Conservative-leaning Australians have a natural inclination for conservation. It's in our blood.
As chairperson of the Coalition for Conservation (C4C), I am proud to lead a movement that celebrates the environmental achievements of conservative-leaning governments and advocates for decarbonisation and the better protection of nature.
The conservative side of Australian politics has a wonderful environmental history to celebrate. Malcolm Fraser ended sand mining on Fraser Island, proclaimed Kakadu a national park and prohibited oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef. His government signed international agreements to protect wetlands, migratory birds and endangered species.
Prime Minister John Howard extended this legacy, declaring a sixfold increase in national park protection for the Great Barrier Reef and establishing the Natural Heritage Trust. In 1999 Howard introduced Australia's first comprehensive national environment law, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The EPBC Act brought together the diverse legal powers that were used to save the reef, end whaling and protect the Franklin River.
In describing the aim of that law, Howard-era environment minister and C4C ambassador Robert Hill said "the major cause of species loss is habitat loss. If we can preserve and restore habitat then we have a greater chance of preserving species. It is as simple as that, and that is what we are aiming to do."
Howard and Hill's EPBC Act is now 20 years old and is undergoing an independent statutory review by former ACCC chairman Professor Graeme Samuel. This presents a once-in-a-decade opportunity to take stock of what has worked, what hasn't, and make the careful changes necessary to extend the conservative tradition of keeping nature safe and in good condition. Samuel's final report is now with federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley and will hopefully be released soon.
The environmental challenges of today are of course far more complex and dire than those of two decades ago. The EPBC Act does not mention climate change, yet today we live in a hotter, more unpredictable climate, with increased risk of devastating natural disasters like floods, fires and pandemics.
As conservatives we take inheritance seriously. We want to pass on the world we love to our children in the same condition, or better, than we received it. We have inherited a beautiful and biodiverse country. Many of Australia's animals and plants are found nowhere else.
We are blessed with some of the world's most stunning beaches, oldest rainforests and most spectacular natural landscapes. We are proud of the natural world and cherish Australia's unique places and wildlife. They are central to what it means to be Australian.
But Australia faces an unprecedented extinction crisis. We've lost more mammals to extinction than any other nation to date. Nearly 3 billion native animals were killed, injured or displaced when more than 11 million hectares of bushland was burnt in last summer's fires.
How we rise to the challenge of saving the wildlife that makes us Australian will define who we are as Australians. As conservatives, we must raise our ambitions for protecting and recovering the precious environment that is our shared legacy.
A healthy natural world is vital to our own physical and mental health and wellbeing.
The quality of the food we grow, cook and eat is inextricably linked with the quality of the natural environment in which it is grown.
For too long jobs and the environment have been pitted against one another, as if they were somehow mutually exclusive. But in reality, true prosperity depends on preserving and growing our natural capital, not plundering it.
As proud as I am of the conservative environmental legacy, I know we now need to do more. There are more efficient and more effective systems of environmental regulation and protection that can benefit both the economy and the environment it depends on.
We can build community and business trust back into our national nature laws through careful and well-thought-through reforms. The initial changes proposed by Graeme Samuel in his interim report are a good start.
However, Samuel has ultimately identified the need for a complete overhaul of our national environment legislation to meet the environmental challenges Australia now faces, and that is what we must aim for. Raising our level of ambition is essential if we are to further extend the proud conservative legacy.
As David Attenborough put it quite simply in his latest documentary A Life on our Planet: "The solution has been staring us in the face all along. To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity. The very thing that we've removed."
Conserving nature is something all Australians want and something all governments, especially conservative ones, can and must do.
- Cristina Talacko is chairperson of the Coalition for Conservation Inc.