Speech, 2014 Nathan and Pamela Jacobson Public Lecture, University of Melbourne
Thursday, 16 October 2014
Introduction: The law serves but the community unites
Thank you for that introduction, Professor Evans, and for the invitation to address you this evening.
It’s a great honour to deliver this Nathan and Pamela Jacobson public lecture. It is indeed a very personal honour, as it’s nearly a quarter of a century since I graduated from this law school. It was one of the best in the world then, and it remains one of the best today. As I frequently remind my good friend and Monash graduate Josh Frydenberg!
I can therefore think of no better audience than the alumni of my own alma mater for this reflection on the role, and limits, of law in protecting and managing Australia’s unique and precious environment. And the need for direct on the ground action to improve both our landscapes and aid in the recovery of our great, but in many cases threatened, Australian species.
In doing so, this lecture brings together the life stories of two graduates of Law from Melbourne University. Neither of them me!
My Father, Alan Hunt, was a scholarship boy from strict Methodist parents. Unlike them he was known to enjoy the occasional drink, or two! He also loved nature, a passion he developed in partnership with his great mate and partner in crime at Melbourne Law School, Sir Edward Woodward.
When I was a young boy, Dad would walk me round the Mornington Peninsula and point out the rosellas, the rainbow lorikeets, the parrots and the secret places where most times he could find a sleepy koala. He subsequently worked with the greats, Hamer and Borthwick, to establish the Green Wedges framework which will, I hope, endure for coming centuries as the centrepiece of Melbourne’s liveability.
Alan taught of the duty to preserve and protect the great spaces, while also allowing for, and believing deeply in the majesty of human development and the great task of bringing people out of poverty by providing opportunity.
Nathan Jacobson was also a graduate of Melbourne Law School, indeed a few years earlier. Nathan has outlived Alan, but he has shared a love of the law and a love of community.
As the pre-eminent leader of Australia’s Jewish community throughout much of the 60’s and 70’s Nathan helped his own community and he helped support the Jewish community in Israel. He has been a lifelong advocate of the law as a peaceful means of settling disputes but never strayed from his work in recognising that nothing surpasses the active strength of a close cohesive community group for creating a healthy society.
In that respect, Alan Hunt and Nathan Jacobson embodied the best of the lessons of Melbourne University’s Law School: “the law serves, but the community unites.” I salute both Nathan and his wonderful wife Pamela.
Against the background of these giants of community and law I want to set out a simple thesis: the law can help in protecting our environment, but to be truly successful we need a comprehensive environmental plan based around three key areas:
• First, policy - our four pillars approach encompassing: clean air, clean land, clean water and heritage;
• Second, reform - of federal environment law to be more effective both for the environment and the community; and
• Third, partnerships - with the community and business to implement a national Threatened Species Plan and Reef 2050 Plan.
Let me now turn to an unvarnished assessment of the State of the Environment and our policy response.
1. Policy: State of the Environment and Our Four Pillars Response
It is time to take a fresh look at how we manage the environment because if you look at the basic Key Performance Indicators or KPI’s, Australia has many successes but also some clear and significant failures.
1.1. State of the Environment: Failures and Successes
Perhaps our greatest failure has been in protecting our threatened species. Despite the billions of dollars which have been spent and the increasing legislation and regulations, much of our native wildlife is increasingly becoming extinct. This cannot continue. It is time for a different approach.
In terms of threatened species protection, we are failing.
It was the Action Plan for Australian Mammals released by John Woinarski and colleagues earlier this year which pointed to a legacy of decline in our land based mammals. Contrary to the expectations of many, the Plan highlighted the single greatest culprit as being the ferocious growth in feral cats.
The sheer numbers are staggering. With up to 20 million feral cats in the environment, taking up to four native species a night, we are talking about the slaughter of well over 20 billion native Australian birds, small mammals or reptiles a year.
