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Hiding The True Intent

Lynn Johnson
17 December, 2020

A new report by Swiss Re, the world’s second-largest re-insurer, confirms a fifth of countries worldwide are at risk from ecosystem collapse, as biodiversity declines. Of the G20 countries, Australia is ranked in second (worst) place, after South Africa, for failing and fragile ecosystems.

The Swiss Re report, and corresponding index, has been created to analyse Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BES) and the risks associated with BES collapse. It includes the ecosystem services necessary for food provision, water security and the regulation of air quality, all of which are considered vital to maintaining the health and stability of communities and economies.

Given Australia’s environment is assessed as failing, to the point that the country is ranked in second place for fragility, and, with the resulting negative impact on the economy, it would appear a strange time for the Australian federal government to handball responsibility, for the environment, to state governments. But maybe it’s not.

Over decades the Australian environment has been ignored by consecutive federal governments, from both sides of politics, no doubt contributing to the Swiss Re ranking. Passing responsibility to state governments right now would help the federal government to not take responsibility for the failings of past policies and any future problems, including the lack of investment in regeneration.

A recent newspaper report confirmed that under the guise of the EPBC Act review, the plan was always to devolve power for environmental approvals to the states. You would think that the states wouldn’t be interested in what is in effect a poisoned chalice, but you would be wrong.

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Why are some states, such as Western Australia, eager to take up the reigns of this seemingly very unattractive offer from the federal government? Because, it will allow states to apply different rules in the absence of national standards. In such instances, ask yourself who will benefit. And, it is the same old groups – developers, farmers, loggers, miners etc.

A January 2020 article: Death by a thousand cuts: the industry doing ‘more damage than mining’, highlighted that only 285 family businesses manage almost half of WA’s land. Investigations showed the regulators had been ‘missing in action for decades’, resulting in pastoral estates being degraded to crisis point. What was also interesting was that the article showed, just how little some of these pastoralist care about the fact that they have been overstocking with impunity, to the point that erosion, and lack of biodiversity, now threatens the ability for the land to renew itself. Some pastoralists are known to overstock by 440%, without fear of repercussions.

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Few pastoralists expect to be handing stations down to their children and, for some, this means they feel they have no incentive to keep the land in good condition or mount a decade-long rehabilitation project. There has been no monitoring of what pastoralists are doing on swathes of Western Australia since 2008. Maybe this is the reason the WA government was instrumental in reviving the Abbot era changes to the EPBC Act, pushing for power of approvals to be handed to the states.

But all of this begs the question, where is all this green tape the federal government, and some states, keep talking about, which is supposed to be holding up economic development?

A report published recently, by WWF, showed that, over a 17 year period, 93% of the threatened species habitat, cleared mainly for stock and crop production, was NOT evaluated, even through the EPBC Act requires impact assessments of proposed land clearing on threatened species. With only 7% of threatened species habitat scrutinised, before clearing, again, we ask the question, where is ALL this green tape? Spurious claims that environmental approvals are ‘holding up economic development’ need to be challenged at all government levels; there is little evidence that there is a need to reduce ‘green tape’.  In fact, the opposite is needed, with a significant investment in monitoring and regulation – there are lots of new jobs needed here!

All this allows federal government to avoid responsibility, and accountability, even though it is the federal government that enters Australia into international treaties, in relation to biodiversity preservation, such as CITES and the Convention on Biodiversity. Land use in Australia has gone unquestioned for 200 years and, as a result, 44.87% of Australia’s land mass is used for ‘Grazing natural vegetation’. By comparison, the land set aside for nature conservation is 7.87%, which is frankly ridiculous in a country the size of Australia, with such a small population and the country’s significant wealth. Bush fires have shown just how vulnerable Australian wildlife is to natural disasters, when they are corralled in to such a pitiful amount of land; only 4% of Australia’s land mass has been set aside for National Parks (this is included in the 7.87% set aside for nature conservation already mentioned).

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The EPBC Act has always been a hollow shell, and the problems of Australian environmental degradation have become so visible, that the world’s second largest reinsurer has confirmed the very real risk to the country’s society and economy; we can no longer afford inaction. The federal government knows mitigating this risk comes with a massive price tag, which doesn’t reconcile with its desired tax cuts.

Setting aside the tragedy for wildlife and the natural world, we are left wondering if consecutive governments ‘truly’ bought into the neoliberal mandates of the last 40 years, because what is happening would seem to be completely contradictory. If ‘ecosystem services’ are worth trillions to economic development, why would there be zero investment in the preservation and restoration of the environment, related to these ‘ecosystem services’? There has been a bi-partisan lack of interest in Australia’s biodiversity, and this lack of spending is intentional – it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

Greenwashing and window-dressing hide the true intent, of no real commitment to leave a habitable Australia for the next generations. Luckily for governments, most Australians love to ‘hug the coast’, both where they live and where they holiday. This means that few people travel through the kilometre-after-kilometre of failing and dead ecosystems, which has led to Australia’s appalling ranking in the Swiss Re report.

Things don’t get this bad without real effort to ignore all the evidence of decline, degradation and climate change risk. Any policies, reviews or projects that the federal government undertakes regarding ecosystems and biodiversity need to be viewed through the filter of ‘just what is the true intent here?’.

With this in mind, it was right that Australia wasn’t given the opportunity to speak at last weekend’s climate summit. An article covering this stated “The United Nations has defended the decision to block Prime Minister Scott Morrison from speaking at a climate summit this weekend. Selwin Hart, the special adviser to UN secretary-general António Guterres on climate action, said Australia had not met the threshold needed to speak….Diplomatic sources not authorised to speak publicly said Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office was determined to not let Australia speak….”He [meaning Boris Johnson] has thrown us under the bus,” one [Australian] government official said on Thursday.

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Australia’s dying environment needs to be prioritised.  If too many Australians don’t want to do it for wildlife, their children or their grandchildren, all we can hope for is that they do it to protect their investments and superannuation!