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Janet on youth activism, climate and environment

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 12 Feb 2019

I was at the huge 'Stop Adani' rally out the front of Parliament House this morning, and I'll be at the forest rally out the front tomorrow. We have millions of young people all over the world marching, protesting and making their voices heard for action on climate change and for action to protect nature and our life support systems from the blow after blow of fires, floods, fish kills, coral bleaching and flying foxes literally falling dead out of the sky in their tens of thousands after the furnace of a supercharged hot day. Australia is in the grip of an extinction crisis. We have the worst mammal extinction rate in the world. Let that sink in. We are the second worst in the world for total biodiversity loss, beaten only by Indonesia. And it's only getting worse, with ongoing habitat destruction through logging and land clearing and ongoing climate change from the burning of coal and gas and oil. We have 477 animals on our national threatened and endangered species list, including the critically endangered Leadbeater's possum in Victoria and the critically endangered swift parrot in Tasmania, with fewer than 2,000 left in the wild. Even our beloved koala, a global icon, is predicted to become extinct in New South Wales if the current trajectory of habitat destruction continues. This is a tragedy unfolding before our very eyes and a tragedy that is entirely preventable. We have utterly weak federal environment laws that are failing to protect nature, and we have the Labor, Liberal and National parties standing by as the precious natural places that provide homes for our threatened animals get destroyed.

I'm currently chairing a Senate inquiry into Australia's animal extinction crisis. We've seen and heard horrifying evidence of environmental destruction. At the Tasmanian hearings last week, we heard explosive testimony from Dr Matthew Webb, a scientist at the ANU who had previously worked in the Tasmanian state government. He told us:

There's this very, very strong top-down political pressure on the people remaining within government to approve whatever these developments or logging operations are, and it's very difficult for anyone to give really honest, clear advice anymore … because, quite frankly, if you have kids and a mortgage, you need to keep your job.

When asked whether he was suggesting that public servants are compromising their advice because they're worried about losing their jobs, Dr Webb replied, 'Most certainly.' At the Melbourne hearings last year, we heard staggering testimony regarding the forest task force that the Andrews government in Victoria set up before the 2014 elections as an election promise. The purpose of the task force was to find a way forward that would protect precious areas of forest in the Great Forest National Park and other reserves while giving certainty to industry.

Cut to after the election: the taskforce made up of environmentalists, industry and unions laboured for well over a year but in the end was disbanded without resolution. Our inquiry learned that Premier Andrews broke his election promise, because VicForests, the state owned logging company, got their way. VicForests would not have been able to fulfil their future contracts if the parks were declared, so the logging destroying critical natural habitat continues.

You would think our federal environment laws would be able to override something so destructive as logging and woodchipping—but no. Logging done under the regional forest agreements is effectively exempt from our national environment laws. When will the Labor-Liberal-National parties sit up and take notice that our very future is on the brink? It's astounding and appalling that a country as wealthy as ours is robbing future generations of their chance to know and love our nature and wildlife.

I've been so inspired by the young people I've met who are involved in politics and protest for nature and for climate. For their sake, we need action to protect our future now—not after the next election, not in a year or five or 10 years but now!

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