This is not a legal problem; this is a massive underlying environmental legacy from over 225 years of post indigenous settlement. Addressing this issue is a major priority for this Government.
While there have been failures, there have also been powerful reversals and successes to which we can look for an answer to how we might proceed.
One of our major recent successes is the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT), established in 1997, to support local communities to address the problems of land degradation and biodiversity loss across rural Australia.
The NHT ran concurrently with the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. These two ground-breaking policy interventions in natural resource management laid the groundwork for countless subsequent improvements in Australia’s natural resource management.
To give just a few examples:
• The expansion of the National Reserve System by over 27 million hectares including the declaration of 34 new Indigenous Protected Areas.
• The management of over 10.8 million hectares of native habitat and vegetation projects to conserve native species and enhance the condition and connectivity of landscapes.
• The removal of over 160,000 feral camels across the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia, reducing the density of camels in 18 areas of known high conservation and cultural value.
• Improvements in the Great Barrier Reef’s water quality, including a 12.6 per cent reduction in soluble nutrients, 14.6 per cent reduction in pesticides, 5.6 per cent reduction in sediment and a 5.2 per cent reduction in particulate nutrients. I will talk more on the Great Barrier Reef later in this speech.
For the nation’s major water system and largest food bowl – the Murray Darling Basin – the Howard Government established the National Plan for Water Security in 2007 to address the critical issue of over-allocation of water in the Basin.
The Murray Darling Basin Authority has since been established and a long term plan to improve water management drawn up, requiring a reduction of 2750 billion litres a year on average in how much can be taken from the river system for consumption.
The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder has also been established to hold and use this additional water for the environment. About 69 per cent of our target – 1902 gigalitres – is already recovered for the environment or is secured for recovery under contracts and funding agreements.
Most importantly, earlier this year all Basin States agreed to these world-leading environmental reforms.
1.2. Four pillars Cleaner Environment Plan
In terms of policy, then, our Plan for a Cleaner Environment clearly articulates our approach under four pillars: clean air, clean land, clean water and heritage protection.
The plan is an essential element of our national policy framework and encompasses simple, practical actions that will achieve real, measurable results.
Under the clean air pillar we have abolished the inefficient and ineffective carbon tax to reduce cost of living pressures on households and cost pressures on businesses and to pave the way for our Emissions Reduction Fund.
Abolishing the carbon tax places downward pressure on rising electricity and gas prices. Modelling by the Australian Treasury suggests that removal of the carbon tax in 2014-15 is estimated to reduce the Consumer Price Index by around 0.7 percentage points, based on a carbon tax of $25.40.
We will replace the carbon tax with a policy that will directly cut emissions.
The Emissions Reduction Fund will provide incentives for cleaning up our environment through activities such as revegetation, investing in soil carbon, increased industrial and commercial building energy efficiency, cleaning up power stations and capturing gas from the millions of tonnes of waste deposited in our cities’ landfills each year.
The Government has allocated $2.55 billion over four years to buy abatement under the Emissions Reduction Fund, with further funding to be considered in future budgets.
We are also working closely with states and territories on a National Clean Air Agreement. While, by world standards, Australia’s air quality is good, we have ongoing challenges and cannot be complacent.
Particulate and ozone pollution continue to be a concern. Increasing urbanisation and population growth will add to these problems.
A National Clean Air Agreement will lay the groundwork for improvements in Australia’s air quality and for responding to emerging air quality issues. I’m very pleased that we have already secured the agreement of all states and territories to work towards an agreement by mid 2016.
Our clean land pillar is also built on direct, practical action across the nation.
We are rolling out a suite of programmes with investments of more than $2 billion to engage individuals and communities in work on the ground, exploiting the local knowledge and commitment of those who know their land best.
More on these programmes a little later.
Under our clean water pillar we are working towards better management and protection of both our freshwater and marine resources with community-based and practical environmentalism at its core.
