Environmental Politics in Australia


Environmental laws in Australia

Climate change and environmental degradation are the major issues affecting different countries in the world today. Australia is one of the countries at risk of bearing the consequences of climatic change due to its geographic location. Hence as a country, it should be at the forefront in advocating for better management of the natural resources. The division of legislative powers between the states and the federal government have made it more complex in implementing major international environmental treaties. Further poor management of resources in one state might be catastrophic on another. Consequently, the federal government should have the sole responsibility of managing natural resources, and the environment in view of the wellbeing of all its member states since it has the ability to determine the needs of each state and the effects of various activities affecting the environment on different states. 

History of environmental issues in Australia

The first people to settle in Australia did not pay much attention to the environment and the effects of environmental degradation to the region, instead, they focused on how they can make the environment more inhabitable and feel at home. Initial environmental movements can be dated back to the 19th century with the growth of naturalism movement.  As Sewell, Dearden & Dumbrell 1989, p.158) points out, it was until 1879 when the idea of land conservation was established in the country. Sseveral national parks were established beginning with the royal national park in Sydney whose formation was inspired by the yellow national park in the United States. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, some wild animals were on the verge of extinction due to poor regulations on their hunting. Thylacine was one of the animals at the verge of extinction consequent to excessive hunting. To protect the species, Wilsons Promontory and the Victorian naturalist society were involved in advocating for its preservation. With time environmental issues have taken a major sport in the mainstream media with an increase in public outcry. In the early 20th century there was an extensive culling of the Koalas summing up to about four million between the year 1915 and 1927 in Queensland alone. In fact, by the year 1924, the koalas were distinct in South Australia and endangered in other parts of the country (Lake 2005, p.116). Several community-based organizations and non-governmental organizations were started to protect the environment and its natural resources. For a long time, the fight for environmental protection and management of natural resources was out of the political fold hence gaining minimal strides towards regulating the environment and managing various activities detrimental to life. 

The advent of environmental politics

Several incidences during the 20th century led to the involvement of a politician in the protection of the environment. Tasmania’s hydroelectric commission started the construction of various dams to provide electricity. There was an influx of people following the end of World War II hence increasing the population of the region further. The projects in the island catapulted the issues of environments into the mainstream politics. According to Buckman (2008, p.15), from the 1960s it was evident that Tasmania’s hydroelectric commission was about to flood Lake Pedder in the state. Hydroelectric power was regarded as one of the major assets in the state and could play a significant role in the future developments of the state. As a result, many conservationists who tried to persuade the government to stop its plans of flooding the lake made little progress. Finally, the lake was flooded prompting the formation of the first green party by the name United Tasmania Group following meetings held in March 1972 before the Tasmania house assembly elections. In their meeting, the group decided to use the political opportunity in saving the lake Pedder and developed a comprehensive and well-researched conservation plan to conserve natural resources for the state of Tasmania and concluded in forming an independent coalition headed by people personate with conservation.  In four of the five multimember house of assembly electorates, 12 candidates were nominated by the United Tasmania Group. Contrary to most people expectations, the group surpassed the expectation by securing 4.9 percent in the electorates that it participated. Three of its candidates in Franklin gained about 8 percent of the total votes (Pearson, Friel & Lawrence 2014, p.480). The advent of the group based solely on environmental politics was a clear indication that environmental issues were capable bring about radical changes in the long-term party loyalties. 

The Lake Pedder played a significant role in bringing environmental politics to the limelight in Tasmania, however, the political battle resulted to limited impact in implementing radical environmental laws. However, the Franklin Dam issue became a significant factor in the Commonwealth election in 1983 cycle. The Australian Labour party in 1982 adopted a policy against the construction of hydroelectric power schemes on the Franklin or Gordon rivers in Tasmania. The Australian labour party then sought to convince voters to change their party loyalty basing on the issue. The government was sure about the importance of the issues and capitalized on it gain mover voters in the elections. Since 1983 national and local election has been dominated by the environmental politics over time (Davis 1972, p.22).  To cope with the demands on environmental regulation by the federal government in light of the commonwealth. At the same time, the states have a huge role to play in regulating environmental policies affecting major projects that may affect the ecology.

Australia’s Environmental Regulatory Framework

Australia has a large number of regulatory bodies and legislative instruments mandated with the responsibility of governing environmental regulations. Australia has adopted the federal legal system whereby most of its environment matters are managed at the territory and state levels. There is a significant variance between each territory and state.   The Commonwealth government is the highest level of government in Australia and can regulate some matters right from the national to the territory or state level of government (Gunningham & Rees 1997, p.370). In the recent past, there have been robust developments in the environmental laws with the aim of reducing the duplication of roles and mandates of various levels of government.  Each of the states has environmental protection which is in the public domain that can be scrutinized by the federal government.  

Environmental regulation at the national level is narrowed down to issues of national significance and those touching on the Commonwealth bodies. Legislations in the commonwealth are enshrined in the environmental protection and biodiversity act 1999 (Authority 2000). The act provides a guideline on how to manage and protect international and national heritage places, ecological communities, flora, and fauna. The act has been amended severally with emerging issues to ensure that the environment is protected.  Today the Australian government in all jurisdiction consider a breach of the laws as serious issues with major consequences and criminal sanctions and some situations. East of the state has their regulatory body tasked with the responsibility of enforcing the laws put in place by the federal government. Litfin (1994) indicates that despite the variance in the jurisdictions, different regulatory bodies have huge enforcement powers that might include issuing orders and notices, instituting civil or criminal proceedings, amending license conditions, cancelling or suspending licenses. In some jurisdictions, the managers can be held responsible for any offenses carried out by their bodies not unless they have any defence. In a nutshell, the Australian government has a comprehensive law developed right from the state /territory level to the federal government. At the same time, they have been developed in a way to ensure that there is no clash in their jurisdiction with the federal government.

