ACT environment minister fears new standards will lock in weak wildlife protections | The Canberra Times

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The ACT government has “significant concerns” about proposed new national environment standards, concerned the model put forward would lock-in the weak protections for Australia’s threatened wildlife. Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti has also echoed environmental groups’ doubts about the powers of a new federal environmental watchdog. The ACT Greens Minister has spoken out after laws to create national standards and establish a so-called Environment Assurance Commissioner were last week introduced to federal parliament. The federal government had already circulated a set of of interim standards to state and territory governments, as well as to senate crossbenchers. The new national standards would underpin agreements to transfer environmental decision-making powers from the Commonwealth to states and territories. Ms Vassarotti said she had “significant concerns” about the interim standards, which she argued were significantly different to those recommended in Graeme Samuel’s landmark recent review of Australia’s environmental protection laws. The Samuel review, which found the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act [EPBC] was “not fit” to address the overall decline and rising threats to Australia’s wildlife, recommended a “full suite” of standards which went well beyond the existing laws. The federal government’s interim rules have not adopted many of Professor Samuel’s proposals, including standards for Indigenous engagement and participation in decision making. Ms Vassarotti said Professor Samuel’s standards – not the option the federal government has circulated – should be the “starting point” for the new environmental protection rules. She said the ACT government had not signed off the interim standards. “I do have concerns that this will lock in the weakened environmental standards,” she told The Sunday Canberra Times. “We have always been really clear that strong standards are critical. The interim standards will not adequately address that issue.” Ms Vassarotti said there remained unanswered questions about the planned transfer of decision-making powers, including the resourcing of the extra responsibilities. She also questioned why the federal government appeared to be “rushing” the process. “We are spending a lot of time here in the ACT trying to reintroduce threatened species and what we really need to do is protect what we have and not go backwards,” she said. “Rushing this through, and us continuing to go down the path that we have had, once some of this heritage and environment and biodiversity is gone, it’s gone for good.” The legislation introduced this week also creates a new independent environmental commissioner, who will be tasked with auditing the agreements with states and territories as well as the Commonwealth’s assessment and approvals processes under the EPBC Act. However, the new watchdog won’t be responsible for scrutinising individual decisions. The Australian Conservation Foundation supports the introduction of an independent commissioner, but says the model proposed would create a “toothless tiger”. Ms Vassarotti also has doubts. “One of the key elements if we are going to devolve decision-making – and we absolutely do recognise that there could be some positives around streamlined processes – is that it needs to happen in the context of stronger environmental standards [and] an independent commissioner. “Certainly, on initial reading … it seems to fail that test.” Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley this week told parliament that the introduction of national standards would provide greater clarity for proponents and the community about environmental protection rules. “The Morrison government is committed to maintaining strong environment protection and ensuring the EPBC Act is serving its intent to both protect the environment and grow our economy,” she said. “This is essential to support our COVID-19 recovery. “We have an opportunity to deliver key reforms that support clear and consistent protection for our environment while also unlocking job-creating projects.” Ms Ley said the process was “too important to stall because not everyone can agree on where to start”. “The fact is, we need to start. We need a staged process, and we need reform”. Ms Vassarotti said the ACT government would make a submission to a senate committee inquiry on the legislation. The committee’s findings are due in June. Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:

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