“Without urgent government intervention to protect habitat and address all other threats, the koala will become extinct in New South Wales before 2050.”

NSW parliamentary inquiry report released today.

By Rachel Walmsley, Director Law Reform and Policy, Sydney

Koalas. Extinct.

This is where environmental law is at. Our state environment laws are failing to protect even the most iconic, charismatic, internationally adored creature we have. This begs the question, if our laws can’t even save the koala, what hope do we have of saving the less charismatic obscure shrubs, grasses, pollinators and lesser-known species that are actually vital for healthy ecosystems, healthy soils and productive landscapes?

You would be forgiven for assuming our national environmental icons would be protected by national environment laws.

This assumption is about to be in the spotlight. The 10 year statutory review of the EPBC Act is at a critical point, with the release of the Interim Report by Prof Graeme Samuel expected any day now.

Following the scathing report by the National Audit Office last week that confirmed utter failure of the federal department to administer the EPBC Act, there is increased pressure on the Samuel review to provide a new vision that will deliver positive environmental outcomes.

However, it is clear that other pressures are at play as well. Federal Government commentary on the review to date has focused on ‘streamlining’, ‘efficiency,’ cutting purported ‘green tape’ and has suggested that the sole metric for a complex regulatory regime is how quickly approvals can be signed off. Calls for efficiency measures – such as single approvals (formerly called a “one stop shop” now called “single touch approvals”) – are not new. This deregulation agenda pre-dates both the horrific bushfire season and the COVID 19 pandemic. Part of this agenda is delegating environmental responsibility to the states. Yes, the states with the laws that cannot even protect koalas.

Under the guise of COVID recovery, changes may be made to the EPBC Act before the independent review has been completed.

Short-term responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that focus solely on immediate economic stimulus measures – by reducing environmental protections or public involvement through fast-tracking infrastructure projects – may in fact have damaging long-term consequences and significant costs.

Rebuilding and restoring ecosystems burnt by bushfires and sustainably managing landscapes scarred by climate change, extreme weather and drought will require laws to deliver a long-term vision for human and environmental health and resilience.

We are at a critical point for environmental laws: will the focus on approval times trump our ability to deliver environmental outcomes?

Are Australians really content for koalas to become relics in zoos?

EDO has a vision for national environmental laws that are efficient, effective and deliver environmental outcomes – read our submission to the EPBC Act review.