With the NSW election looming, it’s time to make sure the next state government has environmental policy front and centre at the big table of decision making. On nearly every major measure for the environment – numbers of threatened species, pollution, state of ecosystems and burgeoning threats – we’re going backwards.
The fish kill of up to a million fish and more on the Darling River was an environmental disaster – another wake-up call on the health of the Murray-Darling river system. It happened when oxygen was sucked out of the water, largely caused when hot surface water mixed with deep cool water and blue-green algae died when temperatures suddenly dropped on January 6.
And then it happened again, this week, when the Darling River became paved with the bodies of bony herring, while thousands of fish also died on the Murrumbidgee River.
Algal blooms flourish when temperatures are high, nutrients are concentrated and rivers stop flowing. NSW Primary Industry Minister Niall Blair and federal Water Resources Minister David Littleproud claimed the drought was to blame, the latter saying that to suggest otherwise smacked of ideology. Murray cod, at least 20 to 30 years old, floated lifeless in the river even though they survived the devastating Millennium drought of the 2000s.
Irrigation now diverts just under half the water that once used to keep the Darling River healthy. If the river had this water, it would have more connected pools and less algal blooms, and more escape routes for the fish. We have imposed a “river drought” on the Darling, much harsher than a drought measured in rainfall.
Australia has the expertise to avoid such environmental disasters but we are failing because of institutional barriers, powerful export industries and inadequate valuation of environmental goods and services, including the heavy social costs. Taxpayers continue to subsidise the destruction of our rivers.
At an institutional level, environment agencies are weak. Environment ministers are usually low in the cabinet pecking order. Talented environment ministers are rapidly promoted up and out. Ministerial muscle lies with natural resources portfolios that serve powerful export industry lobbies, such as irrigated agriculture and mining. Where senior ministers hold environment portfolios, they often also juggle others that consume attention, such as energy.
Environment agencies also often lose policies within government. The 2012 fisheries advice on the Barwon-Darling water-sharing plan went unheeded in an agency dominated by agriculture and water, reporting to the one minister. Native fish don’t only have a problem in the river.
Other environmental policies have experienced similar challenges in NSW. The NSW Department of Primary Industries, not Environment, was given the lead role in revising the state’s Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, subsuming the Native Vegetation Act 2003, Threatened Species Act 1995 and the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.
NSW is now returning to some of the highest land-clearing rates in the country. And yet we legally protect feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park. Like that old English proverb, today’s environment agencies are often required to behave like children – to be seen but not heard.
In the aftermath of one our worst environmental catastrophes, the deafening silence from state and federal environment ministers underlines institutional environmental feebleness when the Australian community needs strong environmental leadership.
The electorate needs to be convinced that politicians govern for all of us, rather than institutionalising the conflicts of interest involving insatiable industry sectors with strong lobbyists, often ex-politicians, supported by powerful natural resource government agencies.
Environment agencies and their ministers need to be a much stronger voice to achieve environmental sustainability in the public interest, and leave a legacy and quality of life that our children, grandchildren and future generations can enjoy.
Professor Richard Kingsford is the director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science, University of NSW.