This pillar incorporates a sustainable plan for the Murray-Darling Basin, our Water Security Plan and a more balanced approach to Marine Protected Areas to ensure that our ocean management accords with scientific, economic and social evidence.
We are looking at how to harness water resources so that we can tap into the enormous contribution northern Australia can make to our future. And in partnership with Queensland, industries and communities we are implementing major reforms to protect our truly Great Barrier Reef – again I’ll expand on that work later.
The fourth pillar under the Plan – heritage protection – brings the natural and built environments and the culture they represent together in celebration of what makes us Australian.
We recently published our Australian Heritage Strategy and had some really inspiring and engaging submissions from all sectors of the community. The aim of the strategy is to ensure that the way in which we identify, preserve and protect our heritage is the best it can be and is built around a central vision of our natural and cultural heritage being valued by all Australians, protected for future generations and cared for by the community.
Then of course there is the special place our Antarctic territory holds in our hearts and minds, with its extraordinary history and the massive contribution it is making to international science and research.
We’re investing significant funding in a new icebreaker for Antarctica and recently unveiled a 20-year strategy for our work there that will help us continue to explore these great new frontiers in human knowledge. The strategy outlines an ambitious vision for Australia to work towards over the next 20 years.
The Government has already made $87 million in commitments to Australia’s Antarctic interests, including:
• funding for the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre ($25 million over five years);
• creating an Antarctic Gateway Partnership involving the Australian Antarctic Division, the University of Tasmania and the CSIRO ($24 million over 3 years); and
• the Hobart Airport runway extension ($38 million).
Of course all good policy, in order to be effective, must be complemented by law.
I would like, now, to take a little time to outline how and why we should reform our Federal environmental law to improve both the environmental and community outcomes.
2. Environmental Law: History and Reform
I think it is important to first acknowledge that the Commonwealth does have a significant role to play in managing the environment, albeit within defined parameters.
It was a Coalition Government which introduced the most significant reform to environmental management in this country, with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 under Environment Minister Senator Robert Hill.
This legislation was a major turning point because as you know, the Australian Constitution does not expressly confer power on the Commonwealth Parliament to make laws with respect to the environment.
Constitutionally, the Commonwealth’s role is limited to national stewardship of environmental matters, strategic oversight and translating international commitments into domestic policy settings. The states and territories have primary responsibility for land use management and environmental protection.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Commonwealth used its external affairs and corporations powers to establish a wide range of legislation to protect Australia’s national parks, heritage and endangered species.
With the emerging public interest in environmental matters and a need for national collaboration, the Commonwealth and the states and territories entered a formal agreement outlining their respective roles and responsibilities for the environment in 1992 – the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment. This was a seminal moment in determining the appropriate balance between Commonwealth and state responsibility.
Five years later, further agreement was reached on the Commonwealth’s role in the assessment and approval of projects. It was decided that the Commonwealth would have responsibility for “matters of national environmental significance”.
It was from here that, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 evolved.
Passed in 1999, the EPBC Act consolidated a number of separate environmental acts into a single overarching framework for national environmental regulation. It’s primary objects include protection of the environment; promoting the conservation of biodiversity; and providing for the protection and conservation of heritage.
Under the Act, for the first time the Environment Minister was responsible for assessing and approving proposed activities. It put the Environment Minister at the centre of decision-making for matters of national environmental significance.
2.2. The Case for Reform
Despite achieving the objective of securing recognition of environmental issues, which go beyond state boundaries and for which Australia also has an international responsibility to protect, such as world heritage properties, the current regulatory system is far from perfect.
At the time, Minister Hill intended that the ‘new environmental law regime will deliver better protection for the environment, less governmental duplication and more consistent national standards,’ but as can happen when good intentions are boiled down into technical legislation, the desired outcomes fall victim to the bureaucratic processes.
One of the limitations of the EPBC Act is that project-by-project assessment is relatively reactive.
