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Last month, the Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, rejected independent recommendations for heritage protection for Tasmania’s Tarkine region, increasing the risk that the values of the area will be compromised by mining and mining exploration activity.

The Australian Heritage Council called for the protection of 433,000 hectares of the Tarkine on the basis of its outstanding heritage value. Instead the Minister decided to protect a miniscule 4 per cent of what was recommended, a two kilometre coastal stretch, for its significance to Indigenous heritage, leaving the omitted area at risk from both current mine proposals and mining exploration activity.

Indeed, the heritage significance of the Tarkine is (you would think) indisputable.  It is well recognised as containing the largest and least fragmented tract of cool temperate rainforest in the Southern Hemisphere and one of the last remaining populations of disease free Tasmanian devils.  But its heritage significance doesn’t end there.  It contains flora with links to the ancient continent of Gondwana, significant flora fossil sites, rare magnesite karsts, a rich diversity and density of Aboriginal archeological sites and outstanding aesthetic values which are represented in a diversity of landscapes.

Which begs the question: How could this place, of all places, not be protected by our Commonwealth environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999?

In short, the answer is that the Tarkine has not been included on the National Heritage List (this means that its heritage values cannot be considered when deciding whether to approve projects under the Commonwealth assessment and approval process, effectively lowering the bar for approval). The problem lies in the broad discretion given to the Federal Environment Minister to refuse to include places on the National Heritage List, even when presented with evidence that they meet national heritage criteria.

The EDO, together with the Places You Love Alliance, has been advocating for the Commonwealth government to retain its environmental approval powers, arguing (among other reasons) that State and Territory processes are weak and inadequate and the States alone cannot be relied upon for protecting environmentally sensitive places in the national interest.

This recent debacle with the Tarkine is a timely reminder that, in fact, the exercise of Commonwealth Ministerial discretion does not always lead to desirable outcomes for the environment either.  And what we really need to turn our attention to is strengthening and improving our federal environmental laws, and reducing the exposure of the regime to decisions driven by short-term political imperatives rather than long-term environment and heritage protection.

The opportunity will soon be upon us, with Minister Burke planning to table a suite of EPBC Act amendments any day now.

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