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Catholic environmentalist says Australia has failed as God’s caretakers of earth following interim report

Concern: The impending loss of the Great Barrier Reef “with back-to-back yearly coral bleaching across two-thirds of its length” is worrying for bishops in Townsville.

CHURCH representatives have backed calls for stronger environmental protection laws and standards in Australia.

Professor Graeme Samuel, recently released an interim report for his review of Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, saying the act was “ineffective” and “is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges”.

“Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat,” he said in the interim report.

“The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.

“Fundamental reform of national environmental law is required, and new, legally enforceable National Environmental Standards should be the foundation.”

Prof Samuel said a “strong, independent cop on the beat is required”.

“An independent compliance and enforcement regulator, that is not subject to actual or implied political direction from the Commonwealth (Environment) Minister, should be established,” he said.

Co-founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement Jacqui Remond backed those particular recommendations.

“Environmental law is in need of great reform and we need an effective and ambitious Act to work within Australia,” she said.

“There’s a need for clear environmental standards, there’s a need for an independent regulator, or an environmental watchdog, to enforce everyone to comply to those – businesses, governments, decision-makers and everyone …”

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley has rejected the call for an independent watchdog.

However, pre-empting the review’s final report, she said she would introduce draft laws to Parliament this month (August) to change the EPBC Act.

Her new laws would allow bilateral agreements with states and territories to devolve approval powers, and include national environmental standards proposed in the interim report.

Ms Remond was not in favour of rushing decisions or devolving approval decisions to the states.

“Firstly, this is an interim report … so it presents us with a great opportunity for reform and I think that needs to be celebrated and taken forward in a very thorough way and not raced into but to go slow and steady with it,” she said.

She said more detail was needed around the proposed national standards.

Ms Remond said she had concerns about the recommendation on the decision-making authority.

“I’m very, very cautious about devolving decision-making to the state level because in many cases this could seriously, on a regular basis, result in even greater destruction,” she said.

“We don’t need to fast-track approvals that would fast-track extinctions.

“That would be the exact opposite of what this regulation was set up to do.”

Ms Remond said Australia needed “a great set of laws that would stop extinctions from happening and to look after God’s Creation here”.

“We’re really blessed in Australia; we have such an incredible diversity of unique and precious ecosystems and what this report tells us, which I think people who have been paying attention would clearly know, it’s in decline,” she said.

“So, as God’s caretakers on Earth, I think we’d be receiving an ‘F’ on Australia’s report card right now, and this is what the report’s really telling us.”

Prof Samuel said in his report the operation of the Act in relation to Indigenous Australians reflected “a culture of tokenism”.

“Indigenous Australians’ traditional knowledge and views are not fully valued in decision-making, and the Act does not meet the aspirations of traditional owners for managing their land,” he said.

“A specific standard for best-practice Indigenous engagement is needed to ensure that Indigenous Australians that speak for, and have traditional knowledge of, Country have had the proper opportunity to contribute to decision-making.

“Indigenous Australians seek, and are entitled to expect, stronger national-level protection of their cultural heritage.”

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council chair John Lochowiak said the council welcomed the interim report.

“The Samuel report recognises the desperate need for better measures to protect the environment and heritage in Australia,” he said.

“It draws attention to the vital importance of perspectives from First Nations Australians in ramping up protections in both these areas of environment and heritage.

“NATSICC sees a need to implement all of the reports interim recommendations, importantly including those directed to stronger Indigenous engagement.

“Indigenous engagement is seen as a means to utilise First Nations knowledge and perspectives on country and as a means to better maintain the strength of our ancient culture in this land.”

Mr Lochowiak said this finding had “strong parallels with dawning recognition of a desperate need to properly recognise the perspective and input of Indigenous Catholics in Church life and culture”.

“Realisation of the need for ‘Care for Our Common Home’ is now a major feature of Christian responses to the global ecological and other related crises we are experiencing in Australia,” he said.

In a general comment, Catholic Earthcare Australia director Bernard Holland said we failed to see that business and economy was “the result of the natural environment at the end of the day, and vice versa”.

“It’s only when we realise we can’t derive an income from what is left from the natural environment that we understand (that), and then we move to a new place and exploit that one,” he said.

“But eventually it runs out and the trail of destruction behind is devastating, as we see – bushfires and floods and droughts …

“We’re working out of an ever diminishing pool of natural resources, which we can’t see at the moment – because it’s not going to hit us for another 50 to 100 years or whatever – but it’s increasingly getting smaller all the time because of that.”

Prof Samuel’s final report is due to be completed by the end of October, 2020.

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