This has meant that the Australian Government’s engagement often occurs too late in the planning process to appropriately manage emerging environmental threats. It also means that the approvals system does not deal well with regional, landscape-scale or cumulative impacts.
Another part of this problem is the lack of reliable, comprehensive environmental information systems for mapping, monitoring, forecasting and reporting on environmental conditions. This makes it very difficult to monitor the effectiveness of environmental regulation, which in turn makes it harder for governments to improve their policy interventions. Unless you can check the application of the guidelines for a project, how do you know that the outcomes, such as water quality or site rehabilitation, have been achieved?
What we have is a system out of balance. There are enormous resources invested in the development of assessment and approvals with thousands of pages of environmental plans and diagrams, but very little in comparison on the post-approval monitoring and yet this is where the ongoing environmental risk lies.
And finally, there is the duplication, inconsistency and gaps between Commonwealth and state systems. One obvious example of duplication is the fact that both levels of government maintain separate lists of threatened species and ecological communities.
But the duplication in assessment and approval processes is the greatest source of inefficiency.
Under existing arrangements, projects that are likely to significantly impact a matter of national environmental significance can require both state and Commonwealth approval, for often similar environmental matters.
Duplication adds an unnecessary cost without any improvement in environmental outcomes.
Approval delays can sometimes be significant. For example, one project in Victoria experienced a delay of over 160 days between the state and Australian Government approvals, costing the company millions of dollars. In an extreme example, a Queensland proposal was forced to wait for clearance for over 1000 days after the state approval.
We need to go back to the original intent of the legislation, which was to improve environmental outcomes and reduce duplication.
Built in to the EPBC Act from the start, was the ability to delegate responsibility for areas of national environmental significance for assessment and approval. This opportunity has never been fully realised. Indeed only yesterday, a former head of the ACTU and ALP Minister, Martin Ferguson, called for precisely these reforms.
The Australian Government intends to change this.
2.3. The One Stop Shop - A Focus on Outcomes
One of our key productivity reforms is to streamline environmental assessments and approvals through a One-Stop Shop with the states.
The aim is to utilise the approval bilateral agreements under the EPBC Act to remove unnecessary duplication between the Australian Government and the states environment approval processes.
The reform recognises that the Commonwealth and the states have different roles and responsibilities in our federation, but that we can work in a more complementary and efficient way to achieve better environmental outcome.
Through the One-Stop Shop, the Government will fulfil its national stewardship role by collaborating with the states to implement a more streamlined approach to their role in managing impacts on the whole of the environment.
The One-Stop Shop is not just a reform of the Australian Government assessment and approval process. It is opening the way for a more coordinated and shared strategic approach to environmental policy and regulation across governments.
Environmental protection does not need to come at the expense of sustainable development. The One-Stop Shop reform will be achieved while maintaining high environmental standards.
By taking a more collaborative approach to environmental regulation and increasing the sharing of information and the use of strategic approaches. The One-Stop Shop will be good for the economy and importantly, good for the environment.
Maintaining and improving environmental standards
At the heart of this reform is a recognition that a healthy environment underpins a healthy economy. If we take shortcuts on protecting the environment, then we risk our overall economic efficiency, not just for now but future generations.
So, like the Australian community, I need to have complete confidence that the One-Stop Shop will maintain the current level of environmental protection under the EPBC Act as a minimum with the intention of actually improving outcomes.
Under the One-Stop Shop, the Australian Government will remain responsible for ensuring that the environmental standards of the EPBC Act are maintained.
That is why we have developed a strong assurance policy, with three core elements—national environmental standards, performance assurance, and outcomes assurance.
These elements will be given legal effect through the approval agreements and accreditation of state processes.
For the first time we have clearly set out national standards for environmental regulation. The standards reflect the requirements of Commonwealth law and have formed the basis for developing approval agreements with the states. The states must satisfy that they will be met before they can be accredited under the One-Stop Shop.
