The Morrison government’s proposed environmental law reforms have received pushback from Labor, the Greens, and independent senator Rex Patrick, following an inquiry into the plans.
The Environment and Communications Legislation Committee on Tuesday released a report on its inquiry into a bill that seeks to amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act).
The bill contains provisions that would establish a framework for making, varying, revoking and applying the national environmental standards. It would also establish an environment assurance commissioner who would monitor and audit ‘the operation of bilateral agreements with the states and territories and commonwealth processes under the act’ for making and enforcing environmental approval decisions.
The inquiry confirmed, according to the report, that ‘the current act is not functioning to effectively protect the natural environment or enable efficient decision-making on project approvals’. The committee has made three recommendations, including that the bill be passed following the introduction of amendments.
The bill is part of the government’s response to the final report of the independent review of the EPBC Act, conducted by professor Graeme Samuel. The Samuel Review found the act to be ‘outdated’, and warned that Australia’s environment is in a ‘state of decline’ and ‘under increasing threat’.
Representing the ‘committee view’, Liberal senator and committee chair David Fawcett noted that some people believe the current legislation addresses only a small number of the recommendations from the Samuel Review, while others view it as a first step.
“The Samuel review was far-reaching and comprehensive. Given the evident complexity of environmental reform, the review recommended a staged approach. The committee heard in evidence the government has committed to working through the report and its recommendations for reform, and it will do so in a measured and planned manner,” he wrote.
“This bill is not the totality of the government’s response to the Samuel review … It represents a first step in a longer reform process that will ensure the protection of Australia’s environment and biodiversity.
“To give confidence to stakeholders and certainty to industry, the committee encourages the minister to amend the bill’s explanatory memorandum to set out the goals towards which the government is working through this legislation and a timeframe for doing so.”
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Labor, the Greens, and Patrick have put forward dissenting reports that reject the passing of the bill in its current form.
Labor senators have called on the government to withdraw the bill and instead propose an interconnected suite of reforms that: provide for stronger environmental protections to address the overall state of decline and the state of increasing threat; establish a tough cop on the beat to help restore trust; and support efficient and effective decision-making under the EPBC Act in the interests of avoiding unnecessary delays to jobs and investment.
Patrick argued that the bill should not be passed until the National Environmental Standards are brought into the primary legislation. He recommended that:
- The reasons and thresholds for making an exemption, in the national interest, must be set out in the primary legislation,
- These decisions must explicitly be subject to merits review,
- The environmental assurance commissioner’s role must be expanded to include compliance and enforcement, and the commissioner must be given teeth.
- The Streamlining Environmental Approvals bill should not be debated until this bill has passed through the senate.
In a statement separate to the report, deputy chair of the committee Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the inquiry heard the laws would further weaken existing protections, were not ‘scientifically credible’, and would not stop the current extinction crisis.
“The Morrison government is trying to weaken environment protection laws and hand approval powers for mines and big developments to the states rather than the commonwealth,” she said.
“The only support in this report for the legislation comes from the government. If these new laws pass the parliament we will see more dead koalas, more pollution, more logging and more wanton destruction of cultural heritage sites.”
Hanson-Young noted that Queensland, NSW and the ACT governments have rejected the federal government’s plan, and has urged the remaining states and territories to reject the reforms.
“We need a zero extinction target and to achieve it, we need strong environmental protections and an independent watchdog to hold governments, miners and developers to account,” she said.
The Wilderness Society has welcomed the dissenting reports, and has called on the government to publicly respond to the Samuel Review’s 38 recommendations. Suzanne Milthorpe, the organisation’s national environment laws campaign manager, said the inquiry report has reflected ‘what a dog’s breakfast’ the government’s response to the Samuel Review has been.
“The review showed the direction the government needed to go and yet the government has continued to drive the other way,” she said in a statement.
“The government has broken faith with the 30,000 scientists, law experts and community members who are calling for the government to act and reform our national nature laws to end Australia’s extinction crisis.”
The Wilderness Society has called on the government to commit to a widespread package of reforms that raise the standard of protection for Australia’s wildlife and iconic natural places.
“Otherwise, the government is effectively choosing to accept the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems,” Milthorpe said.