On Friday the Commonwealth Government released a draft Victorian bilateral assessment agreement for public comment. Contrary to some media reports, this is not a final signed agreement, nor is it the approval agreement the government has been desperately trying to put in place.
The first distinction is unlikely to be important – although the agreement is out for public comment, the Federal government’s recent performance for other bilateral agreements indicates that the agreement will be adopted as is, no matter how strong the opposition is.
The second distinction is important though – this is an assessment agreement, not an approval agreement. It means the Federal Government is accrediting the Victorian Government to carry out development assessments on its behalf to determine whether the development will comply with Federal environmental laws – i.e. whether it will have a significant impact on Ramsar wetlands, threatened species, migratory birds and water resources from coal mines and coal seam gas. Under an assessment agreement the Federal government retains the power to make the final decision and determine whether they think the impacts are acceptable. Victoria has had a bilateral assessment agreement in place for many years and this new document updates and supersedes that. We have long had concerns over Victoria’s assessment agreement as in many cases Victorian assessment procedures are not the same standard as Commonwealth assessments, but this agreement simply declares that they are.
That makes what will happen next all the more concerning. If the Federal Government gets its way, it is likely we will soon see a draft approval agreement that will hand over full Federal approval powers under the EPBC Act to the Victorian Government. How this will work in Victoria is a bit of a mystery, as our main environmental assessment process under the Environment Effects Act doesn’t end in an approval, it ends in a recommendation to other decision-makers. This process was to have been fixed (and vastly improved) by the Victoria Coalition government after they committed to create new environmental impact assessment laws, but things have gone very quiet on that front and it appears to have been shelved.
Another concerning aspect of the handover of approval powers in Victoria is how it will work with our native vegetation clearing laws. The fundamentally flawed “permitted clearing” system brought in by the Vic government in December last year doesn’t even account for all Victorian threatened species, let alone Federal listed species. Due to the flaws in the system developers could be clearing Victorian and Federally listed species right now and no one would know it.
There are numerous other examples of where Victorian laws fail Federal standards. Without significant legislative reform there is no way the Feds could faithfully accredit Victoria’s assessment and approval processes. They already know this, and in part that is the reason for the Bill currently before the Federal Parliament which will weaken Federal requirements further.
The draft Victorian approval agreement is due to be released in December, although with a State election in the mean time, this is not assured. Whatever the outcome of the election, the Victorian Government and Federal Government should acknowledge that Victorian laws are just not up to the task, and rethink this entire doomed ‘eight-stop-shop’ scheme.