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In June this year, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, otherwise known as UNESCO, issued a stark warning to Australia, its residents and their leaders.
In the kind of searing language the UN isn’t known for, the body’s environmental arm expressed “significant concern” with the rate ports infrastructure developments along our coastlines were growing – especially those encroaching on our celebrated (World Heritage listed) Great Barrier Reef.
UNESCO’s lack of faith in the state government’s approach to environmental management was explicit; "decisive action is required to secure the Reef’s long-term conservation". The response from Campbell Newman, the newly minted Queensland premier? "We are in the coal business."
Shortly after the UNESCO report, the Queensland Government tried to pass a rushed and substandard environmental assessment of a massive coal mine (with an output shipping route dangerously close to the fragile Great Barrier Reef). It was only intervention from the federal government that prevented what could have been an environmentally threatening development.
Australia’s rivers don’t flow neatly within our states’ boundaries. Our wondrous and varied wildlife do not only migrate between Broken Hill and Orange, or Longreach and Brisbane
Recently, pushes by big business have led to the federal government flagging its intentions to discard vital environmental protections. There is a strong probability the Australian Government will abrogate their environmental responsibilities by dismantling nationally overseen laws in favour of handing regulatory power to the states.
Unfortunately, state governments have a track record of putting short-term economic and political gains ahead national interest when assessing development.
In the past the federal government has stepped in to prevent state governments from allowing:
Australia’s rivers don’t flow neatly within our states’ boundaries. Our wondrous and varied wildlife do not only migrate between Broken Hill and Orange, or Longreach and Brisbane. We are girt by sea. The financial interests of one state may come only to the detriment of Australia’s shared environment; simply look at the conflict between states over the Murray-Darling Basin.
Over recent decades we’ve seen short-sighted business interests clash with the long-term preservation of our environment
Treasures like the Great Barrier Reef belong to us all. If the federal government cedes responsibility of the existing, cohesive environmental protection laws, it will set us back 30 years – threatening the natural heritage that our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren deserve to enjoy.
The protections that exist do so because we, as a nation, have decided that it is in our collective interest to safeguard our unique land for future generations. Over recent decades we’ve seen short-sighted business interests clash with the long-term preservation of our environment, and protections have evolved precisely to prevent resource exploitation by profit-focused developers and miners.
This evolution cannot be simply cast aside because business sees it as an impediment to profit, and state governments see it as an impediment to a heftier tax take.
We need to protect the places we love. If history has shown us nothing, it is that we cannot rely solely on state governments to act in the national interest, and the interest of future generations.
The checks and balances that exist today do so because our grandchildren have as much right to visit the Great Barrier Reef, or Kakadu National Park as we do, and our parents did.