There isn’t another portfolio like it. With a stroke of a pen an environment minister can choose to allow the destruction of a constellation of lifeforms that have existed for tens of millions of years, or can decide instead to help that constellation of life flourish for millions more. It’s the portfolio of the million-year legacy.
An Australian environment minister carries this responsibility in a way that environment ministers from other countries don’t: Australia as the long-isolated island ark, has flora and fauna like nothing else on the globe.
So when political commentators say that Tanya Plibersek has been “demoted” to the role of Australian environment minister, I wonder what higher responsibility a government minister in 2022 could possibly carry.
I don’t know what election outcome these commentators were watching, but we know from our deep engagement with the communities whose votes reshaped the political map that climate and the environment are equally strong motivations for that change.
The environment minister has not just the fate of Australia’s globally-significant ecosystems and wildlife in her hands, she also has a key role in the future electoral fate of the new government. Far from being a demotion, environment minister is a pivotal role, and one the Australian public expects to be high-powered, and delivered with integrity.
On one hand it won’t be hard for Plibersek to improve on the low bar set by the previous four Coalition environment ministers. But on the other hand, thanks to the previous government, the incoming minister currently lacks the tools required to effectively turn around Australia’s environmental crisis. So part of Plibersek’s challenge is to first rebuild and reshape the government apparatus and policy framework, in order to be able to achieve the external results we all want, and that nature needs.
I don’t really want to dwell on the previous government too much, but what they did with the environment portfolio can only be described as driving it into the ground. Why they did this deserves scrutiny at some point, but what’s immediately clear is it certainly hurt them at the ballot box, and there’s now an enormous amount of catch up to be done for the incoming government.
The story of how the previous government removed the requirement to have recovery plans for 176 endangered species and ecological communities like the Tasmanian devil or the Brigalow Belt endangered ecological community – to avoid having statutory obligations to protect these species – is only one example of the neglect that has occurred right across the ministry. And the way that the former government had consulted and then ignored the community in this process is shocking but consistent with their approach across a range of things the community cares about. What the election result shows is that communities expect action on the environment, and that they won’t stand by while their concerns are ignored.
Like many Australians, I’m excited for what leadership might look like with a new environment minister and environment department. The failure of the previous government to properly engage with the Samuel review (of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act) is now the central opportunity for this government. There is also great energy and optimism with the need for reforms to First Nations heritage as well as the wider moribund heritage framework. The Juukan Gorge disaster was a wake-up call that there are so many special places out there with outstanding universal values that Australia has failed to properly identify and protect.
The rest of the world looked on with great interest as Australians voted for a change of government. And the world will also be paying attention as the new minister makes decisions about strengthening environment laws, as well as ensuring unique wildlife – like the Leadbeater’s possum, Tassie devil and hundreds of other animals – will not just beat extinction but thrive, as part of the constellation of lifeforms found nowhere else on Earth.