By Peter Burnett
While our country (and the world) has been gripped by the unravelling saga of the CoVID pandemic, our national government has been conducting a quiet plan to devolve most decision-making under our national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act), to the States, before a major review of the Act hit the deck.
I think this plan has now been derailed, though as I write, a couple of sitting days remain for cross-bench deal making in the Senate.
Regular readers will know that I often write about the EPBC Act. In part this is because I have worked with this law for a long time (both as a public servant and as a researcher) and have developed a strange kind of affection for its labyrinthine ways.
But I am also keenly interested in the performance of this legislation because its ups and downs are a reasonable proxy for the general health of Australian environmental policy. Unfortunately, the EPBC Act has been having a lot more downs than ups recently.
The Act has just undergone its second 10-year review by Professor Graeme Samuel AC. Professor Samuel was scathing in his Interim Report delivered in July. He found that the Act was ineffective and had lost the trust of business and environmentalists alike. An Auditor-General’s report tabled at the same time was equally scathing of the way the Act was being administered.
The key recommendation of Samuel’s Interim Report was that a revamped EPBC Act should be based on National Environmental Standards. These would actually set some bottom lines for environmental approvals and put an end to the current ‘tick-the-process-boxes-and-then-decide-anything-you-like’ approach.
The Government received Professor Samuel’s Final Report at the end of October 2020. The Government has yet to release it.
The ‘green tape’ narrative and ‘streamlining’ environmental decisions
In the meantime, and even after the Interim Report revealed the story of a failed law and ongoing environmental decline, the Government has maintained its single-track narrative of ‘cutting green tape’ and the need for ‘streamlining’ to increase regulatory efficiency.
In fact, the Government has long wanted to devolve Federal environmental approvals to the States and it would be fair to say that since it won the 2019 election it has been champing at the bit to make it happen.
Unfortunately for the Government, the mechanism built into the EPBC Act to allow this devolution cannot work without some mostly-minor legislative tweaks, requiring the support of a Senate it does not control.
The Government’s sense of urgency seems to have got the better of it, possibly because the Prime Minister tagged environmental devolution as one of the ingredients for a post-Covid economic recovery. Documents released under freedom of information reveal that back in February the Prime Minister’s position was that to avoid pre-empting the Samuel review, the legislative tweaks would need bipartisan support.
By August, when the ‘Streamlining Bill’ was introduced, this was no longer the Government’s position. Now, the narrative was that the Streamlining Bill, although a replica of a failed bill from back in 2014 (when Tony Abbott was in charge) and lacking any of the Samuel reforms including provision for National Environmental Standards, was in fact the first tranche of reform linked to the Samuel Review.
It was left to others to make the argument that the Streamlining Bill was pre-emptive and should not proceed ahead of Samuel’s Final Report.
Initially the Government was in a great hurry, to the point that it guillotined the vote in the House of Representatives and prevented independent MP Zali Steggall from introducing an amendment to provide for National Environmental Standards.
Still in a hurry, the Government successfully opposed two attempts to have the Bill considered by a Senate Committee. Eventually however it rolled over and supported a third motion to refer the bill to committee; presumably when it became clear that the Government would not have any chance or wooing the cross-bench without committee consideration.
So the Senate Environment and Communications Committee established an Inquiry into the Bill. Normally these things take some months, but on this occasion the Inquiry was to report within several weeks, which meant that submissions had to be written quickly and a hearing conducted within days of submissions closing.
Was this part of a deal with the cross-bench, I wondered? Is there any point in dropping everything to dash off a submission? Putting my doubts aside I wrote a submission and was lucky enough to be invited to give evidence before this Committee.
Although I had often appeared before Senate Estimates Committees as a public servant, this was the first time in which I had appeared on my own behalf and was free to say pretty much anything I wanted.
I have to say I enjoyed the experience. It was good to be having my say and to be heard by members of our apex institution.
What’s more, the questions were relevant and informed. A colleague had recently been on the receiving end of some politically-loaded questions in another committee, but there were no such antics here.
The Committee reported quickly. At the end of the day the crucial cross-bench Senators accepted the argument that it was pre-emptive to be pushing this bill through ahead of Samuel’s Final Report.
So it looks like the Streamlining Bill will not pass before that report is tabled; this must occur before the end of February.
An unexpected revelation
Sometimes this kind of proceeding produces some unexpected revelations, which is one reason that governments don’t like them: such developments can derail a carefully constructed narrative.
On this occasion, officials revealed that in addition to the Streamlining Bill, the Government had drafted, but not tabled, a provision to provide for the making of National Environmental Standards by legislative instrument (ie, something similar to what Ms Zali Steggall MP had tried to do).
This is significant because by long-standing policy, set out in the Legislation Handbook, legislation is only drafted once the Government has approved the underlying policy. In other words, laws are only drafted for introduction. The system does not allow for drafting on a contingent or speculative basis, including by individual ministers.
The implication is that the Government has actually decided to support the idea of legislated National Environmental Standards. The fact that draft legislation for the standards has not been tabled suggests one of two things.
The first is that the government is breaking its own rules by drafting legislation on a contingent basis, presumably to introduce only if it couldn’t get its Streamlining Bill through. This would be an attempt to game the Senate and is a display of bad faith.
An alternative explanation is that there was some kind of rear-guard action within the Government, most likely a move from conservatives to block legislation for national standards that might constrain State development approvals under devolved arrangements.
Both explanations seem somewhat unikely but I favour the second, as a display of bad faith towards the Senate could cruel the pitch for other government proposals. If I am right, the cause of reforming biodiversity and heritage protections could be as fraught as that of climate policy reform.
Assuming the Streamlining Bill is dead, the next step is for the Government to table the Samuel Review. Hopefully this will trigger a wide-ranging debate on the environment, focused around a set of draft environmental standards and overwhelm the government’s one-track focus on ‘green tape’.
In my view we have never really had this debate and it would be good for us all to be confronted with the question, in the broad, of how much environment protection we want and whether we are prepared to pay for it.
But will the Government table an effective reform package to replace an Act which, all seem to agree, is a failure? Or, based on the climate policy precedent, should we expect a continued one-track focus on ‘green tape’ and ‘reforms’ that do little to address the policy failures that Professor Samuel and the Auditor General have identified?