New Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek 'gobsmacked' by state of Australia's environment

New Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek ‘gobsmacked’ by state of Australia’s environment


Australia’s new Environment and Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek has criticised the management of the country’s environment, addressing the National Press Club on Tuesday to express her “shock” at “how badly we’re doing as a nation on meeting” water targets.

“I’m actually gobsmacked,” Plibersek said about the amount of water was still to be recovered for the environment before the 2024 deadline of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. 

“I have to confess — perhaps I should have known — I didn’t know how far behind we were on meeting those environmental flows until I took on this portfolio.”

Launching the latest five-yearly State of the Environment report on Tuesday, the former Deputy Leader of the Labor Party outlined the need for sweeping environmental reform, suggesting that new environmental legislation would be put before parliament next year. 

This could see amendments made to the existing Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation 1999 Act, or a whole new law to replace it, according to Guardian Australia.

Plibersek said there would be “new environmental legislation for 2023”, which would involve thorough consultations.

The State of the Environment report examines the country’s ecosystems, biodiversity and climate, potential and existing threats, and the effectiveness of current environmental laws. 

Since the last assessment in 2016, land clearing continues at a frightening scale, extreme weather events have increased in frequency and more species have been threatened with extinction. 

In her speech, Plibersek attacked former Coalition governments on their environmental management, saying she inherited a systemic lack of trust and integrity.

“Years of warnings that were ignored or kept secret,” she said. “Promises made, but not delivered. Dodgy behaviour, undermining public confidence. Brutal funding cuts. Wilful neglect.”

“Laws that don’t work to protect the environment, or smooth the way for sensible development. All against the backdrop of accelerating environmental destruction. It’s time to change that.”

Plibersek criticised the former Coalition government’s role in implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was legislated ten years ago with bipartisan support

“The previous government had a decade to fulfill the Murray-Darling Basin Plan,” she said. “It’s a good plan. Labor made it. Labor delivered it … it saved the river system from dying in 2019, but it’s yet to be fully implemented.”

The plan aimed for an additional 450 gigalitres of water to be recovered for the environment through efficiency measures by June 2024. Over the last decade, just over 2,100 gigalitres of water has been re-allocated. 

“I think it is extremely challenging to meet that [450-gigalitre] target and to meet it on the time frames that have been set,” Plibersek said.

In 2018, state water ministers agreed that up to 450 gigalitres would be returned to the environment as long as it did not have a negative socio-economic impact on river communities.

In her speech this week, Plibersek said the states “would absolutely need to lift their games” to fulfill the commitments of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young responded to Plibersek’s speech, calling on the Commonwealth to buy back from irrigators the 450 gigalitres for the environment. 

“I wouldn’t want the minister putting up the white flag on the Murray-Darling Basin and the health of our river system,” Hanson-Young said on Tuesday. 

“We need to put the water buy-backs back on the table and start allowing those who are willing to sell their water — for the sake of saving the environment — to do so.”

Shadow Water Minister Perin Davey responded to Plibersek’s speech, remarking that delivering the “450 gigalitres without social and economic impact will also be next to impossible”.

Davey added that she was frustrated that the Water Minister “was focusing on one part of a complex plan and ignoring the lessons learned and outcomes being achieved”.

“It is true that meeting the deadlines for some of the final parts of the plan will be difficult. I have long supported working with the states to extend deadlines where appropriate.”

In June last year, Senator Davey and her Nationals colleagues failed to get rid of the 450-gigalitre commitment from the legislated plan in the Senate. 

On Tuesday, shadow environment minister, Jonno Duniam, blamed Plibersek of “partisan finger-pointing and game-playing”, and accused her of not addressing the threats that Labour would be “stampeded by the Greens into implementing prohibitively tough environmental laws, more lock-ups and industry shutdowns”.

“The minister had a real opportunity today to spell out detail on Labor’s election policy on a new environmental protection authority, its position on the use of coal, the phasing out of forestry, and many other crucial issues, but failed to do so,” Duniam said.

Conservationists and environment groups have responded to the latest report by calling for urgent steps to reform environmental laws, boost funding and establish an independent federal environmental protection agency.

Rachel Lowry, the acting chief executive of WWF-Australia, told Guardian Australia the report proves that the environment act was “failing miserably”.

“This government has the opportunity to turn things around before we lose another species, and the right place to start is to deliver a new generation of nature laws in its first year,” she said.

In her speech on Tuesday, Plibersek confirmed the Albanese government would commit to the pre-election promise to protect 30 per cent of Australia’s land by 2030, cooperating with the global plans that will be submitted to a UN biodiversity conference in December. 

The pledge will also add to the country’s existing commitment to protect 30 per cent of the nation’s ocean estate — a commitment that has already been met. 

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