A bluffer’s guide to Australia’s premier environmental law

and why it’s going so horribly wrong

By David Salt

Any casual reader of the news (and of this blog) probably would have noticed that Australia’s environmental law is in the spotlight at the moment. It’s being reviewed, analysed and attacked from multiple directions.

Anyone with half an interest in nature or biodiversity conservation probably believes it’s important that Australia’s environmental laws are strong and effective. However, most people have very little idea what those laws are, how they work and whether they are adequate.

Well, here’s a quick summary of what Australia’s premier environmental law is and what all the fuss is about. Think of it as your ‘bluffer’s guide’ to Australia’s environmental law.

Why would you bother with a bluffer’s guide? Because the legislation itself is impenetrable (see item 1).

1. What is Australia’s premier environmental law?

Each state and territory has its own environmental legislation but the nation’s premier law is the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) created and implemented by the Federal Government. It was enacted in 1999, is over 1000 pages long, full of arcane legal language and has been described by some as ‘impenetrable’.

Fortunately, Peter Burnett (the co-producer of Sustainability Bites) is a lawyer and has taken the time to break the Act down into its constituent part and explain them in plain English (see ‘What’s in the EPBC Box’). It has 16 major components which come together to serve three broad functions:

Identify: The Act identifies which environmental values (threatened species and special places) should be protected. These are often referred to as ‘matters of national environmental significance’ and include World Heritage places (like the Great Barrier Reef) and nationally-listed species (like the Leadbeater’s possum).

Plan: The Act provides planning for the conservation of these environmental values; for example, developing recovery plans for threatened species and management plans for protected areas.

Assess: The EPBC Act assesses and approves developments that might harm the environmental values protected by the Act. The best known component in this third stream is project-based environmental impact assessment. The Act gives the government the power to block projects that adversely impact matters of national environmental significance.

2. Who doesn’t like the law?

Everyone.

Everyone has problems with the EPBC Act, but the issues are different depending on where you’re coming from.

Environmentalists complain the Act is not protecting the values it was set up to protect. Species and ecosystems are going extinct or degrading at an accelerating rate, and areas of special significance (like the Great Barrier Reef) are not being protected from global changes such as climate change.

Developers and farmers, on the other hand, complain the Act is making it harder to turn a profit and get projects off the ground. They claim the approval process is green tape that adds to the cost of a development and enables political green groups to attack them in the courts (lawfare).

3. What’s wrong with the law?

The problem with pointing out what’s ‘wrong’ with the EPBC Act is that you’ll be instantly dismissed by the ‘opposing’ side; and clearly I’m on the pro-environmental side. On this side of the fence, the claims of green tape and lawfare appear unsubstantiated and ideological (and for an excellent discussion on this see Peter Burnett’s last blog green tape and lawfare). However, they have been repeated so often they have become articles of faith to some groups.

On the other hand, there are a substantial number of studies showing the EPBC Act is failing to protect the things it was established to protect. For example, a new analysis by WWF Australia shows that more than a million hectares of threatened species’ habitat was cleared for agriculture in New South Wales and Queensland without referral to the federal environment department for assessment, one of the main purposes of the EPBC Act.

The Australian Conservation Foundation found that in the past 20 years, the period during which the EPBC Act was in force, an area of threatened species habitat larger than Tasmania (7.7 million hectares) has been logged, bulldozed and cleared. And they cite numerous case studies of where the government has failed to act even when something is referred under the EPBC Act.

Those who see the EPBC Act as a hindrance would simply discount such evidence no matter how well researched – “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they!” Then they’d probably follow up with something like “but we’re here for jobs and growth!”

Possibly harder to dismiss (on ideological grounds) is the review undertaken by the Australian National Audit Office. Just released, it found the government’s administration of the EPBC Act to be inefficient, ineffective and had failed to manage environmental risk. It also found funding cuts to the department since 2014-15 had slowed down the assessment and approval times for developments. It is a scathing reflection on the Government’s management of the Act.

4. How could we make it work better?

It’s been pointed out by many people that the existing EPBC Act could operate with fewer delays while still affording the same level of protection simply by providing more resources for its operation. Between 2013 and 2019, the federal environment department’s budget was cut by 40%, according to an assessment by the Australian Conservation Foundation. So it’s little wonder approval processes slowed.

Underlining this, at the end of last year the Government put $25 million towards speeding up environmental approvals, in effect simply reversing part of their cost cutting over the years.

In addition to resourcing, more effort towards coordinating assessments between the federal and state governments would go some way towards speeding up the approval process.

Changing the law itself is another approach but this is a chancy approach because it’s hard to negotiate anything through the unpredictable numbers in the Senate. Towards this end, the Act itself requires that it be independently reviewed every 10 years. The first review in 2009 came up with a comprehensive set of reforms to improve the operation of the Act but amidst the political turmoil of the time nothing every materialised.

Today we are waiting on the interim report of the second EPBC review led by Graeme Samuel, former Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Much rides on this report and everyone is wondering what it will say so close on the release of so many other damning reports on the EPBC Act’s inability to protect Australia’s environmental values.

5. What’s right about the EPBC Act?

The EPBC Act is a strong piece of legislation. It gives the Minister for the Environment the power to block actions and developments that threaten environmental values that the Government has said it would protect. It causes developers to consider the environmental impact of their projects and hopefully modify their plans to ameliorate potential impact. These things are good.

However, if the Minister chooses to use her (or his) discretion to determine a development isn’t threatening ‘matters of national environmental significance’, and the government starves the Department of Environment (currently sitting in the Department of Agriculture) of resources making it impossible to collect the evidence and assess the true nature of any potential development, the Act is disempowered.

At the end of the day, every piece of law is only as good as its implementation. If the government is failing in its duty of care for the nation’s natural heritage then we should be holding the government to account, not blaming the law that is supposed to protect that heritage.

Which begs the question, when will we demand our Government be true to its stated claim that it does care for our environment? Will it be before the predicted extinction of koalas in NSW by 2050? What about the impending destruction of the last remaining habitat of the stocky galaxias, a critically endangered native fish threatened by the Snowy 2.0 project (a project that has just been given the green light by Environment Minister Sussan Ley)? These are just two stories in the news this week. Thousands of other environmental values are similarly at risk, awaiting the Government’s next move on how it deals with Australia’s premier environmental law.

Image by Bruce McLennan from Pixabay

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