WA mining and media ‘naysayers’ spreading misinformation about nature reforms, Senate hears

<span>Graeme Samuel has told a Senate hearing that he is concerned about ‘potential misinformation’ coming through from the mining sector and ‘certain media outlets’ in WA.</span><span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Graeme Samuel has told a Senate hearing that he is concerned about ‘potential misinformation’ coming through from the mining sector and ‘certain media outlets’ in WA.Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The head of a review into Australia’s national environmental laws has accused Western Australia’s mining industry and media of spreading “misinformation” about the Albanese government’s nature reforms.

Graeme Samuel told a federal Senate hearing into the extinction crisis that “naysayers” in WA’s mining sector had run a campaign of “negative publicity” against improved environmental protections.

He also said conservation groups that have criticised the federal government for delaying the introduction of new environment laws should “take a chill pill” and that he believed they would ultimately be satisfied.

Related: Top environmental groups say some of Labor’s new laws could take conservation backwards

Samuel’s comments come a day after the government confirmed it would carve up its planned environmental legislation and would introduce bills for two new bodies – one for environment protection and one for environmental information – in the coming weeks.

But its broader package of promised new nature laws, including national environmental standards, has been deferred to an unspecified date, with environment minister Tanya Plibersek giving no guarantee it would be delivered in this term of government.

Samuel’s 2020 review found Australian governments had failed to protect the country’s unique wildlife for two decades and that plants, animals and ecosystems were in unsustainable decline.

“I saw that there was one media outlet in Western Australia yesterday that was claiming credit for having organised for these laws to go on to the backburner,” Samuel said on Wednesday.

He said his response was to quote Mark Twain and say “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated, because frankly, I think they are”.

“I doubt that I’ll be red-faced when we do actually see the laws that are being proposed.”

Samuel said he was concerned about “potential misinformation that is coming through” from the mining sector and “certain media outlets” in WA. He said there had been some regression from a collaborative process established between diverse environment and business stakeholders when the review was under way in 2019.

The government has been accused of breaking a promise to deliver a single package of environmental legislation to fix Australia’s broken system of nature laws.

Samuel told the hearing that conservation groups worried about the pace of reform should “take a chill pill”. He backed the government’s plans to split the bills.

“I think you will find that what we’re going to get will satisfy all their aspirations as set out in the nature positive plan that the minister [Plibersek] announced some time ago,” he said.

But witnesses and senators at Wednesday’s hearing noted the government’s new approach – which will see different pieces of legislation introduced in stages – was not consistent with Samuel’s own report.

Samuel’s report did recommend reforms be undertaken in tranches, with a third and final tranche to be a full rewrite of Australia’s national laws.

But the establishment of new national environmental standards was recommended as an immediate priority in the first tranche of reforms.

The Greens said Labor’s delay of the substantial changes that were promised was a “capitulation to polluters”. The party’s senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the “Greens will not rubber stamp an environmental sell-out” and would not guarantee the party’s support for the two bills proposed in coming weeks.

Environment groups at the hearing called on the Albanese government to announce a timeline for when it would finalise and introduce legislation for the broader overhaul of the laws and to ensure it would happen in this term of government.

The groups said the government’s plan to introduce legislation for the new agencies would, on its own, not deliver on the government’s commitment to zero new extinctions.

“We want to see a specific commitment to the delivery of a full legislative package – this term. Nature does not have time to wait,” said Alexia Wellbelove from the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

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The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Brendan Sydes, in response to Samuel’s suggestion that conservationists “take a chill pill”, said the frustration and disappointment was understandable when consultation about the state of Australia’s environmental protections had been occurring since 2019.

“We’ve got a state of the environment report, we’ve got a nature positive plan, promise after promise after promise … about the urgent need for these reforms,” he said.

“And yet here we are, being told that it needs to be delayed, or it’s not happening now or in one chunk like was originally promised, it will come at some stage.”

Jennifer Rayner, the Climate Council’s head of policy and advocacy, told senators “glaciers are literally melting while this reform moves forward at a glacial pace”.