THE environment is bigger and more important than the economy, even in the midst of the worst financial crisis the world has seen for several decades.
Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett expressed that view to a meeting of prominent environmentalists in Melbourne last night, saying the economy was a "subset" of the environment. He later announced a review of Australia's primary environmental legislation, the Environment Protection Biodiversity and Conservation Act.
Mr Garrett said he faced a "constant challenge" trying to balance the environmental and economic needs of the nation through the act, but indicated the environment held sway.
"Given the serious environmental and economic challenges we face it is worth restating that the environment is not a subset of the economy: indeed it is the other way around," he said.
The written copy of Mr Garrett's speech had the word "not" underlined for extra emphasis.
"It is on the bedrock of a healthy and productive environment that our sustainable future rests," he told the gathering of the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand.
The comments ended a week when the Federal Government vowed to push ahead with introducing an emissions trading scheme in 2010 despite pressure from the Opposition and industry to delay the move.
A government spokeswoman did not answer directly when asked last night if Prime Minister Kevin Rudd endorsed Mr Garrett's philosophical stance.
"The reality is that everyone in Australia knows that the environment and the economy are two incredibly important and vitally linked areas and the Government has been taking decisive action in both areas," spokeswoman Fiona Sugden said.
Mr Garrett has been criticised since entering Parliament for making decisions seemingly at odds with his reputation for being a crusading environmentalist. He came under intense pressure during last year's election campaign when Labor did not oppose the Gunns pulp mill proposal in Tasmania.
Last night, Mr Garrett said he wanted the act to work in a more proactive manner, and that the traditional method of deciding upon isolated applications risked "death by a thousand cuts" to the environment.
Mr Garrett said he preferred a system where large areas of land would be analysed in advance, development zones identified and projects allowed within those zones without needing further approval.
He said talks were under way as to whether such an approach could be applied to planning the urban growth areas on Melbourne's fringe. Such a system would lead to "better environmental protection, greater efficiency, greater business certainty and more effective community engagement".