Australian should take a national approach in environmental protection to safeguard its environment and contribute to the global efforts aimed at protecting the environment. The federal government should use the federal environmental protection authority to attend to issues of national and international importance. However, the federal government has to developed laws tailored to prevent conflict with the other state laws. Today there is a likelihood of developing tensions between the state and federal governments with regard to significant international environmental conventions binding Australia.  The federal government has the responsibility of aligning its environmental laws with the various treaties developed on the international stage.  Australia as a government has international responsibilities in environmental management to protect the ecology and minimize effects of climate change.

The advent of environmental consciousness in the early 1970s globally saw several countries assume international responsibilities aimed at protecting the environment and natural resources. To meet her international obligations, Australia developed national laws meant to influence various environmental issues and land use. Implementation of the international treaties was complicated at first because of the fact that the Australian government was not in a position to relax any of its environmental laws to be in line with various international treaties (Anton, Kohout & Pain 1993, p.764). To deal with the issues, the authority for federal oversight was developed to oversee various international treaties. The authority has the mandate of implementing various laws. However, there has always been a conflict between the federal and state governments on their jurisdiction in implementing the external affairs. Since its inception, the authority has been a point of contention between state and federal government with regard to its mandate. The authority is created under section 51 of the constitution. 

The high court of Australia has directed that environmental treaties approved by the Australian government. They should be handled at the national level through the federal environmental protection authority with adequate regulatory powers. The environmental authority is mandated with the responsibility of ensuring that the government complies with international obligations of the country at large. To date, over one thousand treaties have been developed so far (Charnovitz 1993). Even though Australia has not approved most of the treaties, it is obliged to implementing a sizable number. There is a likelihood of increasing number of environmental treaties with the regular United Nations conferences in the environment and development where global problems are highlighted and treaties developed to deal with the problems (Murdoch, Sandler & Vijverberg 2003, p.340).  For a seamless implementation of the treaties for the general good of the globe, each country should have a national environmental protection authority with centralized power and the ability to regulate various activities impacting the environment across the nation. A single source of direction in environmental matters of global importance promotes the countries’ compliance with the regulations. Breaking down the implementation of the laws might bring about an uncoordinated implementation of the treaties thus falling short of the international obligations in environmental protection. 

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Currently, the government has developed a great interest in environmental matters affecting the south pacific region. Australia has approved all the treaties developed by countries in the Pacific region. Nevertheless, there has been a minimal implementation of the treaties by the Commonwealth government to date. To comply with the regional environmental laws, an action plan to manage the environment of the Pacific region in the year 1986 and was revised in 1991 which has been useful in giving guidelines on the management of the major environmental issues in the region. The action plan has been significant in the management of the environment in the region since it provides different guidelines on how to manage different issues outside the legal framework since some issues might be omitted or not fully covered by the law. Development of the action plan has been beneficial to the environmental laws since most of the countries in the region do not have adequate resources to comply the international laws (Inglehart 1995, p.56). As a result, Australia has greater roles to play in implementing the south pacific region environmental programme with increased pressured and participation in major global players as there has been an increased emphasis on the regional environmental protection programs (Conacher & Conacher, 2000). Owing to its massive resources and location in the region Australia is mandated with the responsibility of guiding the region.

With the current increasing scope of the coverage of the international environmental law, there is need to coordinate the rights obligations in forming an effective global legal order to protect the environment. To maintain the relevance of the international law each country has to develop and apply national regulations. Australia has been working hand in hand with the international regulations in protecting the environment and natural resources. For instance, as Tisdell (1983, p.44) indicates, Australia adopted the world conservation strategy using the federal environmental protection act. The world conservation strategy states that each country has a responsibility of bringing together legislations focusing on living resources to ensure conservation of wildlife. Each country was required to review its laws so as to strengthen or put in place measures put in place to enhance wildlife conservation. In fact, living things should be protected by the constitution or other legal instruments. The process of developing and implement these laws and ensuring optimal success can be successful if there is inter-governmental and intergovernmental coordination. To ensure that there is that coordination, a centralized authority should be assigned with the responsibility of enacting the laws.  Multiple authorities can promote duplication of responsibilities, rivalry in the jurisdiction and economic completion leading to the slowed implementation of the laws. 

Further, the need for federal environmental protection authority is due to the fact that the states do not possess the international personality and the capacity to participate and sign to international treaties. The need for uniformity within a country has been recognized by the international bodies. Together with other countries, it has been agreed that there should be a consolidated approach to the management the natural resources. The treaty of Rome suggested that there as a dire need to do away with disparities emerging with different legislative arms of government within a country and member states that approved the treaty.  

Finally, production of hazardous waste can be harmful to different states and safe to the others, for instance, disposal and generation of hazardous waste should be regulated by the federal government owing to the fact that these affects different states in one way or another. A state may be protecting its citizens but affecting those of another state since it has not put in place measures across the border. Thus, the need for a centralized authority to monitor the production and management of hazardous waste in the bid to protect the environment. 


The federal government together with the state government have to work hand in hand so as to protect the environment and natural resources. A centralized authority in the management of environmental issues is much better as opposed to the state level management and legislation of the environmental laws. Global awareness of environmental issues towards the end of the 20th century has played a role in the development of new laws and its implementation.  The states do not have the responsibility in the international conferences hence the need to have a united front in implementing major treaties. Finally, coordination of the issues affecting a country and a region at large is important in curbing various issues pertinent to the regions without any interference with any of the neighbours. 

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