A team of senior lawyers at Environmental Justice Australia say there are already indications an interim review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act will be misapplied by the Morrison government to fast-track industrial projects.
EJA welcomed yesterday’s Samuel Review findings that the existing Act is failing to protect Australia’s environment and is “not fit to address current or future environmental challenges”. The review finds the Act “does not enable the Commonwealth to protect and conserve environmental matters that are important for the nation.”
However, ministerial responses suggest a commonwealth government intent on further withdrawing from its regulatory responsibilities and fast-tracking approvals that will accelerate environmental destruction.
Environmental Justice Australia co-CEO Nicola Rivers, who made a submission to the review, says:
“Responses from Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley suggest the Morrison Government is already cherry-picking recommendations to suit a corporate agenda to fast-track big industrial projects and withdraw from regulatory responsibilities.
“It is critical that any changes to the EPBC Act prioritise better protecting the environment, not facilitating big industry.
“The review’s proposal to develop national environmental protection standards is a welcome acknowledgement that there needs to be far greater focus on environmental outcomes in our national environment laws.
“Given the federal government’s neglect, inefficiencies and inadequate processes in administering the Act, EJA supports the review’s recommendation of national protection standards, but not as a way for the Commonwealth government to withdraw from its responsibilities.
“Standards should not be used as a cover for the Commonwealth to retreat from its role in implementing important environmental protections by ceding responsibility to state agencies and administration processes. Instead, we need more national leadership, not less.
“In effect, our federal environmental protection law has been misused to oversee the continued loss and decline of threatened species. Last summer’s bushfires should be a wakeup call that governments need to act with much more urgency to give our threatened species a fighting chance.
“Where we really need more efficiency and faster decisions is not on industrial approvals but on listing threatened species and developing recovery plans. The past decades have shown these key conservation actions take years if they ever happen at all.
“The review recommends an independent regulator should monitor and enforce compliance with the law. But the government said yesterday it would not be pursuing this, without even waiting for the final review recommendations. This suggests a government intent on withdrawing from its regulatory responsibilities
“A key failure of the existing Act in protecting Australia’s environment is the high level of discretion afforded to decision-makers and policy-makers.
“To ensure rigour, transparency and accountability of decision-making and more robust administration of Commonwealth environmental laws, an independent National Environment Commission and an independent national Environment Protection Authority must be established and tasked with performing key functions under the Act.
“We have no confidence that the national standards approach will improve protection of the environment without an independent regulator to ensure standards are being complied with.
“The Morrison government ruled this out. It has failed to properly administer the existing EPBC Act, and there is no indication that it will support stronger laws and a rigorously independent body to govern them.”
The review comes at a time when research shows nearly 50 Australian native species not currently listed as threatened are at risk as a result of Australia’s summer bushfires.