Report after report shows that Australia is failing to arrest the decline of its natural ecosystems. 

Climate change is worsening the risk for severe bushfires, floods, droughts, and heatwaves.

As a young farmer, I rely on the environment, I trust the science of climate change and we need to be acting on it.

Luke Arbuckle, Democrats spokesperson for the environment

Poor river health, loss of soil fertility, fragmentation of native ecosystems and an increase of invasive species has increased pressure on aquatic ecosystems and accelerated biodiversity loss. This environmental degradation translates into significant current and future threats to Australian livelihoods. 

This decline is due to many factors – the drive for economic growth, native land-clearing, urban development, demand for natural resources, especially water and fossil fuels, waste and site contamination, increased population and consumption, a lack of action on reducing greenhouse emissions to safe levels and a lack of political will to fix it. 

Our national environment laws, introduced in 1999 for ‘matters of national environmental significance, have been weakened and compromised by inaction.

Our plan

1.Increase protection of land and marine areas in the National Reserve System to 30 percent (from the current 19.75 percent):
– build a network of inter-connected and biodiverse National Parks and make them more accessible to people
– ensure all ecosystems are represented in protected areas
– promote the use of plantation timber and fibre crops instead of cutting down remaining native forests
– stop further land-clearing
– target cleared or degraded land for revegetation
– preference locally indigenous plants in revegetation efforts and include diverse plant forms – tall trees, shrubs, grasses, lilies, sedges, groundcovers etc.
– encourage state and local government to foster urban re-wilding
2.Recognise the important relationship that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have in caring for country and their knowledge in traditional management practices. 
– Put greater emphasis on indigenous stewardship of national parks and protection of culturally significant sites
– Integrate Indigenous cultural burning into natural resource management
– Reform federal laws to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people control of cultural heritage sites that are of value to them, including the right to say no to action that threatens those sites.
– Expand the successful Indigenous Ranger Program to 5,000 ranger positions to meet the needs of a growing number of Indigenous Protected Areas
3.Properly implement and enforce the Federal Environment Protection, Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) laws for effective protection of nature and adopt all 38 recommendations of the recent Samuel Review and those of the Auditor General.
– Act on protecting the 1,974 threatened species and ecosystems listed under the EPBC Act
– Increase Commonwealth funding for threatened species recovery
– Include the protected areas of the National Reserve System on the list of matters of National Environmental Significance under the EPBC
– Lead efforts to breed up and reintroduce threatened species to existing and new parks
– Recognise the interconnectedness of nature and the crucial role of fungi in maintaining healthy ecosystems
– Implement a national invasive species strategy to prevent weed and pest animal entry or spread. Strengthen our national biosecurity measures including early warning surveillance.
– Work with states to discourage breeding of destructive introduced animals such as domestic cats, rabbits and ferrets and encourage pet owners to confine their pets 
– Suppress trade in native animals captured illegally from the wild
– Encourage state governments to ban hunting of native animals, including native ducks
4.Substantially increase funding for post-bushfire on-ground works, particularly weedingpest eradication and interventions to save 119 species identified by the Bushfire Expert Panel
5.Protect the Great Barrier Reef through climate action, Crown of Thorns seastar eradication, maintain healthy fish populations and improve quality of water from rivers
6.Progress nominations for World Heritage sites – Flinders Ranges, Parts of Cape York Peninsula, Bunya Mountains extension of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, Great Sandy Extension of the Fraser Island World Heritage area
7.Water – work with the states to:
– improve water management to tackle water rights, environmental flows, floodplain harvesting, and the water market
– limit water usage by mining and big agri-business, forcing efficiency
– assist property owners to improve vegetation along water courses by eradicating weed species and fencing river banks (riparian zones) to exclude cattle grazing
– establish a patchwork of no-fish zones where fish stocks can safely breed up
– fund eradication of introduced pest species such as European Carp.
– conduct a comprehensive water audit across the Murray-Darling and other key water systems. (See also our Sustainable Agriculture plan)
8. Federal and state governments to develop a national strategy and higher standards for mining site rehabilitation so taxpayers are not liable for the costs and the oucomes are substantially better for the environment

The national Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 was intended to protect Australia’s nationally significant natural assets.

The Democrats were successful in strengthening the bill with ~300 amendments. However, over time it has been weakened by shifting responsibility to the states. The Auditor-General found in 2020 that the Government had comprehensively failed to implement the laws or to monitor its performance. 

The review of the EPBC Act by Professor Graeme Samuel AC was scathing:

The EPBC Act is ineffective. It does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.

Cumulative impacts are not holistically addressed, there’s a lack of integration between state and federal governments, not enough is done to improve outcomes for threatened species. Planning funding and regulatory decisions are not well integrated or clearly directed towards achieving long-term environmental sustainability. 

The 38 recommendations call for National Environmental Standards, better use of Indigenous knowledge and a genuine say in land management, greater transparency in advice, and an Environment Assurance Commissioner to provide oversight.

According to a 2019 report by leading ecologists, ~8 million hectares of threatened species’ habitats were cleared between 2000 and 2017 but 93 percent of these were not assessed under the legislation, despite the powers existing to do so.

