A minimum expectation of law is that it should at least advance its stated objects and purposes. The chief law restricting bulldozing of wildlife habitat, the Vegetation Management Act in Queensland, fails this basic test.
The chief purpose of the Act that it "conserves remnant vegetation" (intact or mature bushland), is failing spectacularly. Bulldozing of remnant bushland has increased fivefold in the five years since the former state government of Campbell Newman came to power and in 2013 "took the axe" to the Act, in their words. In 2015-16, 138,000 ha of intact bushland was bulldozed in Queensland.
Another key purpose of the Queensland Act is that it "prevents the loss of biodiversity". Scientists recently ranked Australia second only to Indonesia in terms of biodiversity loss from 1998 to 2006, blamed squarely on habitat destruction, primarily in Queensland and NSW, because of the reduction in tree clearing controls in those states. An expert report shows that 210 animal and 739 plant species are threatened by tree clearing in Queensland.
Conservation of biodiversity is often assumed to be only about loss of species. But before loss of whole species comes decades of decline– the accumulation of countless individual misfortunes at human hands.
Leading zoologists recently estimated that 34 million individual Australian mammals, birds and reptiles died annually as a result of tree clearing in Queensland from 2013-2015. This estimate has now been updated to 45 million animals killed in 2015-16. RSPCA Queensland are on the front-line of treating injured wildlife and recently joined with WWF in declaring bulldozing of forest and woodland habitat Queensland's greatest animal welfare crisis. In that report, yet another Queensland law comes under fire– the Nature Conservation Act. Again, we find a law with a laudable object - "the conservation of nature" - to be achieved by provisions for "protection of native wildlife and its habitat", but which fails spectacularly because, as pointed out in the WWF-RSPCA report, only actions directed at killing or injuring animals are regulated:
...someone can injure and kill countless wild animals with impunity by driving a bulldozer through wildlife habitat, but if they step out of the bulldozer and intentionally shoot one native animal without an appropriate permit they could be prosecuted...
Last year, the present state government attempted to fix the damage done by the former Newman government to tree clearing controls, but as a minority government found itself blocked by the crossbench. Strengthening tree clearing controls is also a promise to UNESCO to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the World Heritage in danger list, because tree clearing in the catchments and the resulting land use change, generates sediment and agrichemical pollution that harms the Reef. Queensland will be in breach of that promise until reform happens.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk secured a majority in the recent Queensland election on the back of a promise to restore tree clearing controls -- a key election issue along with a certain coal mine. Sadly, the opposition is still firmly in denial that anything is wrong with their legacy. Palaszczuk will have to act fast, because panic clearing is already well underway, with bulldozers working overtime so long as the Newman-LNP legacy remains in force.
NSW has just followed Queensland down the same path of weakened laws. NSW used to have a Native Vegetation Act which like Queensland, banned large scale clearing of remnant and valuable regrowth and is estimated to have saved the lives of about 53,000 native mammals that would otherwise have been killed every year. But this year, NSW went as far as repealing the Native Vegetation Act and distributed weakened provisions into other Acts. Now most clearing, like in Queensland, can happen under self-assessable codes. One of the most troubling codes the equity code could, if applied widely, result in loss of over 2 million ha of koala habitats in NSW.
These changes in Queensland and NSW led WWF-International to place Eastern Australia on the list of 11 Deforestation Fronts, making us the only developed country on this ignominious list.
But what about the last line of defence-the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act)? Isn't this triggered by tree clearing where it significantly impacts EPBC Act listed matters of national environmental significance (MNES)?
It turns out there is a glaring disparity between how much clearing is going on and how much is referred for approval under the EPBC Act. In a heated exchange in recent Senate Supplementary Estimates, Senators Rice and Chisholm interrogated Department of Environment officials on why, of 158,000ha of clearing in Great Barrier Reef catchments, there appeared to be only one referral under the Act for approval, and were "given the run-around". The government reported there were only five investigations pending of potentially illegal clearing and no prosecutions. Officials admitted they could really say how much clearing was not investigated. Finally, the government resorted to the "nothing to see here" ploy, saying it was the state's responsibility not theirs. At one point one official seemed to imply that only if the tree species being bulldozed were listed MNES would the EPBC Act be triggered!
The response was extraordinary considering that WWF had already very helpfully calculated and alerted both the federal Environment Minister and the compliance unit of the Department that of 742,858 ha of actual clearing from 2013-15, or approved or notified intent to clear of Commonwealth mapped habitats for EPBC Act listed threatened species or ecosystems, or in GBR catchments in Queensland, only 3% could be traced to a referral under the EPBC Act. This leaves 721,131ha of actual or proposed destruction of MNES in Queensland lacking any sort of referral for assessment and approval under the EPBC Act. The Australian Government has shown alarming disinclination to tackle what appears to be mass flouting of Australian law.
With state laws deliberately weakened and Commonwealth neglecting enforcement on a vast scale, is it any wonder that the State of the Environment report 2016 tells us that "Australia's biodiversity is under increased threat and has, overall, continued to decline"?
This is unlikely to change until tree clearing controls are restored in the key states of Queensland and NSW, and until our last line of defence, the EPBC Act starts to be enforced meaningfully to bring the greatest threat to Australian biodiversity under control once more.