We got some pretty great news this week. The Victorian government announced that it will proceed with reforming the EES process – the out-dated and ineffectual system that purports to assess the environmental impacts of large projects (also called an environmental impact assessment, or ‘EIA’ process).
This is excellent news for the environment and for the people of Victoria. Those community members affected by the Wonthaggi desalination plant, the Frankston bypass and the Bastion Point boat ramp (to name a few) must be breathing a sign of relief. Not because it will change the reality of the large, high impact projects that have been imposed on them – but because it means that there is hope that the trouble they had trying to get vigorous, transparent, comprehensive EIAs done for these projects is won’t be the experience of concerned communities in the future.
But let me back track a little.
EDO has advised hundreds of clients over 20 years on projects proceeding through EES processes. As lawyers for the community, we have experienced many years of frustration with the process. We have despaired at the substandard outcomes for the environment as a result of the process. We’ve hassled the government to overhaul the framework and replace it with a comprehensive EIA system that emphasises rigorous, transparent, accountable, participative and deliberative processes designed to protect the environment from inappropriate development.
But reform of this process has historically proven to be difficult. In 2002, momentum built up for reform of the EES process. The Minister for Planning appointed an Advisory Committee to report to him on proposals for reform. The recommendations of this committee — almost 10 years ago — was that the system was not working well and that legislative reform must be made. But the wide-ranging amendments contemplated by that Committee were entirely overlooked and the EES process continued to operate in a costly, drawn-out and easily politicised manner for another decade.
In July 2009 the Victorian Government instigated a Parliamentary inquiry into the EE Act. The Committee called for public submissions to be made, and the EDO appeared before it with a submission on how the process should be reformed. Unfortunately the ENRC failed to table its report before the change of government in 2010, and the inquiry lapsed. We feared that this inquiry, like that before it, would sink quietly away. However (with a little jumping up and down from us), in May 2011 the now Coalition Government revived the inquiry, instructing the ENRC to utilise the evidence it previously gained, and report to the Parliament. This report was tabled in Parliament on Thursday 1 September 2011. Thankfully, the recommendations contained therein went a considerable way towards improving the EES system in Victoria and detailed a binding and enforceable process that offers better protection for the environment, better efficiency and certainty and better participation rights for community members.
Successive governments have promised reform of the Environment Effects Act, after abuse of the process by previous governments for political gain. The coalition, similarly, in opposition were hugely critical of the former Minister for Planning Justin Madden for the excessive exercising of his discretion under this Act. They promised to reform the process and reduce ministerial discretion in this area if elected. We’ll be honest, we were sceptical. We hope were are about to be proven wrong.
Obviously the devil will be in the detail and as we understand it, the drafting of a bill is not yet in progress. However the general principles outlined in the government’s response to the ENRC recommendations include giving priority to protecting the environment and recognition of the importance of third party rights. So all indications point to the government being on the right track with this reform and we look forward to engaging in the detail as it unfolds.
No announcement has been made for the timing of new legislation or the process for its development. We look forward to a timetable and call on the government to ensure that there is broad ranging consultation in the development of the proposed legislation.