Thursday, 6 February 2014


Since its election in September last year the Abbott Coalition Government has implemented a series of changes which have far-reaching ramifications for the natural environment and ultimately for the human community which relies on the important services provided by a healthy natural environment.

Some aspects of the Coalition's actions in relation to the major environmental issue of climate change policy were discussed in an earlier post on this blog.  (

This post outlines four of the Government's other decisions which relate to the natural environment.


A background matter which has significance for the natural environment and its conservation was the surprising decision by the new Government not to appoint a Minister for Science.  This is the first time since 1931 (except for a brief period during World War 2) that there has been no Minister for Science.  Science in Abbott's Government is largely the responsibility for the Minister for Industry, Ian Macfarlane, with some aspects being part of the portfolio of the Minister for Education.  So, as has been noted with disbelief by some commentators, Australia has a Minister for Sport but no Minister for Science.  Whatever the Prime Minister says to explain the lack of a science portfolio in a period when science is an ever-increasing contributor to our lives, it is inevitable that this strange decision has been seen as an indication that science is not considered a priority by the government.


The Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, has commenced work on creating a "one stop shop" for assessing the ecological impacts of major projects.  Under the current system major projects have to be approved by the federal government under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act (introduced by the Howard Government in 1999) as well as by the states under their legislation.

The Abbot Government intends to devolve all environmental assessment on such projects to the states.  It claims that such a system would "slash red tape and increase jobs and investment".  When this rationale is used it is quite obvious that the priority is development at the expense of the natural environment - despite claims to the contrary.

Naturally, this move has been welcomed by business because it considers the change will save time and expense.   And, according to Maria Tarrant, deputy chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, it will provide "certainty" for projects.

Those concerned with conservation have good reason to be worried about Hunt's new system because it is unlikely to provide even the equivalent protection available under the present far-from-perfect system.  Furthermore, the recent record of at least some states on environmental protection indicates they are ill-qualified to take over sole responsibility for environmental protection.

For example, some of the NSW Government's decisions have shown a cavalier disregard for the environment.  These include the decision to allow recreational hunting in some national parks, the three year trial of grazing in 60 national parks, changes to native vegetation regulations easing restrictions on land-clearing, cutting back on protected areas for the critically endangered Grey Nurse Sharks in Marine Parks and changes to the State Environment Planning Policy (Mining, Petroleum Production and Extractive Industry) to make the "significance" of the resource to the economy the central consideration in the approvals  process.

Hunt is hoping that agreements with all states will be finalised by September this year.


On December 10 Environment Minister Hunt formally approved the Abbot Point (north of Bowen) and Curtis Island (near Gladstone) projects under the EPBC Act.  Abbot Point is set to become one of the largest coal ports in the world while an LNG (liquefied natural gas) plant and port is being developed on Curtis Island.

Mr Hunt said that he had imposed "some of the strictest conditions in Australian history to ensure impacts are avoided, mitigated or offset".  Despite Hunt's claim, there has been considerable concern about the impact of these developments on the Great Barrier Reef.  A major concern has been the effect that the dumping of 3 million cubic metres of dredged material from the Abbot Point development will have on the marine park. Opponents of the dumping of this dredged material had hoped that the Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority would ban any dumping in the Marine Park. However, on January 31 the Authority announced it had approved the dumping.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is a World Heritage Area. UNESCO's World Heritage Committee has been concerned for some time about port development in the vicinity of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area.  It has told the Australian Government that it is considering putting the Great Barrier Reef on the "in danger" list unless Australia addresses key threats to the Reef from industrialisation - primarily from coal and gas port projects along the Great Barrier Reef coast. The Committee will consider whether any progress has been made in addressing its concerns when it meets in June this year.

Given the decisions made by Hunt and the Marine Park Authority, it is highly likely that the Heritage Committee will put the Great Barrier Reef on the "in danger" list.  If this happens the negative publicity for Australia is likely to be significant.


Another World Heritage Area is receiving attention from the Abbott Government.  In 2013 the World Heritage Committee approved a 170,000 hectare extension to the Tasmanian World Heritage Area (WHA).  This extension followed an agreement made between all sides involved in decades of disputation over Tasmanian forests.  Lengthy consultation between business, union and green groups led to a deal which secured government payments of $363 million to the timber industry and included a sign-off by all parties to the World Heritage Area extension.  The deal was also endorsed by the Tasmanian Parliament.

During the 2013 election campaign Tony Abbott indicated that the Coalition did not support the WHA extension. Environment Minister Hunt is applying to the World Heritage Committee for the removal of 74,000 hectares from the extension when the Committee meets in June. The Coalition appears completely unconcerned about the consensus reached between the industry and green groups and the fact that the settlement is in the interests of a prosperous timber industry which will be able to export its products – something it was having difficulty doing before the agreement because of sustainability issues.  If the Government gets its way the forest wars will erupt again.

Given what has happened with the Reef and what Hunt and the Tasmanian Liberals are trying to do, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee will be wondering about the Australian Government's environmental credentials and its indifference to world opinion.


Before September's federal election it was obvious that the environment would suffer if the Coalition won office. That is not to say that the Labor government it succeeded always acted in the best long-term interests of the natural environment.  It didn't.  Politicians in general appear to have difficulty in grasping that we as humans rely on the services of the natural environment for our own well-being.  This lack of understanding is epitomised by politicians' obsession with the economy at the expense of the environment - an obsession which completely ignores the fact that the economy and human society are both subsets of the natural environment.  The economy – and human society - will suffer in the medium to long term if the natural environment is degraded.  There are of course other factors which make it easy for politicians to ignore environmental degradation, one of the most significant being the shortness of the electoral cycle.  It is very difficult to see how this problem of political ignorance/indifference can be overcome.
Northern Rivers

Guest Speak is a North Coast Voices segment allowing serious or satirical comment from NSW Northern Rivers residents. Email ncvguestpeak at gmail dot com  to submit comment for consideration.

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