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The federal government has committed to a landmark overhaul of Australia’s environment laws in a move Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says will reverse the decline of Australia’s environment and “leave it in a better state than we found it”.

The sweeping changes were proposed as a formal response to a review of Australia’s 23-year-old federal environment laws, conducted by former ACCC boss Graeme Samuel and handed to the former Morrison government.

The reforms will include establishing a federal environmental protection agency (EPA) to act as a “tough cop on the beat”, and will impose legally binding standards across all environmental decisions.

The overhaul will also bolster protections for areas of national environmental significance, and tighten standards for the logging of native forests.

Labor’s commitment to law reform is a centrepiece of its environmental agenda, and will be key to implementing its goal of zero new extinctions.

It plans to have draft legislation complete by the middle of 2023, ready for introduction to parliament before the end of that year. 

man forbes flood
Australia has been hit by a series of natural disasters some have suggested have been exacerbated by climate change.(AAP)

Environment groups have described the moves as “a strong start”, “a first step” and “promising”, but also have concerns about certain aspects.

Plibersek says EPA will ‘restore confidence’

Underpinning all decisions by the new EPA will be a set of “national standards” which will dictate the intended environmental outcomes of those decisions.

In addition, all conservation plans, policies and strategies developed under the environmental laws will need to be consistent with the national standards.

Shifting responsibility from politicians to a legislated body meant the public would be able to have more confidence in decisions about Australia’s environment, Ms Plibersek said.

The first standard developed will govern the protection of Australia’s most important places — known as “Matters of National Environmental Significance”.

The government says that standard will require all decisions to improve the environment, not merely limit damage.

A person snorkelling near a turtle
Environmental groups, while welcoming the proposals, have called for a range of further details.(Tourism WA)

A national standard on First Nations engagement will also be developed as a priority, ensuring Indigenous people are properly and fully involved in decisions relating to their country and custom.

Those standards will be legally binding and have a ratchet mechanism built in whereby reviews can only result in them being strengthened, not weakened.

‘Traffic light’ ratings introduced

While the Samuel Review recommended federal powers of approval be handed to the states in line with a policy long held by the Coalition, Ms Plibersek rejected that recommendation, and instead retained existing arrangements where states could be accredited to take on decision-making powers.

But any such devolution of powers will be required to comply with the new stronger national standards. 

In addition, all decision-making processes by states must be transparent, and will be overseen by the new EPA.

Trees laying knocked down in a paddock
New laws are being introduced to protect native forests.(Supplied: Australian Conservation Foundation)

Labor will also institute a system of “traffic light” ratings, incorporating very strong protections for “high conservation value” areas which will be marked “red” for protection.

Those areas will be determined through a new system of regional planning, which will ensure the cumulative impacts of multiple developments on one site are considered when assessing projects.

The government said the process of regional planning would also speed up development decisions by providing clear guidance on where different types of development would be appropriate.

Offset funds for restoration

In a move expected to please business and developers, the government has expanded the options for how developers can pay compensation for the environmental damage they cause. 

Currently, when a project is approved conditional to compensation — or “offsets” — the compensation must be “like for like”. So if koala habitat is cleared, koala habitat somewhere nearby needs to be protected.

But Labor’s proposals would allow developers to simply pour money into an offset fund, which would be used for environmental restoration.

The government says that payment must be “sufficient to achieve a net positive environmental outcome”.

1 Comment

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