This has meant that overall, we are lifting the environmental bar for the states, with their consent.
Queensland’s legislative reforms are a good example of this; their recent legislative changes to their state development legislation formally incorporate nationally protected matters into state decision making and strengthen judicial review.
The standards will go a long way to ensuring that the Commonwealth and state governments are on the same page when it comes to environmental regulation.
As a safeguard, there is an escalation process, particularly for highly environmentally sensitive projects. It will assist in ensuring that the states are managing issues, and in extreme cases, if a project is likely to cause serious or irreversible environmental damage, the Federal Minister can use their ‘call-in’ power to make a decision on an approval. This is important, because at the end of the day, the responsibility for the EPBC Act will remain with the Minister and they must be certain that it is being administered correctly.
The final element of the assurance framework involves monitoring of the operation and effectiveness of the approval agreements over time to ensure that they achieve positive outcomes for the environment and business.
Improving environmental outcomes
The One-Stop Shop is not just about streamlining processes, it is also about improving environmental outcomes.
The approval bilateral agreements will change our approach to the collection and sharing of environmental data. They switch the default from only sharing data where there is a reason to do so, to a new default in favour of sharing.
Better access to, and use of, environmental data will enable governments to set better environmental policy and industry to make more targeted investments.
It will improve our ability to track and report on the state of the environment.
The increased transparency of decisions and provision of information will also ensure that the community is part of the ongoing process for monitoring approval bilateral agreements.
It will mean that industry is accountable to the wider community, as well as to the states and Australian Government. In doing so, it will empower individuals and local communities to take action to help protect the environment.
The One-Stop Shop will also increase the use of strategic approaches, to counter the siloed approach of just looking at single projects without considering the broader environment in which they are occurring.
Such approaches further illustrate the potential for win-win outcomes for business and the environment. In addition to reducing costs and uncertainty for investors, they deal more effectively with the impacts of environmental pressures.
A good example is the strategic assessment of Melbourne’s urban growth boundary. This approach allowed consideration of the individual and cumulative environmental impacts of future development, whether large or small.
It means we can accommodate Melbourne’s growth while ensuring protection for species such as the growling grass frog. It is also predicted to save businesses $3.2 billion over 30 years by avoiding the need for up to 252 individual approvals.
I am confident that the transitional support, assurance mechanisms, increased focus on strategic approaches and greater transparency will maintain and even improve environmental standards, while creating better outcomes for business.
Benefits for the community
Businesses will benefit from lower administrative costs, as there will only need to be one application, one environmental assessment, one decision and one set of conditions.
They will benefit from faster approval of projects, as they will not need to engage with the Commonwealth or wait for a Commonwealth approval to follow a state approval.
And they will benefit from more certainty for investors with a streamlined regulatory system, which is good for Australia’s international investment reputation.
On a conservative estimate, the One-Stop Shop reform is expected to save business over $420 million a year.
I expect regional Australia and the wider community will also benefit from the accelerated economic activity and a better climate for investment.
Complementing the streamlined project approval process, the increased use of strategic approaches will further reduce the regulatory burden on businesses and communities.
For example, strategic assessments provide upfront approval for projects in a particular region.
In February this year I endorsed a strategic assessment of the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA). This was the first major milestone of the One-Stop Shop policy.
NOPSEMA manages approvals for offshore petroleum and gas activities in Commonwealth waters. As a result of the strategic assessment, the offshore oil and gas industry will no longer need separate assessment and approval under the EPBC Act.
This is expected to save the industry about $120 million a year, savings which can be invested back into the creation of Australian wealth and jobs.
This has been achieved whilst maintaining the high environmental standards built into the EPBC Act.
The One-Stop Shop will have positive flow-on effects on the broader economy, in addition to the direct savings to business.
Comprehensive modeling undertaken for the Minerals Council Australia (MCA) shows that reducing approval delays would result in a much higher rate of economic growth in Australia.
