Scale matters. It’s logical and appropriate that our national government ought to have responsibility for matters that are of national environmental significance.
The recognition of the important and legitimate role of the Commonwealth government with regard to the environment has evolved since the 1970s and was formalised in the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment in 1992.
The preamble to the agreement indicates the inadequacies of a constitutional framework founded on a notion that the environment should be solely the responsibility of state governments:
environmental concerns and impacts respect neither physical nor political boundaries and are increasingly taking on interjurisdictional, international and global significance in a way that was not contemplated by those who framed the Australian Constitution
Basically states have responsibility for issues confined within their borders, but national issues (like the implementation of international agreements and dealing with impacts that cross state boundaries) belongs with the Commonwealth. This division of labour is reflected in our national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. It seeks to manage significant impacts on matters of national environmental significance by, amongst other things, giving the Commonwealth government the responsibility for deciding whether development projects should be approved. The list of matters of national environmental significance reflects Australia’s international commitments under agreements dealing with subjects such as world heritage areas, wetlands, threatened species and migratory species.
It’s not hard to understand that there are some environmental issues that ought to be of national concern and therefore the responsibility of our national level of government. The Great Barrier reef might be located in Queensland but it is of national and indeed global significance. Its protection should not be left to the State government of Queensland.
There are also many less obvious but no less important reasons why national responsibility and leadership is necessary and appropriate. Threatened bird species such as the Regent Honeyeater, Swift Parrot, the Orange Bellied Parrot, the Red-Tailed Black Cockatoo, and Malleefowl have ranges that extend across state borders. These species and many other species and ecological communities do not, to use the words of the Intergovernmental Agreement quoted above, respect political boundaries. Effective protection of these species and communities needs to be done at a national scale.
The current proposal for the Commonwealth government to devolve its responsibilities for approving development proposals to the states goes against the trend in the development of our environmental laws by handing responsibility for matters of national environmental significance back to the sub-national level of government. It is a major step backwards that runs completely counter to the need for national leadership and a national approach that is critical to effective environmental protection.
Read more about the COAG attacks on environmental laws