Cynically stripping away the rights of communities to defend a clean environment is not the type of behaviour we expect from the government, writes ACF President Geoff Cousins

The Prime Minister's spin doctors must have worked overtime in their recent attempts to vilify Australian environmentalists.

To legally challenge poor government decisions about the environment is suddenly described as the work of 'vigilantes' and to seek to protect endangered species from ill-considered government approvals is an act of 'lawfare'.

Tony Abbott and George Brandis can throw around invented words. What we are engaged in is not 'lawfare', but we do demand fair law. This simply translates to good governance that we should expect in a modern, robust democracy like ours.

The law the federal government wants to amend is the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act. It was made law by the Howard government 15 years ago and it allows for environmental approvals made by the government to be tested by the people in a court.


This latest move from the government comes after a successful court challenge by the Mackay Conservation Group to Environment Minister Greg Hunt's environmental approval of Adani's multibillion-dollar Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.

The court set aside the approval after the Mackay group successfully exposed the minister's failure to properly consider two threatened species.

In other words, the minister made an embarrassing error and now is seeking to attack the public's right to challenge such mistakes. The government is behaving like a bunch of spoilt schoolboys caught red-handed making a blunder and blaming farmers and environment groups for their blunder.

The only person to be angry with is Greg Hunt, the so-called Minister for the Environment.

The reality is that litigation under our national environmental law has been extremely limited. While more than 5300 projects have been referred under this law, less than 30 have been brought before the court for judicial review. That is less than one per cent of actions that have been referred ending up in the courts.

If this is 'lawfare', there are not many shots being fired.

Cynically stripping away the rights of communities to defend a healthy environment is not the type of behaviour we should expect from our national leaders.

That the Abbott government should respond in such a cavalier manner to a single court ruling on the proposed Carmichael coal mine sound alarm bells to all Australians who believe in democracy and the separation of powers between the courts and the executive.

It also shows the Abbott government is bewitched by coal and firmly under the spell of the nation's big polluters. Is the government weakening these laws to avoid accountability?

Or is it trying to bully communities into silence because they hold different opinions?

The government is already attacking the charitable status of environment groups through a politically-motivated parliamentary inquiry. Now it is trying to restrict the legal rights of anyone who cares about the environment. It appears nothing is off limits.

The best advice I can offer the government right now is to back off. Abbott and Brandis are mistaken if they believe their actions will only put a few green noses out of joint.

In prosecuting this course they are showing they are completely out of step with the business community. There are now 11 major financial institutions, including the Commonwealth Bank, that have stated they no longer wish to be associated with Adani's Carmichael project, which would carry coal across the Great Barrier Reef and has been estimated to increase carbon emissions by up to 128 million tonnes per year – making it one of the largest coal mines in the world.

Of course the bigger concern for us as a nation is that even if we say we don't care about the environment (which most Australians do), the government is backing a loser in coal, and seeking to distort legal process to do so. The rest of the world knows the real jobs of the future are not in coal but in renewables.

I've sat on quite a few corporate boards in my time and one thing I can say with certainty is technology always wins.

We are seeing massive advances right now in battery and solar technology, meaning many people will be able to avoid the need to be on the electricity grid at all in the future.

So Tony Abbott's and the coal industry's talk of providing power to millions of Indians is nothing but convenient rhetoric, wheeled out to try to resuscitate the already cold corpse of the coal industry. Renewable technology is moving faster than the Australian PM has any idea about.

The real question is how Australia will be placed to ensure we capitalise on these clean, green and profitable green jobs of the very near future. This is where the government should be directing its attention, rather than attacking the rights of communities to a healthy environment, or cynically eroding their legitimate legal recourse to challenge poorly conceived environmental approvals.

Challenging the legality of environmentally sensitive projects in a court of law is not the act of a vigilante. But there is something very sinister about a government trying to hide its own mistakes by chipping away at transparent democratic process.

Geoffrey Cousins

Geoff Cousins is a past president of the Australian Conservation Foundation; ACF Life Member