Under the MCA’s model, a one-year reduction in delays in processing approvals for resources projects will lift Australia’s national output by a total of $160 billion and create an extra 69,000 jobs by 2025. Most of the jobs created are outside the minerals mining sector.
The greater the reduction in the average timeline for approvals, the larger the increase in mineral exports, investment and employment, and therefore the higher the average growth rate of national income.
Support for states to implement the One-Stop Shop
Every state and territory has signed up for the One-Stop-Shop. So at a state level – there is bi-partisan support and significant goodwill and collaboration.
To help states make the transition, the Government has agreed to provide support for up to two years. This may include embedding Commonwealth officers within a state; intensive workshops; or training to build state capacity on particular aspects of the reform.
This will facilitate a smooth start for the One-Stop Shop and ensure that the commitments made by all parties can be met.
The One-Stop Shop will see the start of a new era of cooperation between states and the Australian Government on environmental regulation. Responsibilities for environmental regulation will be consolidated and roles for respective parties will be clearer. It will help us ensure that issues do not fall between the gaps in the Commonwealth and state systems.
This is good news for environmental protection and good news for business.
3. Community Partnerships: Threatened Species and Reef 2050 Plans
But reform of our regulatory processes will not be a silver bullet for the tough environmental challenges that Australia is facing over the coming decades.
Laws cannot protect our environment from every threat, particularly those that have long existed, such as feral animals or weeds, or natural threats such as crown-of-thorn starfish outbreaks.
We need a strong regulatory system to ensure proposed activities do not exacerbate existing threats. But we also need a suite of practical measures to deal with the threats that we have inherited as a government.
As I mentioned earlier, if you looked at the simple KPI of how we are tracking in protecting Australia’s flora and fauna, then clearly it is a fail and something has to change.
3.1. Threatened Species Commissioner
So let’s look first at threatened species.
Legislation alone has clearly failed to arrest the decline of our threatened species.
We now have 1749 species of plants, mammals, birds, frogs, fish, reptiles and other animals listed as threatened under the EPBC Act, and that number grows year by year.
The trend says it all. If we were winning the battle against extinctions, the numbers on our national list of threatened species would be stable or declining.
Instead, Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the world. In the last 20 years, 53 land-based species have moved to a higher threat category. Only 15 have moved to a lower threat category.
The states and territories, with their own separate threatened species lists, are struggling with similar problems. It’s clear that legislation alone is not the answer.
So, over the past 12 months we have championed a fresh new approach to wildlife conservation.
I have set a goal of ending the loss of mammal species by 2020. What’s more, I want to see improvements in at least 20 of those species between now and then. Our flora and fauna are part of what makes us Australian. I don’t want the extinction of species such as the numbat, the quokka, the bilby, on our collective consciences.
As an important first step, I have appointed Australia’s first Threatened Species Commissioner, Mr Gregory Andrews. He’s already out and about, meeting with people who work every day with threatened species and taking advice on the best way forward. He is supported by four expert advisers and will soon have access to a dedicated Threatened Species Research Hub to direct and fund practical scientific action that arrests species decline.
I’ve asked the Commissioner to work actively with community groups, scientists, not-for-profits, businesses and governments. We need to build partnerships and channel support towards projects that can take species off lists and return their numbers in the wild to sustainable levels. If we don’t, we won’t win this war.
This means rethinking existing approaches.
As one of his first actions, the Threatened Species Commissioner is developing a framework for prioritising species and conservation actions, so we can make the most of every dollar that goes towards protecting threatened species. This means we can be far more strategic and focused on results in implementing recovery and other conservation plan actions.
It’s another example of mountains of paperwork on plans, but no one looking at the outcomes.
The Commissioner is taking these plans off the shelf, testing their effectiveness, mobilising resources to implement them, and then putting them into action and measuring their outcomes.
Our focus is on big-picture threats, for example, the menace posed by feral cats to Australia’s mammals. It is estimated that every single night 75-80 million native animals are killed by feral cats. This is staggering.