Our national environment laws, introduced in 1999 for ‘matters of national environmental significance, have been weakened and compromised by inaction.

Under the EPBC, the Commonwealth is required to produce comprehensive reports every 5 years on the national state of the environment. The 2016 report shows some improvements but:

There are, however, areas where the condition of the environment is poor and/or deteriorating. These include the more populated coastal areas and some of the growth areas within urban environments, where human pressure is greatest (particularly in south-eastern Australia); and the extensive land-use zone of Australia, where grazing is considered a major threat to biodiversity.

In Australia, the key drivers of environmental change are population growth and economic activity.

The next national SoE is due in 2022. 

States and territories prepare SoE reports that contribute to the national SoE. NSW 2018, Vic 2018, Qld 2020, SA2018, ACT 2019.  WA has not produced a report since 2007 and Tasmania, not since 2009. NT produced a report on ‘Climate change in the NT’ 2020.

Australia has the worst extinction rate of any country in the world, and the catastrophic bushfires of 2019-20 killed an estimated 3 billion animals and pushed many more of our precious wildlife on the fast-track towards extinction. 

Since the EPBC was passed in 1999, the list of threatened species and ecosystems has grown from 1,483 to 1,974. Habitat loss from land-clearing is the main cause.

Over 500 of our favourite wildlife species are at risk of being erased forever, including the greater glider, black-flanked rock-wallaby, regent honeyeater, swift parrot and Australia’s iconic koala. (WWF)

The government isn’t helping and is now watering down legislation to protect threatened species.

Regent Honeyeater, photo Bombala News

Australia is blessed with 20 magnificent World Heritage sites.

World Heritage sites are places that are important to and belong to everyone, irrespective of where they are located. They have universal value that transcends the value they hold for a particular nation.


The intention of UNESCO is that properties on the WH list will be ‘conserved for all time’. However last year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature rated 11 of Australia’s 16 natural and mixed World Heritage properties as being at high risk from climate change and, in 2021, UNESCO considered placing the Great Barrier Reef on the World Heritage In Danger list.

Four new Australian World Heritage sites are ‘in the wings’ and nominations should be submitted to UNESCO as soon as possible.

According to the National Parks Australia Council:

The National Reserve System is a network of more than 10,000 federal, state and territory protected areas that cover over 17 percent ( > 137 million hectares) of the Australian landscape. The Australian Government manages six national parks – the remainder are the responsibility of the relevant state, territory, indigenous, or private landholder.  

As a party to the World Heritage Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity, Australia has committed to designating world heritage sites and establishing a terrestrial and marine protected area network that is comprehensive, adequate and representative. 

The major objective behind Australia’s protected area estate is for the conservation of the natural environment and the protection of biodiversity. In line with this, most Australians assume and expect that once an area is declared a national park, or other highly protected area, such as a Wilderness Area, it is a haven for wildlife, forever. However, this is not the case – protected areas are increasingly subject to significant pressures that threaten to compromise Australia’s natural heritage. 

In January 2021 over 50 countries committed to protecting 30 percent of the planet, including land and sea, to halt species extinction and address climate change issues. Australia was not one of those countries.

Australia is a world hot spot for deforestation and land clearing

  • About 90% of native vegetation in the eastern temperate and south-western temperate zones has been removed for agriculture, industry, transport and human habitation 
  • About 50% of Australia’s rainforests have been cleared and the proportion of Australia covered by forest or woodland has been reduced by more than a third

Each state and territory has its own native vegetation laws despite the ban on broadscale clearing in 2006, land-clearing continues. From 2010 to 2018, 3.8 million hectares were cleared, mostly for grazing. It is estimated that 970,349ha of land was cleared in Queensland and NSW between 2004 and 2017 following weakening of land clearing laws. 

There is no standardised national monitoring of land-clearing rates but the National Greenhouse Accounts data shows a net increase in tree cover in that time – a claim experts say is doubtful.

Land clearing represents a fundamental pressure on the land environment, causing the loss and fragmentation of native vegetation. Depending on subsequent management, land clearing can also lead to a variety of impacts on soils, including erosion and loss of nutrients. In addition to the negative impact on native vegetation and soil quality, historical land clearing and other colonial activity disrupted or destroyed traditional Indigenous land management practices.

State of the Environment Report 2016 on landclearing

On average, Australia gains 10 new weeds a year and some of the most invasive are still available for sale in nurseries. An estimated 30,000 plant species have been introduced in Australia and about 500 have been declared noxious. Weeds cost Australian agriculture an estimated $5 billion annually and 20 million hectares of grazing and natural lands have been degraded by weeds. Weeds displace native plant species, harbour pests and disease and create fuel loads for fire. They are a threat to nationally significant sites such as Ramsar-listed wetlands, World Heritage sites, national parks and reserves. Despite international conventions to which Australia is a signatory, little progress has been made in preventing weed entry and spread.

Port Phillip Bay alone has more than 100 introduced species.

Crown of Thorns Sea Star photo: Living Oceans Foundation

The story for invasive animals is no better. Ants, wasps, rabbits, foxes, snails, rats, sea stars, minars, toads, fish, camels, buffalo, and many more are devastating wildlife and ecosystems.

