18 August, 2011

Editorial: Baillieu must stay true to the environment

The Age, editorial
August 18, 2011

The list of worrying conservation policies is too long.

THE Liberal Party in Victoria has a proud history of protecting the state's environmental heritage. Sir Rupert Hamer's government of the 1970s, in particular, left a legacy of environmental concern and legislative reform that continues to enrich the state's famed liveability. The Hamerite Victorian Liberal tradition is founded on such things as the strengthening of environmental protection laws under the watch of an independent and well-resourced Environmental Protection Authority and, perhaps most valuably, the creation of so-called green wedges between Melbourne's transport corridors to act, in Sir Rupert's memorable phrase, as the ''lungs of the city''. It would therefore be surprising, and distressing, if the Liberal/National Coalition government of Ted Baillieu were to preside over a diminution of Victoria's natural assets. Yet, the early signs are not good.

Over summer, the new government took the retrograde step of allowing cattle grazing to resume in the National Heritage-listed Alpine National Park, arguing that more scientific research was needed on the discredited claim that grazing significantly reduces fire risk in the high country. The National Parks Association aptly condemned the study as ''the terrestrial version of Japan's scientific whaling'', and the federal government appropriately intervened to protect the park. In the absence of evidence that grazing can be done without further degradation, we believe the state government should abandon its plans to return cattle to the park again next summer.

Last month, The Saturday Age reported that Planning Minister Matthew Guy has written to councils asking for them to provide wish-lists of changes they would like to see in their green wedge areas. It is telling that developers have welcomed the move, but environmentalists are deeply concerned. Sir Rupert's widow, Lady Hamer, was moved to write a letter to the editor, warning that any encroachment into green spaces was irreversible and urging that today's legislators keep faith with her husband's vision.

''Speculators, of course, will disagree, but remaining faithful to the original intention of the green wedges would give us all a more disciplined, sustainable and welcoming city for future generations,'' she wrote. We urge Mr Baillieu and Mr Guy to resist any temptation to compromise the integrity of green wedges to satisfy developers' wishes.

Yesterday, The Age revealed that Victoria's old-growth forests could be opened to more logging under a Baillieu government plan to dilute long-standing environmental laws designed to protect threatened species. The Department of Sustainability and Environment has quietly begun looking at the state's 23-year-old Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act with a view to ensuring logging proposals are less likely to be derailed by evidence of the existence of animals deemed to be endangered. Departmental sources say the government is concerned that environment groups are becoming increasingly skillful at capturing footage of endangered species to thwart logging operations. Victoria's interests are indeed ill served if spurious claims made by over-zealous environmentalists are allowed to prevent legitimate commercial activities. But bone fide evidence of threats to the habitats of endangered species must continue to be afforded due weight in decisions about the timber industry. Victorians are entitled to hear more from the government about its intentions for the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act specifically, and its attitude to the protection of endangered species more generally.

The pattern that is emerging on environmental policy calls into question the Baillieu government's commitment to conservation. Mr Baillieu is often cited as a progressive Liberal in the Hamer tradition. On the environment, as elsewhere, he needs to do more to earn the comparison.

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