It has been both welcoming and worrying to witness the NT Government undertake a long overdue review of our environmental protection laws.
The Territory needs an open and strong framework that protects and maintains healthy coasts, rivers, deserts, wetlands and natural landscapes that are central to our way of life, our culture and our livelihoods. These places deserve robust, transparent and accountable protections that reflect the high value that Territorians place on our unique natural environment.
Put forward as an election commitment, the laws being proposed by the government provide a range of important new tools for environmental regulators and represent a welcome commitment to increased independence, transparency and accountability in environmental decision-making.
But the self-interested industry influences that are always prevalent within politics are rearing their heads and attempting to derail this important opportunity for genuine reform. It has been worrying to witness the speed at which the NT Government rolled over to reduce public review rights at the first sign of pressure from industry lobbyists.
Even whilst public consultation was still under way, the Government moved to restricting the right of the community to challenge unlawful and inappropriate environmental approval decisions. Such a move reduces public accountability, increases corruption risk and places public health and the environment at risk.
The NT Government needs to stay the course and deliver on its commitment to introduce fair and effective environmental protection laws. The public needs to trust that this system will deliver and not be undermined by backroom deals. This is increasingly important as shale gas fracking appears on the horizon this year, and we among many others will continue to campaign to ensure that this industry is not allowed to damage our landscapes, groundwater and ecosystems.We know from history that weak environmental laws have paved the way for destructive development and shut the community out of important decisions. From the McArthur River to Port Melville, our landscapes are littered with the lasting legacy of an ‘anything goes’ approach to industrial development – an approach that is enabled by the Territory’s outdated and weak environmental laws.
We are witnessing what happens when industry lobbyists determine what happens to natural systems with the ecological disaster currently unfolding in the Darling River catchment. Hundreds of thousands of native fish have been killed along a stretch of the Lower Darling River in New South Wales, with man-made water mismanagement for irrigation needs the likely culprit. The die-off of fish and other species dependent on the river system is a harsh wake-up call for all of us, and we must ensure that similar avoidable destructions do not occur here in the Territory.
With talk of new extractive industries has come increased pressure for bulldozing native bushland, a large expansion of irrigation programs and heightened pressure on water sources, which in turn create a threat to our rivers, fish stocks and other water users. With development pressure intensifying every year, we need strong environmental laws to protect the natural values and way of life that make the Territory such a special place.
Decision-makers need to ensure communities and the natural systems that they depend on are protected from the impacts of the industrialisation of our landscapes that are being proposed. The role of the NT Government is to protect the needs of the community and the environment and understand that these are not to be sacrificed for private interests. Without a healthy environment and strong communities, there is no economy.
The lesson for policymakers here is simple - implement strong, effective protection measures and they will be welcomed and championed by the community, by industries that rely on our rivers, oceans and land, as well as those on the front lines of the environment movement. The current reforms proposed by the government offer the opportunity to create a strong environmental framework - a critical step in ensuring that development works for all Territorians and secures a healthy future for the Territory environment and its people.
Jimmy Cocking is the CEO of the Arid Lands Environment Centre