Three months on from Bill Shorten’s promise to introduce strong environment laws if elected, campaigners are calling on Labor to release the policy detail behind the pledge, with one accusing the ALP environment spokesman, Tony Burke, of going missing on the issue.
For activists who have spent decades fighting to strengthen protection of Australia’s natural heritage, Shorten’s commitment at the ALP conference in December to bring in a new environment act and a national environment protection authority (EPA) was an extraordinary breakthrough. In the months since, they say, the issue has evolved into a question mark.
In a written response to questions for this story, Burke did not say whether details would be available before the election. He says it will not be easy work developing the policy and it is unrealistic to expect legislation in 2019.
Shorten’s commitment followed an internal campaign by advocacy group the Labor Environment Action Network (Lean) calling for strong national laws and an independent environmental agency with the authority of the Reserve Bank. It won support from nearly 500 local party branches and coincided with a cross-organisational push within the green movement under the banner Places You Love and a blueprint by the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law designed to address the issue.
In January last year, Guardian Australia explored whether the 1980s campaign that stopped Tasmania’s Gordon-below-Franklin dam and saved world heritage wilderness – considered one of the environment movement’s great victories – could succeed in today’s legal and political climate. Among 20 campaigners and political veterans, there was broad, though not unanimous, agreement that a similar project would be near impossible to stop now.
Those interviewed largely agreed on the central point: environmental protection was harder to win in 2018 than at any time since a wave of landmark decisions of the 1980s, including the protection of the Daintree rainforest and Kakadu and blocking mining in Antarctica. This was due to a lack of political will and national environment laws that can be used largely at a minister’s discretion.
Lyndon Schneiders, the national director of the Wilderness Society, says Shorten’s pledge was a major shift away from a bipartisan agreement that the federal government should play a limited role in environment protection that had been in place since Paul Keating was prime minister.
“For a generation, there had not been a leader of either of the major parties that had broken that bipartisan agreement and stood up and said ‘the federal government has failed to lead’, and that had a real impact on the environment’,” he says. “From our perspective, Shorten breaking that is pretty powerful.”
Schneiders says three changes over the past year led to Labor changing its policy and promising to introduce laws to supersede the Environment Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act brought in under John Howard in 1999.
First, the natural world “reached out” – the impact of failures to protect it became increasingly obvious to the public – during an ongoing drought and “the sheer number of species now heading towards extinction”.
Second, Guardian Australia had focused attention on systemic environmental problems through a deeply investigated (and reader-funded) series, tapping into latent public concern.
Third, the Lean campaign had demonstrated that the environment is an issue Labor members care about above most others. Schneiders says this was not a surprise. An Australian National University study of voting patterns found supporters of all parties considered the environment extremely important. “The tragedy is there is nothing like [Lean] sitting inside the Liberal party,” he says.
The Coalition supports the EPBC Act, which emphasises using offsets and conditions to approve contentious development proposals to go ahead, with decisions mostly left to the environment minister’s discretion. The act is due for a mandatory review this year.
Shorten’s commitment is to pass new laws and create an EPA to preserve oceans, rivers, coasts and bushland and protect native species. Burke told the ALP conference the new laws would be fair, ensuring Australia was “no longer the extinction capital of the world” and that “when projects need an answer they get one”.
Burke had earlier resisted the push for as significant an overhaul of environment law as was proposed in the ALP national platform. Schneiders accused Burke of being absent from public debate on the environment two months out from an election his party is strongly favoured to win.
“A speech is not a policy,” he says. “Melissa Price is the invisible environment minister and you could, if one was being ungenerous, say the same of Tony Burke. She [Price] is getting scrutiny from the media, environment groups and scientists but she is not getting a lot of scrutiny from the opposition.”
In response, Burke says the differences between the major parties on the environment have never been bigger, with Labor promising more positive environmental outcomes than the Coalition on a range of fronts. They include strengthening marine parks, doubling the number of Indigenous rangers and putting traditional owners in charge of world heritage listings for Cape York and west Kimberley.
Asked when Labor’s policy would be released, Burke did not say. He says Labor’s commitment to deliver an EPA and new environment laws in its first term if elected will not be easy and will require detailed consultation and departmental advice. “If we win, I will progress this as quickly as possible,” Burke says. “It would be unrealistic to presume this would be done this current calendar year.”
Lean is calling for a full policy announcement from Labor before the election, outlining a plan for sweeping reform. About 40 local branches have contacted party leadership asking for details, including an assurance that the EPA will be given responsibility for setting national standards that drive policy and can stop biodiversity loss.
Peter Garrett, the former environment minister who most used the EPBC Act to block developments, says Labor’s commitments should be the first step towards a more comprehensive overhaul: a whole-of-government approach that factors climate change into all decision-making. It would include a reconfigured tax system that supported clean practice and removed incentives that encourage fossil fuel use, such as an off-road diesel tax rebate.
Garrett says he is looking forward to a detailed announcement of Labor’s plans with “clear-eyed anticipation”. “The statements so far we have seen from Labor have been encouraging but there’s no reason not to be going on with the job given it’s the 11th hour and much work has already been done.”