March 4, 2024

Imagine being an endangered migratory bird that is hardwired to fly 10,000km every year, from a coastal wetland in Victoria or Queensland to Arctic Siberia, and back again.

Then imagine being that bird, returning exhausted after your epic flight from the northern hemisphere, to find your wetland feeding grounds have been turned into an industrial facility.

That terrible prospect has been averted for the sharp-tailed sandpipers that rely on the mudflats hear Hastings in Victoria thanks to federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek’s decision that a facility to assemble wind turbines for offshore windfarms being built on the sensitive wetlands of Western Port was “clearly unacceptable”.

This was a clearcut and sensible decision.

The minister must now make sure the eastern curlews that rely on the mudflats of Queensland’s Moreton Bay do not suffer the same fate.

Every summer for hundreds – probably thousands – of years, eastern curlews and other long-distance flyers have recuperated at Toondah Harbour on Moreton Bay, near Brisbane, after their massive journeys back from the northern hemisphere.

The eastern curlew is one of 110 priority species in the Albanese government’s threatened species action plan, which includes the government’s commitment to no new extinctions.

Real estate behemoth Walker Group has plans to drain the mudflats and mangroves at Toondah to construct a marina and high-rise apartment complex.

Plibersek should say no to that wetland-wrecking project too.

The “clearly unacceptable” call the minister made on the Western Port proposal is exactly what the federal environment department recommended then minister Josh Frydenberg make back in 2017 in relation to Toondah.

Unfortunately, Frydenberg ignored his department’s advice and Walker Group lobbied the minister to remove an area from the internationally listed wetlands for its retail and apartment complex.

Six years later, Walker’s proposal is still alive.

Australia’s national environmental law can too often be used politically to wave through projects that are so environmentally harmful that approving them should never be contemplated. Thankfully the Albanese government is reforming this law.

Under the proposed changes, a new national environment protection authority, not politicians, will make project assessment decisions.

The EPA will not be able to approve projects that would have an “unacceptable impact” on, for example, “critical protection areas” for listed threatened species or the ecological character of a wetland listed under the Ramsar Convention.

This is a potential gamechanger for nature.

ACF is, however, concerned about a proposal to give the minister unfettered discretion to overrule and approve projects with unacceptable impacts.

A get-out-of-jail-free card that undermines the EPA and surely would incentivise companies to pressure political parties, including through donations, to say yes to their project is a bad idea.

Plibersek has used her discretion wisely in the case of the Western Port wetlands but not every future environment minister should be trusted to always do the right thing.

The other big missing piece from the reforms is the consideration of the climate impacts proposed projects will have on nature.

While the minister made the right call to knock back a wind turbine facility in Western Port because it was in the wrong spot, it’s ironic and irresponsible that Plibersek, and many before her, use the very same law to approve climate polluting and nature damaging coal and gas mines.

In the two decades Australia has had this nature law, 740 coal and gas mines have been approved or waved through.

The world has just experienced the hottest year on record. Climate change, fuelled by coal and gas projects approved under the act, is now a key threat to Australia’s wildlife and places, yet the law is silent on global warming.

ACF believes all climate impacts, including impacts from emissions that occur overseas when gas and coal from Australia is burnt, need to be taken into account when proposals are assessed.

Australia has some of the most incredible wildlife and places that are found nowhere else on earth.

More than 2,000 of these are now at risk of extinction because of projects that destroy a wetland here or a forest over there.

It all adds up. It’s time to stand up for nature and say no to nature-wrecking projects that damage the wildlife and places we love.

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