Australia Trims Environmental Protection in Deficit Budget

Sea turtle in Australian protected waters (Framegrab from Australian Government oceans video)


CANBERRA, Australia, May 14, 2013 (ENS) – Environmentalists criticized tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry and cuts to renewable energy funding in the Australian government’s new budget, but are pleased with funding for oceans, forests and rivers.

The Australian government’s promise to deliver a budget surplus in this fiscal year has turned into a A$19.4 billion deficit in the budget released today by Treasurer Wayne Swan.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduces a new Defence policy, May 3, 2013 (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduces a new Defence policy, May 3, 2013 (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)

The Australian Conservation Foundation, the country’s largest environmental group, acknowledged “solid delivery on nature conservation,” but the group expressed disappointment “with the continued spending of billions of taxpayers’ dollars on subsidies that promote pollution and are economically wasteful.”

“The budget delivers on the government’s core nature conservation commitments to the Great Barrier Reef, marine reserves, Tasmania’s forests, the Murray-Darling and Caring for our Country, but fails to cut the big taxpayer assistance for fossil fuel use that promotes pollution,” said Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Don Henry.

“The government has missed its best opportunity in years to do away with the billions of dollars in wasteful tax breaks that encourage fossil fuel use,” said Henry. “These tax breaks are bad economic management, they are unfair, they encourage pollution and they should be scrapped.”

In the current fiscal year the Gillard Government introduced a carbon tax of A$23 for every metric ton of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide emitted by Australia’s biggest industrial polluters.

Most households were compensated for the higher living costs that resulted with tax breaks and increased welfare. But the latest budget drops plans for further tax breaks promised in 2015-16 when the carbon tax is due to be replaced by a carbon permit trading scheme.

“Action towards a clean energy future has suffered some cuts, including to renewable energy investment,” said Henry, citing the $370 million deferred from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency over the next four years.

Environment and Water Minister Tony Burke said the government has “locked in its commitment to the historic Murray-Darling Basin reform through today’s budget, which allocates $3.5 billion over 12 years to implement the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Hattah wetland
The sun sets across a lake in the Murray-Darling Basin’s Hattah wetlands which has received environmental water, October 2009 (Photo by Australian Conservation Foundation)

Under natural flow conditions, the long-term average annual flow of water through the Murray River Mouth to the Southern Ocean would be 75 percent greater than it currently is, according to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. This situation may worsen as the effects of climate change further reduce the amount of water going into the Murray–Darling Basin river system, the commission warns.

Late last year the Gillard Government ended a century-long argument on how best to manage Australia’s rivers with a Murray-Darling Basin Plan that Burke says “restores our rivers to health, supports strong regional communities and ensures sustainable food production.”

Budget support for the Murray-Darling Basin includes $1.4 billion over eleven years from 2013–14 in funding for water supply projects, and $1.8 billion over 10 years from 2014-15 to relax flow constraints to recover hundreds of gigaliters of water for the environment.

But the new budget defers a total of $225 million of spending from the Biodiversity Fund over the next four years.

“ACF is concerned about the deferral of spending for the Biodiversity Fund, which has given a much-needed boost to biodiversity conservation in Australia through its focus on increasing ecosystem resilience and storing carbon in the natural environment,” Henry said.

Global environment programs under AusAID were cut from $74 million to just $1.5 million in the new budget.

The ACF welcomed financial commitments to major public transport infrastructure, including Melbourne Metro and Brisbane Cross-River Rail.

But funding will continue for nuclear waste dump site selection, which the environmentalists say should be scrapped.

Henry praised the new budget for protecting and restoring Australia’s natural environment with:

$200 million confirmed to continue the Reef Rescue program
$95 million for implementation of the Tasmanian Forests Agreement, some of which is redirected from existing biodiversity programs
$320 million confirmed for Working on Country Indigenous rangers

“ACF commends the government for its ongoing commitment to effective nature protection programs, including for marine reserves, the Murray-Darling, protection of Tasmania’s forests, and the Indigenous Rangers program,” Henry said.

“We welcome the commitment to the largest national network of marine reserves in the world and for continuing the important Reef Rescue program for the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.

Sea turtle in Australian protected waters (Framegrab from Australian Government oceans video)

On Friday, the Gillard Government launched an eight-minute oceans video featuring celebrities praising the creation late last year of the world’s largest network of marine parks, the Commonwealth Marine Park Reserves.

Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke Friday joined Sir Richard Branson, founder and Chairman of Virgin Group, at the Sydney Aquarium to highlight the importance of protecting oceans.

In November 2012, the Gillard Government proclaimed a network of marine parks to protect about 1.2 million square miles of ocean in an effort to limit fishing and oil and gas exploration.

The parks surround the entire continent and cover the Coral Sea as well as areas off the coasts of South Australia, West Australia, New South Wales and the Northern Territory. They connect to existing reserves across the world’s largest reef, the Great Barrier Reef, and the coasts of Victoria and Tasmania.

The video features messages of support from prominent environmental campaigners including Clean Up Australia Day founder Ian Kiernan, Olympic gold medal swimmer Brooke Hanson, Sir Richard Branson, musicians Jackson Brown and Neil Young, actor Jackie Chan and ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, who are members of OceanElders, an independent group of  leaders who have joined to catalyze the conservation and protection of the ocean and its wildlife.

Burke said, “Most of the damage to our oceans has happened in the space of one lifetime. Global over-fishing, pollution and acidification conspire to threaten what is about 70 percent of our planet’s surface. “Turning the corner is a massive international project, and establishing national parks in the ocean is one of the first critical steps that can make a real difference.”

At the event, the minister presented Sir Richard Branson with the first ever Australian Government Global Ocean Protector Award, recognizing him as “a devoted and tireless environmental campaigner.”

“I love Australia, I visit here often and one of the things I love about it is the environment,” said Branson.

“You don’t find this kind of pristine, beautiful place, brimming with life in many places, and each year it seems we lose another one,” Branson said. “This plan will join the Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reef to create one of the largest marine reserves anywhere in the world.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.

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