At a national level, the Threatened Species Commissioner is championing a potential game-changer with the development of the Curiosity bait ® for feral cats. This is a new, humane bait that offers real promise in eradicating the plague of feral cats across Australia. At a local level, we are setting targets that are just as ambitious such as eliminating all feral cats from Christmas Island. Last month, we announced a partnership between government, biodiversity experts and business to create a feral-cat free future for the island, building on a ground-breaking community consensus to limit domestic cat numbers on the island.
Tackling feral cats complements other efforts we are making to secure populations of threatened species in their native habitat. We have, for example, committed $3.3 million to support recovery of the iconic Tasmanian devil.
Expect more innovation across Australia, including in Kakadu, Norfolk Island and the Great Barrier Reef’s Raine Island, as we tackle the difficult problem of species extinction head on.
3.2. Green Army and Landcare
The Government is also growing the network of people protecting threatened species across the nation – from all walks of life.
Over the next three years, the Green Army will become the largest ever team of young Australians to support environmental action.
In its first year alone, the programme will see 2,500 young people work on 250 projects across Australia, including projects to restore koala habitat, revegetate river, coastal and wetland areas, manage pest animals and monitor threatened species. Eventually we will build a Green Army of 15,000 which is a significant environmental resource to deploy across the country.
It is about training a new, young generation to be engaged in the environment in a practical way. If you want to do something for the environment, get out there and get your hands dirty, plant a tree, clean up a creek, or build a bushwalking track.
My hope is that the Green Army not only provides professional training for these people which may see them take on a career as a landscape gardener or a horticulturalist, but instils in them a love of the environment and a pride in the unique Australian landscape.
Overall, we are spending $2 billion on our National Landcare Program and it is essential that we see results. The history of this program goes back to the Natural Heritage Trust, again a major environmental initiative of a Coalition Government. It was formed from the funds from the sale of Telstra. It has had a few different names along the way, including more recently Caring for Our Country, but despite some successes, we want a greater focus on results. For this reason, we are introducing a system of monitoring, so local groups will have greater independence in determining local project priorities, but with that comes a responsibility to report on how they are tracking. These will be practical reports which the community can see, rather than the ream of paper they have had to fill in to apply for funding, but again there was little focus on the long term outcomes.
We now have a single National Landcare programme committed to supporting action in natural resource management over the next four years. It will be based on three very important values: simple, local and long-term.
The funding will go towards programmes to tackle weed and feral animal threats, restore and link habitat, manage fire regimes and protect wildlife. For the first time, we will also have a Threatened Species Commissioner checking on the progress.
To assist, we are rolling out a program to plant 20 million trees. These will be available for community groups to green their local environment as well as undertaking mass plantings in peri-urban areas.
I would also like to pay tribute to the many thousands of Australians who have been working together within their own communities over many decades to protect the natural values they hold dear.
Landcare, which has brought many of these individuals and communities together in this common cause, turns 25 this year. It’s our intention to honour that by putting Landcare right back at the centre of natural resource management in this country.
3.3. The Reef 2050 Plan
Lastly, I want to address one of the key environmental challenges we face and for which long term protection can only be achieved through state, federal and community action.
The Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia’s, and the world’s, environmental wonders. To gain some sort of perspective, it is the size of Italy. Its maze of 3,000 coral reefs and 1,050 islands can be seen from space. That is the scale of the marine park we are managing.
From an economic perspective, it supports nearly 70,000 jobs and is worth at least $5.6 billion per year to the economy.
It was placed on the World Heritage List back in 1981 and I am wholeheartedly committed to ensuring that it continues to be a source of pride for Australia and enjoyed by global audiences for its outstanding universal value.
But there’s no doubt it is facing pressures. That’s why in 2011, the World Heritage Committee put the Reef on ‘watch’ for a potential in-danger listing.
