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Victorians heard yesterday that the Victorian Government Department of Sustainability and Environment will be merged with the Department of Primary Industries to form ‘DEPI’ – the Department of Environment and Primary Industries.  According to the Age, it's agriculture eating the environment (an alarming visual).

What will this mean for the environment and nature?

Victorians heard yesterday that the Victorian Government Department of Sustainability and Environment will be merged with the Department of Primary Industries to form ‘DEPI’ – the Department of Environment and Primary Industries.  According to the Age, it's agriculture eating the environment (an alarming visual).

What will this mean for the environment and nature? It’s not yet clear exactly how the Department will be structured and what its functions will be, but the clear message is that agriculture and resource use will now be the focus rather than environmental protection.  The Government has told bureaucrats that the merger will ‘ensure more productive landscapes and better environmental protection across the state’. Sadly more productive landscapes means less natural landscapes and rarely goes hand in hand with better environmental protection. Victorian environment groups are calling it antiquated and a green light for dirty coal.

Even if the environment functions are largely retained, an environment department subsumed by DPI means that environment will be looked at through a new lens. I worked in government for a number of years in a number of different agencies. As any bureaucrat or former bureaucrat knows, the culture of a department has a huge impact on how it functions. When I moved from the environment department to the water department in Western Australia the cultural difference was striking – the former had a dedicated focus and mandate of environment protection, while the latter viewed the environment solely as a resource to be exploited to the maximum extent possible.

The dominant culture in this new entity may be one that regards the environment as a resource to be used, not an asset to be protected. Without a stand-alone environment department there will be no-one with the sole responsibility to ensure that environmental protection is championed. The Environment Minister and environment bureaucrats will have to work hard to ensure that conservation is valued as much as ‘use’.

Are there upsides? If done right there could be benefits – most notably better resourcing and better integration of environmental priorities into agriculture, forestry and fisheries policy.

What may prove to be the biggest concern is the new Department for State Development, which now includes the energy and resources portfolio – i.e. mining including coal and coal seam gas. With its new arrangements for fast-tracking major projects we could see much faster approvals of damaging projects with much less scrutiny.