Environmental Standards: are they really the treasure at the end of the rainbow?

What would happen if we actually got decent environmental standards?

By Peter Burnett

After several months of turbulent debate over what will become of Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, we are approaching the end zone of Professor Graeme Samuel’s review. ‘Environmental Standards’ look set to become part of environmental regulation in Australia and many people, including me, are wondering whether they will be good enough and, even if they are, how will it change things.

Professor Samuel’s Independent Review of the EPBC Act is due in a month. The Government has jumped the reform gun by introducing ‘streamlining’ amendments to the Act designed to enable ‘single touch’ environmental decisions by states, replacing the dual system of federal and state decisions that we have now.

Although pitched by federal environment minister Sussan Ley as ‘the first tranche of EPBC Act reforms linked to the independent statutory review of the Act’, [link: ] this Bill is no more than a rebadged version of the Abbott Government’s 2014 ‘one stop shop’ Bill that failed to pass the Senate. It doesn’t include any of the reforms identified by Professor Samuel in his Interim Report, such as the application of binding National Environmental Standards to accredited State environmental decisions.

Once again the Government finds its path blocked in the Senate, although this time the three cross-benchers concerned are not necessarily opposed to the Bill, but only to the idea of passing ‘reforms’ without seeing the report to which the Government links them, or without a Senate Inquiry into the Bill, or perhaps both.

How will things play out?

My crystal ball isn’t good enough to see how all this might play out. Perhaps we’ll see a Senate Inquiry, not just into the streamlining Bill but into the full Samuel Report. This would put everything on the table, from threatened species protection to Indigenous heritage failures (think Juukan Gorge).

On this scenario, instead of being able to deliver the ‘single touch’ model by Christmas as part of its COVID-19 recovery plan, the Government might find itself wading through the environmental policy swamp in the Senate for months, where it does not control the numbers.

Another scenario is that, in an effort to avoid wading into the swamp, that the government cuts a deal with Labor on the policy. What if we ended up with bipartisan support for accreditation based on standards?

Are standards the answer?

On the surface, such a deal could be attractive politically and environmentally. We’d get the efficiency of ‘single touch’ decisions, with checks and balances in the form of standards: quick decisions, but not at the expense of the environment.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple.

Professor Samuel recommended a phased approach, starting with interim standards, but refined over time with increasing ‘granularity’. This might mean that early standards are too general to be enforceable and so make little difference on the ground. Moreover, once interim standards were in place, States and developers alike would probably resist the progressive tightening that would come if the Commonwealth embarked on a program of rolling out progressively more-detailed standards.

Standards would be a new element in the environmental decision-making equation. As such, they represent something of a wild card and would probably attract legal challenges as environment groups tried to establish that standards should make a real difference to decisions.

So we could get standards that don’t really work, or standards that generate controversy. Not all standards are good standards.

But what if we actually got a decent set of standards?

But what if the standards were ideal, clearly and accurately identifying what was needed to maintain or enhance the condition of important environmental values such as threatened species?

We’d still face significant problems.

First, we lack the ability to measure what’s happening to the environment on a routine and ongoing basis. We’d need to complement the standards with quality and up-to-date information. Professor Samuels said a ‘quantum shift is required in the quality of information, accessible data and information available to decision-makers’. This would be expensive and take years to implement.

Then there’s the politics. Given the parlous state of the environment, well-defined standards, applied with precision, would often throw up the answer ‘You can’t approve that. It would result in the degradation or loss of [insert environmental value here, eg significant area of critical habitat, river-flow needed to maintain a Ramsar wetland, etc]’.

I think many politicians know this, if not consciously, at least instinctively, and would not wish to go down this track. We’d be tapping into what makes the environment such a wicked problem.

‘Doing the right thing’ could come at significant opportunity cost to the economy, not to mention direct impacts on various vested interests, while the standards would place any failure to do so in stark relief. There’d be nowhere to hide, no fudges available.

The recent threatened walk-out from Government by the National Party in NSW, over new and more precise guidelines concerning koala habitat provides a foretaste of this.

Standards alone are not enough

To me, the missing link is a means to bring society along with new standards, to create a broad acceptance that maintaining a quality of life for our children, even our future selves, will require difficult decisions.

The Gillard Government sought to do this in its ‘Clean Energy Future’ climate package in 2011. One element of the package was a Climate Commission, charged with engaging with the ordinary person, through ‘town hall’ meetings and the like, to explain the need for climate action. Unfortunately, the Commission bit the dust along with the carbon price, in 2014.

I know that anything associated with the repealed carbon price is political anathema, but this is where we need to go. We need broad community acceptance that we can’t live beyond our environmental means, and to explain what that means.

After 75 years of ‘jobs and growth’ messages from Western governments, going back to US President Truman’s urging in his State of the Union address in 1945 to ‘move forward … to the full utilisation and development of our physical and human resources’, that’s a tall order indeed.

Image by Albrecht Fietz from Pixabay

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