That action was the result of 100 years of development along the coast, and some past practises which certainly would not be accepted today.
On becoming Minister, I have made the Reef one of my key priorities. Legislation through the parliament can only do so much, rather it is a concerted effort by all who care, that will make the difference, not just now but for our children and theirs.
The pressures and stresses on the reef are many and varied, ranging from climate change, poor water quality from land-based run-off to the impacts from coastal development and storms and floods.
Climate change is the most significant long term threat and we are already seeing that through reports of ocean acidification and the impact that can have on the marine life, including coral.
We have our own policy to address this through our Emissions Reduction Fund to reach our five percent reduction in emissions by 2020. But in the end, this is going to require an international focus. It is why it is so important for the major countries such as the US, China, India and Europe to find an agreed position ahead of the major climate change talks in Paris at the end of next year.
So what are the local impacts that we can directly have a positive impact on?
Legislation is in place that helps manage the reef, including the EPBC Act and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. And we are strengthening their implementation.
I said earlier that the One-Stop Shop will increase the use of strategic approaches, which will help reduce the regulatory burden on businesses and communities. The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area was recently the subject of the world’s largest ever strategic assessment, and that assessment has now formed the basis for a new plan for the reef.
The Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan is being developed in partnership with all the groups and individuals that have a shared goal of protecting and managing the reef for the future. It has brought around the table the World Wildlife Fund, Ports operators, tourism operators, the three levels of government, fishing community, Queensland Conservation Council and the resources sector.
It is a real partnership and like most relationships, it’s not all smooth sailing. However it is has enabled more progress than I believe has ever been achieved before.
The 2050 Plan will give us the road map to continue to ensure the water quality continues to improve. We will aim to minimise sediment and nutrient run-off from the land into the reef in partnership with the farmers and development is sustainable and sensitive to the overall health of the reef.
Science is also assisting. Queensland researchers have developed a means of improving the culling for crown of thorns starfish on our most important reefs. We have better and stricter management regimes controlling shipping and industrial developments, including ports. Most importantly, we are working across traditional government, industry and community boundaries, and we are working at catchment scale, across marine ecosystems and over decades.
Building on this, the Australian and Queensland governments are jointly investing approximately $180 million a year in the reef’s health.
Our Reef 2050 plan will ensure the Great Barrier Reef continues to be among the best managed and protected World Heritage areas on the planet.
Water quality is improving, the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish is being targeted and culled, we have better and stricter management regimes for shipping and development, including ports, and one third of the reef is in highly protected zones.
Importantly, we’ve listened to the concerns of the World Heritage Committee and we are making changes. Disposing of capital dredging in the Marine Park will be a thing of the past.
There were five major capital dredging proposals that had been planned or progressed by Labor when the Abbott Government was elected. The Government has been working closely with project proponents and the Queensland Government and none of the dredged material from these projects is proposed for disposal in the marine park.
This has, in a sense, been the environmental work of my life to date.
Next is the recovery of our threatened species and reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Australia faces an enormous challenge protecting and improving its unique environment.
But despite my respect and recognition of the importance of the law, I know too well that legislation alone is not the solution. It can provide a framework and a guide, but too often we become complacent and expect the laws to provide the solution. As our track record on the environment shows, that has provided only limited success.
Good policy and change is driven by the community. The environment is no different. My aim as Minister is to inspire people to join me on this journey, to re-focus the way we manage our environment and to help the community engage at their local level. It is only then that we will see a real difference and it is one that no legislator will ever achieve by law alone.
I hope that the students, alumni and others here tonight will be able to share this vision and make a personal contribution to a cleaner environment for Australia. That may be in a professional capacity, as a lawyer, consultant, academic or policy maker. Or perhaps it could simply be as an Australian citizen with both rights and responsibilities to care for this great land.
It is a vision of “the law and the community uniting” with which both Alan Hunt and Nathan Jacobson would agree.