. But this is a false dichotomy.
On Tuesday 20th June—budget day in NSW—the National Parks Association of NSW (NPA) took the extraordinary step of calling on Environment Minister, Gabrielle Upton, to resign. For a venerable, well-respected conservation organisation like NPA this was an extraordinary step and not one we took lightly. NPA has been instrumental in the creation of many of NSW’s fine national parks in our 60 years of existence. And it’s fair to say that, as a politically non-partisan organisation, we prefer to work with governments to achieve our goals than to constantly oppose. But on this occasion we felt we had little choice.
The NSW government had just handed down a rosy budget, driven by a once-in-a-generation revenue glut on the back of public asset sales and stamp duty revenue from Sydney’s booming housing market. Yet there was barely even pocket change earmarked for the environment. The day before the budget, Gabrielle Upton and Treasurer Dominic Perrottet had announced $800,000 to fund koala research. To some, this might sound like a lot of money. But when put in the context of the Australian Koala Foundation’s estimate that koalas are worth $3.2 billion annually to Australia and support 30,000 jobs, this announcement is more insulting than exciting.
It became clear to us that Gabrielle Upton was either unwilling or unable to negotiate a bigger slice of the pie for her portfolio. Either way, we felt that she should make way for someone else who could do better. The question is though, is there anyone in the Coalition who can—or indeed, wants to—do better? It has been a long time since any Coalition member has made a strong, ambitious statement on protecting Australia’s environment. In contrast, recent years have seen some extraordinary attacks on environmental protections that we once took for granted. Here are a few of the lowlights.
Tony Abbott tried to revoke World Heritage status for 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian forest—rejected in just 10 minutes by the United Nations World Heritage Committee. The Coalition reversed the exclusion of burning wood from native forests from the Renewable Energy Target, which is leading to calls to co-fire coal plants with wood—despite evidence that this approach in Europe is driving deforestation in Europe, Russia and North America. In NSW a 2013 regulation permitted the burning of whole logs for power generation. The Campbell Newman government in Queensland reversed restrictions on clearing native vegetation which has led to clearing rates soaring to about 300,000 hectares per year. This has negated the Direct Action policy that has tried to reduce emissions by avoiding land clearing, and threatens the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The NSW government is right now finalising its legislation that repeals the Native Vegetation Act, will exacerbate Key Threatening Processes and will drive threatened species and ecological communities closer to the brink—even species that the government identifies as ‘icons’. The 20-year Regional Forest Agreements were well-intentioned to balance environmental protection with timber extraction. They have failed, but the Coalition has pledged to simply roll them over anyway. This failure is why the NSW Nationals tried to secure ‘tenure swaps’ between national parks and state forests to increase timber supply. Recent leaks of documents revealed that NSW plans to dramatically increase the intensity of logging in native forests, with potentially catastrophic consequences for wildlife. And the result of all this land clearing and logging? Eastern Australia is a global deforestation front, and Australia the worst-performing developed country on earth at protecting natural habitats.
At the same time as dismantling environmental protections, the building of the protected area network— the best tool we have for protecting nature—has slowed. A key reason for this is the lack of funding for the National Reserve System at the Commonwealth level. But NSW isn’t stepping up either: the rate of national park establishment has fallen by 95% since the Coalition came to power. National parks are one of the great legacies governments can leave for the people. As public land, where entry and camping is either free or low cost, national parks are truly open to all to enjoy.
Dr Oisín Sweeney is Senior Ecologist, National Parks Association of NSW
Kevin Evans is the CEO of NPA and an adjunct lecturer with Charles Sturt university. Prior to entering the NGO sector, Kevin worked in Taronga Zoo where oversaw a range of breeding programs.