Press Release - June 27, 2024

MPs and environment groups raise alarm on government’s environment watchdog

This week, the Environment Protection Australia Bill is being debated in the lower house, marking a crucial step towards establishing a much-needed national environment protection agency—‘Environment Protection Australia (EPA).

But shortcomings of the bill have prompted a number of independent members of parliament to table critical amendments.

Environment groups Environmental Justice Australia and the Wilderness Society have warned that the bills will fail to address Australia's rampant deforestation crisis, stop species extinction or ensure the public gets a fair say in decision-making.

Several independents—including Dr Sophie Scamps, Zali Steggall and Kylea Tink—are proposing amendments to improve what the government has put on the table. Some amendments aim to close deforestation loopholes in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act), which is critical for halting species extinction.

Others aim to strengthen the EPA bill to make the agency responsible for ensuring First Nations and the broader community are properly consulted, rather than leaving it to developers and industry.

These amendments are supported by various environment groups, including Environmental Justice Australia and the Wilderness Society.

Victoria Jack, Campaigner for the Wilderness Society, said:

“The EPA that is established as a result of this bill is the one Australians risk being stuck with as the country navigates mounting environmental threats and rampant deforestation.

“The government’s plans suggest they intend to give those who stand to profit from environmental destruction the power to control who is consulted and how. At a time when the gas industry is waging a full-scale attack on consultation, this is like leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse.

“These amendments cannot wait for an uncertain third stage of reform. The time to secure meaningful public consultation for First Nations and communities impacted by environmental decisions is now, while the legislation is being established.”

Danya Jacobs, Special Counsel at Environmental Justice Australia, said:

“Australia is a global deforestation hotspot, with lawless logging and rampant land clearing that’s as bad as in Brazil and Borneo. Yet, deforestation escapes Australia’s environment law because of exemptions and loopholes that need to be urgently closed through simple reforms.

“Absurdly, in NSW and Tasmania, native forest logging is completely exempt from Australia’s environment laws—even when logging companies are destroying ancient forests and breeding habitat for critically endangered swift parrots.

“Deforestation is decimating forests and bushland in Australia’s north for beef and cotton expansion, yet it’s totally unregulated under national environment law. We need urgent reform to get deforestation under control, as it’s killing endangered Koalas and Greater Gliders and devastating their habitat.

“The proposed new EPA can’t stem the extinction crisis without strong laws that actually regulate deforestation and protect critical habitats for wildlife facing extinction.

“These reforms are common sense. They’re simple to implement, and will make sure the law does what the community expects—protect our most imperilled wildlife and their habitat from rampant destruction.”

Deforestation loopholes on the chopping block

At April’s Senate extinction inquiry, the government-appointed, independent reviewer of Australia’s environment laws, Professor Graeme Samuel, described the EPBC Act’s continued exemptions for native forest logging as a “shocker” that “should never have been introduced” and that “we ought to get rid of”.

Deforestation loopholes also allow for the continuous bulldozing of Australia’s forests and bushland for agriculture to go unchecked.

Unless these exemptions and loopholes are closed, the EPA established by the bills currently before parliament would enforce broken laws.

These broken laws have allowed an average of 545,000 hectares of forest and bushland to be destroyed each year over the past 10 years. This is the equivalent of an MCG sized area destroyed every two minutes.

Rampant deforestation is putting threatened species like the koala on the fast track to extinction, harming the Great Barrier Reef and making forests more prone to bushfire.

Independent federal MP Dr Sophie Scamps has tabled amendments that, if passed, will remove deforestation exemptions—for native forest logging and land clearing for agriculture—from the EPBC Act, and require these activities to be referred for assessment under the Act.

MP Zali Steggall’s proposed amendments would insert a definition of what constitutes “unacceptable impact” on the environment, and enable the rejection of projects that have such impacts—like destruction of critical habitat for threatened species.

Critical moment for consultation, community rights and integrity

The EPA bill is silent on the public’s right to a fair say in environmental decisions. It fails to establish in legislation the responsibility of the EPA to ensure First Nations and affected communities are properly consulted. The time to ensure that responsibility is now, at the stage of setting up legislation to establish the EPA.

Federal Member for North Sydney, Kylea Tink, has proposed amendments that would see community rights enshrined in the EPA bill and accordingly strengthened to ensure an EPA with integrity. Dr Scamps MP has also proposed amendments to ensure the EPA is governed by an independent Board to embed integrity that protects the new agency from vested interests’ influence.

Environmental Justice Australia and the Wilderness Society warn that if these vital changes to the EPA bill are not secured now, they risk not being fixed in the next stage of reforms.

Media contacts:

Rhiannon Cunningham for the Wilderness Society: [email protected] or 0419 992 760

Miki Perkins for Environmental Justice Australia: Miki Perkins on 03 8341 3110 [email protected]