The extent of proposed land clearing at Strathmore station alone in Queensland's gulf country is staggering.

Up to 58,000 hectares of native bushland, an area more than twice the size of Lamington National Park, is in the process of being felled, approved under retrograde laws passed by the previous Newman government.

The bushland on the station is home to threatened species, including the nationally listed Red Goshawk. The clearing proposal was never referred for approval by federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt under the national Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

What is more worrying is that Olive Vale and Strathmore are not isolated cases, in fact they are just the tip of the iceberg. 

What is more worrying is that Olive Vale and Strathmore are not isolated cases, in fact they are just the tip of the iceberg.

A report released earlier this year by WWF Australia showed that since Campbell Newman's amendment to the Queensland Vegetation Management Act, land clearing in the state has exploded  from around 77,000 hectares per year in 2009 to 278,000 hectares in 2013, meaning an area larger than the entire ACT is cleared in Queensland every year.

This clearing should never have happened. In 2013 the laws were amended by the LNP government to permit "high value" agriculture to go ahead. The definitions of what constituted "high value" were very loose. Warnings from environment groups that it would result in an explosion in land clearing were dismissed as "alarmist".

The slow and guarded reaction from the federal government under its main piece of law is also worrying. The Federal Environment Department has not disclosed its investigations into clearing at Olive Vale, but intervened only after 1500 hectares of vegetation had been destroyed.

The federal government has a lot of skin in the game when it comes to protecting our environment. The EPBC Act gives the Commonwealth an overarching role to protect some of Australia's most important places and species. It also gives it the power to act as an important check and balance when a state government recklessly approves projects that will severely damage matters of national environmental significance.

There is another, and as equally troubling aspect to federal government's inaction in Queensland, and that is in relation to how land clearing will undermine investments from the Emissions Reduction Fund.

In the most recent auction $556 million of taxpayers money was spent under the ERF to abate 45 million tonnes of carbon. In contrast, for the first two dozen projects approved under the new land clearing laws in Queensland, the total emission profile has been estimated at 11.7 million tonnes. The total number of land clearing projects is more than double this, bringing the emissions profile of Queensland land clearing alone close to that abated through the latest round of the ERF.

While the Newman Government was ripping up land clearing laws in 2013, Minister Hunt was busy trying to accredit Queensland to administer national environmental law. The policy to divest itself of one its primary environmental responsibilities was heralded as one of the coalition's flagship "environmental policies" at the last federal election.

Such plans have hit a road block, with key legislation stalled in the senate. Some states have simply walked away from the process of accepting approval powers, notably the new Queensland and Victorian governments. What is left is a messy hot-potch mix of regulation with no consistency across the states.

What is left is a messy hot-potch mix of regulation with no consistency across the states.

In 2010 a review of the EPBC Act was completed by Dr Allan Hawke. The then Labor government baulked at running new ambitious legislation through a hung parliament and so the reform task remained unfinished.

Rather than the federal government trying to write itself out of the job, Australia desperately needs its national government to deliver strong, considered and conciliatory leadership on the environment. We need a more efficient and more effective set of national environment laws that recognise the interconnections of protecting our water, our wildlife and our climate, laws that give business certainty and allow communities to have meaningful input into the process.

The challenge for Malcolm Turnbull is to demonstrate that the government he leads is capable of leaving the anti-environment ideology at the door and demonstrating a new capacity to undertake meaningful, evidence led reform on environmental protection legislation.


James Trezise

Policy Analyst at the Australian Conservation Foundation.