The Government promised $200 million for wildlife recovery measures – just $10.75 per hectare.

18.6 million hectares of land was destroyed by bushfires in 2020, including 54% of the World Heritage-listed Gondwana Rainforests – carnage that profoundly damaged Australia’s biodiversity.

The destruction of 46,000 year-old caves at the Juukan Gorge demonstrated the failure of Commonwealth and state laws to protect the right of First Nations people to control and protect their cultural heritage. As recommended by the Samuel Report, a large-scale assessment should be made of areas of Indigenous heritage which could qualify for National Heritage listing and protection under the EPBC.

The Indigenous Ranger workforce that cares for IPA land and sea is currently inadequate at 1,900 rangers.

Australia’s existing Indigenous Protected Area estate is 67.2million ha. Country Needs People is calling for 5,000 rangers and even this would amount to just one ranger per 13,400ha. 

More than 30 Traditional Owner groups were unsuccessful in their application for an Indigenous Protected Area because of limited funding.

Our continent is challenged by a warming climate, invasive plants and feral animals, the breakdown of a living relationship with fire, threats to fauna and flora species and impacts on our cultural values – all of which Indigenous rangers seek to address. Our land and our seas are truly what sustain us. In this work we need governments to fulfil their part. This is not a short term or trivial undertaking. We need to work with partners who are technically competent, that can engage with us and support our leadership, that understand the resources needed to do the serious job of caring for country, and that can go on the journey with us as we work in hundreds of different contexts, environments, cultural land and seascapes across Australia

Denis Rose, Chairperson, Country Needs People

The currently projected IPA estate alone is on track to reach 100 million ha by 2021 and the Indigenous estate held in freehold title or exclusive possession native title covers around 20% of Australia’s land mass and is growing. 

Submission to the 2021-2022 Federal Budget by Country Needs People.

The GBR has suffered 5 mass coral bleaching events since 1998 and the most recent was the most widespread. This led the World Heritage Committee to warn that the GBR would be listed as “in danger”. The AIMS report in 2021 found that recovery was underway but that current mild conditions were unlikely to persist and climate change, ocean acidification, polluted water and cyclones remain real threats to recovery.

Tropical reef ecosystems are highly susceptible to climate change with widespread damage from water temperature increases of ~1.1C.

Once atmospheric carbon dioxide levels exceed 500 parts per million (levels reached 419 ppm in January 2022) this is likely to limit the capacity of the reef to recover from bleaching events and to cope with other stresses.

There’s no fishing without water and fish!  

Australia’s rivers and wetlands are suffering from over-extraction of water for mining and industrial-scale agribusiness. The Adani mine water scheme would use ~12.5 billion litres of water a year although a challenge by the Australian Conservation Foundation in the Federal Court puts this in doubt as at Jan 2022.

The Competition and Consumer Commission which has the responsibility for oversight of Murray-Darling Basin water markets – the National Water Initiative (NWI) – found that water brokers operate in a largely unregulated environment, permitting conflicts of interest to arise and behaviour that undermines the water market. Insider trading and information gaps made this conduct difficult to detect. Tax advantages and subsidies have driven water from the most productive land to arid areas further downstream.

The NWI did not recognise Indigenous rights to water, acknowledge climate change threats to water particularly in regional and remote communities and the states did not have drought management plans. Taxpayer money has funded farming water infrastructure that mostly benefitted large corporate irrigators. Likewise, water for agriculture and mining has been a higher priority than safe drinking water in more remote communities.

Massive fish kills were experienced in Menindee Lakes in 2019, 70 gigalitres of water recovered for the environment was cut despite the Water Act requiring it.

  1. Fifty countries, not including Australia, join global coalition at One Planet Summit vowing to protect 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030 (ABC, Jan 2021) 
  2. Natural born killers: the problem with cats (Australian Geographic, Mar 2013)
  3. Coal Mining: Water Impacts of the Adani Coal Mine (Lock the gate alliance, March 2018)
  4. End Animal Extinction (WWF, 2021) 
  5. Cats kill more than 1.5 billion native animals per year (ANU, July 2019)
  6. Why is Australia a global leader in wildlife extinctions? (The Age, July 2020)
  7. Research reveals why pet owners keep their cats indoors – and it’s not to protect wildlife (The Conversation, September 2021)
  8. National park in Victoria’s east could create 760 jobs, environmentalists say, give tourism boost (ABC, 2017)
  9. Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) (October 2020, Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment)
  10. State of the Environment Report (2016, Australian Government)
  11. 30 by 30: The conservation breakthrough we need to save biodiversity (New Scientist, Apr 2022)

See also our Decade of climate action plan which creates jobs and helps global efforts to stabilise the climate:

  • Reduce emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and develop pathways for this and for net-zero emissions by 2050
  • Price carbon emissions at $30/tonne
  • Stop subsidising fossil fuels
  • Support the shift to electric vehicles.

Note also the Right to Repair and Our Waste, Our Responsibility platforms.

Contact Luke Arbuckle on [email protected]

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