Desperate plan to save Australia’s ever-growing list of threatened species

Laws which have failed to secure the future of Australia’s ever-growing list of threatened species are set to be overhauled, with new details released today.

“Ineffective”, “weak” and “tokenistic” are just a few of the words that reviewer Professor Graeme Samuel used to describe parts of the current Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC), as he handed down his interim report.

In its 20 years of operation, the commonwealth act designed to protect biodiversity and heritage has faced criticism from environmental groups that say it has failed to protect key habitat and wildlife.

The act is reviewed every 10 years, but there is added focus on the process this year after devastating bushfires which are believed to have killed as many as a billion animals.

A koala leans forward on a branch.
The current laws to help protect threatened species like koalas have been called "ineffective". Source: Getty

In a joint media briefing with environment minister Sussan Ley on Monday, Prof Samuels said almost 30,000 submissions were received, with many stakeholders voicing concern that the current legislation is “complex, slow and cumbersome”.

He said new national environmental standards should be the centrepiece of reform and that enforcement would be underpinned by bilateral arrangements with the states.

“The EPBC Act is ineffective,” Prof Samuels said.

“It does not enable the Commonwealth to protect and conserve environmental matters that are important for the nation.

“It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.”

Prof Samuel found there is community distrust in the current act, in part due to “fuzzy law” which makes it difficult for regulators to adequately understand regulations.

He said more transparency will see less need for legal challenges, with an independent regulator employed to help ensure confidence in the act.

Independent regulator ‘another layer of bureaucracy’

Minister Ley said the government had concerns that installing an independent regulator could create an additional layer of bureaucracy, but said the government were wanting to put some of the report’s recommendations in motion right away.

That includes a plan to begin talks with state governments in August, to discuss devolving environmental laws to them.

A track leading through a burnt out forest on Kangaroo Island
Environmentalists say Australia is facing an extinction crisis. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

“Not surprisingly, the statutory review is finding that 20-year-old legislation is struggling to meet the changing needs of the environment, agriculture, community planners and business,” Minister Ley said.

“This is our chance to ensure the right protection for our environment while also unlocking job-creating projects to strengthen our economy and improve the livelihoods of every-day Australians.”

Ms Ley said the government will investigate “market based solutions” to improve habitat restoration, and improve environmental protections and give more certainty to business.

‘Short term thinking led us into crisis’

While reviewing the act has been welcomed by environment groups, some have raised concerns the government is moving forward too quickly with aspects of the report’s findings.

Humane Society International (HSI) and Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) say they are worried about the speed at which the commonwealth has indicated it plans to devolve environmental approval to the states.

Alexia Wellbelove from HSI said laws as they stand are not stemming the mass extinction Australia is now facing.

“We wouldn’t want to be enshrining the status quo, we want to see environmental outcomes,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

“It’s short term thinking that’s led us into this crisis, so we need to really shift that frame.

“We need to be thinking more ambitiously about how we’re protecting wildlife and their habitats, and we don’t want to race this decision making.”

ACF CEO Kelly O’Shanassy said she is yet to see how a revised EPBC would tackle the much needed protection of species like koalas.

“ACF will continue to engage in the review process, but harbours significant concerns the government’s response will do little to address our growing biodiversity crisis,” she said.

“Environmental standards must be clear and consistent prior to any moves to bilateral agreements with states.

“We need strong standards and independent enforcement. Not one or the other.

“Australia is the extinction capital of the world and our governments must do everything without power to change this – strong standards and an independent regulator to enforce them.”

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