Down into the weeds again – the new government announces a return to bioregional planning

By Peter Burnett

In a recent speech at the National Landcare Conference, still-honeymooning federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek announced what she called the ‘third arm’ of the government’s environmental agenda, regional planning.

(The first two arms, by the way, are an overhaul of national environmental law following the Samuel Review (2020) and setting up a federal Environment Protection Agency.)

A little history

More correctly, Plibersek was announcing a return to regional planning. Federal and state governments first signed up to bioregional planning in 1996 as a key action under the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biological Diversity.

This National Strategy was our first attempt to meet our commitment under the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992 that each country should have such a strategy.

In 1995, in the run-up to adopting the strategy, then-environment minister Senator John Faulkner convened a national conference on bioregional planning.

But with the conference done and the National Strategy signed-off, momentum dissipated. This was no doubt due to the change of government that followed.

Although the new Howard government remained committed to bioregional planning, and in fact legislated for it as part of its big and shiny new national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, there was a problem.

The EPBC Act was seriously under-funded. With available funds sucked up by the day-to-day business of project-based environmental assessment and approvals, there was simply no money left for bioregional planning.

Eventually, in 2012, a later government found enough money to prepare bioregional plans for four of Australia’s marine bioregions. But there have never been plans for Australia’s 89 terrestrial bioregions.

What’s on the table this time?

Fast-forward to the present.

Following a recommendation for regional planning in the Samuel Review (NB. no longer bioregional planning, although the name change is not that significant) the Morrison government put its toe in the water by announcing $2.7m in the 2021 federal Budget for a pilot terrestrial bioregional plan.

By the time Morrison lost government in May 2022, this pilot program had not translated into on-ground action. Instead, Morrison had put more money on the table in the 2022 Budget (tabled in the lead up to the May election).

This time the government announced some $63 million for up to ten regional plans. However, this Budget didn’t pass the Parliament before the election of the Albanese government and so we must wait until next month (October) to see whether Treasurer Jim Chalmers keeps this measure in his replacement 2022 Budget.

In the meantime, Plibersek has announced the government’s commitment to regional planning and laid down some markers. She acknowledges that the idea is not new and says she will build on good work already done.

She says regional plans will improve federal environment protection by providing insight into cumulative impacts and enabling threats to threatened species to be addressed more effectively.

Plibersek wants to cooperate with states and territories and she wants the plans to be integrated across land uses, programs and tenures. She also wants the plans to improve resilience to climate change.

And, significantly, she wants to start now, so that ‘regional planning will be well underway by the time we pass our improved environmental laws next year’.

It’s complicated

This is an ambitious agenda, particularly from the low base of a fragmented environmental information base and a depleted environment department.

What challenges will Plibersek face? To borrow the title of one of my favourite Meryl Streep movies, ‘It’s Complicated’.

Plibersek needs to partner with state governments, who traditionally resist federal government involvement in land management, which they see as both their backyard and their bread and butter (excuse the mixed metaphors).

She will need to offer incentives, and in this context ‘better environmental outcomes’ doesn’t cut it. If I were a state I’d be after money for environmental restoration, by the truckload.

Assuming one or more partner governments step forward, regional planning would need to integrate with a myriad of other plans which, depending on location, could include metropolitan plans and strategies, state environmental plans and policies, catchment management plans, town plans, local environment plans and so on.

Then there are other federal plans to fit in with, including the Murray Darling Basin Plan and Regional Forest Agreements.

Once the government gets into the planning itself, it will need a full suite of supporting policies. What are the planning objectives? Do they include creating reserves for areas of high environmental value, such as critical habitat? Should zoning for development be done on the basis of maintaining ecological function? Would development be allowed in areas containing significant environmental values and if so, would an environmental-offset policies such as ‘no net loss’ apply?

Then there’s the need for appropriate governance. There’s no point in doing these plans on a one-off basis. They would need to be revised regularly, say every five years. Climate adaptation will make this even more complex.

Finally, how would public consultation be undertaken and who would undertake it?

Climb lower mountains

I could go on but I’m running out of space. I think there’s a real risk here of taking up mountain climbing and choosing Mt Everest as one’s first summit.

Given the minister’s determination to move on this front ahead of her major reform package next year, the risks of this could be avoided by treating the early regional plans as experiments — by confining the exercise to two or three regions and focusing on skill acquisition and capacity-building rather than aiming to take a full suite of plans through to legal adoption and operational use.

I know it’s hard in a political context, but with something this ambitious I think it’s important to allow for failure.

Rather than tackle Mt Everest straight up, a little practice in the foothills could be just the thing. That way, injuries from the inevitable falls will be minimal; and the whole process won’t be discarded when the going gets rough.

Banner image: Image by Joshua_Willson from Pixabay

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