‘The invisible minister’: Melissa Price accused of going missing on the environment | Australia news


She is being called the “invisible minister”, the cabinet member responsible for the environment who is accused of “disinterest” during Australia’s summer of natural disasters and record-breaking heatwaves.

Melissa Price has been criticised by three of the country’s biggest environment groups who say they have been unable to meet with her since her appointment last year. A fourth is accusing her office of being in breach of its responsibilities on threatened species.

The criticism comes during a summer that has brought numerous environmental catastrophes, including the mass fish kill in Menindee in far-west New South Wales, fires in Tasmania’s world heritage area, a record-breaking January heatwave, and floods in Townsville that Queensland’s premier Annastacia Palaszczuk described as unprecedented.

While the prime minister Scott Morrison and other senior members of the government including Michael McCormack and David Littleproud have made public appearances in towns affected by the disasters, Price has been absent.

“We’ve seen a pretty consistent trend from this government over the last three years of disengagement with environment policy and working with the environmental movement,” said Lyndon Schneiders, the national director of the Wilderness Society.

“She seems to have set a new standard of disinterest.

“It’s not like there’s not a lot to talk about. It’s not like there’s not a whole heap of pressing environmental issues confronting the country right now.”

Schneiders called Price “the invisible minister” and said the organisation had not had a face-to-face meeting with the minister or her staff since she took over the role in August.

He also wrote to the minister in August seeking a meeting on behalf of The Places You Love Alliance, an alliance of 50 environment groups that has been campaigning for reform of Australia’s environment laws, and said there had been no response.

David Ritter, the chief executive of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said the organisation, whose Australia Pacific arm has more than one million members, had made multiple requests in writing and received no reply.

“Particularly given the significance of Greenpeace in the environmental arena … we are very surprised the minister has seen fit not to engage at all,” Ritter said.

“It’s treating a million-plus people who care about her portfolio deeply with contempt.”

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“If a million dead fish at Menindee doesn’t attract your attention as the environment minister, what does it take?” @Peter_Fitz questions where Melissa Price has been during the mass fish kill in the Murray-Darling basin #TheDrum pic.twitter.com/kiPriucEoI


February 13, 2019

Ritter said the situation was “really unusual”. Both he and Schneiders said that past ministers Tony Burke and Greg Hunt had regularly made themselves or staff available for meetings but Schneiders said it became tougher under the former minister Josh Frydenberg.

“Josh was the beginning of the rot,” Schneiders said.

But other groups have met with the minister and her staff since her appointment, including Humane Society International and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Price, through a spokesman, said she “continues to meet extensively with environmental stakeholders” and had done since she became the assistant environment minister in 2017.

The spokesman said she had met with the Humane Society and the Wilderness Society while she was the assistant minister.

“The minister continues to meet with as many stakeholders as possible within the constraints of her portfolio,” the spokesman said.

“The minister has worked closely with all agencies in her portfolio across recent extreme weather events including the Menindee Lakes, Tasmanian bushfires and the Townsville floods.”

The Humane Society has been pushing for the minister’s office to make a decision on five overdue threatened species listings, some of which have been delayed for years by successive ministers in the current government.

The organisation wrote to Price again in December saying “it is our understanding that you are currently in breach of the [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation] Act on multiple counts by failing to make a decision within the statutory timeframes”.

The species are three woodlands recommended for critically endangered or endangered listings, the Australian sea lion – recommended for an endangered listing – and the spectacled flying fox, also recommended for an endangered listing. HSI believes the spectacled flying fox could now be critically endangered after thousands were wiped out in Queensland’s recent heatwave.

The organisation said it has had no reply to its December correspondence, which focused on the delayed woodlands listings.

The government’s key independent committee for the assessment of threatened species, the threatened species scientific committee, also currently has five vacancies including its chair.

The department of environment and energy told Guardian Australia in January the minister was in the process of making new appointments to the 10-member committee with a view to having all positions filled in time for its first meeting in late February.

But the roles are still vacant and the committee plans to sit later this month with its former members in the event appointments have not been made.

In November, there was no Australian government representation at the conference of parties (Cop) to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Egypt.

Evan Quartermain, HSI’s head of programs, said the organisation had taken to using Twitter to try to communicate with the minister because trying to get answers through her office about the species and habitats it had nominated for listing had failed.

“Melissa Price is failing to fulfil even the most simple responsibilities she has as environment minister,” he said.

“We’ve been trying to notify the minister that she’s long overdue in making these decisions for months, but have received no official response. The silence is deafening, and we’re now questioning whether or not she’s even aware of the issue to the point that we’ve taken to social media campaigns to get it in front of her.”

Quartermain said on top of that, the threatened species scientific committee was set to meet at half capacity because the minister had “needlessly delayed making appointments”.

“These are routine, uncontroversial decisions that are being ignored at a time of great need,” he said.

Price’s spokesman did not provide a reason for the continued delays for some of the threatened species listings. He said the government was “rightly considered in making such declarations” and several were still under consideration.

“The importance of a listing highlights the need to ensure the most qualified people are represented on the Threatened Species Scientific Committee and positions will be finalised shortly,” he said.

“The committee is able to function in accordance with the Act in its present form.”

He said the government usually sent representatives to the biodiversity Cop but there were issues related to the location of the conference and travel advice prevented them from attending.

“The environment portfolio is broad and rightly generates significant correspondence and requests for meetings which are addressed in as timely a manner as possible,” he said.





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