Last week, federal Labor announced it was willing to cut a deal with Prime Minister Scott Morrison to slash approval times for major projects under Australia's national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. But a fast decision is not the same as a good one.
In a country still reeling from the ecological catastrophe of the 2019-20 bushfires, it's vital that we make good decisions that safeguard the ecosystems that support us, build resilience in the face of climate change, support communities to recover and protect our globally important wildlife.
As noted regulator Professor Graeme Samuel, currently reviewing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, has reflected: "bad decisions taken quickly are not preferable to ensuring good decisions are taken".
I agree. This is especially true given the role those decisions play in determining the future of our unique native species and precious places like the Great Australian Bight or Australia's iconic cultural and world heritage.
The destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves by Rio Tinto serves as a terrible reminder that locking in bad decisions can have devastating consequences. It shows us that we cannot rely on big companies to do the right thing: we need to have strong, proactive regulatory safeguards in place to protect our cultural and natural heritage. And it shows us that making the right decisions involves the willingness to review bad decisions when new evidence comes to light.
Australia needs strong leadership from our parliament to make good 20 years of government inaction on safeguarding Australia's nature and to build resilience to the growing impacts of climate change.
The destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves also underlines the importance of strong community oversight of government approvals. Governments and companies don't always make good decisions. Communities must be able to challenge bad decisions before destruction happens on the ground. Involving communities early and often in decision-making is another crucial safeguard against bad decision-making.
COVID-19 is not the only crisis Australia has faced this year. The 2019-20 bushfires pushed over 100 species to the brink of extinction. They destroyed huge swathes of the Blue Mountains and Gondwana Rainforest world heritage areas and devastated communities and regional economies in many states. This immense devastation shone an international spotlight on Australia's terrible record in conserving our natural wealth.
The Morrison government has yet to put forward a comprehensive response to this ecological disaster, beyond some initial funding. But given the magnitude of the damage and its lasting impacts, it's vital to make the right decisions which will safeguard the ecosystems that support us and protect our globally important wildlife.
For the record, I do think it's possible to make good decisions quickly. Good decisions promote safe, secure and sustainable jobs. They support communities and the environment they rely on for clean air and water, recreation and employment.
But making good decisions quickly is not possible without massively reforming Australia's environment laws and the institutions that enforce them.
To make good decisions quickly you need strong, legislated safeguards that protect native species, our cultural heritage and high-conservation landscapes like water catchments and biodiverse carbon sinks, rather than rubber-stamping them for destruction. We need an independent watchdog that can enforce the law in a robust and transparent way to all sectors, rather than hand-passing decisions to a department whose budget the government has slashed by nearly 40 per cent over the last five years. And we need to ensure we have good, reliable and publicly available environmental data, so decision-makers can identify and track the impacts of those decisions.
It's important to remember that nature is complex and the consequences of major events like the fires take time to understand. And while sometimes good decisions take time, they're infinitely better than bad decisions.
The problem Australia's nature faces is both well-documented and urgent.
Australia leads the world in extinction and the rate of loss is accelerating. We're the only developed country with a deforestation front. And world heritage areas like the Great Barrier Reef and the Tasmanian wilderness are buckling under the weight of climate change, poor management and inappropriate developments.
Any deal that Labor negotiates with the Prime Minister must address this reality. Australia needs strong leadership from our parliament to make good 20 years of government inaction on safeguarding Australia's nature and to build resilience to the growing impacts of climate change.
Bad decisions taken quickly could lock in the extinction of iconic native species like the koala or the Leadbeater's possum. Bad decisions now could irretrievably damage the places we love.
And that loss will be forever.
- Suzanne Milthorpe is the national laws campaign manager at the Wilderness Society.