Earlier this month, PM Morrison doubled down on his plan to hand Commonwealth environment responsibilities to the states, signalling that he would move ahead of the recommendations of this year's major independent review of our environment laws.
But new polling shows a growing gulf between the government's actions and community expectations when it comes to decision-making on the environment. The environment law review represents a major test of whether the Morrison government is listening to scientists, looking at the evidence and hearing community concerns. Right now, they are failing that test.
A whopping 30,000 people made submissions to the Independent Review of Australia's national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The sheer volume of submissions highlights the depth of community interest in ensuring we have strong, effective nature protections. Hardly surprising, given we started the year with Australia's most devastating fires on record, an ecological catastrophe that is still unfolding.
During the submission period, I spoke with many community organisations around the country. Community members spoke of their fears for the future of the places and wildlife that Australians love. Most were concerned that governments were too apathetic or compromised by corporate donations to do anything to address the causes of environmental damage or properly punish or constrain the worst offenders.
I also heard a growing thread of anger and a strong sense that communities were being shut out of decision-making on the environment. This is concerning, not just because the interim Independent Review report found that "the community does not trust the EPBC Act to deliver effective protection of the environment." Misappropriating the opportunity provided by the Samuel Review, the Morrison government introduced a rehashed version of Tony Abbott's one-stop-shop bill into Parliament. This bill would hand environment decision-making powers to state and territory governments, which receive royalties from exploiting nature and whose jurisdiction lasts only as far as their borders.
While the bill stalled in the Senate this year - with key crossbenchers saying that passing the bill was "not in the public interest' - at the national cabinet last week, the PM doubled down on his deregulatory push. Despite the massive impact of the bushfires and overwhelming evidence that the EPBC Act is failing to deal with Australia's extinction crisis, Scott Morrison stated that his top priority was making fast decisions, pushing off any move to implement Samuel Review recommendations on how we make good decisions into the long grass.
Last month, the Wilderness Society commissioned YouGov to survey a nationally representative sample of Australian voters on how they feel the government engages communities in protecting nature. The results show a massive gulf between community expectation and government actions, and highlights a credibility gap when it comes to who is setting the standard for environment protections in Australia.
The majority of Australian voters believe that the public and scientists should have a say in deciding the strength of national environmental protection laws, particularly how they protect natural habitats and wildlife. By contrast, just one-in-five Australians believe that large corporations should have a say in the formation of environmental protection laws.
But the polling also showed that, right now, the majority of voters believe that major corporations such as mining companies have the greatest influence over the federal government regarding environmental decisions. Only 19 per cent though that the public had the greatest influence, and only 15 per cent thought it was scientists.
While the Morrison government continues to push to devolve environmental protection to the states, our polling found that 85 per cent of Australians believe it is important for the federal government to retain their environmental approval powers over projects that may impact or destroy threatened wildlife habitats or protected environmental areas. A clear majority of voters also believe that all Australians should have a say in decisions that affect globally significant natural areas like World Heritage Areas.
Yet, it's very unclear if and how communities across the country will continue to be able to engage in decisions about nationally significant natural places if decisions are made solely by state governments.The Wilderness Society believe that the fate of our natural heritage is a matter for all Australians, and it's clear that Australians want to have a say when it comes to decisions over projects that could harm it. The Morrison government needs to demonstrate, now and with concrete actions, how they will respect that.
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