Tasmania’s State of the Environment report is overdue and last seen 13 years ago. So where is it?

When the national State of the Environment report was released a fortnight ago – an important report that told “a story of crisis and decline”, according to federal minister Tanya Plibersek – it had been delayed by around six months.

Specifically for Tasmania, the report highlighted the pressures of climate change, including abrupt changes in ecological systems, affecting things like giant kelp forests, agriculture and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, and also touched on the impact of humans on the endangered Tasmanian devil.

But its delayed release after it was handed to the Morrison government in December last year is nothing on the Tasmanian State of the Environment report, which was last seen 13 years ago — missing its last two reports, in 2014 and 2019.

That is despite legislation (the State Policies and Projects Act 1993) stating the Tasmanian Planning Commission must produce a report every five years.

The Act says the report should cover the condition of the environment, trends and changes in the environment, the achievement of resource management objectives, and recommendations for future environmental management.

The Planning Minister should then present it to parliament within a speedy 15 days.

So where is it?

We’ve done a deep dive to try to answer that question.

The most recent report was in 2009, which said the Tasmanian Planning Commission’s top priority over the next five years was to “improve the standard of land use planning and to ensure that Tasmania’s sustainable development objectives are furthered as far as possible”.

“This SOE Report is a first step to facilitate that change without losing our baseline environmental performance data and reporting framework,” it said.

“This will be achieved through a number of mechanisms including performing its statutory roles and functions effectively and efficiently in accordance with section 29 of the State Policies and Projects Act 1993 and the Tasmanian Planning Commission Act 1997.”

So, basically: future reports were considered important. However, since then, there has been radio silence.

Tarkine forest, Tasmania, November 2018.
Tasmania’s environment is world-renowned.(ABC News: Peta Carlyon)

RTI documents reveal ‘no material progress has been made’

The Australia Institute Tasmania has been on the case, submitting a Right to Information (RTI) request.

Institute director Eloise Carr said the RTI documents showed a “complete disregard for the law by the Tasmanian Planning Commission and a lack of oversight by the government”.

“They reveal that no material progress has been made towards the preparation of a State of the Environment report and that the Planning Commission as statutory authority appears to have made a decision not to comply with the law, which requires it to produce these reports every five years,” she said.

“The Minister for Planning, who is responsible for receiving the State of the Environment Reports, has not intervened. The Department of Justice, which has responsibility for administering the Tasmanian Planning Commission has not intervened.

“The Environment Minister appears to have been absolved from his responsibilities to the environment.”

Planning Commission executive commissioner John Ramsay stated in an email released as part of the RTI documents that the reasons for the failure to produce a report “are somewhat elusive”.

“Whatever the rationale, when the Commission initiated some action of the SoE a couple of year (sic) back, the outcome … was a recommendation to the Minister that the Commission no longer be responsible for SoE,” he wrote.

“Shortly after that, the review of the Commission was undertaken, and it also recommended that SoE not be part of the Commission responsibilities. That recommendation and the rest of the review recommendations have not to my knowledge been resolved.”

Ms Carr said the national report showed the impacts of the changing climate and highlighted its importance. 

“We know there’s a global hotspot of warming off the east coast of Tasmania, we know that we’ve had several high impact fire seasons since the last SoE report, we know that industries are increasing their size and their impacts,” she said.

“And without accurate data, how can we make decisions about how we manage the impacts on the environment? It’s like flying blind.”

Trees shown from above
The national report highlighted how climate change is affecting Tasmania’s environment.(Supplied: Arko Lucieer)

Government ‘currently reviewing reporting requirements’

The State of the Environment Report website offers little insight.

It states: “Over recent years the Commission has conducted internal reviews on meeting the SoE requirement, identifying a need for a policy review of the SoE legislation. In 2019, the Commission formally recommended that such a review be undertaken.”

But there is no detail about the gaping hole where reports should have been released in 2014 and 2019. The website said the review was started in late 2019 but no further updates have been provided.

Planning Minister Michael Ferguson had little to say on the matter.

“The Tasmanian State of the Environment sits with the Tasmanian Planning Commission, but given its statutory roles and responsibilities, it is widely recognised as not the most appropriate authority for this work,” he said in a written statement said.

“The government is currently undertaking a review of the reporting requirements, the format of the report and the most suitable authority for the work and will include extensive public consultation.

“I understand that a number of Tasmanian government agencies contributed to the Commonwealth State of Environment report.”

Walls of Jerusalem
The Walls of Jerusalem, part of Central Tasmania’s spectacular natural environment(ABC News: Rick Eaves)

Planning Commission ‘effectively hog-tied by government failure’: Greens

Tasmanian Greens environmental spokeswoman Rosalie Woodruff laid the blame for the lack of reports on successive Liberal governments, which have held power since 2014.

“The Tasmanian Planning Commission is guilty of not doing the SoE assessment – but it’s been effectively hog-tied by the Liberals’ failure to provide the necessary information, or to resource this demanding, important body of work,” she said.

“The multiple agency failures to deliver a report for 13 years are a deliberate tactic to hide the evidence of the impact of Liberal policies on the health of Tasmania’s environment.

“They’d be confronted with the evidence that they’re trashing the place.”