Effective environmental reform: What are the prospects?

Change is in the wind. There is cause for hope but also for caution

By Peter Burnett

The Review of the nation’s premier environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) is showing signs that it could reshape the environmental policy agenda in Australia.

The Review is being led by Professor Graeme Samuel. Despite having no background in environment, Professor Samuel has shown in his interim report (released last month) that he is well-across the problems of the environment and the failings of the EPBC Act. And he has taken a clear stance on solutions through his proposal for National Environmental Standards.

On the other hand, the Government has stuck to its very narrow focus on efficiency through its ‘green tape’ narrative. It is also in an unseemly rush (as I discussed last time), proposing to push legislation through the Parliament this month to accredit states to give federal environmental approvals on the basis of interim Standards, without even waiting for Professor Samuel’s final report, due on 31 October.

With a potential clash looming between policy-driven reform and politically-driven change, what are the prospects for effective reform, by which I mean reform that has reasonable prospects of halting Australia’s well documented environmental decline?

The positives

A cynic would say we’ve been pursuing environmental protection for fifty years now, with limited impact, so why would things change now? My response is that there are some significant new factors at play and that, as an optimist, I’m hoping some of them might carry the day.

First, there are some significant shifts taking place in business in terms of climate change. A number of major companies have adopted policies of ’net zero by 2050’, as has the Business Council of Australia, which represents Australia’s largest companies.

My own explanation for this change is that climate issues are now emerging over the business horizon. Factors such as shareholder concern, directions from business regulators to address climate risk and rising insurance premiums, not to mention the risk of being sued, all mean that climate change is, for them, no longer ‘out there’.

Second, Australia’s Black Summer of 2019-2020 confronted the nation not just with the impacts of climate change on humans, but with the impacts on nature as well. Initial reports were that the fires killed over a billion vertebrate animals, but a new report concludes that the figure is around three billion if the casualty list is expanded to include injured and displaced animals.

Third, Professor Samuel himself, appointed by a government of the political Right and coming from a background in law and business, is, through his report and public statements, helping to legitimise the environment as a concern of all rather than just those on the Left.

Significantly, Professor Samuel’s framing of environment policy in terms of desired outcomes and standards, across the board, could prove instrumental in shifting debate away from individual controversies such as the Adani coal project, towards policy-relevant questions like ‘what are we trying to achieve?’ and ‘what does a sustainable environment look like?’

If general environmental decline is socially unacceptable (which I think it is), then it is hard to argue against a goal of halting the decline and setting legally-binding standards to give it effect.

It’s also harder to get traction at a high level for a general ‘jobs-and-growth’ argument, than it is to make a project level claim that ‘this mine will create thousands of jobs in this region’.

And if a leading business person like Professor Samuel is driving a process to nail down exactly what halting that decline will require, political arguments about ‘green agendas’ and the like will not apply.

Negatives

Of course, it would be one thing to persuade a Professor writing a report and something else entirely to carry the day politically.

The influence of these positive factors may not extend beyond Samuel’s report. The Government may be unmoved and has already ruled out one critical element of the Samuel model, an independent compliance regulator.

Indeed, the Government may have its first (and possibly only) tranche of reforms enacted before he submits his final report.

In that regard, even if Labor and the Greens oppose the Government’s plan, it needs the support of only three cross-benchers to get its Bill through the Senate. The prospects of securing three votes from among two One Nation senators, two Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie, must be reasonably good.

At this stage then, the likely scenario is that Professor Samuel’s final report in October will make strong recommendations for National Environmental Standards and supporting measures, but the Government will pre-empt that by securing passage of EPBC Act amendments that will see States accredited to make the Prime Minister’s ‘single touch’ development decisions on the basis of ‘interim’ standards by Christmas.

And on balance?

What prospects then for major reform? If the Government wins over the Senate, the reform horse will have bolted. It will be very hard to implement Professor Samuel’s strategy of progressive development and tightening of interim standards while no longer holding the carrot of State accreditation.

Despite this, I remain hopeful. The Senate Cross-bench may be persuaded to insist on considering the final Samuel Report before legislating. And that final report may make a convincing case for comprehensive reform.

It is even possible that the Prime Minister meant what he said in May in his National Press Club address on post-pandemic recovery:

As we reset for growth, [we] will be guided by principles that we as Liberals and Nationals have always believed in, to secure Australia’s future and put people first in our economy...

Secondly, is the principle of caring for country, a principle that indigenous Australians have practiced for tens of thousands of years.

It means responsible management and stewardship of what has been left to us, to sustainably manage that inheritance for current and future generations.

We must not borrow from generations in the future, from what we cannot return.

This is as true for our environmental, cultural and natural resources as it is for our economic and financial ones.

Governments therefore must live within their means, so we don’t impose impossible debt burdens on future generations that violates that important caring for country principle.

Image: Image by christels from Pixabay

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