Bill Shorten is facing rising internal pressure to make the environment central to Labor’s election pitch after 250 ALP branches passed a motion calling for strong new national laws and an independent agency akin to a “Reserve Bank for environmental management”.
Branches from every state and territory have backed a campaign by the Labor environment action network (Lean), an internal advocacy group, for sweeping reforms to protect natural heritage to be adopted as policy at this year’s ALP conference.
They want a new Australian environment act that defines matters of national significance and – after a period in which both major parties have tried to shed responsibility for environmental approvals to the states – asserts the commonwealth’s central role in protecting not just threatened species, but the entire landscape.
It would be backed by a “science-fuelled and politically empowered” agency with the authority of the Reserve Bank and watchdog powers to police the law.
Felicity Wade, Lean’s national convener, said protecting the environment was a legacy issue for Labor. This dates back to Gough Whitlam’s introduction of Australia’s first federal environment laws and Bob Hawke’s protection of iconic sites and early work factoring sustainability into government decisions.
“It’s time for Bill Shorten to recognise the environment has been central to modern Labor’s success and to work with us to make this happen,” she said.
She said the need to act was clear. “Australia’s identity is incredibly tied to this amazing landscape, yet things are crashing at an alarming rate,” she said. “We are one of the top 10 land-clearers in the world and we have one of the highest extinction rates in the world, yet we are one of the richest countries in the world.”
The Lean campaign was devised at a meeting of members in Canberra in August. It has precedent: in 2015, the group won the backing of 370 branches for a successful motion calling on the party to adopt a 50% renewable energy goaland an emissions reduction target for 2030 based on the advice of the federal Climate Change Authority.
Labor’s environment spokesman, Tony Burke, who served as minister in the portfolio from 2010 to 2013 under Julia Gillard, said the new motion would be a matter for national conference.
“There are some good principles in the Lean resolution, but we have a long consultation process before we reach conclusions,” he said.
The Lean push is running simultaneously with a campaign by about 40 environment groups under the banner of the Places You Love Alliance.
The green groups, including the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Wilderness Society, WWF Australia and Birdlife Australia, want new national environment laws, an independent Sustainable Australia Commission to develop a national plan to protect national heritage, and a national Environment Protection Authority responsible for assessments, inquiries, monitoring and compliance.
Both campaigns want the new laws to supersede the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, introduced by the Howard Coalition government in 1999.
In a policy document last August, the Places You Love Alliance says the act has failed to address the big environmental challenges of the 21st century.
“It was written at a time when many of the pervasive threats to our environment were less well understood, including the threat of climate change. It provides too much discretion to make poor decisions and does not deal well with cumulative impacts of development,” it says.
Several environment and political campaigners told Guardian Australia they believed it was harder to win environment protection decisions than at any point since before the recognition of landmarks including Kakadu, the Daintree rainforest and the Franklin river under Hawke in the 1980s.
The environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, disagreed. He said the act had ensured Australia was a global leader in delivering on international environmental obligations, including world heritage protection.
“The act continues to be the best mechanism through which the federal government protects the most important and sensitive environmental matters,” he said.
“Australians have cause to be optimistic about the future of environmental protection.”
Burke said he had updated the act when he was environment minister by establishing a water trigger and amendments to stop a super trawler in Australian waters: “I’m engaging in consultation about the next stages of updating this act.”
Our fragile environment is under attack, and we need to expose the immediate threats. Thanks to our readers, we’ve reached our original target but with more funding, we can do even more reporting. Make a contribution to support our ongoing independent reporting and help us move these most important issues up the public agenda.