Stand in Australia's Red Centre and you'll be confronted with an imposing vista that has no peer anywhere on earth. Uluru is an environmental and historical colossus – unique to our nation and celebrated the world over. It's our cultural axis.
In every direction, we are home to habitats of unspoiled beauty and ecological significance: the Daintree and the Great Barrier Reef; the Kimberley and Kakadu; the Blue Mountains and Flinders Ranges; Tasmania's Franklin River and its centuries-old forests.
Australia is truly bordered by an environment exceptional for its breadth and diversity.
Our parks, mountains, deserts and reefs are a tourist boon worth billions – and a perpetual source of national pride.
They are the living link to our past and a vital part of our future prosperity. An ancient country tied to a young nation.
In recent weeks, the death of the great Gough Whitlam has given us all cause to reflect on the past and his remarkable achievements as prime minister.
In what was an age of rapid, relentless social change, it's difficult to pinpoint particular reforms that define the Whitlam era. But crucial to his legacy was his work to protect and preserve Australia's environment.
Gough was the environment's first modern, mainstream champion. He dragged environmental issues to the centre of the political debate, where they've remained ever since.
He introduced the first national environmental protection legislation, signed us up to the World Heritage Convention – just the seventh nation to do so – expanded and modernised our national parks and stopped Joh Bjelke-Petersen drilling for oil in the Great Barrier Reef, which is now the largest marine park in the world. He even appointed a Labor government's first environment minister – himself.
Whitlam did all of this for the benefit of future generations. He saw the intrinsic value in our natural resources, not just as commodities but as irreplaceable natural assets.
Whitlam's revolutionary work in environmental protection began a proud Labor tradition that continues today.
Under Bob Hawke, Labor protected Tasmanian and Queensland forests, saved the Franklin and created national Landcare.
Most recently, Labor started the Caring for Our Country and Reef Rescue programs, established the world's biggest marine reserves and added beautiful Ningaloo Reef to the World Heritage list. We also protected 170,000ha of Tasmania's forests under World Heritage.
But for all that we've won, we have all of that to lose because Australia's precious and fragile environment faces a threat beyond flood, drought and destruction: a Prime Minister who is anti-environment and anti-conservation, who in just one year has tried to devolve environmental controls to the states, banished Australia from meaningful action on climate change, undermined the transition to renewable energy and attempted to delist 74,000ha of World Heritage forest.
In fact, Tony Abbott declared Australia has "enough national parks" and "too much locked-up forest". It's antiquated, narrow thinking, and puts at risk the progress we've made across four decades to safeguard the best of our natural heritage.
We need much more from our Prime Minister than these destructive, 1950s attitudes towards conservation.
We need what Whitlam gave us – vision and ambition.
This week's World Parks Congress in Sydney is an opportunity to provide that vision, a once-in-a-decade chance to work on new strategies to ensure Australia's ecological gems are preserved for future generations.
And an opportunity to tell the Abbott government: don't take us backwards on environmental protection.
At the congress, Labor's spokesman on the environment, Mark Butler, will outline our plans, including to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the "World Heritage in Danger" list, keep environmental controls with the federal government and tackle climate change with an emissions trading scheme.
We want national parks to be sacred sanctuaries for rare and endangered species – the last line of defence against new and existing threats. We want them to keep their status as cultural meccas.
The environment is no longer a niche topic; Whitlam made sure of that. It's an important public policy issue, but it needn't be subject to division or political rancour.
Environmental protection should always be a bipartisan mission because on no other issue can our decisions have such immediate and irreversible impacts.
Fragile ecosystems don't come and go with electoral cycles. Once they are destroyed, we've lost them forever. We all have a stake in their future, and we all have a say – because what is Australia without Kakadu or the reef?
Our parks and heritage sites are a fundamental part of the Australian story – if they are diminished, so are we. They belong to all of us, and their protection should matter to all of us.
This opinion piece was first published in The Australian on Friday the 14 of November 2014.
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