Labor’s launch into environment reform leaves party exposed

Environment focus: Tony Burke addressing Labor's National Conference in Adelaide. Photo by Alex Ellinghausen.
Environment focus: Tony Burke addressing Labor's National Conference in Adelaide. Photo by Alex Ellinghausen.

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Labor risks opening a battleground on landclearing ahead of the federal election next year after pledging to rewrite environment laws and creating a new federal oversight agency.

At its National Conference in Adelaide in late December, the party adopted as an election commitment a policy proposal from the left wing Labor Environment Action Network. 

The party has committed to creating new overarching environment legislation and institute a federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Labor has not detailed its environment policy for funding plans for when it forms government.

A policy document from the party’s Environment Action Network lists excessive use of fertiliser and land clearing, and the impact of feral animals and invasive plants as key threats to agriculture and the environment.

Labor’s environment spokesman Tony Burke said industry and environment groups had criticised the existing regime and stakeholder consultation would precede an announcement of more detail.

“The current laws and how they have been administered isn’t working. We’ve seen broadscale land clearing in Reef catchments, we’ve seen the trigger in the law that protects water ignored and approvals are taking years to progress,” Mr Burke said,

“We aren’t creating new layers of regulation, we are fixing a broken system, streamlining law and delivering true protections.”

Labor issued a statement which said its new laws would target climate change, protect the environment while creating jobs and harmonising regulations.

The government has also been working on its own environment initiative.

It commissioned a review of how the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act interacts with the agriculture sector, which has been completed by Dr Wendy Craik and is under consideration by the Environment Minister.

Like Mr Burke’s pledge to streamline laws, the government is looking to reduce red tape. It is also tipped to announce what could be a popular scheme in rural areas, with billions of dollars in incentives to landholders for boosting biodiversity and ecosystems on their property.

National Farmers’ Federation chief executive Tony Mahar said he was seeking assurance that Labor’s proposal wouldn’t impact plans to grow the sector’s farm gate value to $100 billion by 2030.

“Now Labor’s proposal is on the table we obviously want to see the detail, the funding plans and new agencies,” he said.

“We want to have some pretty serious consultation with the prospective new government to sure they and we understand what they are trying to do.

NFF natural resources general manager Warwick Ragg said new environment laws should identify and value environmental assets.

“Threatened species, ecological communities, water quality - to monetise them we need public investment to prove the market works,” Mr Ragg said.

“We seem to be on trajectory towards that and we’d like to maintain that.

“Most of the outcomes here are a public good carried out on private land.”

Mr Mahar said NFF’s growth plan includes a goal to established a publicly-funded environmental stewardship fund.

He said the fund would aim to create a marketplace for private investment with a proposed metric of five per cent of farm revenue delivered from ecosystem services.