Ideas about government functions shift over time. Land, and by extension the environment, were not expressly Commonwealth responsibilities when Australia’s constitution was adopted in 1901, and so remained under the control of the states. But from the 1970s this began to change. In 1974 the Whitlam government brought in the first national environment law, the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974. In the same year the Committee of Inquiry into the National Estate set up by the government to report on the ‘nature and state of the National Estate’ and the role which the Australian government could play in its preservation and enhancement, concluded firmly that its protection was a proper function of Australia’s national government. The Committee’s view that conventions and treaties entered into by Australia could greatly expand the Commonwealth’s environmental powers was confirmed in 1983 by the Franklin Dam case.
For 20 years from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, successive governments steadily enlarged the Commonwealth’s power, enacting laws to protect national heritage, wildlife, world heritage and endangered species amongst others.
The start of the forest wars also dates to the late 1960s and early 1970s with the introduction of export woodchipping and massive clearing of native forests for softwood plantations. Forest conflicts were a defining feature of the following decades as environmentalists fought intensifying destruction in forest after forest across the country. The fight over annual woodchip licence renewals each summer reached a crescendo in 1994/5. Prime Minister Keating stepped in to end the brawl between his environment and resources ministers, announcing that by 2000 Commonwealth controls on woodchip exports would cease to exist in regions covered by regional forest agreements (RFAs). Henceforth, the states alone would control the level and terms of native forest logging and woodchipping; the Commonwealth would stand aside.
This is a pivotal moment in Australia’s environmental history. Keating’s decision turned the tide on 20 years of growing Commonwealth environmental responsibility. The Howard government followed Keating’s lead. Their 1999 rewrite of Australia’s environment legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, formalised the native forest logging exemption, included mechanisms similar to RFAs for potential application to other industries, and ignored new environmental threats like climate change.
For the last 20 years RFAs have served to shield the Commonwealth while the forest wars continue to be fought state by state, region by region.
The expiry of RFAs between 2017 and 2021 is an opportunity to change direction. For the first time in years the Commonwealth has to step in and decide the future of Australia’s forests. If they succeed in extending the RFAs millions of hectares of public native forests will be given over to ever-intensifying industrial logging.
It is time for the tide to turn again – end the RFAs, restore the Commonwealth’s environmental powers and embark on a national program of ecological protection and restoration. Environment groups are actively discussing a new generation of environmental laws and institutions. This has to be accompanied by massively increased funding, which only the Commonwealth can provide, and by strong engagement with Indigenous Australians. Abolition of the RFAs could be the trigger for a new era.
The Fight for the Forests, 1973, R and V Routley
The Forest Wars, 2007, Judith Ajani