The crossbench and the environment

Apr 10, 2024
Australian Environment

The environment is a key policy concern for Independent MP Kylea Tink, as for the other “Teal” Independents. Community concerns about climate change won them their seats in the current Parliament and they remain committed to action. No matter how many storms, floods and fires come our way before the end of this year, when the next election is called, climate is guaranteed to be at the top of voters’ minds. I joined a large audience in the North Sydney electorate on 4 April at a community forum that Kylea Tink called on “The future of our environment”. The message I took home was that the climate crisis is more urgent than ever. Its impacts are increasingly obvious. Voters, at least in this part of the country, feel passionately about it.

A panel of expert speakers at the forum lamented that neither the government nor the opposition were taking effective action, including James Tresize, Biodiversity Council; Rachel Walmsley, Environmental Defenders Office; Genevieve Steward, Climate Council; and Nic Clyde, Lock the Gate. The discussion was moderated by Maria Poulos Conklin of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Graeme Samuel’s 2019 review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act was completed and lodged in 2020. It contains 38 recommendations for action. Four years have passed but there is little to show. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020 was introduced into parliament but is still to be ratified by Senate. Minor parties and environmental lobby groups raised multiple objections that have led to ongoing consultations about how this bill might be modified to meet local and national concerns.

If there have been any steps to address the climate crisis, they have been negative. As the forum speakers noted, some action by the government effectively works against the original EPBC. The Albanese government has for instance approved five new coal projects.

Australia lacks legally enforceable national environmental standards that would apply to existing and new resource developments – the central recommendation of the Samuel Review. Clearly there is buck-passing between State and Commonwealth governments. States are more amenable to lobbying from local authorities and resource companies. They are also concerned about employment, taxes and royalties.

Roughly 90 percent of the mining industry in this country is foreign-owned. Not surprisingly, when last year was a year of record profits, it was also a year of record lobbying action. Tim Buckley, Director of Climate Energy Finance, told the Sydney Morning Herald that profits from the export of $240 billion fossil fuels in 2022 led companies to “fund their lobbying efforts to delay climate action and protect their profits”.

In November 2023 Tanya Plibersek, Minister for the Environment and Water, told Parliament, “We promised to put the environment front and centre – back where it belongs. … On climate, on pollution, on biodiversity loss – we are addressing all three facets of our triple crisis.” Unfortunately, actions so far are piecemeal and limited in effect. Rachael Walmsley, one of the speakers at Kylie’s forum, has written, “The reform needed is comprehensive and must be done properly to ensure our unique environment is managed and protected for future generations.”

Why is progress so slow and piecemeal? Can it have anything to do with the influence of resource and energy companies? Do ministers believe that the public has lost interest in the environment and is more concerned about the housing crisis and the cost of living? Forums such as the one held in North Sydney should bring it home to Canberra that citizens have not forgotten about the existential threats to our land, its rivers, plants and living things.

Those who attended the forum left just as a severe storm hit the city. The warmer ocean temperature resulting from global warming fuelled the heavy clouds with consequent impact on housing, transport and everyday activities. Such extreme weather events are getting more common. They will come to mind at the ballot box, for sure. Then our Members of Parliament will have to ask themselves who they are beholden to, whether industry lobbyists or the people and the land itself.

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